Now back in Wellington, I’m delighted to reclaim authorship of my blog. My team did an excellent job keeping things current while I was away, but it’s good to be writing again myself. I thought I’d start with a few notes about NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge, which I judged in Auckland shortly after deplaning from New York City (via San Francisco) earlier this week.
The International Space Apps Challenge is a very American approach to problem-solving which convenes folks from around the world to collaborate on addressing challenges facing humans both here on Earth and as we venture farther out into space. Structured as a mass global crowd-sourcing exercise, the event brings participants together for 48 straight hours to advertise their expertise, access the skills of others, and work together in teams, wherever they happen to be located on the planet’s surface.
Last weekend the Challenge attracted more than 9,000 people and 480 organizations in 83 cities across 44 different countries on all 7 continents, as well as online from many other locations including the International Space Station. This year our Embassy and NASA were pleased to add Auckland to the list, and I am grateful to Auckland University of Technology for providing space and co-sponsoring the event with us. My good friend AUT Professor Sergei Gulyaev managed the local proceedings.
Participants had 58 challenges from which to choose, each individually curated by NASA and its partners, including the National Science Foundation, European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales, UK Space Agency, Department of State, mLabs, Tech Shop, Raspberry Pi, Cloud Signa, Leap Motion, Tumblr, and Geeks without Bounds.
The challenges included detecting near Earth objects, creating techniques to visualize invisible solar flares, predicting water contamination from data collected in space, creating a 3D printing framework for use in remote problem-solving in outer space, improving how NASA provides scientific data to the public, and creating tools to improve understanding of the tangible benefits that space exploration produces back on Earth.
The event was designed to engage people of varying backgrounds and all ages. Simply put, you did not need to be a rocket scientist, brainiac, or computer wizard to participate. Among the challenges that non-scientists like me might have enjoyed were creating a better poultry management system for backyard farmers, expanding the NASA GIRLS program to mobile and tablet platforms, envisioning and imaging what Kennedy Space Center Spaceport might look like in the year 2040, …
… designing jewelry or wearable art that celebrates 55 Cancri E (a carbon-rich exoplanet), conveying through words and/or images why we should continue to explore space, creating a crowd-sourced gaming platform to evolve best ideas for future air traffic control and management, developing games related to space exploration, and designing a smartphone operation system to control a Lego robot. One of my favorite challenges was mapping from space the Peace Corps’ more than 50 years of humanitarian projects around the world.
“Our space program, more than ever, requires the active engagement of the public to co-create our shared future.
“This weekend demonstrated the true potential of participatory exploration and what can happen when an agency like NASA takes a chance on engaging the untapped, unexpected, and uncharted know-how of thousands of passionate citizens around the world.
“Innovation is bottom-up, decentralized and unpredictable. True innovation necessitates failure. The more you experiment, the more you fail, the more you learn. Small technologies and initial development deserve innovative process and the opportunity for failure. …
“At the International Space Apps Challenge we open up challenges of space exploration and social need and empowered citizens around the world to solve those challenges. … Passionate citizens are being asked to find and share their solutions to the challenges. In the process of planning and implementing the Challenge we have learned a lot and recognized the power released when we work together with others committed to changing the way the world works. Space Apps exemplifies a model for accelerating technology and we are capturing that story here to be built upon.”
The event kicked off at 9.00 a.m. last Saturday morning in Auckland, with interested participants (mostly students) assembling, coalescing into four teams, and selecting specific challenges to address. For the next 48 hours the teams worked almost non-stop to develop solutions, reaching out online to compare notes, seek advice, or simply observe participants in other locations. Some folks brought sleeping bags and took naps on the floor from time to time, while a few slipped away home for some rest. The culmination of each team’s effort was an 8-minute presentation documenting and demonstrating their solution.
I landed in Auckland in time to get to AUT by 9:00 a.m. Monday for the presentations and judging. Joining me on the panel were Candace Kinser (CEO of New Zealand ICT Group) and Matt Bostwick (Microsoft NZ’s Tertiary Education Sector Manager), both of whom I had met earlier this year when we judged the Microsoft Imagine Cup. We spent an hour listening to the presentations, questioning the teams, and then scoring their solutions based on product design, impact, creativity, complexity, sustainability, and collaboration.
Given the quality of the projects, judging was difficult. We ended up awarding honorable mentions to a team that designed a greenhouse for use on Mars and a team that developed a mobile app for collecting feedback from participants in NASA educational programs. Our first runner-up was Team Space Cadets, which imagined a platform to use remote 3D printing to address problems encountered during space exploration. We were particularly impressed with the wheel that the Cadets designed and printed that could be used to rescue a Mars rover stuck in soft soil.
The winning team in Auckland was Team Spot the Station, which developed an app for the android smartphone which will track and provide information about the International Space Station. A user of the app will receive an alert and directions when the station is visible from their particular geo-location. Users can then take photos, share their photos and observations, and check the status of experiments being conducted on the Station. The Cadets impressed us with their plans for improving, producing, and distributing the app.
Team Spot the Station and Team Space Cadets, as well as the top two solutions from each of the other Challenge locations, will be featured on www.SpaceAppsChallenge.org in May, shared with scientists and educators at NASA and other partner agencies, and submitted for global judging in several categories. Prizes will include flight suits, 3D printers, space launch invitations, space flight training, and opportunities to collaborate with NASA and European Space Agency scientists on implementing certain of the applications and solutions.
As I said last Monday (and in every such competition in which I’ve been involved), however, getting a trophy isn’t the point. What matters is convening kindred spirits, building global networks, stimulating creativity, wrestling with big challenges, finding solutions, and celebrating practitioners of the scientific and technological arts, who contribute so much more to life on this planet than the folks we usually spend most of our time watching and cheering.
Again, thanks to NASA, AUT, Sergei, Candace, Matt, and everyone who participated in our inaugural International Space Apps Challenge event in Auckland. I’m confident that we’ll be back again next year, so I hope to see you there. If there is sufficient interest, we might even consider expanding to a second city.