Cables, notebooks, and half-eaten lunches covered the conference table in the Martin Johnson House, as participants in Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego’s first hackathon raced to finish their work before a 3 p.m. deadline.
“It’s not working!” one coder cried out in panic. His teammates offered encouragement, as they continued to work right up to (and a little bit past) the deadline and the day’s closing talks.
The hackathon, which took place March 23 and March 24, was organized by Scripps and sponsored by the XPRIZE Foundation, a non-profit that creates public competitions to award innovative solutions to big challenges such as space travel and global warming. Its mission was to enhance ocean data visualization tools so that oceanographic databases can be better utilized by scientists and the public.
“We want data to be in the hands of the people who pay for it,” said Steve Diggs, one of the hackathon organizers and a data manager with Scripps Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support.
Matthew Mulrennan, leader of the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative and a graduate of the Scripps Marine Biodiversity and Conservation master’s program, says the XPRIZE foundation is passionate about making ocean data more accessible.
“NOAA collects 20 terabytes of data every day, and that data is largely remaining unused by society,” Mulrennan said.
XPRIZE wants to get that data out to the public in ways that are accessible to them.
“Our ideal vision is that in the future, in decades to come possibly, that you’re able to push one button on your phone and all of the world’s ocean information comes out in an easy to use and understandable way,” Mulrennan said.
Working with the scientists and programmers at Scripps, who have world-class expertise and access to databases with decades of oceanographic data, was an obvious choice to help the foundation achieve this goal. Mulrennan was also there to recruit some of the hackers to apply for the XPRIZE “Big Ocean Button Challenge,” a competition to create mobile ocean data visualization apps with a $100,000 prize.
Two teams, a mix of Scripps staff, graduate students, and one UC San Diego undergraduate, participated in the hackathon. Both focused on upgrading existing data tools.
One team worked on adding new datasets to earth.nullschool.net, a popular ocean and weather data visualization tool.
Cameron Beccario started the site, and he flew in from Tokyo for the hackathon. He wasn’t the only one who traveled from afar to take part: collaborators from Columbia University in New York, the Johnson Space Center in Texas, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts came to San Diego to help hack.
The second group focused on organizing the data available on SeaView, a National Science Foundation-funded project that works with existing data repositories to aggregate and organize oceanographic data.
“We live in a world of Google,” said Chris Olson, a programmer in the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps and part of the SeaView team. “I want to know the CO2 output of the factory next door [and we expect to be able to look that up],” he said.
But before that kind of data can be readily available to the public, the various datasets of CO2 collected by research groups and instruments all around the world need to be uniformly formatted and assembled in one place. The more complete and uniform a dataset is, the easier it is to put that data in the hands of the public via visualization and processing tools.
Karen Stocks, director of the Geological Data Center at Scripps and lead of the SeaView team, said these were people she’d been collaborating on and talking about the SeaView project for “I don’t know how long.” But she says spending more than a day together in concentrated effort really moved the site forward—they got work done in days that would have taken months otherwise.
Mulrennan and Diggs said they were impressed at what the participants had accomplished in just a day and a half of hacking.
“It’s amazing to see what people can do when they put their heads down and work towards a singular goal with a specific deadline,” Mulrennan said.
Not to mention they had a good time. “We got to spend a whole day doing what we love, with our friends,” Stocks said. And Diggs said he hoped the hackathon would become a Scripps tradition.
“Scripps is uniquely qualified to do some really heroic things. We have among the best, most innovative scientists in the world solving problems and taking it on as a personal quest,” Diggs said.
The hackathon was a perfect illustration of this kind of problem solving, he said, and added, “we want to do this a lot more.”
- Mallory Pickett