While budgetary constraints and increasing commercial competition has clearly taken its toll on NASA, one area where the iconic government institution has unquestionably made headway is the implementation of open source.
The launching of code.NASA a few months back was an excellent start, open sourcing various pieces of NASA software so that anyone in the world could adapt and improve it. But as you might expect, many of NASA’s internal software projects are heavily tailored to their specific goals and operations; so with only a few exceptions, the software NASA open sourced was not of much use to the average person.
Space Apps Challenge
In an effort to address that shortcoming, NASA launched the “Space Apps Challenge”, a 2 day event where people from all over the world could collaboratively develop ideas and open source hardware and software projects that further the goals of exploration and scientific discovery. NASA’s stated goals for the Challenge made it clear that “open” was to be a strong theme throughout the event:
- Demonstrate a commitment to the principles of the Open Government Partnership.
- Exercise a government’s interest in using open data and technology, in partnership with others, to address global needs.
- Engage citizens in countries with little or no investments in space exploration to contribute to space exploration through open source, open data, and code development.
- Promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education by encouraging students from around the world to utilize open technology for solutions to global challenges.
- Encourage international partnership and mutual understanding.
Projects were categorized under Software, Open Hardware, Citizen Science, and Data Visualization. Entries ranged from using Linux powered “plug computers” as low cost space navigation devices to software which would allow an Android device to serve as the onboard controller for citizen-built satellites.
Using publicly available NASA data about weather, terrain, and soil, Growers Nation offers a way for people to find out which crops will grow in their exact geographical location. A user needs only enter their location and select between Fruit, Vegetables, and Grain, and they will then be told what to plant and when.
Growing your own food is an excellent idea, but can be difficult for those who are just starting out. By taking all the guess work out of finding suitable crops and when to plant them makes Growers Nation an exceptionally useful tool and a fantastic use of the massive amounts of data NASA collects about our planet.
Easily one of the most unique ideas submitted to the Challenge, Strange Desk is a mobile application which lets users submit observations they have made along with images and a relative rating of how interesting the occurrence was. The demo video shows situations such as making a note about seeing dead bees in a park, with an attached image and location. Observations made at this scale (often called hyperlocal) can aid in the scientific missions of NASA and other groups by augmenting the data collected by their orbiting observatories.
Strange Desk banks heavily on the social networking concept, combined with natural curiosity of the sort of people who would contribute to this sort of research and data collection.
As the name suggests, vicar2png is a file conversion utility which takes a Video Image Communication and Retrieval (VICAR) format file which is used in a number of scientific fields and converts it to the universally recognized PNG format. This allows the average user to put this once obscure data through common tools such as the GIMP and manipulate it as they see fit.
NASA and other scientific institutions have long struggled to get the public interested in their findings. Planet Hopper aims to make data from the Kepler project and convey it in a way more accessible to laypeople and students. Its simple interface let’s the user chose one of the planets discovered by Kepler, and get information about it via simple real-world examples such as how long it would take to get their from Earth and how high you could jump on its surface.
The Pineapple Project
Very similar to Growers Nation, The Pineapple Project uses multiple data sets to inform users which tropical crop is the best to grow in their area. As it focuses on crops which are to be grown in non-industrialized or otherwise wild areas, it has features such as an SMS interface which let’s users without smartphones or data access to participate.
Bit Harvester won as the “People’s Choice” selection in the Challenge, and interestingly enough, is the only hardware project to win. Bit Harvester is a distributed monitoring and control network for renewable energy (solar, wind) installations, pairing a microcontroller with a GSM module. The microcontroller can receive commands over the GSM modem through standard text messages, and can report back with data from its sensors about system status and health.
There were many incredible ideas submitted to the Space Apps Challenge, none of which could be called “losers”. Even though they might not have won the contest, the ideas discussed and projects started will likely continue on. But the few deemed truly unique in the competition will be receiving additional assistance and funding.
The most important aspect of the Space Apps Challenge was not selecting which of the entries were most suitable for additional development, but rather furthering NASA’s goals of open development and transparency. Scientific research and discoveries belong to the world, and should be shared accordingly.
By showcasing the ideals of the open source movement via the Space Apps Challenge, NASA has given the world yet another example of how open development can benefit the world outside of pure software development.