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Pocket rockets: NASA turns to hackers for new breed of space apps

Pocket rockets: NASA turns to hackers for new breed of space apps

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Why developers are competing to make the agency's software for free

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Sol app interplanetary weather (Credit: Ingenology)
Sol app interplanetary weather (Credit: Ingenology)

NASA isn’t exactly known for thinking small. This is, after all, the agency that’s trying to lasso an asteroid into orbit around the Moon before 2025. But one group at NASA is focused on a far leaner goal: outsourcing the development of new NASA apps to hackers around the world. Earlier this month, they managed to convince 9,000 people in 44 countries to split up into teams and compete against one another to build software and hardware projects that show off NASA data. The goal is to make apps not only for the public audience, but also that NASA may use internally.

Called the International Space Apps Challenge, the second annual event was the largest "hackathon" in world history, according to the agency: Between April 20th and 21st, over 770 submissions poured into NASA’s main Space Apps website. NASA is now combing through these and assembling a panel of judges, and will announce the five global winners in May.

"This is a striking example of what the future of government looks like."

In several cities, participants organized and funded in-person gatherings, with only loose direction from NASA’s Space Apps team. And, as Space Apps’s organizers emphasized, they themselves only spent a few months and $70,000 to get the project off the ground—peanuts for an agency that regularly signs multiyear, multibillion-dollar aerospace contracts. "This is a striking example of what the future of government looks like," said Nicholas Skytland, manager of NASA’s Open Innovation Program, in a phone interview with The Verge. The numbers sound great, but two key questions remain, not only for NASA’s Space Apps contest but for the larger trend of crowdsourcing the agency has embraced: How good are the results? And what do participants think about the process when it’s all said and done?

"They are definitely results NASA will use."

NASA says it’s too early to say which, if any, of the apps developed during this year’s challenge the agency itself will choose to adopt. But at least two of the apps from last year’s hackathon have become staples for NASA's staff. One is an app that converts the obscure image file format VICAR—used by many NASA employees—to PNG format, and the other is a software platform for NASA’s underwater robotic submarines. "Those are getting heavy rotation at NASA," said Sarah Rigdon, the communications leader of the NASA Space Apps Team. "I can tell you that while the results from this year are still being compiled, they are definitely results NASA will use."

Participants in the Space Apps challenge seem to have bought into the concept of free labor—mostly because they’re enthusiastic about space and appreciate competition for its own sake. "It was overall so much fun, and crazy, when you realize the space and time difference between participants," said Arman Atoyan, who led one team and is the founder of the startup software company X-Tech, based in Yerevan, Armenia. His team built an app, called "Feel the Moon Gravity," that uses NASA data and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect motion controller to simulate jumping on the surface of the moon.

Atoyan and co.’s app is one of the flashier designs to emerge from the challenge, but it’s in good company: other projects include Sol, a beautifully designed iPhone app from Kansas City company Ingenology, which displays the weather on Earth and Mars; and Inbound, a hardware project that consists of a series of LED lights linked together by an Arduino (an open-source microcontroller) to track the path of solar flares and charged particles from the Sun to the Earth.

"We heavily focused on simplifying the complex data that NASA provided, trying to make it a bit more abstract and digestible at a glance," said Matthew Congrove, a developer at the mobile software company Appcelerator in Mountain View, California, who worked with a few colleagues on the Inbound project. "I don't think there's anything more simple than showing the Sun, the Earth, and the coronal mass ejections travelling between the two."

It remains to be seen whether any of these eye-catching apps are among the winners of this year’s challenge, but the fact that they were created by teams of professional developers seems to undermine NASA’s claim that the event was designed for average "citizens from around the world." Still, NASA maintains that the overall goal of making its data more accessible was met, both in this and last year’s challenge.

"Making vast reservoirs of data available to the public."

"Our goal has been to infuse a lot of Open Government's values within NASA," said Rigdon. "Part of the work of the Open Government division has been to make our vast reservoirs of data available to the public." That NASA Open Government effort extends beyond NASA to other federal agencies. In fact, it was catalyzed by an edict from President Obama himself in 2009. But NASA has embraced the idea with vigor, and other branches of the agency are already holding their own contests, including one in March of this year that was focused on video game development.

As for Space Apps, NASA’s plan to effectively "gameify" the development of new apps and hardware seems to have worked out better than the agency could have hoped. Although NASA already produces and commissions many official iOS and Android apps under its own label, the goal with Space Apps was to harness both amateur and professional developers' talent from around the world without forking out for employees. "When you think about a professional developer's salary, it’s about $75 an hour," Skytland said. NASA estimates 60 percent of the participants in Space Apps had professional qualifications, a number Skytland says may have earned the agency about a $14 million return-on-investment.

"Right now, we’re just excited we survived it."

Still, despite its apparent success, the crew of 12 on the Space Apps project aren’t sure whether there will ever be another hackathon. "Who knows?" Skytland said about a Space Apps 2014. "Last year we swore we’d never do anything like this again. Right now, we’re just excited we survived it."

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