Monday, April 23, 2018

Will There Be a NASA Space Apps Challenge in 2018?

          By Brian Orlotti

For the first time in six years, the NASA International Space Apps Challenge will not occur during its normally scheduled late April/ early May time frame. It could potentially not take place at all unless organizers soon start recruiting teams to participate. Such a lull may be a symptom of the chaos and confusion that have held sway at NASA over the past year as the agency has gone without an Administrator or overall policy direction.


First held in 2012, the Space Apps Challenge brought together coders, makers and entrepreneurs from around the world to form teams and solve various "challenges" developed by NASA. By 2017, more than 25,000 participants in nearly 200 cities across 50 countries were contributing to the event.

Over 48 hours, teams create software and hardware solutions to these challenges by leveraging NASA science data (be they from satellites, space probes or other assets). Through the challenge, NASA strives to foster innovation and make space exploration more visible and engaging to the public.

As outlined in the April 14th, 2014 post, "Commercializing the Winners of the Space Apps Challenge" NASA open innovation program manager Beth Beck said that the Space Apps Challenge was created by former NASA Open Innovation Program members Nicholas Skytland, Ali Llewellyn, and Sean Herron to fulfill a White House mandate, later extended to other US agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to make US government data available to the public for use.

This released data, when promoted through mechanisms like the Space Apps Challenge, would encourage the development of a global community to drive innovation and create new uses for NASA derived data.

Beck and her superiors at NASA believe that the works of this "solver" community would give rise to new companies and industries as well as be incorporated back into NASA’s own programs.

The final tweets from the @spaceapps twitter feed are dated halfway through February 2018 and mention only that "Planning for Space Apps 2018 is in progress." While that might still be true two months later, it's also virtually certain that the 2018 event won't be held any time soon. Graphic c/o Twitter

Unfortunately, as of April 23rd, 2018 no new @spaceapps tweets nor any updates on the main Space Apps website, nor any updates on the Toronto Space Apps Challenge (which serves as the Toronto organizers for the event) covering the 2018 event can be found.

As outlined on the Toronto Space Apps Challenge website, last years event took place over the weekend of April 28th - 30th 2017.

In response to an April 22nd, 2018 email query from the author, Space Apps Toronto event organizer James Costa stated:
Unfortunately we don’t have an update right now! NASA has been mum on details, and we’re locally considering the likelihood that there won’t be a Space Apps event in 2018. 
Sorry for the bleak details! Hope this helps in some way.
In response to a second email query, NASA Open Innovation Program Manager Beth Beck stated that she was no longer involved with the Space Apps Challenge but referred the author to Sarah N. Hemmings of NASA HQ’s Earth Science Division.

In an April 23rd, 2018 phone conversation, Hemmings stated that an Apps Challenge will “definitely” be held later in 2018, and will be open to all cities to apply to as usual.

Hemmings said that the public can reasonably expect to see more information posted on the Space Apps website over the next month.

An April 23rd, 2018 screenshot of the NASA Space Apps Challenge website indicates only that "planning for the International Space Apps Challenge 2018 is in progress. The event will be held later in the year. Please check our website and social media for updates in the near future." The last update on the website is a May 16th, 2017 post "Canaria in a Gold Mine" which focused on one of the successful 2017 competitors. Screen shot c/o NASA Space Apps Challenge.  

In 2014 a Toronto-based team, Skywatch, took home the top prize from the Toronto Space Apps Challenge. Skywatch was granted the ‘Best Use of Data’ award, the first Canadian Space Apps team to win at an international level. Their application (also called "Skywatch") combined data from various  NASA sources into a web-based interface for easy viewing and analysis.

In February, 2018, the now Waterloo, ON based Skywatch raised $4Mln CDN in seed financing to continue development of its platform  (now called "EarthCache") for the aggregation and distribution of open-sourced Earth image satellite data. The financing was led by Palo Alto, CA based Sinai Ventures and New York, NY based Space Angels, with participation from Toronto, ON based Golden Venture Partners, Boulder, CO based Techstars Ventures, San Francisco, CA based SK Ventures, Toronto, ON based Globalive Capital, and New York, NY based ARC Angel Fund.

It is also worth noting that, as outlined in the May 16th, 2014 Toronto Star article "Canadian team wins NASA space apps challenge," one of the SkyWatch team members has a connection to the early Canadian space program. Decades ago, team member Roland Singh (who is also the father of team member Stefan Singh) worked on the Canadarm program.

What a waste to have such an outlet for creativity and hope erased by political apathy and incompetence. Let us hope the NASA Space Apps Challenge can get its act together and resume quickly.

This post will be updated as new information becomes available.
Editors Note: Only two days after the original story came out, the Space Apps Challenge website and the @spaceapps twitter feed have both announced that the event has been rescheduled for October 19th - 21st, 2018. 
There's still not a lot of details to fill in, but the organizers promise to clarify the situation within the month.
Updated April 25th, 2018 screenshot of the main NASA Space App Challenge website. Graphic c/o NASA Space Apps Challenge.
It's also worth noting that, as outlined in the April 23rd, 2018 Space.com post, "New NASA Chief Jim Bridenstine Officially Sworn In After Long Nomination Fight," the current NASA administrator was only sworn in two days ago and likely has a lot on his plate.

Stand by for adventure.
Brian Orlotti.
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Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.



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