NASA International Space Apps Challenge: my 28h marathon at York

24h before I wasn’t quite sure. 24h after I was still there.

The NASA International Space Apps Challenge. 4 words very attractive, and one intimidating: I have no idea how to make an app, I felt totally stranger to events like “hackathon” or “codethon”.  On the other hand, the idea of the word “NASA” anywhere on my CV sounded great. So once month before I accepted the invitation on Facebook. I didn’t really think about it until 1 week before, when Derek, a friend from Erasmus Society, tried to recruit some competitors at an Erasmus dinner, I saw he was sharing my worries and still seemed very motivated. So it started !

Ron Cook Hub - University of York

Look at these gorgeous meeting rooms on the water!

The appointment was 10am, at the Computer Science building, located on the East part of the campus: 20mins walking from my block,  I’ve been there before for a conference by the Plasma Institute, and to meet my supervisor. Without having heard good or bad about the CS department, the location pleased me, as this was near to Ron Cooke Hub, my favourite building on campus.

When I arrived I didn’t know what to expect, how many we would be. Actually I didn’t really plan to stay long: in a bad morning mood, I thought I would quickly realised that I couldn’t compete for any challenge. It turned out differently.

Choose a project, and get started

I arrived at the same time than Sanket, a physics undergraduate from an other uni: both of us were given a NASA T-shirt and joined the others early competitors,  an environment student, a Literacy post-grad and a programming freelance.

None of us had a definitive idea for a challenge, but everybody seemed very motivated: I’ve never been with as much people so eager to create before, and when everybody was here, I could feel that most were impatient to start. I was delighted. I appreciated so much to be surrounded with students keen to go further than their studies instead of just following the common flow, a kind of people I’m always seeking for.

Once everybody was here and sitting, we had a small introductory speech, then everybody went around to find a team and a project to work on. None of the team seemed to need a mathematician, but I solved the problem by teaming up with Derek, Sanket, to tackle the challenge called “NASA’s Impact on Economy”: labelled under the “visualisation” category, I would surely enjoy it !

Until dawn

Hao, an IT student, joined us and after a quick brainstorming we divided the tasks, each on a special field of economy. We started to explore the resources we found to get some data, about employment and taxes in my case. This part of the project went on 7h, from 13am to 10pm: going back and forth between my computer and my team mates, we would slowly start to see how to use the data.
Even if with hindsight I think I spent to much time on this part, I also discovered something about myself: before this event I would never have thought that I was able to stick more than 20mins searching tax numbers, but having a goal and something to produce with this data, I found myself oddly motivated, especially when I felt that I was actually making sense of it.

The delivering of pizzas at 8 made me realized how fast the time was going. But at 1am I would have finished my first part and built a nice (time-consuming) Python script for the project. Around 5am, despite of the tiredness and the sun starting to show up, Derek and I decided that we wouldn’t sleep this night.

Sun rising on the study pods

Sun rising on the study pods

Early morning

Something I really enjoyed in this event was the good atmosphere during day and night: even at 7am when most of us where struggling with debugging and learning to program, the passion and energy that everybody was investing in their project made everybody kind and jovial. We even had several NerfGun fights around 4!

I was also surprised to see that the tutors that welcomed us at the beginning of the event stayed the whole night, and even warmed up some pizzas for me and Derek.

Sanket went back around 8am, and we almost had all the data needed, but also had only 6h left before a presentation in front of the jury.

Last sprint

I don’t remember when it started, but we slowly realised that we would have to lower our expectations: we wouldn’t have an proper app, we wouldn’t have dynamic visualisations, and we wouldn’t have time to train for the presentation. I spend my last 3h on Photoshop to do a draft of what the actual graphs would look like with more time.

On this part Sanket was awesome, as he made all by itself the presentation based on the data Derek and he had got: I really enjoyed sharing my point of view on how the visualisation should be made, and was glad to have spend hours looking at graphics and on the Gardian Datastore pool.

From 2pm, the other teams presented their results, all with very good insights but also never as complete as expected. At the end, Sanket and Derek did a really good job on the presentation (that you can find here), while the tiredness and the feeling of an unfinished project made me stutter and repeat my words. But I’m glad that we did this together !

The principal lesson that I gained from this experience is the certitude that I have an impact on any project if I’m willing to work on it: the team I worked with made me feel valuable, as well as the time I spent looking at data visualization, and they were a great help when we had to deal with the deadline, about what should be done and what should be abrogated. And I’m definitely up to do it again, next year, at Toulouse !

PS: You can see which city participated here, and what the other challenges were here. It’s an amazing experience, and look awesome on a CV, get involved next year!

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