Space Apps embraces collaborative problem solving with a goal of producing relevant open-source solutions to address global needs applicable to both life on Earth and life in space. Sometimes projects are extremely collaborative; sometimes extremely relevant; sometimes widely applicable. Rarely does a project embody each of these qualities as completely as SkyWatch.
Built in 2014 at Space Apps Toronto, SkyWatch was developed in response to the Alert-Alert Challenge:
Although a typical clear night sky may seem relaxing, in reality it is always restless. Various phenomena are taking place unexpectedly around the clock in every part of the sky. News and information on these cosmic surprises are not announced in one place. Your challenge is to create a central place for information and visualizations of these sky phenomena. Brainstorm ways to follow the event in real time from the ground (keeping in mind that an event’s visibility could change depending on local weather and time of day). Once the event is announced, how does the news spread around the world? How can we make these astrophysical trends and events more visible?
The team started with this problem of how to spread the news and make it visible and dug in, unfolding and addressing one problem at a time underneath it. Where did the data come from? How could it be accessed? Who was using it? Who could be using it?
The SkyWatch application takes worldwide observatory data dedicated to use by scientists, and combines it in an easy to understand, Twitter-like set up to plot the data on on Google Sky. The goal was to allow the general public to keep up with all the new discoveries being seen and recorded in space, and take advantage of the vast amounts of data collected daily by international observatories.
The solution went even further than the challenge, with far-reaching applications in STEM education, astronomical research, virtual reality, and even museum exhibits. Astronomy is often a neglected subject because educators lack the knowledge and the tools. SkyWatch addresses all of these issues more quickly, less expensively, and with a more intuitive user interface. The team invites astronomers and astrophotographers to plug into its network, and makes that trove of sky data incredibly accessible for researchers, government agencies, and the average web user. Anyone can build on top of this real-time feed of the universe, creating exhibits, visualizations, augmented-reality simulations… anything that users can dream of.
SkyWatch is exciting for more than just its product. This five member team – who met for the first time during the weekend hackathon – proceeded to join the Google for Entrepreneurs accelerator together, build a company together, and galvanize the NewSpace community in their nation. This is what Space Apps was intended to do: create collaborations around data that grow and thrive and have their own impact in their own communities. They’ve carried their work much further than an idea and then a product – they’ve made it a company and a practical reality.
The team came to the International Space Apps Challenge to meet like-minded people – and in the midst of that community, to validate how good they were. They saw it as a singular opportunity and jumped in with both feet to solve problems that were actual instead of hypothetical. They have done exactly that and are continuing to see new possibilities and applications of their work. Founder James Slifierz explained that their mission is to the number one source for astronomical data. “We like to see ourselves as indexing space in the way that Google indexed the Internet. We want to leverage their knowledge about how to handle massive amounts of data.”
Data is a major focus for Space Apps this year, and we are launching an incubation toolkit to support local acceleration of promising work. We are looking for the next generation of visionary projects that want to go further than a weekend to impact life on Earth and life in space. Will that be you and your team? What do you want to build?