Science Hack Day, San Francisco

| NASA participates in a number of ‘hackathon’ type of events, most notably, the successful Random Hacks of Kindness in partnership with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, World Bank, and HP. This weekend, NASA is participating in the sold-out 2011 San Francisco Science Hack Day and we’re bringing all the action to you as it happens. Science Hack Day […]

NASA participates in a number of ‘hackathon’ type of events, most notably, the successful Random Hacks of Kindness in partnership with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, World Bank, and HP. This weekend, NASA is participating in the sold-out 2011 San Francisco Science Hack Day and we’re bringing all the action to you as it happens.

Science Hack Day is part of a larger movement of “hacking” as a new collaborative approach to problem solving. “Hack days” offer a unique opportunity to collaborate on focused tasks for a short period of time by a small groups of developers and are capable of producing remarkable results. The original concept of a hack day was popularized by Yahoo! in 2005 and soon after became a worldwide trend. Science Hack Days started in London in 2010 by a developer named Jeremy Keith who wanted to apply the concept to the field of science. Since then events had been planned in numerous cities around the world, bridging the gap between the science, technology and design industries and encouraging future collaboration, community building and general social awareness of one another.

So what exactly can you expect from a Science Hack Day? Well, imagine a Venn diagram where the intersection is a mix of web developers and science geeks. A world where scientists, developers, designers, technologists, and visionaries, from all walks of life, come together for an intense weekend to build, create and make things in the name of science. That’s Science Hack Day.  … and the goal? Take something from idea to prototype in 48 hours.

If you’ve never experienced a hack day, it’s an exciting all-night marathon experience, that amplifies your creativity and challenges you to collaborate with others on projects that you’d normally not have a chance to tackle.

The venue for the San Francisco event is Bright Works - a school for students in K – 12 that reimagines education by providing hands-on, project-based experiential learning. There tagline says it all: “everything is interesting, we can create anything.” What’s so exciting about this particular event is that we are not only guests in their inspirational space, but that a number of students from the Bright Works school are actually participating.  Sitting right next to developers from top Silicon Valley tech companies are eager students, who are not only here to learn, but in some cases are actually the ones teaching others how to use technology like laser cutters and 3d printers.

So how does it work?  The first day kicked off with a series of lightening talks – short presentations (less then 10 minutes each) on subjects ranging from “hacking cognitive science with crowdsourced experiments” to “developing open source underwater rovers“. Sean Herron from the NASA OpenGov team gave a standing-room only talk discussing “the great universe of data“and challenged the participants to utilize the massive amounts of data NASA collects each day during it’s space exploration missions. Chris Gerty from the OpenGov team, who also doubles as our local video-editing genius, captured all the action and we shared his work at the top of this post.

After a short break for lunch, the 200+ attendees self-organized around a massively diverse set of topics and plunged head first into projects that kept many of them up through the evening. The Science Hack Day wiki captures a short description of the 21 proposed projects, but given the close proximity of amazingly talented hackers, it’s no surprise that a number of new projects formed based on the unique collaborations that would have never have happened otherwise.

A few other noteable aspects of the event included the participation of 10 Scienc Hack Day Ambassadors from Brazil, Canada, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa and the United States. The ambassadors, who were funded thanks to the generous support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, included a European astrophysist turned scientist for development, Mathematical physist, an artificial intelligence researcher, an author, and a number of other equally interesting entrepreneurs. Not to be shown up, a group of impressive 5th graders developed working prototypes of video games using the Unity platform and Google Sketchup in less then 4 hours. We were all appropriately humbled.

There is so much we can learn from events like Science Hack Day and it’s hard to capture it all in a short blog post, but we’ve shared some photos from the event below and tomorrow we’ll be updating this post with a list of some of our favorite hacks. We’ll also reveal a project we worked on that mashes up NASA data in a new way!

Day 2 Update

Science Hack Day San Francisco 2011 was overwhelming successful.  27 projects were presented on Sunday afternoon and we think the results speak for themselves.  We’ve captured a brief synopsis and short presentation highlighting the projects below and have also provided links to more information.

Science and Gender

Wrote python scripts to hack gender and attributed gender to ambiguous names. Data is on github and uses facebook, wikipedia and census data.

Creators: Alex Kudlick, Matt Senate, and others

IsoDrag TypeFace

Type faces should be very well balanced, but does that mean jsut visually balanced? What about aerodynamically balanced? Took helevitica type face and built a mini-wind tunnel to test the drag coefficient for all the letters of the alphabet. Ideally, all the letters should have the same drag coefficient. Took the letters and changed the weights so they all balance out aerodynamically.

Creators: David Harris (@physicsdavid) Josh and Mia from Wellington

ISS Globe Notify

Using a laser mounted on the inside of a translucent globe and a couple of servos (one turning the globe and the other controlling the pitch of the laser. Tracks the real-time approximate position of the International Space Station over Earth. One servo provide longitude and the other servo provides latitude. Used the MakerBot to print the main gear. For more information visit and

Creators: Nathan Bergey Steven Davis Glenn LeBrasseur @glennlebrasseur Nicolas Weidinger @drweidinger Rachel Weidinger @rachelannyes

Visualize the South African National Budget

A visualzazation of the the South African National Budget to demonstrate that the spending on science is very reasonable. How much does science and technology really cost? Visit All the budget data used in this visualization comes from the South African Treasury website. The data comes from the consolidated expenditure estimates 2010/2011.

