NASA hackathon leverages global ingenuity to combat the coronavirus pandemic

This special edition of the standard Space Apps Challenge is a global collaboration campaign focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Cleaning up space debris around our home planet

On May 30 and 31, NASA and its partners are hosting the Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge. The event will allow participants to use a mountain of data collected by worldwide space agencies to come up with tools, systems, and ideas to combat the spread of the coronavirus and more. 

The Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge is in-essence a special edition spin-off of the agency's standard Space Apps Challenge which takes place annually in October. Historically, the global competition draws quite the crowd and has grown rapidly in recent years. The first Space Apps Challenge in 2012 attracted about 2,000 participants. By 2019, the event had swelled to a total of 225 events with nearly 30,000 participants in more than 70 countries.

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"The Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge is a first-of-its-kind special edition hackathon for NASA, tapping into the Space Apps spirit to provide solutions to a problem our global community is facing," said Todd Khozein, founder and co-CEO SecondMuse, a Space Apps Challenge partner.

Past challenges and COVID-19 projects

Historically, these events invite participants to leverage space agency data to address a wide array of "Challenges." In the past some of these specific tasks have ranged from assisting with fine-tuning machine learning performance to creating a cost-effective way of delivering Internet access to individuals faring the high seas. In the "Out of This World!" challenge, teams were asked to create an app to guide an unmanned drone. In other efforts, participants brainstormed rugged, innovative solutions to aptly maneuver the hellscape that is the surface of Venus. This special edition coronavirus variant takes the collaboration to an entirely new level.

"For the first time, the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge is being implemented as a NASA-led partnership with a number of space agencies from countries around the world, including the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), European Space Agency (ESA), French Space Agency (CNES) and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA)," Khozein said.

The specific 2020 COVID-19 Challenges were released earlier this month. These projects cover a vast spectrum of topics ranging from air purification projects to creating solutions to help mitigate social isolation amid social distancing. In one particular challenge, attendees will use data to demonstrate the small-scale and global environmental effects of the pandemic. In another project, teams are asked to pinpoint a link among "environmental factors" that may be responsible for spreading the coronavirus. There are also challenge projects geared toward artistic expression.

Event information and team building

It's possible to fly solo, so to speak, and tackle challenges individually, however, people are encouraged to join as a part of a larger team effort. The "sweet spot" for teams is normally four to five people and there's a hard cap on six participants per team, according to the FAQ page. While teams are allowed to approach more than one challenge during the hackathon, organizers note an exorbitant level of difficulty associated with multiple projects.

In the days leading up to the hackathon, event organizers are hosting a virtual boot camp of sorts to prepare participants for the main event. These workshops allow Space Apps Ambassadors and other experts to provide greater detail about the specific challenges and resources available during the hackathon. There's also information available to help organizers host an effective hackathon. For example, one tutorial explains how to use Mozilla Hubs to create virtual collaboration rooms.

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A one-of-a-kind collaboration effort

Months into the pandemic, the coronavirus continues to take its toll on populations and economies around the globe. The Space Apps COVID-19 Challenges provides a unique opportunity for people to focus their individual skills on a common global existential threat to humanity.

"We want participants and people around the world to see that we need to come together and think together as one global human family. If we don't, we won't be able to understand, let alone solve some of the bigger problems affecting humanity," Khozein said.

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IMAGE: NASA