What we learned from the Microsoft Encode 2020 Hackathon

Hackathons were once an opportunity for developers to build, network, and afterwards enjoy free cocktails. The pandemic robbed us of our free cocktails, but the virtualized 2020 Microsoft Encode hackathon let us enjoy the building and networking all the same.


The Hackathon Theme

Four major categories of high-level problems were presented:

·       Healthcare

·       Financial Services

·       Government

·       Retail


After some deliberation, we chose the Government theme with its scenario that outlined the following challenge: “create something using crowdsourced data to identify, categorize, and track problematic area city services… and address accessibility”, moreover, “build a feedback loop for citizen engagement and trust between government and citizen.”.

Our Idea

After gathering domain knowledge from a 311 operator in Toronto, we realized that a feedback loop (between citizen and local government) does not exist for those raising real issues and complaining online.

Scrolling through tweets to @cityOfToronto highlights an accessibility issue. Citizens are often redirected to the Toronto 311 phone line after tweeting a complaint, but why do they need to call 311 if they’ve already submitted a complaint online?

Our Solution

We built a system using Azure Cognitive Services (on top of a python flask app) that analyses sentiment, recognizes key phrases, and categorizes input text (such as a tweet). The result is a system that assists the difficult job of a 311 operator, without replacing them. 

In the application, a 311 operator would filter through the tweets. Then, tweets that required action would be replied too by selecting “create ticket”. This would reply to the tweet with a trackable ticket from our Twitter bot. In more urgent situations, the operator could send an alert to the appropriate city services to perform an action using our BlackBerry AtHoc Integration.

Checkout these screenshots from our demo!


With a great presentation from Jeff, we clinched second place against very strong competition. 

We would like to give thanks to Microsoft for inviting us to their hackathon, and the other teams for their hard work to help tackle the big problems of our time. 


You can read more about the Encode 2020 Hackathon here

Matthew Falkner

About Matthew Falkner

I work in Enterprise Solutions Development at BlackBerry.