First virtual BioHackathon Europe a success

2020, an unprecedented and surprisingly successful year for BioHackathon Europe

Over 300 people attended the 2020 BioHackathon Europe, an intensive week of hacking with experts from all backgrounds; bioinformaticians, software developers and trainers gathered online to improve bioinformatics tools and resources.

Despite the unique challenges, BioHackathon Europe successfully brought its collaborative essence to the virtual stage. Participants hailed from across all time zones, from Europe to Japan to the US and Australia, leveraging online tools to work on 40 bioinformatics projects.

40 projects advancing bioinformatics

The event began in the traditional manner with opening keynotes from invited speakers Toshiaki Katayama presenting BioHackrXiv; event organisers, Leyla Garcia (COVID-19 Biohackathon) and hosts, Alfonso Valencia, representing ELIXIR Spain.

The variety of this year’s projects was remarkable — from infectious diseases to biodiversity — aligning with ELIXIR’s core interests around the life sciences. As one might expect, COVID-19 and pandemic preparedness was the focus of many projects. One such project aimed to produce a service bundle for epidemic response. The team was able to include 143 tools, tailor several concept maps to structure analysis and build a website; SB4ER.

Another mature project strived to create Copy Number Variation (CNV) detection software. They worked with Galaxy and OpenBench to create tools for CNV calling and are planning to pilot the software in hospitals.

Biodiversity appeared as a new topic area to BioHackathon Europe. The computer-aided biodiversity (CAB) project aimed to improve the ability to explore and visualise genomic data in the context of biodiversity. A second project focussed on museum specimens endeavoured to improve the findability of the voucher specimen data and connecting it to sequence data.

Other projects involved developing material for the online publication “The Turing Way” for the Turing Institute or improve the follow-up analysis of the Biohackathon Europe projects to monitor impact and connect the resulting software to data and publications.

Industry also played an important role in 2020, being the first year the industry actively led projects in the BioHackathon. Atos-Bull made their BullSequana Edge capabilities available for the duration of the BioHackathon. Natalia Jiménez Lozano, Director of Atos HPC, was pleased with the event dynamics “It was an amazing experience, very interactive and felt very close to a real life event. Two teams embraced our challenge to demonstrate the validity of edge computing. We reached our goal of connecting with the bioinformatics community and creating awareness for a new technology. No doubt we would participate in the future.”

The BioHackathon-Europe in numbers
Map showing the global distribution of participants at the BioHackathon Europe 2020

Feedback from the event was overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the benefits of the event both on development of new resources, but also for networking and personal skills development.

What was encouraging from the data is that participants’ estimations of productivity were just as high as they had been in 2019, despite the limitations of working on an online platform. 

Crucially, over 70% of participants estimated that it would take one month to one year for a single person to reach the same outcome as they were able to manage in a week, working collaboratively, at the BioHackathon. Around 12% went so far as to say the same outcome would never have been reached. This really highlights the benefit of this event in contributing novel, in-demand, open access resources to the global scientific community that ultimately would not have been possible otherwise. 

Graph showing how long people estimated it would have taken a single person will all the skills needed to achieve what was completed during the BiohHacakthon Eiurope 2020

Accelerating project outcomes is at the core of every BioHackathon, but equally important is to develop skills, create strong professional bonds and transpose ideas from different fields, cultures and countries.

Step competitions, pub quizzes, and facilitated networking hours and unlimited access to the virtual stage enabled 311 participants to bring all elements of the BioHackathon to their home office. 

Cross-sector collaboration, cross-cultural networking and skill development were still strong in the virtual environment. Most importantly, our participants indicated it was a productive, memorable event that they will undoubtedly attend again.

All project details and outcomes are available on the BioHackathon GitHub page, and you can see how the event unfolded on twitter at #BioHackEU20.

Mon 23 November 2020