Two young people from DigiLocal succeed at NASA International Space Apps Challenge

Since 2012 NASA have sponsored the annual International Space Apps Challenge. The event runs over a weekend in October where teams from across the globe address challenges set by NASA. They have unique access to NASA expertise and offers from selected Global Collaborators.

DigiLocal has taken part since we hosted 15 young people at the 2019 event, in partnership with the UWE Space Exploration Society.

This year the Challenge topic was ‘Take Action’. It was also the first fully online and virtual event because of the Coronavirus pandemic. This meant that while we would be co-hosting the Bristol event again with the UWE Space Exploration Society, we would also be participating with the rest of the UK (and global) participants.

The event is not run as a ‘young persons’ event. There were two challenges designed for younger participants but there was no age bracketing for the judges when considering the final submissions.

Everyone joined the Discord server on Friday evening on the 2 Oct and began swapping ideas for which challenges they’d like to take part in. As teams began to form we made sure that all our young people were able to engage and participate, offering occasional ‘translation’ services for the acronyms and technical terms being used.

At 9am on Saturday 3 Oct the event officially launched in the UK with a special live stream video with the NASA Global Organisers.

From then it was a near constant stream of activity from idea storming with online collaborative whiteboard tools, to setting up and testing cloud computing resources, to producing the final presentation packs used for the judging. Teams had access to some fantastic offers from the Global Collaborators that included free credits on Google Cloud Platform, Amazon Web Services, Azure, and IBM.

At 5pm on Sunday 4 Oct we had 4 teams from DigiLocal presenting their ideas to the Bristol judges. We were honoured this year to have Prof Chris Toomer and Dr Yaseen Zaidi from the University of the West of England. Dr John Bradford from DigiLocal was the third judge.

View of demo BioEnterprise App

Space Racers addressed the ‘Create a Mascot’ challenge with Gilda the Astronaut (coded in Scratch). A fun flamingo to introduce nebula, black holes, and other space phenomena! The Trapz built a game in roblox for the ‘Orbital Scrap Metal Game’ challenge. You were a stranded astronaut on Mars who had to clear a safe passage, and build new items, for an incoming rescue ship from Earth. Project Mars build a communications app to simulate the challenges of communicating with people on Mars, as part of the ‘Can you hear me now?’ challenge. This featured a variable time delay on messages so you could train how to react to situations, and experience the psychological challenges of a conversation with delays of between 4 and 24 minutes (depending on the positions of Earth and Mars).

BioEnterprise addressed the ‘Scanning for Lifeforms’ challenge. They proposed a game that would use satellite data to build a model of biodiversity change over time for different regions of the plant. They would then overlay this with business data to develop a model of how business actives impacted biodiversity. Players of the game would be able make business choices in a traditional business building game, but would see the predicted impact of those decisions on the biodiversity.

This would help inform them of how local decisions have global consequences.

Data was drawn from NOAA website and analysed in IBM DataPak, with visualisation using NASA’s own panopoly package. The plan was to work with the Watson Studio to develop the machine learning package but they ran out of time.

AerosOx were the fifth team from Bristol, comprising 2 post-grad researchers, a post-doc academic, an NHS Innovation Lead, and a business consultant. They tackled the ‘One Health Approach’ challenge by mapping air quality satellite data to prescribing for respiratory illnesses.

AerosOx and BioEnterprise were put forward for the Global Judging, with the final announcement in January 2021!

We wish both teams (but especially 13 yr old Thomas and 12 yr old Primrose from BioEnterprise) the very best of luck in the global judging.

Note:

Running a national, indeed an international, event online raises some serious safeguarding issues but in the months leading up to the event we discussed how to configure the Discord server so that we could provide young people with private and secure channels to use. We also ensured we had DBS cleared volunteers present and online throughout the event. A specific document was sent to all parents of potential young participants on how to configure the privacy setting on Discord. Finally, we issued a very clear Code of Conduct as part of the UK server that, while not specifically mentioning young people, made it very clear what was considered acceptable (and not acceptable) behaviour online.

Fifteen young people reach new heights with NASA data!

Over the weekend of 19/20 October 2019, fifteen young people from 6 DigiLocal clubs took part in the NASA-led International Space Apps Challenge.

Since its inception in 2012, NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge has become the world’s largest global hackathon, engaging thousands of citizens across the globe to use NASA’s open data to build innovative solutions to challenges we face on Earth and in space.

Space Apps inspires local communities to come together, think intensely, and create solutions to important problems. Each year, Space Apps engages thousands of individuals in cities around the world to work with NASA’s open source data in a 48-hour sprint. Teams of technologists, scientists, designers, entrepreneurs, artists, and others collaborate to answer some of the most pressing challenges on Earth and in space.

A special thanks has to go to Alex (President, UWE Space Exploration Society) for welcoming us to the Student’s Union building and hosting some very excited young people (and a few very excited volunteer mentors)! It was a great honour for our young people to join the UWE students and industry participants in this 2-day challenge.

Our young people tackled the challenges of how to;

  • spot and communicate wild fires in remote parts of the globe,
  • get cheap internet to the remote oceans,
  • gamify the clearance of space junk,
  • gamify deep space data through a ‘build a solar system workshop’,
  • explain and demonstrate the issue of marine pollution from plastics, and
  • use NASA earth data to educate people about our planet!

In the true spirit of hackathons and codejams, 5 of our young people stayed over night and were still coding into the early hours of the morning! The last laptop was turned off around 4:30 am. I don’t think the parents that came in to mind the overnight portion were expecting such enthusiasm and staying power from their 10 year olds.

Sunday morning found the young people up and coding at the break of dawn. Those that hadn’t stayed overnight returned at 9am eager to catch up and complete their projects.

By the official close of the event (4pm Sunday, 20 Oct) we had a range of fantastic projects, accompanied by presentations and live demo’s!

Team Space Potatoes presenting their project

All the young people did exceptionally well and many were awarded their Green or Orange LINKS Award wristbands in recognition of their achievements. Green wristbands are awarded for exceptional performance on an individual project, and Orange is awarded for exceptional performance in a group project.

Two teams were put forward to the global judging, and two special awards were made locally. The first Special Commendation went to Team Space Potatoes (Dean, Jane, and Milly) “Create your dream solar system” in the Build a Planet challenge for their creativity and the original music score that they had composed to go with their game. The second went to Team Super Code (Zane) “Journey of the other kind” in the 1UP for NASA Earth challenge for his very confident presentation and knowledge about how he’d like to develop his game further.

Aarush (Team Ember) with his Certificate and some of their planning diagrams

The two nominated projects from Bristol for global judging were The Magic Music Box from Digital Bad, and Team Ember (Aarush, Alex, Ben, and Rishi) “Wildfire tracking in Indonesia” in the Spot that fire V2.0 challenge. With three young people from three different DigiLocal clubs, this was a great example of what can be achieved in a codejam environment.

Team Ember receiving their Orange LINKS Awards from DigiLocal CEO Dr John Bradford and Prof Chris Toomer (UWE, Judging panel)

Much of Saturday morning was spent planning how they would tackle the project and setting up their resources. Github and Discord were heavily used by all the teams, along with quite a bit of Stackoverflow!

Team Ember were also notable that they mostly used C# and php, two languages that aren’t part of the ‘normal’ projects we use at DigiLocal. Aarush and Rishi did exceptionally well to translate their python knowledge to these new languages in a remarkably short period of time.

Alongside the young people we had a fantastic team of 10 volunteers supporting everyone with advise and guidance. We also had parents invited for the presentations and awards ceremony.

It was a real honour to have been a small part in bringing this event together and we’re already planning for Space Apps Challenge 2020!