NGA’s Los Angeles hackathon sheds (klieg) light on food security

May 18, 2017 · 6 min read

By Jacquelyn L. Karpovich, NGA Office of Corporate Communications

- Students and coders worked all night on solutions for real-world food security issues at latest NGA hackathon in Los Angeles.

- NGA director of Plans and Programs: Today you could come up with something that will help solve a problem that literally could save people’s lives.

- Winning team created tool for a fishery distribution network in Morocco.

Code, creativity and community were the highlights of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Los Angeles hackathon focusing on food security and regional stability.

More than 50 participants, many from local universities like the University of Southern California and University of California — Irvine and software training institutes like Sabio, spread out for two days across long tables in a neon pop art bedecked, creative co-working space that was once the former luxury car garage for an oil entrepreneur.

Abthony Vinci, Ph.D, NGA director of Plans and Programs, connected the hackathon to agency mission at the event’s kickoff for a diverse audience of students and coders.

NGA director of Plans and Programs, Anthony Vinci, Ph. D. provided a jolt of inspiration during the hackathon kickoff, emphasizing the “really hard, really neat problems” that comprise NGA’s mission.

“A hackathon is not coding for coding’s sake or innovation for innovation’s sake. We’re trying to do something here,” said Vinci. “We’re trying to come up with solutions to real world problems. It is very possible that today you could come up with something that will help solve a problem that literally could save people’s lives in the future.”

Manuela Rayner, an imagery scientist supporting NGA’s natural resources branch, participated as a judge in the event and helped shape the hackathon problem set.

Food security is an issue Rayner has centered her career around and was excited that others found interesting enough to spend a weekend working on, she said. She was also particularly interested in outside perspectives on food security.

“When we (NGA) report on food security we’re mostly looking at the production side of a country and how they are able to produce food,” said Rayner. “But, there are a lot of other factors involved, like distribution routes, how people access food from markets — these are things that are a lot more detailed that we just don’t have the manpower to constantly monitor.”

An essay by Robert Safian in February’s issue of “Fast Company” magazine emphasized the important role formats like hackathons, accelerators and incubators play in tech culture, offering “a glimpse into the future of businesses — and only the foolhardy would ignore them.”

Hackathons aren’t just for start-ups and Silicon Valley, but a valuable tool for innovation, wrote Safian.

“As enterprises scale, as cultures become entrenched, it’s harder and harder for innovation and creativity to flourish,” wrote Safian. “Hackathons, accelerators, and incubators have become part of the toolkit for companies, as leaders experiment with the right formula for systematically building agility into their operations.”

Tara Gattis, Analysis lead for NGA Outpost Valley, echoed some of the intangible benefits Safian details in his article.

“We’re going to build relationships with schools and communities that know about NGA through these types of activities,” said Gattis. “So they can see what kinds of problems we’re trying to solve and if they want to work with us. I think that’s only going to be a benefit as we try to do more to succeed in the open.”

And, the relationship between NGA and the larger academic and tech communities goes both ways by exposing the agency’s workforce to working problems in the open, said Gattis.

“Exposing our analysts to that sort of thinking in the open with both companies and academia — that’s the sea change that we need,” said Gattis.

NGA IT operations analyst and recruiting ambassador Trevor Jaskot, stayed up all night with the hackathon participants, answering questions and providing technical mentorship and insight.

Jaskot said he was enthusiastic about the creative thinking demonstrated by hackathon participants.

“It’s not necessarily that everyone has to use Python or everyone has to use a specific (coding) language,” said Jaskot. “It’s the individual creativity of going about a solution where the problem statement is generic enough that any solution could be the right solution.”

The winning solution, which was also the recipient of the crowd’s choice award, was a team from University of Southern California that aimed to create a fishery distribution network in Morocco.

The team of five received $3,000 for their first-place honors and $1,000 for being selected as the top solution by other hack participants and onsite spectators.

Their research indicated that Morocco’s fishery production in recent years makes seafood a promising source of food to supplement crop shortages or decreases in livestock production. But, since the domestic fish market receives only a limited amount of fish from what is left from export, the sustainable solution proposed by the team involved saving the amount of fish that gets spoiled during transportation — estimated at about 40 percent of total production — for domestic consumption.

The team incorporated road work analysis to generate shortest routes from the major fishing ports to populated inland cities and developed an algorithm to determine the amount of fish distributed to a particular region based on population. They used data points around port locations, road networks, population centers and fisheries, which was processed in Python and demonstrated in QGIS, an open-source desktop geographic information system application.

The winning team, students from the University of Southern California, incorporated road work analysis to generate shortest routes from the major fishing ports to populated inland cities and developed an algorithm to determine the amount of fish distributed to a particular region based on population.

“The hackathon was really great and gave us an opportunity to put students from different areas together,” said USC-Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute assistant professor of spatial sciences and hackathon judge, Yao-Yi Chiang, Ph.D. “We had students from our undergrad GeoDesign major, spatial informatics students, students from computer science, data science. This provided a really nice opportunity for them to build and engineer a solution.”

Though many of the proposed solutions had potential, the judges said the winning team addressed the issue of food security most directly by incorporating different data sets and thinking about market inefficiencies.

Events like hackathons, which connect tech and academic communities with NGA is essential as it provides the agency access to new technology and new talent, said Vinci.

“It’s important that we share that mission and add some of that meaning and that mission to what you guys are doing,” said Vinci to hackathon attendees. “And, vice versa — that we can take from you that talent and that passion that I know personally comes from the start-up community.”

After the event, Rayner and Charlie Chapin, NGA tech scout and hackathon judge, put their heads together to strategize on how to continue the momentum of the hackathon. One possibility discussed was a product-management style approach, with someone attached to the mission shepherding hackathon solutions through NGA’s internal processes in order to be integrated through something like NGA’s Innovative GEOINT Application Provider Program, or IGAPP.

“Being present in these communities is important and that’s a two-way street,” said Chapin. “We can help people understand what we do and how they can help us.”

“The ability to turn people loose on a data set that has a direct mission impact, in a way that is outside of classified systems is really valuable,” said Chapin. “It gives the agency exposure to other ways in solving a problem.”

The next NGA hackathon May 20–21 in Seattle looks for solutions to use crowdsourced knowledge for the advancement of information collection and distribution.

The early morning hours at the hackathon saw a few hardy coders still going strong.

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About NGA: The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency delivers world-class geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, that provides a decisive advantage to warfighters, policymakers, intelligence professionals and first responders. Both an intelligence agency and combat support agency, NGA fulfills the president’s national security priorities in partnership with the intelligence community and the Department of Defense.


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