Hacking for Space: The NASA Space Apps Challenge.

In two weeks Melbourne will host its first NASA Space App Challenge. Needless to say I'm very excited.

As one of the world's largest international hackathons, the 48-hour Space Apps Challenge brings together researchers, engineers, coders, artists, designers, educators and storytellers to connect over mission-related challenges. This is no ordinary hackathon. For a start it's a worldwide initiative with over 190 cities in more than 70 countries hosting concurrent events in over 48–72 hours. Participants come from more diverse backgrounds and skill sets so it's more inclusive, and arguably more fun than many other competitive hackathons. The Space Apps Challenge is a NASA Open Innovation Initiative, that grew out of NASAs involvement with Random Hacks of Kindness project, which was a collaboration with Microsoft, Google, Hewlett Packard and the World Bank.

Everything is centred around space (obviously...) and this year NASA has set 6 themes - Aeronautics, Space Station, Solar System, Technology, Earth and Journey to Mars. The grand challenges are real problems that NASA is keen to pursue, designed in such a way that they target almost every possible discipline and skill-set, including everything from fashion design to origami, 3D printing, coding, climate science, data analysis, to storytelling. If you ever wanted to set yourself the challenge of building something cool within 48 hours then this might be the time to go for it. 

It's also a good opportunity to learn tools like GitHub (Gist & GitHub pages), web/text scraping, OpenRefine, OpenStreetMap, Leaflet.js, CartoDB, Python, iPython Notebooks, Digital Ocean, HTML & CSS, and how APIs work  etc.

The list goes on...

Space Station Live commentator Pat Ryan recently spoke with Nick Skytland, NASA Open Innovation Project Manager, about the International Space Apps Challenge. On April 20 and 21, over 9,000 people participated in the second International Space Apps Challenge hosted by NASA and government agencies worldwide, with events across all seven continents and in space.

the carlton connect initiative

This year the University of Melbourne's Carlton Connect Initiative (CCI) will play host to Melbourne's Space Apps hackathon. CCI is part of the universities new innovation precinct, and it's fast becoming Melbourne's premier venue for such events. Lab–14 a pretty fantastic space.

If you're interested in participating, sign up formally through the official Melbourne Space Apps website and connect with others through the Melbourne Space Apps Facebook page.  I recommend registering even if you can only make it to part of the weekend.

The format is likely to be similar to Sydney's Space App Challenge, T-minus the pre-event bootcamp.

unsure about jumping into the hacking arena?

I recommend signing up even if you're unsure about whether you want to participate. Hackathons can be intimidating - many people start off with a high level of imposter syndrome. Having said that the diverse backgrounds and skills guarantee that you will learn something new, whether that be a new tech tool, how to build websites, design logos, visualise data etc. If you still don't want to commit to a group hack with strangers my advice is to coming along for a part (or all of) the weekend and create your own personal Space Apps (or research related?) hack project. But definitely try to buddy up if you can.

A Space Apps Challenge GitHub repository has been set up with a whole bunch of datasets and supporting materials to help kickstart hack projects. 

decide what you want to get out of it

Prior to these types of events I make a conscious decision about the type of "hacker" I'm going to be during the event and what I want to get out of it.. During Astro Hack Week 2015, Dr. Brittany Fiore-Silfvast wrote a really nice blogpost about the types of hackers she observed at Astro Hack Week. Brittany is a postdoctoral fellow with the University of Washington's Moore/Sloan-funded Data Science Environment and works as a data science ethnographer. Among other things, she was interested in categorising hacking interactions. The following "hacker types" are based on Brittany's (and my own) observations;

  • An individual works on their hack idea and uses those around them as sources of expertise
  • A pair or small group joins together to work on a hack idea in which one person is learning something and the other has more advanced knowledge. They generate something together but each get something different out of the experience. 
  • A pair or small group joins together to work on a hack idea and iteratively discovers how their expertise informs each other, or how interests synergise. Then they generate something new together
  • An individual works on their hack idea and shares it with others based on their common interest
  • The semi-structured activity draws people together to form a learning collective, with the goal of knowledge exchange.

I think it's a really good idea to think about about what motives you to participate in whatever hackathon your joining. If you know want you want to get out of it, you can hit the ground running without wasting valuable time on freaking out (impostor syndrome is ubiquitous at hackathons) and changing your mind about projects.

2016 Space Apps Challenges 

https://2016.spaceappschallenge.org/challenges

Eastern Seaboard (USA) at night –  An Expedition 30 crew member aboard the International Space Station took this nighttime photograph of much of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Large metropolitan areas and other easily recognizable sites from the Virginia/Maryland/Washington, D.C. area are visible in the image that spans almost to Rhode Island. Boston is just out of frame at right. Long Island and the New York City area are visible in the lower right quadrant. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are near the center. Parts of two Russian vehicles parked at the orbital outpost are seen in left foreground. Image Credit: NASA

Eastern Seaboard (USA) at night –  An Expedition 30 crew member aboard the International Space Station took this nighttime photograph of much of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Large metropolitan areas and other easily recognizable sites from the Virginia/Maryland/Washington, D.C. area are visible in the image that spans almost to Rhode Island. Boston is just out of frame at right. Long Island and the New York City area are visible in the lower right quadrant. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are near the center. Parts of two Russian vehicles parked at the orbital outpost are seen in left foreground. Image Credit: NASA

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