Saturday, April 28, 2012

International Space Apps Challenge - backing NASA

Last week I had the chance to participate in the inaugural NASA Space apps challenge, modelled after the random hacks of kindness which we see taking place whenever there are large natural disasters(earthquake in Hawaii) or to address malignant global social issues such as inequality and poverty. It is amazing to see the drive people at such events have to work on something that does not directly impact their everyday life.

Space exploration is one such outside context problem. It seems frivolous on first sight till we study a bit of history. Our current global economy is based on the last 500 years of exploration (and should I say colonial exploitation). The rules of economics are framed such that they require constant expansion of resources - raw materials, energy and ideas. Being in a closed system on the planet poses inherent limits to the amount of expansion we can achieve, in a similar way industrial revolution was bound by the border of colonial powers in Europe - they were forced to explore new worlds. Since the Earth is nearly fully discovered now and everyone agrees on very limited amount of exploitation being the norm, to achieve the growth our mindsets demand we need to expand beyond Earth - ergo space exploration and asteroid mining. By participating the the space apps challenge, we are taking a very small step towards pushing the material and energy exploitation off planet and relieving the pressure put on our bio-sphere and humans in highly populated countries by blind greed.

Philosophy and sociology aside, we worked on a very broad problem for the challenge - developing a Semantic Data Descriptor for NASA data holdings. NASA has a lot of past, present and planned missions addressing the need for better observations of our planet, our neighbours in the solar system and things far far away in both space and time (unravelling the mystery of how the universe came to be as it is today). These missions collect something broadly termed as data, mostly observations. NASA being a fairly siloed organisation, has teams focusing on particular missions and developing their own description regarding the data they collect aimed at subject matter experts. Science in its own way can develop its own priesthood, bent on excluding the "laymen". The aim here was to develop a schema to make sense of NASA data in everyday vocabulary, we basically described all data as being an observation of a target by a sensor, measuring a field or a particle at a point in space-time. Writing that up in RDF required some help from Altova SematicWorks and the presentation some form Prezi. In the end we made it to the global rounds, hopefully our efforts will help the average human being establish their stake on space data if not space itself.

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