What do you get if you cross cardboard, Gaffa-tape, electrical waste and enthusiasm? That is what myself, Gavin Wheeldon from our Affiliate Management team and two students from York University’s computer science department intended to find out when we pitched ourselves against the 2016 NASA Space Apps Challenge.
A global event, the Space Apps Challenge is a hackathon that pushes teams to solve problems here on earth or out in space using innovative technology, novel ideas and practical application of knowledge. Over the space of a weekend, teams have to go from concept to prototype on their solutions, presenting back to a panel of judges who evaluate both how well the challenge was addressed, use of materials and potential impact.
The challenge we chose was Launch: A global experience, allowing someone to experience a launch as if observing it from a few miles away, no matter where in the world they are. When we arrived at the local event hosts, York University’s Computer Science department, we had only a rough outline of a solution to the challenge. We quickly teamed up with two of the students who were also interested in the challenge and together our solution took shape. Our idea was to combine an app, 3600 video and physical feedback all linked via Bluetooth to create a compelling and immersive experience.
With only 28 hours from Saturday morning until the deadline on Sunday we had a lot to do and a very short time to do it in. Every aspect of our solutions pushed the boundaries of what the team knew, from building an Android app with no experience, to creating and rendering an entire 3D environment in 3600. It was also the first time that Gavin and I had met our team mates from York University and the first time that Gavin and I had collaborated on a project together.
It was not all smooth sailing. We had broken hardware, incompatible software, networks that would not connect, but the ‘move fast and break things’ attitude of a hackathon meant that for every dead end we produced, we had a handful more ideas to work around it. Slowly but surely our project evolved from parts, cardboard and ideas into a solid concept we could demonstrate to the other teams.
We worked right up to the deadline, downed our tools and took a seat for the presentations prepared by the other teams who had been working alongside us right through the night. There were some outstanding ideas put forward by the 8 other teams at the York event, including pollution monitors, flood analysis systems and many more. We were shocked and immensely proud to be chosen as the winners!
But the story does not end there. Our team was put through to the global judging, giving us a week to put together a video presentation and continue tinkering with the project, keeping in touch with each other and dealing with the challenges of distributed working as oppose to the tight deadlines of the weekend. The hard work paid off, and last week we were bowled over to discover that we had received a global nomination alongside teams from Malaysia, France, New Zealand, Tunisia and Spain.
You may find yourself thinking that a hackathon is still an unusual place to find a marketeer and more the realm of developers, but the skills involved speak to the core of good marketing: teamwork, communication, innovation and organisation, delivery under pressure, working to tight deadlines, focus and enjoying what you do. It also encourages attitudes that are easy to lose in the day to day of delivery: move fast, break things and push the boundaries.
It was a pleasure to be part of the winning team at York and to meet all our fellow technology and space enthusiasts. I can’t recommend enough going along to an event like this; we already thinking about the next challenge.