NASA Turns to Hackers for Innovations in Space

NASA's annual International Space Apps Challenge gave civic hackers and citizens 48 hours to craft solutions for space exploration and the world's most vexing social issues.

by / April 13, 2015
NASA Space Apps Challenge participant Nilesh Shah explains the features of PlantMD, a Web and mobile app that allows farmers in developing nations to collaborate on agricultural issues such as plant diseases and water usage. Jason Shueh

FOLSOM, Calif. -- The annual NASA Space Apps Challenge finished in a mix of fatigue and triumph Sunday, April 12, as 12,000-plus participants in 162 countries presented solutions to pressing space and world challenges.

IBM’s Bluemix cloud services joined NASA to sponsor the 48-hour international hackathon from April 11-12. Emphasis areas for innovations were tied to four categories: Outer Space, Robotics, Earth and Human. The Earth category was aimed at answering environmental sustainability problems while the Human category sought to answer common social maladies.

The Sacramento, Calif., area -- and more specifically the city of Folsom -- was just one of the 147 locations to participate, with teams toiling into the twilight hours as they manipulated NASA data sets and data-generating sensors. Each team vied to be among the finalists, who would be entered into NASA’s global competition where agency officials will invite winning teams to showcase their apps and attend a NASA space launch.

Ingrid Rosten, who co-organized the Sacramento’s hackathon at Velocity Ventures Entrepreneurs Campus — a hub for tech startups in Folsom — said the event was as much about creativity and ingenuity as it was about inclusion and community. Rosten and fellow co-organizer Abraham Vasant noticed teams were composed of all age groups and backgrounds, from 10-year-olds to 20-somethings, to 60-plus.

“I hope people understood the importance of collaboration and the importance of the idea that everyone can participate,” Rosten said. “We saw today that we had teams with all ages and it was really a village.”

Among Sacramento’s three winning teams were Plant-MD, a Web and mobile app to help farmers organize against crop disease; Single Camera Depth Perception, a software application that enables NASA’s single-sensor space cameras to detect heightened levels of depth; and Blastastic-Fashion, a concept put forth by the youngest group — Angela Merrill, age 8, and Samara Shah, age 9 — for wearable space garments that detect vitals and change color based on environmental factors like heat.

Of the three, Plant-MD took the People’s Choice Award for the app most beloved by attending participants. Its Co-Creator, Nilesh Shah, who also happens to work in Intel’s marketing division, said that with further development, the app could be a highly viable service for agriculture in developing nations where knowledge often passes only through word of mouth. Farmers, he said, could use the app to photographically identify threats to crops — such as insects and diseases — and the app could easily be a platform to trade water and other agricultural resources.

“We want to make Plant-MD like the real-estate market where you can easily find and trade water,” Shaw told judges.

Looking beyond crowdsourced data, the Plant-MD team highlighted the possibility that data could be fed into the app through drone-deployed sensors that measure both water quality and quantity.

As a judge and event sponsor, Rich Foreman, CEO of the mobile development company Aptology, said that what struck him most — and what he felt drove the most value — was the hackathon’s push to seed careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields for youth.

“One of the things as a developer I really liked about this was the fact that 70 percent of the people here were high school or younger," Foreman said. "And we need kids to go into the sciences because there are really good jobs out there."

Rosten said winners of the global competition will be decided after about a month or so in May, when NASA will choose winning submissions within five categories: Best Mission Concept, Best Use of Hardware, Best Use of Data, Most Inspiring and Galactic Impact.

Though all projects are required to be open source, NASA has not committed any research and development resources to adopt winning entries.

Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.