NASA’s International Space Apps hackathon touches down in Ottawa


Space fanatics get set for launch, because NASA’s International Space Apps competition is coming to Ottawa.

Space Apps is an international hackathon that began in 2012, where people of all ages come together to solve various challenges issued by NASA.

The 2017 theme has been unveiled as “Earth,” featuring five categories: The Earth and Us, Planetary Blues,  Ideate and Create, Warning! Danger Ahead!, and Our Ecological Neighborhood. Each category will have its own team, based on participants’ interests.

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“People can go through and read the challenges and see which one calls to them and which one they’re interested in working on and basically everyone who wants to do that challenge will become a team. The idea is it makes the most sense to have the most people working on the project rather than teams of three or four or five doing the exact same things,” says Ryan Anderson, the co-lead for Space Apps Ottawa.

Hosted in nearly 200 cities across the world, this is the first time the event will take place in Ottawa. Anderson says he was shocked by the level of interest from the community: Sixty-five people have registered to participate, with another 72 on the waitlist.

“We had no idea how big it was going to be, so we signed on to a smaller venue,” Anderson says.

This year, the competition will focus on the application aspect as opposed to mechanical design, based on the competition’s location and costs. Programmers will get the chance to use real NASA data for any application they can imagine, from predicting weather to astronomical events.

Though the hackathon doesn’t come with any tangible prize, Anderson says the goal is to create a valuable product through camaraderie and teamwork.

“The idea of the competition is that (since) the teams aren’t competing against each other so strenuously for a great prize, they will be still willing to help each other out. The international spirit and flavour of the event is to try to make the world better together.”

Anderson says the best solution he’s seen come out of the competition is SkyWatch from Space Apps Toronto, a software company that makes satellite data accessible to the world.

“SkyWatch is the best product, coolest product, they turned into a company that is hiring people and continuing on with a product they built out of Space Apps.”

With credible companies and products emerging from the competition, Anderson says Space Apps Ottawa will have a valuable impact in the city’s science and tech community as a precursor to innovation.

“Innovation is a big word in our government these days. (Space Apps is) one of those ways you can show Ottawa is an innovative city. The whole nature of innovation is to make improvements to our life and this is what this challenge does exactly.”

The competition will be judged by a three-person panel of local dignitaries who will choose one or two winners based on the criteria NASA hands out. There will also be a people’s choice award where the participants vote on one more winner to go forward to NASA’s international judging round. NASA will then pick the top winners internationally.

Anderson says that no matter how teams place, there’s excitement in being privy to an international experience sponsored by a world-class space agency.

“It’s not every day you get access to NASA data sets and have 16,000 people across the world working on the same challenges in the same weekend. It’s really a global event and you have a chance to be a part of it,” says Anderson.

Space Apps Ottawa will take place on April 28-30 at Shopify’s downtown headquarters.

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