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DO Interviews 1: Mustapha Hamdi

Data Overflow

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« Data OverFlow Interviews » is a new rubric where we talk about a famous hackathon with one of the organizers, and some other topics related to hackathons. Our first interview was with Mr. Mustapha Hamdi, associate professor at INSAT, a researcher in the field of IoT ( Internet of Things), artificial intelligence, and Edge computing, and the founder of Innovchallenge. In this interview, we’ll be talking about AI Hack Tunisia 2019, a hackathon that took place in Rades Omnisport Hall and had a huge success.

 

Q:
Welcome, Mr. Mustapha Hamdi. We thank you for accepting the invitation.

A:
It is my pleasure.

Q:
Would you please start by introducing yourself to the ones who don’t know who Mustapha Hamdi is?

A:
I am a research fellow at INSAT (National Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology). I teach IoT (Internet of Things) and Artificial Intelligence. I’m adopting an innovative concept, co-training, which consists of integrating industrialists into the training, via projects.

Q:
You were organizer and coordinator in multiple events and hackathons, among which we cite the AI Hack, which took place in Rades. So, what is AI Hack?

A:
AI Hack is an international event. There are organizers like  Zindi among others, each edition taking place in a different African country. The objective is to find solutions to a problem that an enterprise (private or public) proposes using data science and artificial intelligence. The participants aren’t exclusively students. They can be young entrepreneurs, young engineers, etc. Evidently, the enterprises must provide the required data so the participants can use them. At the end of the hackathon, the participants, who come from different countries like Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, present their solutions. And of course, there are the coaches and the jury. I am a coach and a jury. They come from the academic world, as well as enterprises like Google and IBM… Especially Google, actually, helped a lot and brought their seniors from the Middle East, North America, and Europe.

Q:
As you know, many events and hackathons in this domain took place in Tunisia. So what makes this AI Hack special?

A:
First, there is the scale of the event, an international event. It’s not limited only to Tunisia. The participants come from all over the world. The coaches and the jury too. And second, there is the strong participation of public and private enterprises.

Q:
As for every event, are there any obstacles that you faced in the organization or the competitions, or with the participants?

A:
Well, there aren’t any particular ones. Maybe the only real problem that can present in such an event is, actually, the large quantity of data that should always be available. But in the event in itself, we didn’t face any real problems.

Q:
As we know it, despite the limited number of places, there was an important rate of participation. On what basis is the selection process carried out?

A:
In fact, during the workshops and the competitions, there are many sessions where winners are selected to continue their projects. As a result, the number of participants is continuously reduced until, in the end, we get the desired number.

Q:
As a jury in the hackathon, what are the criteria of evaluation of the projects presented? What parameters are taken into account?

A:
As you said, I participated as a coach and also as a jury. Concerning the evaluation of the projects, there is a list of criteria that should be considered: feasibility, innovation, etc. The feasibility of the solution and the data quality are important because when we talk about data science and artificial intelligence we talk about the quality of data. Innovation, teamwork, collaboration, etc, are also other important parameters to reach the finals. That’s what makes the difference between the projects evaluated.

Q:
As for the winners of the hackathons, is there monitoring and incubation for their work and project?

A:
Actually, the object of hackathons is to find solutions for enterprises, therefore they are supposed to continue working with the candidates to implement these solutions.

Q:
As a hackathon organizer and a professor in INSAT, an institute of engineering, do you think participating in hackathons improves the career of engineers and strengthens their resume?

A:
Apart from the AI Hack, we hosted the InnovChallenge at INSAT. The idea was to make a student work on projects and subjects that are not included in his academic curriculum. The challenges were real ones that the companies face. So when they graduate, they won’t find a barrier, that is new fields that they don’t know. On the contrary, as they are engineering students, they have an idea of the industrial and entrepreneurial world and they are working on actual problematics. As a result, there is a gain of experience for the student; what kind of challenges they may find and tools they may need. There is also technical gain, and a boost in soft skills as well.

Q:
How would you describe the current state of the artificial intelligence and data science field in Tunisia?

A:
We speak a lot about artificial intelligence in Tunisia in events and media. Many companies and startups started investing in the field. They also sell products based on AI. On the other hand, Governmental institutions are not using AI a lot, but they are working on this concept and there is a will to use AI in all sectors such as transportation, agriculture, health care, medicine, etc. Actually, there are already some projects in slow progress. I dare say there are two paces at which AI is progressing in Tunisia. The private sector is taking the upper hand, while the public one is still behind. We can already find products from private companies in the market. But in the public sector, we find proofs of concept that require the initiative from the government to start working on them. So I think in a few years, we can find finished services and products powered by the state.

Q:
What do you say to those who assume that Tunisia is still far from using data science and artificial intelligence to solve current issues?

A:
That’s not true. In fact, the need is there. And then there are proposed solutions, notably, with the Ministry of Health. Engineers are working on such projects. I think that they will be released in their finished state soon, and that will be the best answer for doubters.

Q:
Will there be any changes in organizing hackathons in the time of Covid?

A:
I think that the biggest change is the migration to virtual hackathons. That will show new challenges because this type of hackathons needs more work, better organization, and innovation.

Q:
Are there any upcoming projects?

A:
Well, there is another hackathon called ActInSpace. INSAT will take part in the project. It will be held on November,13th. The first three local teams will be awarded in the finals, in Sfax. The winning team will be qualified for the international competition in Toulouse. And then if they win they will be part of a crew in a space ship.

Q:
As you have heard, many people, companies, organizations, are organizing hackathons, what advice would you want to share with them as a hackathon organizer?

A:
Actually, the tip is to focus on concrete needs, to optimize hackathons. In other words, don’t work on an amateur idea without guaranteeing its finality. To rephrase it, don’t arrange an event, put all your efforts and money into it, waste students’ time just to give awards and nothing more. That’s not profitable. What’s profitable and lucrative is to have the real problems, which are given by public institutions or private companies, to work on them, then comes the next step, continuity, in the form of projects adopted by those structures (public institutions or private companies) or a startup made by the student. So, you should always keep in mind that you have to enhance hackathons and challenges. The finality is not taking a few photos but making your projects and startups. In other words, the output of a university or an institute is not simply the diplomas students get. The main goal is to make projects. To illustrate, INSAT would annually provide 300 projects, 10% of which become startups. The rest of the students become very good executives in companies and excellent engineers. INSAT should not provide 300 diplomas that are just ink on papers, we should provide projects. How so? It’s through these hackathons and challenges. We should encourage them; a student should have a project idea from the third grade and work on it step by step. It’s not the institute that should give him a project to work on. No. He should be creative, find his needs, and work on his own idea. By the end of the two final years of his studies, his project will be for sure incubated.

Q:
Just before finishing, if you have a quote, a motto that inspires and motivates you, would you like to share it with us?

A:
If you ever had a dream, even though you think that it’s crazy and can’t happen, you should believe in yourself, work on your idea, try hard and it will definitely see the light.

This interview was held on November, 11th.

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