Akram Al-Otumi

Akram Al-Otumi

With computer science enrollment soaring at one of its key constituencies, ShiftKey Labs is developing programming to encourage tech entrepreneurship among students.

ShiftKey Labs is housed in the Goldberg Computer Science Building at Dalhousie University, which is a boon for a few reasons. One is that Dal’s Computer Science faculty is witnessing strong enrollment growth. The total number of students enrolled in the faculty is 1,700, up 20 percent from a year ago.

The rising student enrollment in its home base is providing more human capital for ShiftKey, meaning that the group has a better attendance than before for its programs. It’s allowed ShiftKey to increase its programing, including sector-focused hackathons, to give students experience in assessing a problem and developing a solution.

“The courses are very practical in nature,” said Akram Al-Otumi, who joined ShiftKey as its manager this past summer. “We design challenges that impact our community and the international community, like how to solve wait times in hospitals and foreign interference in elections. . . . [The participants] need to come up with innovative solutions that are scalable.”

ShiftKey Labs is one of nine “sandboxes” sponsored by the Nova Scotia government. These are collaborative projects involving groups of post-secondary institutions, which aim to encourage entrepreneurship in certain fields. ShiftKey – which is a joint project between Dalhousie, St. Mary’s, and Mount St. Vincent universities, and the Nova Scotia Community College – targets digital technologies as the focus of its work.

ShiftKey is overseen by Al-Otumi, a multi-faceted entrepreneur who has previously taught at NSCC as well as at Dal. He carried out these duties while building his own company, Spritely Technologies, which introduces newcomers to a city they’ve just moved to. 

The highlight of the programming at ShiftKey has been a series of hackathons. Last month, the group hosted what it called the Atlantic Health Datapalooza, in which teams were challenged to devise IT solutions that could solve problems like hospital wait times. The Nova Scotia Health Authority participated, bringing in actual data on wait times that the tech teams could dive into to work on their solutions.

This coming weekend, Shiftkey and other local organizations will host the Space Apps Challenge hackathon, which uses data provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, as the basis of the projects.  Next month, ShiftKey is partnering with Venture for Canada to hold a government technology hackathon, in which different levels of government will bring problems to the event and participants will set out to find solutions.

The overall goal of the hackathons and other programs is to inspire students to find problems and use technology to devise solutions. ShiftKey is working with students on turning these solutions into businesses. Once they reach a certain stage, the group can help students move on to seek mentorship from other groups, like Volta.

“My vision for [ShiftKey] is to be one of the big hubs of technology in Canada,” said Al-Otumi. “I want to take it to that level. The location is golden because about 92 percent of university students in Nova Scotia in the IT field graduate from that building.”