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Topcoder and the Challenges of Mankind — Solving the Stuff of Dreams

By wwwtc In Uncategorized

Posted August 7th, 2014


When I was in Montessori School, I was able to follow my twin passions: dinosaurs (of course) and space, naturally. The creativity of a young mind soars when no limits are imposed. To me, Mars was no farther than the Moon. Saturn’s rings were perfect. Jupiter’s red sea remained a mystery; and astronauts talked to each other on the same walkie-talkies that my friends and I used. Several years later, we were exposed to a larger universe; we blasted asteroids out of space with menacing background music. We could, in essence, go as far as our imaginations would allow. That was pretty far, and the distance grew by leaps and bounds with the Space Shuttle.

Fast forward 30 years to a time when government agencies like NASA now use crowdsourcing to innovate — a time when perhaps you, yourself, can also realize your own dreams of impacting Mankind in rewarding ways like keeping astronauts healthy in space or hunting asteroids that could impact our planet.

You may remember back in 2011 when “NTL” was established as a joint effort with NASA and the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. The goal was to put the power of the fast-growing [topcoder] community to work solving complex challenges around human exploration, science and space technology. In just over three years, the [topcoder] community has helped not just NASA, but a number of other U.S. government agencies tackle issues through impressive results from design, development and data science challenges.

These crowdsourcing initiatives with NASA and NTL were so successful, in fact, that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) requested that NASA establish the Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI). The purpose of the CoECI is to educate, share best practices and measure the impact of crowdsourcing and open innovation across other government agencies as well as within NASA.

And now, additional government agencies are working with [topcoder] through the CoECI structure include the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid (CMS), USAID, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Chances are, you’ve probably already encountered or competed on an NTL or NASA project. If not, here’s a list of the current initiatives. It’s not too late to start solving problems not just for NASA, but for Mankind.

Asteroid Data Hunter: The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge, part of the Asteroid Grand Challenge series, is running now (schedule) and is being conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources Inc. (PRI). In the latest challenge, competitors were asked to develop an algorithm that can validate asteroid detections and reduce false identifications in images from ground-based telescopes by learning from years of human input. Phase two of the challenge is launching on August 11 and will aim to increase the detection sensitivity. The successful solution will need to minimize the number of false asteroid detections by leveraging the Phase one algorithms and ignore imperfections in the data. For more information or to sign up to compete in the Asteroid Data Hunter and Asteroid Tracker (which is now live) marathon matches visit topcoder.com/asteroids.

Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) Challenge Series: Sending email to and from the International Space Station (ISS) over a distance of 44,000 miles can be a complicated and unreliable process. Over the past year, the community was asked to both design and implement NASA’s open source Disruption Tolerant Networking Protocol. In this latest effort, the community is adapting an existing enterprise email system to use DTN. The solution will convert email and calendar traffic to bundles instead of packets for sharing data between Earth and the ISS reliably, safely and securely. Be sure to visit the DTN series to get involved in one of the many challenges.

ISS FIT (Food Intake Tracker): Living in a microgravity environment onboard the International Space Station makes humans susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and bone loss which can lead to osteoporosis. To help NASA scientists and doctors monitor and solve this problem, [topcoder] designed and developed an iPad-based application that provides astronauts on the ISS with an efficient, rapid, and accurate method for tracking their dietary intake. Recently, the iPad app was demonstrated at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco by former astronaut Leland Melvin.

Planetary Data Systems Challenge: The Cassini spacecraft is orbiting Saturn in an extended mission to study the planet. Using actual images from the spacecraft, the goal is to create an algorithm that will help scientists better understand ring phenomena, ring structure, and potentially find new moons. This is a set of challenges to help find anomalies and features of interest in the rings of Saturn that are not otherwise detectable by a computer due to false-positives. More challenges are coming soon, so be sure to keep your eye on this project.

In 2014, such advanced projects can more so than ever be a young boy’s dreams.