[topcoder] and the Challenges of Mankind — Solving The Stuff of Dreams

August 7, 2014 Ben Kerschberg



When I was in Montessori School, I was able to follow my twin passions: dinosaurs (of course) and space, naturally. The creativity of a young mind soars when no limits are imposed. To me, Mars was no farther than the Moon. Saturn’s rings were perfect. Jupiter’s red sea remained a mystery; and astronauts talked to each other on the same walkie talkies that my friends and I used. Several years later, we were exposed to a larger universe; we blasted asteroids out of space with menacing background music. We could, in essence, go as far as our imaginations would allow. That was pretty far, and the distance grew by leaps and bounds with the Space Shuttle.

Fast forward 30 years to an era where the combined imagination of NASA, the Harvard-NASA Tournament Lab (“NTL”), and the Center for Excellence for Collaboration Innovation (“CoCEI”), the purpose of which is to educate, share best practices and measure the impact of crowdsourcing and open innovation across other government agencies as well as within NASA, have the opportunity to realize their dreams, which present themselves most often in the former of complex problems for Mankind. Asteroids are no longer blasted; they are hunted to predict which may endanger Earth. Astronauts who live in space communicate over NASA’s open source Disruption Tolerant Networking, which allows them to do so between Earth and the International Space Station (“ISS”) 44,000 miles away.

This may seem like the stuff of a young boy’s fascination, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein, but it is not. How is that possible? The answer is crowdsourcing.

Over the past three years, Topcoder, a community of 630,000 data scientists, developers, and designers, have helped NASA and a number of other U.S. government agencies tackle issues ranging from (i) tracking asteroids, (ii) to designing and developing an iPad-based application that provides astronauts on the ISS with an efficient, rapid, and accurate method for tracking their dietary intake, (iii) to creating algorithms for a spacecraft orbiting Saturn on an extended mission to return to Earth images that will enable scientists to understand ring phenomena, ring structure, and potentially new moons.

Additional government agencies working with Topcoder through the CoECI structure include the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid (CMS), USAID, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

For example, the EPA pursued the ToxCast Prediction Challenge to address the lack of information on the thousands of chemicals that humans are exposed to every day. The diverse Topcoder community was challenged to predict the lowest dose at which a chemical causes adverse effects in traditional chemical toxicity tests. The algorithm contest consisted of two phases with a total of 338 registrants, 49 competitors, and 804 submissions. The winning submission to the three-week contest provided an approach towards addressing the toxicity problem that heavily leveraged data science techniques and has potential for further advancement. Interestingly, but common to Topcoder results, most of the highest-ranked solutions were provided by competitors without specific expertise in a chemistry-related field. These solutions matched or exceeded solutions provided by subject domain experts. As a result, the EPA will be showcasing the top two winners’ findings at the 2nd Annual Data Summit on September 29 & 30 at the EPA Research Triangle Park Campus in North Carolina. Register for the Data Summit now to be a part of the dialogue about ways to use this new data to transform chemical safety evaluations.

“The Topcoder community has really taken a leading role in the field of Data Science when it comes to providing the best expertise across the world in algorithmic and statistical work, as well as digitization, and computer science,” said Dr. Karim R. Lakhani, Principal Investigator of Harvard-NTL and Lumry Family Associate Professor of Business Administration. “These data scientists have been able take the complex, data intensive problems facing NASA and other federal agencies, analyze it, and then turn that analysis into creating actual solutions to advance some of their most important initiatives.”

In 2014, such advanced projects can more so than ever be a young boy’s dreams.


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