Creators: Carolina Ödman-Govender @carolune Brian Suda @briansuda

Single Point Perspective

Pulling recent photos from Flickr, shrinking small, putting them on a map, to create a photo of Earth based on photos from Earth.

Creators: Jesse Wolfe @jes5199


Umasking reality. Reality is far too complex because of the massive amounts of information, so we set out to hack our senses by sending sensory input to the wrong sense with the goal of purposely confusing our brain (and it’s associated data filtering algorithms). Essentially, the mask takes in a visual input and outputs a signal to influence our sense of touch. Implemented using a web cam (visual input) that goes into an ardunio that drives sixty 60-cent mini speakers that affect your sense of touch.

Creators: Bala Ramamurthy, Watson Watson, Lillian Fritz-Laylin, Meredith Carpenter, Hamilton, Marissa Fessenden, Parker Imrie, Tymm Twillman, Greg Freidland, Fen Lipkowitz, and Liam Holt

Large Hadron Collider Data Hack

One of the experiments from the Large Hadron Collider, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment), has released a small amount of the data for educational purposes. A partical physicist brought the data to see what they could hack with the data. The data is hard to access and even more difficult to understand (both from the formats and physics), so it turned into a hack that tried to explain the data through data visualization that will be ultimately useful for physicists at CERN and Fermi Lab. For more information: and (needs about 60 seconds to load)

Creators: Matt Bellis (@matt_bellis) Lynn Root (@roguelynn) Aaron Culich (@aculich) Morris Mwanga (Kenya ambassador) Tim Clem Kevin


A microscope cable of sub-micron resolution using plumbing parts, an objective lens, and a digital camera. They were able to resolve objects as wide as one wave of green light. Total cost to implement the hack was around $35 of parts.Screenshots, photos and videos:

HIV/AIDS: Meaningful indicators

HIV/AIDS spread follows complex human network dynamics, the details of which are very difficult to measure. The team explored a proof of concept hack using WEKA, a data mining software in JAVA, that explores the data sets to analyze various indicators in a meaningful way to determine risk of being HIV positive, without asking any personal questions. This could inform prevention and intervention policies.

Buckets of Tears is a data visualization and crowdsourcing project to provide a web interface to bring comfort to people who are experiencing sadness. The visualization presents tweets from all over the world that contain the word “crying” in multiple languages. While they are being streamed in real time, tear droplets show up on a world map to indicate their location. The team continues to work on adding a “Comfort” button which which visitors can interact with the sad tweeters to cheer them up. Screenshots, photos and videos are available at Source code and links are available at

Creators: Arfon Smith: @arfon, Jarod Luebbert @jarodl, Julia Bossmann: @juliabossmann, Roman Gurovich: @romangurovich, Ryan Balfanz: @RyanBalfanz and Stuart Lynn: @stuart_lynn

Space Ipsum

Have you ever needed filler text, but wished you had more exciting options then the generic “lorem ipsum” variations? If so, you are in luck! The team created a space themed random content generator, that uses phrases from historic moments in spaceflight available at htp:// More information available at:

Creators: Sean Herron @seanherron, Nick Skytland @skytland, William Eshagh @eshagh


Disease is prevalent but healthcare is not universal. Fortunately, much of the world now has access to a cell phone. Technologies are being developed that can turn cell phones into diagnostic devices. These devices can be used at the point of care and the information can be transmitted in real-time to experts and databases. If properly deployed and used, mobile diagnostic devices could facilitate addressing the needs of individuals in impoverished areas and tracking the emergence of disease outbreaks. To determine where such devices should be deployed, we collected open source geospatial data and created a map to identify locations where healthcare was scarce, but cell phone coverage was readily available. The code is available at

Creators: Aaron Steele: @eightysteele * Andrew Hill: @andrewxhill * Arfon Smith: @arfon * Julia Bossmann: @juliabossmann * Nancy Burgess: NancyB * Roman Gurovich: @romangurovich * Ryan Balfanz: @RyanBalfanz * Stuart Lynn: @stuart_lynn

OpenROV Kinect-ivity

Working the development of an OpenROV controllers, including iPhone & interwebs. Mounted geophysical exploration package to ROV. Successfully disassembled Kinect case and extracted key hardware, but failed to mount due to half-inch size difference. Future plans include further experimentation to include a re-attempt with slightly larger ROV. More information:

Creators: Eric Stackpole (@eerrp) David Lang (@davidlang) Mika McKinnon (@mikamckinnon) Tim Clem (@timothyclem) Jay Freeman, original Jay Freeman, evil twin (@saurik)


