Space Apps COVID-19 Hackathon Brings 15,000 Together Worldwide

July 18, 2020, 11:45:09 AM


More than 15,000 people from 150 countries participated in the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge on May 30 and 31.

Poetry. Mobile apps to promote mental health. Rooftop gardening solutions. Drone delivery for food. These are just some of the project's participants dreamed up in the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, a virtual global hackathon aimed at innovations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 15,000 people from 150 countries participated in the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge on May 30 and 31. The hackathon invited coders, entrepreneurs, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, artists, and technologists to propose solutions to a variety of challenges related to the pandemic. NASA collaborated with four other space agencies: European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and France’s National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) to make the event a success.

“I am amazed at the high level of participation and the creativity from everyone around the world who came together to address COVID-19 challenges in this hackathon,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. “Space Apps is such a wonderful way for people from different backgrounds to solve problems and share their skills in a meaningful way.”

Participants used publicly available data, including from NASA’s Earth observation satellites, to come up with new ways to address important issues related to COVID-19. Challenges involved learning about the virus, local responses and solutions, changes in the Earth system/Earth system response, and the economic opportunity, impact and recovery during and following the pandemic. In one challenge, participants came up with artistically-driven projects related to the situation. Some challenges stemmed from potential solutions submitted by NASA employees to an internal call for COVID-19 response ideas.

Space Apps, the world’s largest global hackathon, has been doing both in-person and virtual hackathon events since 2012. This was the first time that it focused on a single topic and had online participation, only. The COVID-19 hackathon’s reach was even broader than the annual events, with more than double the number of countries. Brazil had the highest number of registered participants, with 3,767, followed by Egypt with 1,829 and the United States at 1,398.

The hackathon attracted a wide range of ages, too. In Toronto, 9-year-old Bhavishyaa Vignesh and her mother Suchitra Srinivasan decided to tackle the issue of distributing food from farmers to people who need it. Their idea is to have an app that identifies local farmers’ locations and allows for either curbside pickup or drone delivery. This would involve data on weather, location, and weight limits for the drone payloads.

“I was so impressed by the way that many students were there, and they were using real-time data to come up with ideas,” Srinivasan said. “This is the first time ever I’m participating in a hackathon in my life, because of her.”

Bhavishyaa, who loves learning about coding and often experiments with the Scratch language, found out about Space Apps on her own, through Twitter. “It was like so amazing, it was totally my thing,” she said. Bhavishyaa and her mother hope to continue working on developing this idea as an app even though the challenge has ended.

Using digital capabilities, participants like Bhavishyaa and her mother formed more than 2,000 virtual teams. Individual participants brought different interests and backgrounds to the table and worked with others who had complementary skills. More than 400 volunteers, including subject matter experts and local leads from prior Space Apps in-person events, helped by answering questions, facilitating chat rooms, and giving tips on how to make a project idea successful.

Loretta Cheeks, who runs a nonprofit and a corporation relating to artificial intelligence, volunteered as an ambassador to give feedback on Space Apps project ideas in progress during the course of the weekend. She felt especially moved when one participant shared a poem about data as a way of witnessing history. “She just wrote a beautiful expression about this whole idea of: I was here, NASA was here, the data was here, and it continues to speak, and when will we listen?” Cheeks said.

Cheeks, who lives in Peoria, Arizona, suspects others signed up for this Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge for the same reason she did—because of its message that everyone can help in the pandemic effort in their own way, and can bring their voices together to come up with collaborative solutions.

“It’s really a collective in every form, and that means a lot to me,” she said. “You’re not doing it for money. You’re really doing it for a heart’s sake.”

Over the two-day period, the Space Apps chat rooms generated more than 100,000 messages. Five of the chat rooms facilitated conversation in languages other than English: French, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and Portuguese. By the end of the weekend, teams had submitted more than 1,400 projects.

Katelyn Hertel, another volunteer ambassador who works as a data scientist in New York, got initially connected with Space Apps as a participant in 2016. She had always wanted to be an astronaut, and decided the NASA hackathon was “the next best thing.” Her team went on to win second place in the global judging round. In 2018, she formed a team called the Unicode Unicorns, which took first place in the New York local competition the following year.

During the COVID-19 Challenge, she scheduled sessions with 40 different teams to give them feedback on their project ideas. She could feel the excitement of first-time participants and appreciates that this hackathon happened during such a difficult time for the world at large.

“This weekend we had people from across the globe who never would have met each other, or never would have looked at space data otherwise,” she said. “This hackathon brought 15,000 people together that otherwise would not have been together. Right now, the most important thing we can do is be together.”

As for the more than 1,400 projects that participants submitted, they will be evaluated by judges from the five participating space agencies over the next few months. The winners will formally present their ideas to a panel of space agency officials and attend a launch if travel is feasible.

The next Space Apps Challenge will take place on October 2-4, 2020. Bhavishyaa, who wants to be a space scientist when she grows up, plans to participate.