September 6, 2016 NASA’s ISS-FIT: The First Crowdsourced App in Space!

Topcoder has been boldly going where crowdsourcing hasn’t gone before since 2001. This year, we went to space.

Over the past decade and more, our community has worked on ambitious challenges from precision medicine to trucking safety, to predicting atrocity, to helping organizations bring world-changing apps towards market with amazing velocity.

Our community has a lot to be proud of, and one of our favorite projects from the past few years is the International Space Station Food Intake Tracker (ISS-FIT) iPad app. The Topcoder Community developed ISS-FIT in partnership with NASA and the Crowd Innovation Lab at Harvard University.

NASA recently informed us that ISS-FIT is now in use on the International Space Station. An application that was designed and developed by the Topcoder Community here on Earth is now in use daily by astronauts on orbit in space!

NASA’s ISS-FIT iPad app is a unique mobile health food tracker. Watch the short video to learn more about the FIT app:

Tracking Food Intake in Space

Funny thing about working while floating on the International Space Station (ISS)… if you tap a thing one way, something moves the other way! This can make common tasks, like typing and using a mouse, a little challenging. And everything happens over a backdrop of industrial fans cranking air through labs and workshops lit by industrial lighting.

So, conditions in space are unique, hard to replicate, and not exactly inviting, but NASA has bold aspirations and courageous astronauts to achieve them—despite the harsh long-term living conditions. Yet even with their other-worldly plans and an extraordinary talented team aboard the ISS, NASA was still facing a very terrestrial challenge: user adoption of their existing food intake reporting system, a weekly questionnaire, which had fallen short of plan.

Why is precision diet tracking an important issue? While many of us may want to count calories via a mobile app to get beach ready, NASA needs to understand how diets keep crews healthy for a very long time in space—not just fed and lean.

To put a point on that issue, consider the fact that on early exploration missions on our planet – missing a single nutrient (vitamin C) led to scurvy, which caused more sailors to perish than all other causes of death combined.  Ensuring crews are well nourished, and optimizing nutrition to prevent or mitigate some of the negative effects of space flight on the human body is the task facing NASA’s Nutritional Biochemistry Lab team.

For one example, their research shows that higher fish intake can help lessen bone loss associated with space flight.  Capturing detailed nutrition data can help NASA better understand the relationship between intake and space adaptation, and ultimately to help counter the health risks astronauts face during space exploration.

To ensure consistent data collection from their very remote and very busy users, NASA needed a tool that people aboard the ISS would want to use.

Crowdsourced Mobile App Development

NASA is home to some of the best engineers on the planet, so why crowdsource an iPad app?  To design an intuitive experience for astronauts, NASA sought to leverage the latest successes in UI/UX design and focus on users. With Topcoder’s iOS Community, which includes more than 20,000 iOS designers and developers around the world, NASA was able to tap into the mobile expertise they needed while letting their engineering teams remain focused on mission critical projects like next-generation flight software.

“One reason crowdsourcing works so well today is that talented workers are increasingly seeking missions. It’s incredibly compelling to work on even just a piece of a project that will make a difference, or that wins you a little glory, or nets you an award. Yet that’s not a perk that every employer can offer.  Platforms like Topcoder can provide workers access to great missions, for recognition and profit, without losing the day job — or costing their employer an employee.”

– Andy LaMora, Partner, Public Sector

The design challenges for this project were unique. In the noisy, poorly-lit, micro-gravity environment of the ISS, tablet sensors can’t calculate up from down, and a user could literally float backwards if they tap on the screen. The data is also fairly complex because food is contributed by multiple space agencies on Earth, and they don’t all use barcodes. Of course, the food is also sometimes floating. To manage this complexity we atomized the project to isolate the steps of the app design and app development process, which is standard operating procedure on Topcoder. Each specific phase of the project was launched as a separate, hyper-focused crowdsourcing challenge in the Topcoder Marketplace.

“Having the opportunity to work on such a tough problem has been extremely challenging, yet very rewarding. The team at the NASA Nutritional Biochemistry Lab has been absolutely phenomenal to work with. Developing an intuitive, easy-to-use solution for astronauts to log dietary intake has not been easy, but working collaboratively with NASA and the Topcoder Community, we were able to solve it.”

-Rashid Sial, Topcoder Challenge Architect

Following design, the crowdsourcing challenges focused on features like using both barcodes and image recognition to correctly inventory a wide variety of foods sent from multiple agencies, to allow users to add new items, and to synchronize data across devices. By addressing each hyper-specific problem separately within the greater application development project, Topcoder Community members with specialized expertise were able to develop targeted solutions.

Great design, prototyping, coding, and testing were all performed through crowdsourcing challenges.

“ISS-FIT is an almost ideal example of the democratizing effect of crowdsourcing in action. The space program is inaccessible to the great majority of designers and coders. The traditional path to the program is to commit to a federal job or work for a giant contractor on projects that may not be to your liking. Yet this project and ones like it let people with just the right skill for just the right problem see their work fly in space.”

– Andy LaMora, Partner Public Sector

Astronaut Tested, NASA Approved

Input from astronauts—the end users of the iPad application—was another critical part of the project. The NASA team received multiple options to consider, like different user interface designs, and astronaut feedback was incorporated throughout the project to ensure the final application met their exact needs.

The initial project was intended to develop a fully functional prototype for ground testing and lasted a total of eight months from kickoff to delivery. Following positive feedback, NASA matured the app to completion and flight architecture and readiness standards through a series of iterative tests and updates over the following two years. And today the ISS FIT iPad application is being used by astronauts aboard the ISS.

Thanks to Partners and Topcoder Competitors

We live in a world where generic solutions don’t often fly. Whether your users are astronauts or HR employees, the demand for better, more thoughtful applications is clear. Crowdsourcing offers you a way to tap into expertise outside your four walls on-demand, get started quickly, and get back unique solutions that make an application special and a joy to use.

As the use of crowdsourcing continues to grow in popularity it’s pioneers like our partners at NASA and Harvard who are deserving of credit. They continually push the boundaries of how and when to use crowdsourcing to achieve something great. To our partners we say thank you.

To the 55 members of our Topcoder Community who submitted solutions for various pieces of this important iPad application, we say congratulations! Your work, your design, your code, and your solutions are now in orbit, aboard the International Space Station. And that is something we can all be very proud of—great work!!!

VP, Marketing


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