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Hack4Good MBAs - Virtual innovation at speed

Over the weekend of 2nd - 3rd May I participated in a Power Platform hackathon event called Hack4Good Microsoft Business Applications Summit (#Hack4GoodMBAS). A truly global event with 390 participants from 40 countries, creating 49 solutions for challenges that have arisen out of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I learnt a lot from the event, not only extending my technical knowledge but also how to effectively collaborate with others in a virtual environment. The event also validated our approach to app design with the Power Platform. I thought it would be worth sharing my learnings and insights from the hackathon. Read on to find out how we worked virtually as a team, the tools we used and the innovative solution that we ended up building.

The Team

I was fortunate enough to be the leader of the Power Kiwi team who were the announced as the APAC region winners for our Contactless Check-in solution. The team members were randomly assigned, we hadn't worked with each other before and we even had one member who hadn't worked with the Power Platform. However, we still pulled it off.

The hackathon required each team to identify a real challenge arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and build a digital solution using the Power Platform, all within 24hrs. The organisers had a stroke of genius letting the participants identify and choose the problem to be solved. This enabled people to get creative with a wide range of innovative solutions built the result.

A Design Thinking Approach

We took a Design Thinking approach in order to deliver a successful working solution in the short period of time available. We kept the solution simple and focused on the following Design Thinking elements:

  1. Empathise - we chose a real person to base our solution off and got their feedback and input.

  2. Define - we clearly defined the issues that our end user was facing and the benefits that they would want to gain from the solution.

  3. Ideate - we brainstormed a number of ideas around our well defined problem and converged on single solution that met the end user needs and delivered the benefits.

  4. Prototype - we split the build work amongst the team members based on skill sets and built a prototype application using the Microsoft Power Platform and Microsoft Azure services.

  5. Test - we gathered feedback from our end user and used this to refine the app.

Feedback from the judges was that our problem definition was crystal clear with a solution that was simple and relatable to so many people.

Virtual Collaboration Tools

At the time, we were at lock-down level 4 (Covid-19 Alert System) in New Zealand so the team had to work in a virtual environment. This was my first virtual hackathon, with people I did not know well, and thought that we would struggle to work as a team remotely. However, with the right tools, and attitude, it proved to be very simple!

Microsoft Teams

We used a Teams channel to chat, send screenshot updates of what we were working on and collaborate on documents. During the times that we were all working, we had a Teams Meeting running which effectively felt like we were all working in the same room, being able to see each other and share screens.

Collaboration in Microsoft Teams
Collaboration in Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Planner

Embedded into a tab on the Teams channel was a Planner board to help us keep track of key activities and who was working on what. This proved vital for ensuring we completed all the steps required for the final submission.

Planner tab in Microsoft Teams
Planner tab in Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Whiteboard

Microsoft Whiteboard has recently become one of my favourite apps and is a key tool when running virtual workshops. We used Microsoft Whiteboard to brainstorm ideas, design the app and plan the build.

Our Power Platform Solution

In New Zealand, under certain levels of the Covid-19 Alert System, businesses need to record contact details of visitors to their premises to assist with contact tracing of the virus. Our solution was a contactless check-in app where a person uses their voice to speak a couple of simple sentences. The app converts the speech to text and then extracts the key contact information to be saved into a database (the Common Data Service). See our submission video for a demonstration.

Our solution was built using the following Microsoft Power Platform components and Microsoft Azure services.

Canvas Power App

A simple Canvas Power App provides the user interface for the host and the visitor to interact with. The app guides the users through a series of basic steps where at one point the visitor has to read out a statement, filling in the blanks with their details.

Canvas Power App
Canvas Power App

Model Driven Power App

A Model Driven Power App built on the Common Data Service holds the data that is captured and allows the host to download the contact information to provide it to the Ministry of Health if required.

Speech to Text - Azure Cognitive Services

This is the only part of the solution that required custom code. The voice recording collected in the Canvas Power App is sent to the Speech to Text service and returns text back to the Canvas Power App.

Power Automate

Power Automate has a connector for interacting with Azure's Language Understanding (LUIS) service. Once the text is returned from Speech to Text, Power Automate sends the text to LUIS, receives the results and sends them back to the Canvas Power App for confirmation.

Power Automate Flow with LUIS Connector
Power Automate Flow with LUIS Connector

Language Understanding (LUIS) - Azure Cognitive Services

LUIS is used to extract the contact details from the naturally spoken sentences. The configuration and training of LUIS is incredibly simple. You feed it some example text and then tell it what parts it needs to identify.

LUIS build screen with example text and key word identification
LUIS build screen with example text and key word identification

Innovation - Team, Tools and Approach

The Hack4Good MBAS event provides a great example of what can be achieved with the Microsoft Power Platform in a short space of time, if you have people working as a team with the right approach. The same tools and approaches can be applied to any organisation who is looking to leverage the Power Platform to digitally transform their processes, products and services. And you certainly do not have to wait to be back in the office together to innovate!

If you want to see more innovative solutions from the event, jump on to YouTube and search for #Hack4GoodMBAS.



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