From the NASA Centennial Challenge program to the NASA Innovation Pavilion, the U.S. space agency is at the forefront of the fast-growing movement to use prizes and challenges to tap the best ideas and top talent in the quest to solve difficult problems.
The newest arrow in the agency’s innovation quiver is the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), an online virtual facility that enables NASA researchers facing complex, computational challenges to “order” high-quality solutions from a community of independent algorithm experts. Designed to leverage the principles of distributed innovation, the Lab eliminates dependence on the skills or schedule of any individual computational scientist, instead tapping the expertise of the most knowledgeable, skilled, and available community members to supply a tailored solution. As a result, the Tournament Lab promises to increase quality while reducing the cost and time of computer code development for NASA systems.
Yesterday, the Lab announced the winners of NASA’s most recent competition--one that challenged the Lab community to build software that automatically detects craters in orbital images. Large-scale, automatic, and robust crater detection algorithms can help solve challenging and important problems in space exploration since craters can provide important information on planet formation and geology; inform the selection of landing sites; provide valuable data for path planning and rover navigation; and help scientists align disparate data sets such as those produced by radar and laser altimetry.
A unique aspect of this challenge was that the dataset used by the developers to create their algorithms was itself generated through Moon Zoo, a citizen science project of Zooniverse. Thousands of individuals, working through the MoonZoo project manually labeled craters from orbital images. These labeled images then served as an important input for both creating and testing the software programs developed by the challenge competitors.
With each competition, NASA learns more about the art and science of using prizes and challenges to crowdsource solutions for NASA operational needs. Jason Crusan, in NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, created the Lab with a NASA contract to Harvard’s Institute of Quantitative Social Science and TopCoder. Professor Karim R. Lakhani (Harvard Business School) is the Director and Principal Investigator and Professor Kevin Boudreau (London Business School) is the Chief Economist of the Lab. Under their direction, the Lab is testing hypotheses and analyzing empirical data from real-world competitions to refine the science of how to successfully design and implement prizes and challenges. The rich lessons learned will be invaluable as prizes and challenges become a routine problem-solving tool for NASA and other public-sector entities.
Kudos to NASA, Harvard, TopCoder, and the entire NASA Tournament Lab community on taking this important step towards the President’s vision of making prizes a standard tool in every agency’s toolbox.
Robynn Sturm is Advisor to the Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy