Interview with Erfan Abdi, winner of the 2017 Unilever challenge.


The next edition of the I-COM Data Science Hackathons (DSH), which will happen between 6 – 8 April 2018, in San Sebastian, Spain, is set to be another great event by I-COM. Already in its 4th edition, the DSH is a global competition that connects the magic of data science and the world of marketing, focusing on solving real-life problems and achieving results. The challenge? Within only 24 hours, the competing teams have to develop algorithms using data science analytics to solve predictive modeling challenges on marketers' datasets, which frequently results in outcomes that would normally take months of work to achieve or replicate. 

In 2017 DSH gathered 21 teams, 74 hackers representing 25 companies and three universities from 12 countries, which makes the event a once in a lifetime experience to connect and showcase with the very best in the field.

Erfan Abdi, a 25 years old student from Tehran, Iran, was one of the participants and winners. He was doing a Masters’ degree in Computer Science (machine learning) at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) when he decided, along with his friend Mohamed, to apply for the competition. “Me and my friend Mohamed were looking to participate in a competition related to machine learning to challenge ourselves, and we found the I-COM Data Science Hackathon, and although it was related to data science and not machine learning, we decided to apply”, he says.

And their participation was definitely a challenge. Mohamed had visa issues and had to stay in Iran, while Erfan arrived in Porto, Portugal, alone and without a computer. After speaking to the organizers, Erfan was allowed to participate and given a computer to work and connect with his friend remotely. “The organization let us work virtually. My friend was in Tehran. It was challenging due to our different time zones. Sometimes he wanted to sleep and I wanted to work and the opposite. It wasn’t easy. I had to motivate him all the time as he was too far away to feel connected to the event”, he mentions.


Erfan wasn’t hoping to win. Instead, he relaxed and enjoyed the moment. After presenting their results to the judges, he went to sleep. He was too tired from the non-stop journey working mostly alone. When he received a call saying he had won, and that he had to do a presentation, it was a huge surprise. He only had half an hour during the drive to the ceremony to memorise the presentation his friend had put together.

“I was like ‘let’s enjoy’. It was awesome for me, as I’m always stressed. Actually, it was a good presentation and after the judges and other competitors came to congratulate me, - around 10 people - and it gave me confidence for the second step”, he says.

The project presented was to formulate how advertising impacts on income, search index, and other key metrics. “After winning the competition, many companies approached me and offered me a job”, Erfan says.

So, even after all the challenges, the winner of the 2017 Unilever challenge encourages everyone to participate. “It was an awesome trip, with delicious food and great people. Every one from I-COM was lovely. It is a good experience to challenge yourself, especially if you haven’t had any experience with data science before, or if you are a student like me. It shows different ways to exploit your knowledge with real-life data, different from what you learn at the university. It is an awesome opportunity”, he says.

If you want to know more about the I-COM Data Science Hackathons and how to participate, please visit http://www.i-com.org/i-com-data-science-hackathon-2018-overview/.