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Teams shoot for the stars at NASA Space Apps Challenge

Innovative explorations of space-related datasets, as proposed by three teams that included high school students and experienced engineers, have advanced from a preliminary round held at Communitech to a global competition before a panel of NASA judges.

The NASA Space Apps Challenge, sponsored by NASA and partnering in Canada with the Canadian Space Agency, solicited big ideas using the big data accumulated from satellite imagery and atmospheric observations.

At the Communitech location, 11 teams involving 106 people participated in the 48-hour hackathon, sponsored by Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX), from April 28 to 30. They were among 25,000 participants from 187 global locations – ranging from Egypt to Belarus — in the sixth annual challenge.

Hackstreetboys at NASA Space Apps Challenge Kitchener-Waterloo

Navdeep Sharma, a Conestoga College software engineering technology student, is a member of the HackStreetBoys, nominated to advance to the global round for Ice Hero, a service that uses satellite data to monitor and visualize CO2 levels over glaciers and helps scientists predict ice sheet decay. Also on the team: University of Waterloo accounting and finance grad Hasanain Habib, University of Guelph software engineering student Prayash Mishra and University of Waterloo math and accounting student Ameer Dharamshi.

The Challenge was an invaluable experience, said Sharma: “We were given access to proprietary satellite data, made amazing friends, and were pushed to new levels when creating our product.

It’s the exploration of datasets, both proprietary — such as Waterloo Region-based startup SkyWatch’s API, a huge databank of satellite imagery available now in a free public trial — and publicly funded — such as the atmospheric measurements available from the Alouette, Canada’s first satellite — that excites Joseph Bou-Younes, data executive-in-residence with the Communitech-affiliated ODX. The ODX mission is to help Canadian companies create jobs and innovation through the effective commercial use of open data, which includes a lot of government data.

The Challenge is “a great way to get innovative developers together and do some interesting things . . .that could lead to business opportunities down the road.

Bou-Younes said the four local judges were interested in how many teams focused on climate change, taking different approaches. The results of the HackStreetBoys project, which used SkyWatch data to show rising CO2 levels over melting ice fields, surprised the local judges: “We all woke up at that moment.

Other teams from the event to move forward were:

Ottawa-based software engineers Johanne Bordeleau and Johnny Slate, and their son, University of Waterloo software engineering student Vincent-Olivier Roch, who used their software passion to fuel their team: gWaves. Roch said gWaves used the Challenge “to gain a deeper understanding of the API economy.” Their creation was a prototype for a microservice that charts cumulative radiation exposure to flight crews or passengers on actual or potential polar or near-polar air travel, based on background radiation and space weather events.

Four shades of brown at NASA Space Apps Challenge Kitchener-Waterloo

Winning the local People’s Choice Award and thus advancing to the global round was Four Shades of Brown, made up of four 16- and 17-year-old Grade 11 students from Martingrove Collegiate Institute in Toronto: Fedor Vrbaski, Sarun Balaranjan, Albert Wang and Paul Esemu-Ezewu. They proposed using satellite data to send drones to CO2 hotspots where they would use CO2-absorbent material to clear the atmosphere. Vrbaski said, “I believe that our project can help us meet sustainable development goals and return our atmosphere to stable climates.

Bou-Younes called it “a pretty interesting application of some of the data.

Also getting a special mention was JAM, which won the Canadian Space Agency Challenge award for decoding satellite data from Alouette, which when launched in 1962, was the most advanced probe then examining the Earth’s ionosphere. Team members were Arumuga Ganesan, Milan Patel and Jay Soni, all students at North Park Secondary School in Brampton.

The three teams advancing to the global round are being judged by a NASA panel, with finalists being announced at the end of May, and the winners being announced in June. In past Challenges, the winners have come away with bragging rights and an invitation to a NASA launch event.

And the public has a chance to weigh in on the best app, with the People’s Choice Award, with public balloting beginning Monday, May 8. Vote now.

Bill Bean

Bill Bean

Journalist

Bill Bean is an award-winning journalist with 40 years experience who has been writing about innovation in Waterloo Region for three years, and who has a weakness for grandchildren, bicycles and chocolate.