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Hackathons look to space to solve everyday problems

The Met Office in Exeter and the International Space Innovation Centre—based at the Harwell science campus—are to host simultaneous space ‘hackathons’ in a bid to find new uses for satellite data. Coders, software developers, designers, artists and anyone with an interest in space have been invited to take part in the all-day/all-night events, which start on 1 December and end at 4pm the next day.

“The hackathon really brings together professionals and amateurs to try to use the idea of satellite data or satellite infrastructure to solve some of the problems in modern day society,” says Matthew Goodman, head of communications at the UK Space Agency.

Participants will form small teams and work through the night to develop a software solution for one of the event’s ‘challenges’. These may involve problems in healthcare, agriculture, transport or other areas not typically connected with space.

This event follows a similar global hackathon organised by NASA in April. ISIC and the Met Office teamed up then to host UK legs of the competition and two UK teams won prizes. Another prize went to an international team including participants in Exeter, which developed an app that uses location and climate data to explore the potential of unused land for growing different crops.

The December event is timed to coincide with the European Space Solutions conference, which starts in London on 3 December. Like the hackathons, the three-day conference will explore how space research can be used to solve everyday problems. The developers of the winning hackathon project from Exeter or Harwell will be invited to attend to present their results.

“The whole point of the conference is to make sure that those people who are developing applications for satellite data have the opportunity to talk to people who can help them make those into more of a reality,” says Goodman. He adds that hackathon participants may be able to use this as an opportunity to “jump-start” a small enterprise.

“If you work for a company then you work on specific projects or specific programmes, and you’re very much focused on that,” says Karen Rogers, head of marketing at the Satellite Applications Catapult and ISIC. Hackathons offer “a blank page” for people wanting to develop ideas for themselves in their spare time, she adds.

Some of the initiatives begun at the last hackathon are now in development at University College London. Because the UKSA and the Technology Strategy Board are involved in organising the hackathons, projects with real potential might get subsequent support from the TSB or European Space Agency, says Rogers.

The organisers plan to link the two events by video, allowing communication and collaboration between the teams at Harwell and Exeter. Participants will be encouraged to keep going for the whole weekend with take-away food and entertainment.