The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) held its second hackathon of the year in Los Angeles the weekend of March 25-26, drawing 56 participants.
The two-day coding event was a continuation of NGA’s hackathon series that has toured the nation since May 2016. Hosted by Blue Compass on the agency’s behalf, the program has traveled to tech hubs such as Huntsville, Ala.; Sunnyvale, Calif.; Chicago; and New York City to encourage communities of innovators and independent coders to address NGA-identified problem sets. The hackathons are one of many ways NGA is looking for new, inventive methods to address its complex challenges and attract new talent.
According to hackathon project manager Capt. Adam Satterfield, “You’ve got a bunch of coders in there for 48 hours of straight coding, talking, drinking Red Bull, having Nerf fights—it’s a lot of fun. But at the end of the day, it was really cool to see how all that came together to address a relevant problem set.”
For last week’s hack at LA’s CTRL Collective Spaces, that problem set was food security. Participants were given until 2 p.m. Sunday to study how geospatial information could be used to better understand, model, visualize, and monitor the relationship between food security and regional stability in Morocco. This scenario was chosen based on a 2015 report about global food security released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
“We picked this scenario because the likelihood of this crisis occurring is high—we’ve seen it happen in the past—and the impact we can make by tipping and cueing the international community both from a national security perspective and a humanitarian perspective is critical,” Satterfield said.
According to Satterfield, food security and regional stability are important to NGA because much of its mission relies on how neglect of those basic needs could change the political landscape. Food security is a major indicator for other global security events—if a region doesn’t have access to food, civil unrest likely lies ahead. If NGA can predict shortages, like it did for the water supply in one Iraq region in 2009, it can alert the international community and help mitigate the effects.
“We articulated to the hackathon participants that the solutions they develop now not only could have great impact, but could potentially save lives if developed early enough,” Satterfield said.
Focus on Fish
The grand prize-winning solution was a fishery distribution system to optimize delivery to regions of drought and crop shortage in Morocco. The winning team comprised students Ishan Alok, Cheng Gu, Yu Ru, Haoshi “Joanna” Wang, and Zhiyuan Wang from the University of Southern California (USC)—a USGIF-accredited school. Though there are no restrictions on who could register, Satterfield said roughly 60 percent of this hackathon’s participants were from USC.
According to the team’s presenter Joanna Wang, “[Morocco] has over one million tons of annual fish catch … [and] has been having a very stable and still growing level of production in fishing over the last couple of years. We are making the argument that an efficient distribution system of the limited amount of fish in the domestic market can be a reliable and nutritional substitute for the food shortage in Morocco.”
The proposed distribution system locates regions of significant drought and redirects higher volumes of fish to those areas to account for crop losses. According to the group’s pitch, approximately 40 percent of domestically sourced fish spoils before it arrives at its destination. To avoid waste, the system uses transportation data to find the shortest routes between major fishing ports and inland urban centers.
Other solutions, such as a food security risk index model, focused on crops and how to organically create food sources within a country.
After hearing pitches from nine teams of developers, attendees were encouraged to log into DevPost to vote for their favorite project—the popular vote was equitable to second place with an award of $1,000. The grand-prize winning team from USC won the popular vote as well, and was awarded a total of $4,000.
“When we open this to the community, we get methodologies, technologies, and data sets that are correlated in ways we never thought about and probably wouldn’t if we hadn’t opened it up,” Satterfield said. “The amount of talent, diversity, and forward thinking we’re seeing is phenomenal.”
Reaching New Talent
Those diverse backgrounds and unique methods might just translate into a career for particularly innovative participants. Though they haven’t made any direct hires as a result of the hackathons yet, the events are a nontraditional way for NGA to stay competitive in talent recruiting. The initiative is increasing awareness of the agency and its opportunities to an untapped market beyond the Intelligence Community.
“We had a couple recruiters on site in LA and some students wanted to follow up and look at potential employment opportunities,” Satterfield said.
NGA is also making an effort to transition viable hackathon solutions into the field. For example, the winner of Huntsville’s first response hackathon created a virtual reality data visualization app called “Search and TextYou.” Winning team members Michael Carroll, Michael Graham, and Tim Coddington were put in touch with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other groups to discuss grant funding and financial sponsorship.
“It’s a great benefit to us and to the participants. They get to see problem sets that they may have not ever been exposed to, and we get solutions that we would’ve never discovered,” Satterfield said.
The contract with Blue Compass is scheduled to continue through 2017 with seven more events, including an event in San Antonio June 3-4, coinciding with USGIF’s GEOINT 2017 Symposium. NGA’s next hackathon is scheduled for Seattle, Wash., May 21-22, and will focus on crowdsourced data.
Photo Credit: NGA