Building our Local Space Communities

Lessons from Organizing a Chapter of the Space Apps Challenge

It started off as a napkin drawing in a San Francisco hotel lobby and quickly became a 25 city wide event in 2012. This year, NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge boasts of 200 locations from around the world.

“The International Space Apps Challenge is an international mass collaboration focused on space exploration over one weekend at locations all over the globe. The event embraces collaborative problem solving with a goal of producing relevant open-source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and in space.”

First things first — debunk false beliefs. I have noticed three such commonly held notions amongst those outside the space/engineering domain.

The first one is very specific to the Space Apps Challenge. The second and third are more general, pertaining to hackathons and space respectively.

Myth 1 : The Challenge is just about Space and Apps for Space

The event has not been able to shake off this notion completely, yet. The name is a misnomer — the Space Apps Challenge is as much about life on earth as it is about outer space. It does not also restrict itself to smartphone applications alone; it refers to a much broader definition of this term.

Last year, there were 35 challenges proposed, ranging from mapping of clean drinking water on earth, open source air traffic tracking to visualizing global food needs/capacities and designing drones for space station crew assistance.

The format is truly open — solutions to challenges can be of any form, including robotics, games, data visualization, architecture, hardware design or educational content.

Myth 2: Hackathons are for the ‘Programming Savvy’

While hackathons began with a focus on developers and software coders, present day hackathons, while continuing to use the name, have evolved to become much more inclusive.

Current obsessions with the Internet of Things and Virtual Reality trends for instance, have allowed for events where actors, neuroscientists, computer engineers and architects come together. At one such ‘hackathon’ last year, we sat together with dancers and movie-makers to design software prototypes.

Josh Waitzkin, that prodigal World Champion chess player (and martial artist) puts across a thought on knowledge and learning:

“…there is a thematic interconnectedness of all disciplines, and if we get good at sensing and working with those connections, the learning process can become incredibly exciting.”

The greater the number of ideas generated, the better. The more diverse the perspectives around these ideas, the more we progress towards solving challenges effectively.

Myth 3: Space is Hard

This is by far the most pervasive. Especially amongst those who are far removed from the academic/professional space community. It is just as hard as any other field of science and engineering, but is just as simple too.

In addition to encouraging enthusiasts to actively participate in the local spheres, one can also educate the interested on different ways of engaging with the industry. Interesting projects can be, and have been borne out of long term collaboration across industry defining boundaries.

Planet Labs now has an ongoing artist in residence program, providing their Dove satellites as canvas. Joao Martinho Moura, a media artist from Portugal, created the incredible Where is Rosetta and View Rosetta’s Comet visualizations in partnership ESA.

The onus is on those of us already in this space to dispel such notions. Here’s what we can do.

You Make your Community

Most of you reading this already have one thing in common. At some level, you identify as a space enthusiast. Whether you are a student, a professional or anything else, the Space Apps Challenge provides a platform for all of us.

For technologists and enthusiasts alike, to come together and engage with public data. And this becomes effective in the long run only if each of us takes ownership of our local communities. Mike Caprio says it best:

“The whole point of such collaborative efforts is that anyone can mentor anyone else. Anyone can come and work on these problems, they can share their expertise and share their knowledge.”

A diverse mix of people is exactly what the Challenge encourages. It promotes the crowdsourcing of new ideas, especially from voices outside the mainstream.

At events like this, participants engage and discuss solutions over pizza and beer, sometimes even sleeping at the location. This makes for a very informal surrounding — prime grounds for effective brainstorming sessions.

In the words of one NASA Executive, “It’s really interesting to see what people can do when they collaborate across boundaries to create solutions.”

The Challenge as a Grassroots Movement

All Challenge events are organized by unpaid local volunteers who take up the responsibility of hosting, funding and overseeing the logistics of operating the event. This is the very reason why, with a bottom-up, decentralized approach, the Challenge has paved the way for innovation.

Those of us in the space industry then, can serve not just as participants, but also help nurture our local space communities. A professional with some expertise can offer his/her time to judge, or speak at a nearby Challenge.

Students and educators can volunteer to help with organizing the event. We can reach out within our universities and schools to mobilize others around us to participate.

Organizations entrenched in the industry and hot new space startups can offer to partner with a nearby event. They can provide mentors and jury members, sponsorship for the event, food and refreshments, and even prizes for the local teams.

Even after the Challenge, teams with promising solutions will require guidance and and support to have their project go beyond the hackathon prototype phase. As local collaborators in this all-year-round effort, we can be bridges between promising projects and competent individuals willing to act as mentors.

If there is no Space Apps Challenge in your locality, apply to start one! Even if you have no team, NASA takes the time to put you in touch with others near you with a similar goal. It is in these real world networks that we create actual value.

The more we spread awareness, the more people are interested to partake in the space community. ali llewellyn at NASA wrote last year:

We cannot ever approach individually what we can only accomplish together.

The 2016 Space Apps Challenge is going to surpass all previous editions. As of now, around 200 cities are set to host. The Challenges are split into six categories this year: Aeronautics, Space Station, Solar System, Technology, Earth, Journey to Mars.

If you are reading this, you have an interest in space. Head over to Space Apps Challenge and keep yourself updated. If you have not registered for one yet, it might not be too late. Once more, one weekend in April is going to make a lot of noise for the global space community.


This is the edited version of an article originally published at SpaceBoard Radar on March 8, 2016. Read the original here.

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