Using a DNA extraction protocol, the team created a product of which also happens to be a tasty cocktail. Fruit cells (strawberry and others) are lysed by freeze/thaw and heat cycles to eliminate the use of surfactants. Salt is minimized and sugar added in order to mask any salty flavor. Bacardi 151 is layered over fruit purée to extract DNA into the ethanol phase. A tiny umbrella completes the tropical vibe. Screenshots, photos and videos:

Creators: Patrik D’Haseleer, Bonnie Barrilleaux, Lily Lew, @sulfur_blue, Joseph, @codonAUG Michelle Peters


Using radio telemetry, this draft UI design turns animal tracking data into visual patterns for display in public installation and through a mobile device. People viewing this data can help scientists monitor species habitat and migration. The hack URL is

Creators: Amber Didow, Vicki Moulder, Satoka


Using the Thalamoid platform, the team connected an Android mobile device to analog ultrasonic scientific sensors to demonstrate the ‘s ability to serve as a data collection system. The system logs environmental data to an SD card in addition to displaying it on the screen for immediate feedback. The team attached ultrasonic sensors to record real data using a mobile device and then pass the data to the cloud. The source code and links and available at For more information visit

Creators: Matteo Borri, Paul Mans, Akhsar Kharebov, Geoffrey Chu


A visualization to display subjects in scientific papers using the PLoS search API. The code is available at The hack can be viewed at


The team created a virtual sculpting tool called vSculpt is a program which allows users to use gestures in front of a webcam to sculpt a 3d model and then print it on a 3d printer. The source code and links are available at

Creators: David Allen Han Wei Sabrina Atienza Luke Rast

OECD Threatened Species

This project is designed to visualize some of the environmental data on threatened species published by the OECD, an international organisation helping governments tackle the economic, social and governance challenges of a globalised economy. The OECD produces reports on the state of the environment based on data from participating countries. The aim of this project is to compile and visualize the information on threatened (endangered, vulnerable, and critically endangered) species by country so that it is easily accessible. The current hack only includes the mammals data, but new pages for fish, birds, amphibians, invertebrates, plants, and reptiles will be added soon. The project is built with the Google Chart apis for visualizing data. Currently in use are the geo chart and bar chart. The hack URL is

Creators: Erin Richey @erinjo


Using a 22-line python script and a USB microscope, development an impressive application to quantify the length of beard hair through visualization and data. The hack URL is 

Creators: Joshua Gourneau

Hack Your Genome

The inspiration for this project came out of frustration of what’s available to analyize your own genome data. Many people have their own 23andMe genotype (, but there is not gene broswer to understand the variants. The team developed a basic genome browser to display SNP data from 23andMe, showing the rarity of each genotype, overlaid on the gene structure. The hack URL is

Creators: Mitch Skinner, @surrealize Jun Axup, @junnibug Patrik D’haeseleer, patrikd Will Reinhardt, @wreinhardt Mohammed Rahman, @8iterations, Eri Gentry, @erigentry


In scientific publications, credibility is judged by the number of citations which is ultimately a poor metric. With the rise of electronic publishing and the social web, there are exciting new opportunities to look at a broader dimension of how a researcher influences his peers and is in turn influenced. The team decided to adapt a technique often used by corporations to get a feel for what people are saying about them online to look at one dimension of academic impact which has until now gotten little attention. Using the Open APIs provided by the open access publisher the Public Library of Science, the team analyzed research papers and gave them a score corresponding to how much confidence an author of a paper expressed in his work. This allows us to tune into the signals expressed by the researcher about his own work, which gives us a much earlier signal of potential importance than we get by waiting for a paper to get citations. It’s a good thing in some respects that science moves slow, but nothing’s fast enough for researchers pushing the leading edge of research in areas like cancer research, stem cell biology, and other critical rersearch areas. Screenshots, photos and videos:, and The hack URL:

Creators: William Gunn (@mrgunn) Matt Senate (@wrought) Jacob Schiach

Physical Computing

Physical objects have a sensory richness of meaning that screen-based elements do not. When we see, hear and feel real-world objects we are enabled to train both cognitive and perceptual skills in combination. Therefore, the team developed code that associates everyday 3-d objects as computing tools, by associates photos of objects taken from a mobile device with a database representing other objects.

Creators: Henrik Brink, Lisa Ballard

Quake Canary “PEEPS”

Using an accelerometer data from arduinos and mobile devices (iphones and geophones), the team created an app that provides an early-warning notification of an earthquake. The app leverages publically-contributed seismic data and publishes it to a online map using The data is then compared with USGS and UC Berkeley Northern California Seismic data available to the public in real time, as well as visualizes it on a map. Users are notificed of recent or pending earthquake using an iphone app.

Creators: Ryan Anderson, Chris Swanson, Ariel Rokem, David McKeown, Jen Blank, Mika McKinnon, Rachel Weidinger, thanks to Pete Worden (

Code Hero

Developed a game called Code Hero that teaches people how to make games. The software allows you to shoots javascript in 3D. Students from Bright Works then used the platform, as well as Unity and Google Sketchup to build a game with four levels called “Pikachu in Action”.

Creators: Students and Principal from the New Community Learning Center.

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