Scientific Computing students are part of an international competition to inject energy and creativity into finding solutions to global problems

SC grad students Olmo Zavala and Nathan Crock and FSU Researcher Samuel Rustin comprised a winning team in NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge recently held in Tallahassee. The International Space Apps Challenge was held simultaneously in 75 cities across the globe. Zavala, Crock and Rustin’s award places their submission, OpenTiles, into international competition with the winning projects from each of the 75 competing worldwide Space Apps Challenge locations. The Space Apps Challenge took place on April 20-21 at Making Awesome, a Tallahassee Makerspace. Judging the competition were Dr. Greg Boebinger, Director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; Dr. Gordon Erlebacher, FSU Professor of Scientific Computing; and Stephen Thompson, a retired mathematician. The Department of Scientific Computing was an event sponsor.

The competition was open to everyone, and teams were asked to focus on problems in any area: mentoring & learning, comparing earth landscapes, meteor tracking & asteroid hunting, predicting water contamination, air traffic management, sustainable living, or backyard poultry farming. Projects that won locally ranged from a greener cities project to an online renewable energy map that combines solar, wind and geothermal energy into one single user friendly map.

The competition was worldwide and included the International Space Station. “For about an hour during the hackathon, we actually had a live feed from the Space Station to all the local groups, and everyone had an opportunity to ask the astronauts questions about data or anything else that might help with the projects," said Crock.

“Most of the challenges were intentionally vague. I think what NASA wanted to do was to open any problem to the world of imagination; leaving the projects vague was to encourage the broadest possible thinking and creativity from the whole world,” Zavala said. “We selected our project from a list NASA provided as a guide. As soon as we saw it, we knew that’s what we wanted to work on."

Zavala and Crock selected the EarthTiles challenge, the goal of which was to take large scale global data from NASA missions and make it available in an open source format. “Both Olmo and I have used satellite data, and handling data formats and data visualization is something we were both actively doing in our research. I worked on one section, he worked on the other, then we combined our work at the end."

Although petabytes of satellite data is freely and publicly available, it can be very difficult to find and in an assortment of esoteric formats. The OpenTiles project makes it easier for users to find and use large amounts of earth, ocean, and atmospheric data. The App uses Python scripts to download and convert, then crop and scale the data into intuitive images. It also allows the user to alter the images in ways that increase their utility, as the user can change the transparency of the image layers, choose which layers to display, and download individual layers in specific formats. These tasks can be accomplished without any external intervention.

"Let's say for example, a scientist or an activist would like to help the world understand how we each contribute to pollution. With our tool, the scientist or activist can obtain pollution data for the entire world and overlay that data onto Google Earth. Now let's say Google likes the idea and decides to make it the default for everyone who fires up Google Earth. Everyone in the world who uses Google Earth will be confronted with a global perspective of current and past pollution. Something like that would likely make people more environmentally conscious," said Crock.

Over 9,000 people around the world participated in the Challenge, exemplifying the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. Overall winners will be announced on May 22nd. To see Crock, Zavala and the OpenTiles submission, go to

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