Crowdsourcing Solutions to Global Problems with NASA

Published Sep-02-14

An innovative way to track air pollution and a new kind of space helmet are among the winners of NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge 2014.

NASA, United States

The Story:

Crowdsourcing Solutions to Global Problems with NASA The space agency NASA has long been a fan of open collaboration and of working with the crowd to solve some of the many technical hurdles it faces in pioneering the frontiers of space. By bringing a diversity of experience, knowledge and talents together from all over the world, NASA is able to produce better solutions.

The International Space Apps Challenge is an international mass collaboration event where students, engineers, NASA employees and interested parties meet at various locations around the world to spend a concentrated 48-hour period on solving problems.

Sometimes, when you throw enough of the right kind of smarts at a problem, you'll get the solution you need. That's a premise that more companies are taking on board as they look outside their own four walls to work with open innovation partners, be they other companies, suppliers or members of the public.


The goal of the Space Apps challenge is to provide solutions that can be applied to situations on Earth and in space. In 2014, there were 40 challenges for the expert and enthusiastic crowd to address that supported NASA's mission directorates in five themes: Earth Watch, Technology in Space, Human Spaceflight, Robotics and Asteroids.

The challenge took place over a weekend in April 2014, with more than 8,000 participants taking part in 95 locations in several countries. During the event, hundreds of novel app ideas were submitted.

Winning Solutions

The global winner for the Best Use of Data was SkyWatch, created at Space Apps Toronto. The app is a visual representation of data collected from observatories around the world in near real time. Most of the data that is collected is only viewed by scientists, so it is inaccessible to the general population. SkyWatch changes that with an app that pulls all the data into a Twitter-like stream on a user's browser.

Among the features are telescope coordinates of celestial events, with locations plotted through Google Sky. This allows users to see exactly where in the sky these events are taking place.

The Galactic Impact Award went to SkySnapper, created at Space Apps London. The neat software program measures air quality by taking photos of the sky. The crowdsourcing app hopes to prevent some of the 7 million deaths (World Health Organization estimates) that are caused every year by air pollution.

Users take a photo of the sky with a smartphone or camera and send it into the app website where the color of the sky is assessed. This gives an indication of air quality. For example, a light blue sky might indicate the presence of sulfur from a coal-burning power station. The information will be used to track air pollution, monitor progress over time and build support for the fight against polluted skies.

The People's Choice Award went to Next Vision (Space Helmet) created at Space Apps Valencia. The innovation uses virtual reality, a smartphone and camera to provide data at the point of a finger on the inside of a space tourist's helmet. The information could be oxygen levels, heart rate of the astronaut and other vital pieces of data. There would also be a live chat feature to allow astronauts to easily communicate with each other. Earth internet would also be available.

High Impact Collaboration

The crowdsourcing challenge is a great way to bring fresh thinking to bear on important challenges. It acknowledges some of the serious issues faced by the planet and demonstrates just what can be achieved when brilliant minds work together.

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