10toGO: Virtual thinkathon for Sustainable Development Goals

Or: what we do when we don't do science.

Karolina Stosio
AI for Sustainable Development Goals

Eradication of hunger and poverty, quality health care for all, universal access to quality education, closing the gender gap and protecting the climate... Are only a few of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. With less than 10 years left to achieve them, we need to take action now. This is how 10toGO came to life.

A virtual thinkathon

United Nations calls the 10 years left to achieve SDGs a #decadeofaction. Truly, there is a lot to be done if we are to succeed. We believe this should not only be the work of corporate sustainability departments. Quite on the contrary – everyone can play a role.

A while back, we teamed up with our friends from Microsoft Germany, to take a small step in this direction. But what steps should one take to make a long lasting impact? This struck us as a difficult question. With little experience in SDG-related projects, we decided against pinpointing one subject to tackle. No goal should be left behind! Instead, we decided to share our expertise in Machine Learning and Data Science with innovators from all possible disciplines. We decided to set up an open exchange platform and invited innovators who tackle any of SDG to collaborate. Out of those, we wanted to find one promising team that we could finance with a main prize of 100k Euro and support through their incubation process.

How to find such a project? We initially thought about organising an on-side hack weekend with the aforementioned prize for the winner. In some ways this was our ideal mode of the operation: we could have meet the participants, see them at work and really understand their problems. This was out of question due to the covid-19 pandemics.

After postponing the event a few times, we decided to embrace the circumstances and run an as good as possible online event instead. The SDGs are just as important as ever in the face of the pandemics! This brought us to a month-long virtual thinkathon. Once we decided on the format, we realised it also has positives. By running online we could accept more diverse and international teams. The participants could work at their own leisure and had more time to develop their initial ideas into working prototypes. We could also acquire an impressive body of experts and coaches based in different parts of the world.

We very much loved the format of the whole thinkathon. Having it last over a couple of weeks with support of some experts was really a cool idea, which we prefer over the typical 3 days straight thinkathon.

~ participant's feedback

This also allowed us to make better use of our technical resources. We knew we wanted to help the participants build their solutions with MS Azure an our generous partner granted USD 5k of MS Azure credits to each team. In the longer event we could provide tech training and guidance and progress feedback. The participants now had time to find, develop and mature their prototypes working at their leisure and supported by envisioning-, tech-, SDG- and pitch-experts.

All hands on deck

Such ambitious plans could not come true without the hard work and support of everyone involved. While the core team consisted of MS and VW employees, we managed to bring on board more than 50 coaches and experts from organisations like UN Foundation Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, World Food Programme, MUST Munich, German Enterpreneurship, Autonomous Drivers Alliance, WirelessCar, European Road Assessment Association, Global Arena Research Institute and many more (please visit our website for more details).

It was really great that we got the chance to connect with external experts from huge organisations like WFP. Fiona did an amazing job in connecting us with inspiring international people [...]. We highly appreciated this network of external sources that we were able to access through this thinkathon.

The SDG experts were super nice and super helpful.

~ participant's feedback

Last but not least, 10toGO could not have happened without the participating teams! While we received a lot of interest and reassurance from the partners, we could not tell if this format was attractive to our target group before opening the applications. Luckily for us, the interest exceeded our expectations! We received 81 applications of teams coming from 43 countries. This may not seem like much, but we openly expected a lot of dedication for the duration of the thinkathon and set up a demanding application procedure that required submitting a project proposal. Selecting the participants wasn't easy, but in the end we found 20 amazing teams out of which and 19 stayed with us till the end of 10toGO.

Month of innovations

We wanted to give both a lot of freedom and a structured access to the resources to our participants. To achieve this, we came up with a work schedule that should bring the team through the innovation development process from the initial idea to a working proof of concept.

Each team was matched with dedicated mentors and coaches. In the first phase teams could use envisioning coaching. We provided them with methodologies and materials to guide the process from the idea to a draft of envisioned technical solution. Afterwards, teams had regular exchange with their dedicated technical coaches who provided support in building ML solutions on MS Azure. Since each team could use up to USD 5k credits, they had a lot of freedom to try our ideas and fail quickly. Some of the teams also benefited from a workshop on building MS Power Apps and decided to use this environment for their prototype. Throughout the thinkathon we had very frequent exchange with the participants, and gave support as problems arose. Finally, in the week before the final submissions, qualified mentors offered pitching and storytelling coaching.

