NASA’s Space Apps Challenge Tries to Coax More Women to Data Science

Space exploration could launch more diversity in the technology scene.

Over the weekend, NASA held its annual International Space Apps Challenge, a hackathon that encourages the development of new ideas that relate to the space agency’s mission.

Once again, New York was the global headquarters and epicenter of the hackathon, with Space Apps NYC serving as the local organizer.

The competition saw the likes of Minerva Tantoco, New York’s chief technology officer, drop by, and it included teams trying to develop wearable technology for astronauts and building drones. There was also a push for gender diversity that could have influence across the broader innovation scene.

This year, the hackathon introduced a Women in Data boot campto lower the barrier of entry for newcomers, said Deborah Diaz, NASA’s chief technology officer for IT. She spoke, along with others, at Saturday’s press conference for the Space Apps Challenge at Microsoft’s Times Square offices. NASA has plans in the works to expand its efforts on this front, she said.

“After Space Apps weekend, we’ll debut a new program to help support women in the data science fields,” Diaz said.

It was too early to share details, but she said more information would be forthcoming.

There seem to be lessons in diversity that the space agency wanted to glean from the tech scene here. NASA officials visited New York in the fall to pick up some ideas on how women in the data science and tech community were doing and how to make data more accessible, said Beth Beck, NASA’s open innovation program manager.

“We want to ‘change the ratio,’” she said. “We want to have more women engaged with data and make this a safe space.”

This is part of the continued pursuit to capture fresh thinking NASA wants to see at the hackathon, which this year was held simultaneously at 136 locations in 62 countries. NASA provided 40 new APIs and 16,000 new data sets for the developer participants in this year’s Space Apps Challenge to work with, Diaz said.

Technology born at the hackathon is open source, Beck said, which means anyone has the right to further develop the ideas going forward.

“The Space Apps Challenge is one of our programs to take open data and give it away to the public to make something,” she said. The belief, Beck said, is that by letting others work with the data, they may discover something that NASA might not have realized before.

However, there is a bit of reality check on Space Apps, she said. Despite support for the event from the likes of IBM, Socrata, Microsoft, and others, ideas that emerge from Space Apps might not see real-world use. Sometimes the ideas and NASA’s needs do not mix. Moreover, the technology could take time for the space agency to digest, process, and act upon.

For instance, apps were developed last year that could determine the quality of the air by taking a picture of a leaf, Beck said. Turning such software into something that can be used regularly in the real world can be hard, she said. Furthermore, the software coding used in each project could vary. “It takes us a while to do the infusion of technology back into NASA,” Beck said. “It’s overwhelming for us to process all the ideas that come back, but we’re working on it.”

Some of the ways NASA is trying to do that is by creating platforms, tool kits, and opportunities, she said, to support innovation developed in local communities.

In the meantime, Space Apps Challenge continues to encourage people to use novel approaches to tackle problems. “There was a team working on how you would fly a drone in an alien atmosphere,” said Matt Thompson, general manager of developer and platform evangelism with Microsoft.

Ron Garan, Richard Garriott, and Cady Coleman at the Space Apps Challenge. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Astronauts Ron Garan, Richard Garriott, and Cady Coleman at the Space Apps Challenge. (photo by Joao-Pierre S. Ruth)

Among those offering some perspective on why NASA is eager to see new technology from many different sources were astronauts Cady Coleman and Ron Garan, along with Richard Garriott—entrepreneur, video game developer, and private astronaut.

Coleman said many people are not aware the International Space Station is readily open for business testing and studying innovation in a unique environment. “It’s an amazing platform for micro gravity research,” she said.

Known among gamers as the creator of the Ultima video game series, Garriott, whose father was a NASA astronaut, is an investor in private space tourism company Space Adventures and a trustee of the X Prize Foundation. In 2008, Garriott paid his own way to take a flight on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station.

He wanted to mine NASA’s archives for images of the Earth shot from space by his father 35 years prior. His objective was to reshoot those pictures to show how the world changed over a generation. That was when his background in technology came into play, helping to figure out where to shoot and which camera to use, he said. “I helped develop software called Windows on Earth,” Garriott said. “Now that tool is the standard application for Earth observations.”

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