NASA International Space Apps Challenge: One Week to Go!

NASA International Space Apps Challenge: One Week to Go!

At the end of this week, the largest hackathon in history will be upon us, and Azavea will be leading the charge as organizer of the International Space Apps Challenge Global MainStage here in Philadelphia. NASA tells us now over 6,000 people are registered to participate from 83 cities for over 83 hours – from 9am this Friday, Abu Dhabi time, to 9pm this Sunday, Honolulu time – making this year’s Space Apps the largest, most geographically diverse hackathon any one of us has ever heard of and shattering the records of last year’s inaugural event.

My colleague Amelia Longo and I have been pouring over logistical plans, dialing into international conference calls, confirming generous sponsors and prizes, and refining scientific challenges since January. There are still a host of details we have to settle this week before an astronomer, an astronaut, a NASA Deputy CIO and other staff, and close to 100 participants arrive at our opening reception at First Round Capital on Friday, April 19th, and then the main hackathon itself at Drexel’s ExCITe Center on Saturday April 20th at 9am through Sunday April 21st at 5pm. (There’s still room for more – you can register here for the reception and here for the hackathon!)

But when the weekend arrives and folks get started on their projects, I know everything will come together in one collaboration-fueled blaze of creative designs, clacking keyboards, and snapping K’nex parts and hardware components. Sounds a bit like launching a rocket, actualy!

Who should come and what should we bring?

Anyone and yourself! If you want to learn new skills or build on old ones, meet astronaut (and former NFL football player) Leland Melvin, collaborate with cool people in Philadelphia and around the world, get swag, win awesome prizes, and eat some free Philly food – we want you at Space Apps Philly! Conversely, if you really don’t like learning things or meeting awesome people, you probably should stay at home. But really, you’re missing out.

Everyone who plans on working on some kind of data visualization or programming challenge would be smart to bring a laptop. We’ll have plenty of Wi-Fi, power, and table space for you at the ExCITe Center.

If you want to build or hack something more physical, you should bring anything you need to do that – Arduinos, solder, et cetera. Thanks to our sponsors K’nex, the NASTAR Center, and Leap Motion, we will have plenty of K’nex building kits for hackers young and old to use, as well as a few fancy Leap Motion USB motion-sensing controllers!

If you’re not going to be at the team-building reception on Friday night (you should be!), we recommend you go over the 15 challenges we’ll be highlighting in Philly before Saturday, just so you’ll have an idea of what to expect or what team you might be interested in joining or forming.

You said something about prizes and swag?

Yes! On Sunday, our panel of judges – including Franklin Institute Astronomer Derrick Pitts, NASA Deputy CIO Deborah Diaz, and Philadelphia Chief Data Officer Mark Headd – will listen to presentations from each team and then be empowered to award prizes to teams as they see fit. Those prizes include:

How cool are those? In addition to those wonderful sponsors, we’d like to thank our other generous sponsors ExCITe Center, First Round Capital, Global Advantage, PHL Convention and Visitors Bureau, Science Center, Chariot Solutions, Jarvus Innovations, Github, and Ticketleap. Their support has made the event possible, and many of them are providing odds and ends for the tote bags we’ll be giving to each participant!

Space Apps sounds so cool! Andrew, what challenge are you going to work on?

The plight of being an organizer is that I think I’ll be spending so much time ensuring a fantastic event for all of you, I don’t think I’ll get to join a team. But, here are the challenges I’d be really excited to see come out of Space Apps!

Curiosity at Home

Now that the real Curiosity rover is incommunicado for a month, there is a clear need for us to build apps and projects that keep us excited about its discoveries until it comes back and mesmerizes us once more with new pictures and data. When Robert, Amelia, and I were reading the 50 challenge drafts NASA sent us weeks ago, one of us came up with an idea that has stuck with me: Make a relative map of Curiosity’s movement, as if it was on Earth!

JPL and NASA have made available images of Curiosity’s movements. It could be tricky to gather at first, but one could deduce the distance of each line segment and directional bearing from those images. (Or, we could ask NASA to release that raw data, since we’ll have their ear over the weekend!) Then, you could plot those on some sort of browsable Leaflet or Google Map of an area here on Earth. This would make the distances Curiosity has traveled and the discoveries at each point much easier for us earthlings to relate to. How far can Curiosity travel in a day? How many city blocks is that? How tightly clustered are these discoveries? What kinds of discoveries might we find in Fairmount Park if we paid attention to our steps as intently as the rover does?

Seeing Water From Space

I know the GeoTrellis team is excited about this one. The challenge focuses on analyzing satellite data of Chile’s water resources both temporally and spatially. I’ve seen some concepts of temporal mapping with CartoDB’s Torque library, and I’ve seen (and done) some raster-based spatial analysis both with ArcGIS and GeoTrellis. Temporal mapping and raster analysis are each pretty cool (and can be pretty colorful!), but imagine if they were combined somehow in this challenge? That’s a visualization I’d love to see.


The ham radio operator in me sees potential, existing data, and a community of interest in the “Solar Flare” challenge, especially considering the recent Coronal Mass Ejection that theoretically some of the northeast US was able to see this weekend. I wasn’t able to see it, so a visualization would have been the next best thing! Also, if a good game came out of the “No Delays” air traffic challenge, it would live right next to the Flight Simulator icon on my desktop.

There are so many challenges! So many people are coming! The only real question is – will you come and build something with us this weekend?