Space Apps 2016 Cairo group portrait

This past April, the Space Apps global organizing team traveled to events around the globe. I had the incredible privilege of attending Space Apps Cairo, which has quickly emerged as one of the marquee global Space Apps events. The organizing team wass headed by returning Lead Organizer, Menna Hamza. Hamza overcame challenges from senior colleagues, who wished to lead the event after seeing the success of her very first Cairo event last year, which attracted 700 participants. The budding community was not only energized about collaboration and innovation after producing more project submissions than any other event, but also by the equal representation by both male and female participants.

This year, Space Apps Cairo lived up to its galactic expectations from 2015.  The community continues to grow with Space Apps Cairo receiving more than 1400 registrations and perhaps most remarkably, requests from more than 200 people looking to get involved as volunteers. The event also featured a slew of knowledgeable and dedicated mentors -- many of whom were standout participants in the 2015 event. One of the things that stuck out to me was the number of mixed gender teams, which was as many as I had ever seen at a hackathon. Also, the majority of hackers were students. Most notably, one of the overall winners was a team of young high school students.

 I found the level of creative thinking and determination to be the norm among the highly motived participants. The buzz and excitement surrounding the event created an atmosphere ripe for big and ambitious ideas. For example, when I entered the event on the first day, I was immediately drawn to a remote control toy car with wires hanging from it. One of the teams explained they had special ordered a small helicopter for their project to address the  Don’t Crash My Drone challenge, but it didn’t arrive on time. Rather than give up, the team used an Arduino to hack a toy car they found at a local store.  

Participants packed into the illustrious Zewail City bright and early on Saturday morning. The event was something of a spectacle with major media including Egyptian television and a leading regional technology website on hand to cover this year’s event. After opening remarks from the organizers and a review of the weekend’s agenda, participants were inspired by video participation from two special guests: NASA Chief Scientist, Dr. Ellen Stofan and Cairo-born NASA Research Engineer Dr. Tahani Amer. Teams would go on to spend the weekend hacking in special rooms divided by each of the Space Apps 2016 themes. True to hackathon culture, caffeine was in full supply with tea and coffee stations scattered throughout the venue.

Space Apps 2016 Cairo. Image by Blake Garcia

While the majority of the participants had an extensive educational background in coding and STEM subjects, Space Apps offered many participants their first experiences putting their skills to the test at a hackathon. More than that, they saw Space Apps as an opportunity to prove themselves and chase their dreams, like one day working at NASA, by building projects in response to the NASA-designed challenges.

The projects that came out of Space Apps Cairo certainly did not fall short of expectations. 55 Cairo teams built projects in response to challenges across all 6 themes. The judging panel of university professors and industry experts held the project teams to a high standard. Teams not only had to deliver a convincing pitch but also had to defend their projects in response to a round of tough questions from the judges. Here are three of the projects that emerged as winners:

Orion's Wearable Device

Orion’s Wearable Device was both a global judging nominee and the People’s Choice nominee from Cairo, and for good reason. The all-in-one device created in response to the Rock-IT Space Fashion challenge is designed to allow astronauts to communicate with the Space Station (via streaming, text chat, and warning messages), monitor health (biometrics, physical/emotional health, and environmental data), and also allows astronauts to access social networks, music, and games for entertainment. I’m wondering when I can trade in my smartphone to get one!

Blue Flame

Blue Flame took home the other global judging nomination for Cairo. The team designed a jetpack powered by burning magnesium (Mars’ surface is full of Magnesium) for human transport on Mars. The team also developed an app compatible with different versions of VR hardware to simulate Mars’ environment and help train astronauts to use the jetpack. This may come as a surprise, but I can confirm this was indeed a hackathon project and not the product of top-secret NASA research.

Aurora Game

Aurora Game was one of the six local winners and one of my favorite teams. It is an Android app and game that uses ISS images and Aurorasaurus to give the player an immersive VR experience. The three person team was anchored by two medical students and space enthusiasts who decided to take a break from their studies to spend their weekend hacking.

Space Apps 2016 Cairo. Image by Blake Garcia

While Space Apps Cairo yielded some remarkable projects, above all I was inspired by the passion and enthusiasm of its participants. In spite of the natural pressure of the hackathon setting, this excitement only seemed to increase throughout the weekend. A good number of participants even stayed at the venue and worked on their projects all the way through Saturday night until presentation time on Sunday.

 One would expect this level of effort to wear the group down, but teams refused to let anything, like ordered materials not arriving on time or incredible time constraints, get in the way of them finishing their projects. All the while, the hackers seemed to be having just as much fun together talking about their projects and exchanging ideas when they left as when they arrived.

Blake Garcia

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