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Watson hackathon in Uppsala

Today I spent most of the day trying to grok IBM Watson’s APIs during a hackathon (Hackup) in Uppsala, where the aim was to develop useful apps using those APIs. Watson is, of course, famous for being good at Jeopardy and for being at the center for IBM’s push into healthcare analytics, but I hadn’t spent much time before this hackathon checking out exactly what is available to users now in terms of APIs etc. It turned out to be a fun learning experience and I think a good time was had by all.

We used IBM’s Bluemix platform to develop apps. As the available Watson API’s (also including the Alchemy APIs that are now part of Bluemix) are mostly focused on natural language analysis (rather than generic classification and statistical modeling), our team – consisting of me and two other bioinformaticians from Scilifelab – decided to try to build a service for transcribing podcasts (using the Watson Speech To Text API) in order to annotate and tag them using the Alchemy APIs for keyword extraction, entity extraction etc. This, we envisioned, would allow podcast buffs to identify in which episode of their favorite show a certain topic was discussed, for instance. Eventually, after ingesting a large number of podcast episodes, the tagging/annotation might also enable things like podcast recommendations and classification, as podcasts could be compared to each other based on themes and keywords. This type of “thematic mapping” could also be interesting for following a single podcast’s thematic development.

As is often the case, we spent a fair amount of time on some supposedly mundane details. Since the speech-to-text conversion was relatively slow, we tried different strategies to split the audio files and process them in parallel, but could not quite make it work. Still, we ended up with a (Python-based) solution that was indeed able to transcribe and tag podcast episodes, but it’s still missing a front-end interface and a back-end database to hold information about multiple podcast episodes.

There were many other teams who developed cool apps. For instance one team made a little app for voice control of a light switch using a Raspberry Pi, and another team had devised an “AI shopper” that will remind you to buy stuff that you have forgotten to put on your shopping list. One entry was a kind of recommendation system for what education you should pursue, based on comparing a user-submitted text against a model trained on papers from people in different careers, and another one was an app for quantifying the average positive/negative/neutral sentiments found in tweets from different accounts (e.g. NASA had very positive tweets on average whereas BBC News was fairly negative).

All in all, a nice experience, and it was good to take a break from the Stockholm scene and see what’s going on in my old home town. Good job by Jason Dainter and the other organizers!

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