More than a week has now gone by since I took part in the NASA Space Apps Challenge and I am still thinking about what a great experience this was. This was my first real hackathon so I didn’t quite know what to expect. In collaboration with Grower’s Nation and the PineApple Project (both of which came out of last year’s event!), IIASA co-led on a challenge to develop a cheap soil testing kit. We were one of 58 challenges, some of which emerged organically during the weekend. In the end, more than 9,000 people attended (including virtual participation) from 484 organizations around the world. The challenge was co-ordinated in 83 cities, where I attended the one held in London at the Google campus. My colleague Dr Ratislav Skalsky attended virtually from IIASA and gave us excellent soil expertise throughout the weekend.
When I arrived Saturday morning, the first thing we did was present our pitch to about 120 people who had come to the London venue to lend their skills, time and energy to solving various challenges. After the presentations, I was overwhelmed by the interest in our challenge and we set straight to work. Or I should say the team set straight to work. Based on our remit of wanting cheap hardware solutions to measuring basic soil parameters such as pH, temperature and soil moisture, and an app to collect the data, they simply got down to it.
People of the Soil documents their journey through the weekend and the final solution that they developed. The remarkable outcome was a sensor to measure soil moisture and other parameters for a total of £3.34 or roughly 5 US dollars. They also built an SMS and smart phone app for collecting and displaying the data. This solution has now made it through to the global judging, where it will compete against 170 other solutions that were developed around the world. The team has made a really inspiring video of the solution and the results will be announced 22 May. You can also help us by voting for the team, where public voting will be available from the NASA Space Apps site from 3 May to 17 May 2013.
However, this was only one part of the weekend. A team working in Exeter has also developed a low-cost solution to measuring soil moisture (which they call MudPi) so we plan to do some serious testing of these solutions in the field in the near future. So watch this space for updates on how these solutions perform.
Another area of the challenge where we made some advances was in the idea of putting together a simple visual guide for soil parameter testing. We collectively filled in our soil parameter testing spreadsheet over the hackathon weekend, and visual designers began to turn these into simple-to-follow illustrations. We realized that there are many different solutions out there, e.g. measuring pH with red cabbage!! so we came up with the idea of building a soil testing encyclopedia. Rather than advocating one or two methods for measuring soil parameters, we want to provide users with a range of methods. Then based upon what they have access to and how accurate the test needs to be, they can measure the soil parameters in their local environment. Eventually these local soil measurements will feed into the Grower’s Nation app and provide information on what can be grown and when to plant anywhere in the world. Again, watch this space for updates on the encyclopedia.
So all in all, I can say that I was incredibly inspired by the energy and skills of the people I worked with over the challenge weekend. Would I do it again? Absolutely! We’ve already been thinking of new ideas for next year’s challenge so if you have a grand challenge you need solutions for, consider a hackathon as one way of tapping into incredibly talented people. On another level though, it’s just plain fun!