Same applies for the coaches that helped us. They were all (Tech coaches and envisioning/pitch coach) super nice and supportive. It was great that they also prepared us for the tech assessment.

~ participant's feedback

The results?

Making the world better place, one solution at the time

We mentioned this above, but it deserves to be emphasised again: we believe that tackling SDGs with technology is a great (when not the only) way to create sustainable progress. This is why we expected the participating teams to present a viable technical solution to the problem of their choice. And sure enough they did!

[...] having the SDGs as an overall inspirational framework was also a very good idea. The SDGs are typically very abstract, and this thinkathon helped us make them more concrete – especially by linking them with our business activities.

~ participant's feedback

Preventing road-fatalities by leveraging an AI-driven road quality assessment. Tailoring the education path of African youth to individual predispositions and fighting illiteracy by an AI-driven recommendation system. Fostering the battery research by a crowd-source competition platform. Democratising healthcare by developing telemedicine solutions for cardiovascular and Parkinson's disease. Those are just a few examples of what our participants set up to achieve – you can learn more about them here.

We would love to see all of those ideas come to life. However, there was only one main prize. Luckily, we were not the one deciding on who would get it. After 4 weeks of innovating, 10toGO participants submitted their projects and met the jury. The jury graded the performance of the teams across 8 categories: 1) overall pitching and storytelling, 2) SDG focus, impact & value proposition, 3) vision, idea & innovation, 4) convincing solution, 5) sustainable business model, 6) roadmap & usage of prize money, 7) go to “Market” approach, 8) complementary team fit.

Our overall winner, team Pina, works to enable forest owners to sell carbon storage by easing the path to the certification. Their prize consists of incubation support, prolonged access to MS Azure and ML experts and 100k Euro.

What could have gone better?

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

We focused a lot on providing the best possible working experience, but have somehow missed out on all the possibilities for virtual networking and team building. In a way we purposely skipped the team building step by only opening 10toGO to existing teams exactly because we predicted that getting to know each other online is not easy. What we have not foreseen was that our participant wished to get to know each other nonetheless.

Because it was online, we didn't really had this feeling that we were working along 20 other teams. We had little communication with other teams. If it wouldn't be virtual, I guess it would be even more exciting. I understand this is fully corona's fault.

[...] it was great that we got the chance to see a bit of what the other teams did. However, it was a pity we never saw the people behind the project and that no team ever pitched their projects.

~ participant's feedback

We concentrated on building a mentor network for participants and largely missed out on connecting the participants to each other. We held weekly QnA sessions and opened several MS Teams channels where participants could have interacted, but this didn't really happen.

How could we have done it better? We definitely could have tried setting up and moderating more activities through dedicated platforms like GatherTown. This is a learning we will take with us for future events. As for now, we are staying in touch with our participants and perhaps we will set up a face-to-face meeting once the circumstances allow.

Final thoughts

What are our final impressions? Did we enjoy the experience? Where there other major hick-ups?

We can gladly report that there seemed to be no other systematic problems. From the feedback we received, it seems like each team had different expectations, experiences and needs depending on their project, skills and plans. We tried to cater them all the best we could. This worked well for most of the time within the reasonable error margin of human errors, miscommunication and tech glitches. We were constantly impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the participants. We did our best to be as responsive and present as we could. It was a steep learning curve for participants and organisers alike.

We have all learned a great deal about Sustainable Development Goals, had some sleepless night and heaps of fun, and met people dedicated to bring a lasting and sustainable change into life. We call it a win.

We absolutely loved participating in the event. Thanks for coming up with the initiative and leading the way in achieving SDGs with AI.

We want to stress that we really enjoyed the experience and would definitely love to stay in touch.

10toGO was a great experience altogether. It motivated me and my teammates to work together and realize something which we would never have done without this awesome 10toGO opportunity.

I would also like to thank you guys for the beautiful experience of 10toGO. Starting with the seamless organization and then making sure even the smallest of the queries are tended to and providing the right environment for teams to succeed. the experience was very enriching as we got to learn from experts across different fields.

Overall it has been an awesome event and an amazing experience for us. We learned a lot and deeply thank you for all your hard work to make this event possible.

~ participant's feedback

Hungry for more info?

Learn about Sustainable Development Goals.

Visit our web page.

Visit the web page of the winning team.

Read an interview with Jury members Beate Hoffer and Christine Haupt.

Watch an interview with members of 10toGO orga team and Gesa Biermann from team Pina.