NASA has been collecting data about the Earth, the solar system, and beyond for over half a century, but it's not always easy to see how all of this data is making our world a better place on the level of people like you and me. The Space Apps Challenge, sponsored by NASA and Innovation Endeavors (an investment firm headed by Google's Eric Schmidt), asked international teams to submit ideas for apps offering solutions to global problems.
There were four types of challenges that teams could work on, including software, open hardware, citizen science, and data visualization. Within these broad categories were specific goals: for example, creating an open-source 3D printing platform that works in space or redesigning the Voyager Golden Record for 2012.
Thousands of people and organizations ultimately participated in the challenge (which gave them just one single weekend to come up with a demo or pitch), and the results are in. Before you say "ugh, I don't care about apps," take a look at these short videos highlighting the winners, because we're pretty sure you'll want to care about these.
1. Grower's Nation
Won: Galactic Impact Award
Grower's Nation takes massive amounts of global weather and terrain data, ranging from temperature and participation to soil type, soil moisture and soil pH, and integrates it all into a simple interface that uses your location to suggest what kinds of edible plants you should be trying to grow.You can tell the app whether you're hungry for fruits, veggies, or grains, and it'll make a bunch of tasty suggestions about what'll thrive in your back yard, and even tell you when to plant and harvest.
2. Strange Desk
Won: Most Innovative
See something strange? Become a Strangenaut and use the Strange Desk app to share that strangeness. It'll give you the ear of scientists all over the globe with a kind of crowdsourced hyperlocal network of curious people. Using the app, you can upload pictures and info of any weird stuff that you notice, and real scientists will analyze the resulting data sets looking for weirdness trends. If you do a good enough job, scientists may even contact you directly through the app and ask you personally to help them out with an investigation.
3. vicar2png: Accessible NASA Mission Data
Won: Best Use of Data
NASA has lots of planetary data. Piles and piles of it, stretching back decades. Since you paid for it all with your taxes, you can use as much of it as you want for whatever you want. Or, at least, this is theoretically true, but finding the data online in an accessible format is usually not easy. "vicar2png" is an app that takes a weird NASA image file format called VICAR and converts it into a PNG image, which lets you access raw NASA images in bulk and then do cool stuff with them, like stitching together your own movies of planets and asteroids.
4. The Pineapple Project
Won: Most Disruptive
The Pineapple Project shares the same basic structure as Grower's Nation, in that it takes all kinds of climate and location data and applies it to agriculture. The key difference that Pineapple brings to the table is that it focuses on fruit, and there's a big commercial aspect to fruit crops, especially in the third world. So for example, the app will include local price listings, so that users can figure out not only what'll grow the best, but also what crop will result in the best return on investment.
5. Planet Hopper
Won: Most Inspiring
You know how much we love exoplanets around here, and the guys behind the Planet Hopper app love them, too. Planet Hopper is an interactive sky map that takes exoplanet data hot off the Kepler planet-finding space telescope and translates into a format that's easy to browse and understand. Each planet is presented in terms that make sense to non-astronomers, like instead of some measurement of mass or gravity, the app simply tells you how much more you'd weigh (and how high you'd be able to jump) if you were to go visit.
6. Bit Harvester
Won: People's Choice Award
Bit Harvester is being developed by a team in Kenya to help bring renewable energy to communities that need it. Part of the problem that energy companies have is that it's hard to monitor and control energy systems (such as solar panels and wind turbines and so on) out in remote areas, and Bit Harvester is trying to fix this by designing sensors and remote control systems that utilize SMS to send and receive data and commands. Hopefully, making it easy for energy companies to manage renewable systems will encourage them to deploy more of them, which has the potential to transform areas of Africa that don't have reliable access to power.
BONUS: Aurora Project
Won: DVICE Honorable Mention
The goal of the Aurora Project is to create a lamp capable of displaying real-time visualizations of auroras based on data from NASA satellites. It's still very much a work in progress, but we love the idea, and as soon as these guys can put together a commercial product, we'll be first in line to buy one.
At this point, the winning teams will be receiving support from Innovation Endeavors in the form of advice, technical help, overall mentorship and some funding (or advice on how to get it), with the ultimate goal of making these apps (which are currently open source) available to anyone who wants or needs them in the near future.