Janice Valentine on Hack Access and making Dublin Airport accessible

27 Jan 2020

Janice Valentine. Image: Hack Access

Hack Access founder Janice Valentine discusses her move from banking to running a hackathon – and where she hopes to take the project in the coming years.

Janice Valentine is the founder of Hack Access, an organisation that runs an annual hackathon focusing on how to make cities more accessible and inclusive by removing the barriers that can prevent people from working and living.

The first Hack Access hackathon was held in Dublin in November 2016. Now, as the hackathon enters its fourth year, the next event will focus specifically on developing solutions and sharing ideas on how to make Dublin Airport more innovative and accessible for everyone.

We spoke to Valentine about what drove her to make cities more accessible, the work that Hack Access has done so far, and where the organisation hopes to take its work in the coming years.

‘Anybody who has held a hackathon knows that the big challenge is keeping the momentum in the aftermath’

The move from banking to hackathons

The story of Hack Access began five years ago, when Valentine was working in banking in London.

“I was coming out of a really tough period of my life – my brother had passed away, lots of things had gone wrong and I had been working in an industry that I felt was so vapid,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

“I started to really look at what I was doing and how I was working and I saw so many injustices. At home, we had the collapse in the economy, while I was working in an area where people were incredibly wealthy, in a bubble, and had no idea of what problems were.”

When Valentine came home to Ireland, she saw that there were many societal and environmental problems impacting communities. It was then that she decided she wanted to do something about it.

“I had this desire to focus the attention of technologists and people who have the skills to do really amazing things and solve really big problems. When I was at my first Startup Weekend and figuring out exactly what I wanted to do, I had the idea and thought of my brother.

“I thought, this is something that he would have loved. All of the energy on stage, how smart everyone was and the things that they were creating. I wanted to harness all of this energy, or connect people with disabilities to it because I understood from my brother, who had muscular dystrophy, that technology was such an enabler.”

Valentine wondered what types of problems the people she met at Dublin’s Startup Weekend could solve with technology. After two years of planning and building her network, Hack Access held its first hackathon.

‘We have proven that there was an appetite’

The first hackathon was supported by Smart Dublin, which is an initiative that aims to position Dublin as a world leader in the development of new urban solutions, using open data, and with the city region as a test bed. This organisation has identified numerous mobility, environment, energy, waste and emergency management challenges that need to be solved.

A group of people working together with paper.

A group of people brainstorming at a past hackathon. Image: Hack Access

Valentine said that by working with Smart Dublin, she got a good understanding of the concept of smart cities. “I realised there’s an incredible opportunity here to use IoT and the whole smart city programme for the benefit of accessibility.”

Last year, Dublin City Council also got on board with Hack Access. “We have proven that there was an appetite to get involved and to solve accessibility challenges, which is great,” Valentine said. “People with disabilities have been super supportive and they really see the value, in terms of creating a positive, action-oriented approach.

“It can be a very negative topic and for very good reason. People can get entrenched or bogged down in the negativity. It can be very problems-focused, rather than solutions-focused. I wanted to try and create something that gave us all an opportunity to do something ourselves and to try and take control.”

Ideas and solutions

When asked about the concepts developed in the last three hackathons, Valentine said that the participants never failed to impress. “One team that I really liked – Bump ’n’ Be it was a simple solution, but it had opportunities to scale into a more technical thing. It came out of the experience of a gentleman who was blind, talking about his experience just crossing the road.

“What happens very often is that when you’re halfway across the road, the beeper on the traffic light goes off, which can be very disorientating. You wouldn’t necessarily think about what that’s like, to be disorientated in the middle of the road, if you weren’t visually impaired, but that can be a huge cause of stress and anxiety.”

To solve this problem, one of the hackathon teams created a solution that consists of a series of bumps made from composite PVC. “You just pop them on the road at strategic places, such as intersections, and when the beeper goes off, if you’re in the middle of the road, you’re guided to cross the rest of the way with these bumps,” Valentine added.

“The next level to this would be to put in sensors to understand how many people cross here, to create data on this specific challenge. It’s nice to take a long-term view and think about how we can make better decisions on our cities. If we have more data on specific areas and specific challenges, we can actually apply the learnings from those solutions into newly built areas.”

Going beyond a hackathon

After three years running the hackathon, Valentine began to wonder what else Hack Access could do or where it could potentially go.

“We didn’t want to just have a hackathon where people come up with amazing solutions and have a great experience, but we wanted to implement those solutions. That’s the big challenge. Anybody who has held a hackathon knows that the big challenge is keeping the momentum in the aftermath.”

She realised that more funding was needed to implement the ideas conceived at the hackathon. “We needed partners that wouldn’t just see Hack Access as something that’s great for the city, but something that could really solve their challenges.

“It’s a full-time job to find out who those partners are and cultivate those relationships with them. It has also been difficult due to the lack of data and how data is rarely shared between the public and private sector. When there’s no information, how are we going to drill into those ideas and solutions and make them viable?”

A group of people sitting at a table solving a problem together.

A Hack Access team working with their mentor. Image: Hack Access

Valentine began to wonder whether to keep the hackathon running as it was, or whether to seek partners and make Hack Access a viable business.

“Hack Access is now going beyond a hackathon,” she said. “It’s trying to set itself up as a platform to facilitate that cross-sector, multi-disciplinary collaboration forum so that we can actually create these partnerships to implement our solutions.”

Working to improve Dublin Airport

In the end, Valentine got involved with Dublin Airport, which will support the winning team of this year’s hackathon, helping them to develop their ideas and put them to use.

In the coming years, Valentine hopes to take the project to other cities in Ireland and beyond, to give others the tools, methodology and framework to make public spaces more accessible.

She said that an airport is an excellent place to start this kind of work. “An airport is a microcosm of a city, there’s carparks, services, public bathrooms, roads passing through.

“We’re looking at what kinds of solutions can also be applied in a city scenario. In terms of Dublin Airport and how they’re going to engage, we’re using a kind of start-up approach to this, by running a validation session with Dublin Airport.

“We’ve got a group of people of diverse abilities who will meet in Talent Garden, and Dublin Airport will present what it would like to achieve. These people will give their input and their specific lived experiences of using the airport, and from that we’ll pick out key priorities and key challenges for this year’s hackathon.”

By doing this, Hack Access hopes to solve some of its main aims, which include making Dublin Airport a better place to travel through for people with various physical and sensory abilities, and increasing awareness of the different services Dublin Airport offers to those with diverse abilities.

What to expect at this year’s hackathon

This year’s hackathon will look at methods to improve way-finding at the airport to ensure people of diverse abilities can travel through the airport without any stress or anxiety, as well as ways to improve facilities at the gate for passengers with diverse abilities.

While there is a focus on Dublin Airport, Hack Access is also calling on attendees of the hackathon to identify any required improvements in Dublin, with regards to on-street disabled parking spaces and how to make locating on-street disabled parking spaces a more seamless experience.

This year’s Hack Access will take place from 21 February until 23 February at Google’s offices on Barrow St in Dublin.

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Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic