Filipino-made app gauging COVID-19 lockdown impact wins NASA hackathon

Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Aug 14 2020 01:45 PM | Updated as of Aug 14 2020 01:49 PM

Accessing the G.I.D.E.O.N. online portal. Nick Tobia, Team CirroLytix

For the third straight year, a team from the Philippines landed a top spot in the Space Apps challenge of the United States National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), which held a special virtual hackathon in May focused on solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team's app and online portal dubbed G.I.D.E.O.N. was recognized for best use of data as one of 6 global winners in the NASA Space Apps COVID-19 challenge.

The achievement is proof of Filipinos' potential in science and technology that remains untapped in proposing solutions to their country's own challenges.

G.I.D.E.O.N., short for for Global Impact Detection from Emitted Light, Onset of COVID-19, and Nitrogen Dioxide, whose prototype can be accessed here, seeks to measure in real time the economic impact of lockdowns and other interventions against the coronavirus.

Before economic reports are released, the app tries to paint a more immediate picture by combining data on night light and pollution levels, infection rates, and mobility monitoring-- all of which are open-sourced from satellites and online portals.

G.I.D.E.O.N will also use previous economic data on gross domestic product (GDP) and growth rates to forecast the likely outcome of the lockdowns.

MULTI-FACETED APPROACH

The team of data analysts behind G.I.D.E.O.N. from CirroLytix. NASA Space Apps Philippines

The team said in its project site it hoped the multi-faceted, Earth-observation approach would enable decision makers to "make the necessary inter-agency economic corrections to their respective countries."

Data analyst Nick Tobia, one of the team members behind G.I.D.E.O.N, said they began thinking about the variables behind the app weeks before the hackathon.

"I thought the idea was more than just intelligent, it was comprehensive and it gave a wider snapshot of what's happening in a pandemic," he told ABS-CBN News via video conference.

"If we can piece that together-- economy opening up without triggering a second wave of the pandemic, and managing [the] environmental impact [of our] recovery, that was sophisticated enough, palaban 'to (this had a fighting chance).

"It gives us hope that this pandemic's not forever. We're not going to be poor forever and if we work hard enough we can come out with a better environment--and there's quantitative proof of this."
 
Tobia, along with team mates Helen Mary Barrameda, Miguel Oscar Castelo, Theresa Rosario Tan, and Kristel Joyce Zapata work at local data technology firm CirroLytix Research Services.

For its prototype, the team assessed the COVID-19 situation of the Philippines along with Japan and Singapore in Asia, and Italy and Sweden in Europe.

For the Philippines, G.I.D.E.O.N. noted "high immobility" with the 2-month enhanced community quarantine, the strictest lockdown level, then that translated to "relatively high GDP growth" and "very low growth" rates in infections.

August's release of the Philippines' 2nd-quarter GDP revealed the country plunging into its first recession in more than 30 years.

Meanwhile, local COVID-19 cases have breached past the 140,000 mark.

While the team admitted the recently released data was "shocking" and way off the app's predictions, they said the results were also instructive.

"We were using proxies without the benefit of the usual indicators that economists are able to use in order to come up with those numbers," Tobia said.

"Bottom line there is even if we're off, I think one of the best things that comes out of winning the data challenge is that there's always that opportunity now to access even better data and to see if the idea itself--if we're given access to better information--if it would still work."

G.I.D.E.O.N was also the only Space Apps winner along with 2 finalists selected to receive special access to the European Data Cube, a major facility for earth observation data from various agencies.

Tobia said this additional resource, which would also process the data for the user, would serve to help them scale up G.I.D.E.O.N.'s scope and capability.

PHILIPPINE MILESTONE

The weekend hackathon in May, which was co-sponsored by the Canadian, European, French and Japan space agencies and involved 15,000 participants from 150 countries, was its first to be done virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Aside from G.I.D.E.O.N., 2 other coronavirus-related solutions from the Philippines were among 14 global finalists of the special challenge out of more than 1,400 submissions.

Snail Space, developed by the Celestial Snails team from De La Salle University, helps users deal with social isolation-- whether due to a pandemic or space travel --via an app for stimulating productivity and protecting mental well-being.

Sentinellium, meanwhile, taps into the easy access of SMS and messaging apps for users to submit data that would better help determine the spread of diseases.

Team iNON, creator of the fisherfolk-assisting ISDApp, became the first Philippine winner of the challenge in 2018.

Another group from CirroLytix developed 2019 winner Project AEDES, which used space data for determining dengue hot spots.

"Even if we don't have the resources as a country to be a big player there, we certainly have the brain power and the ideas," Tobia of G.I.D.E.O.N. said.

"[For me], winning it once might have been a fluke, winning it twice was already proof that magaling ang mga Pinoy, winning it 3 times just consolidates na this should be a talent pool."

For Dominic Ligot, AEDES project lead, these successive recognitions of Filipino innovators show how more openness in data and science locally could help solve problems in the Philippines, especially in public health with the COVID-19 crisis.

"In a NASA hackathon, super dami ng data nila (they have so much data), they can't do it themselves," he said.

"They really have to open it up to the world. Tapos nakakatuwa Philippines pa nangunguna sa proposing ideas (It's pleasing the Philippines leads in proposing ideas).

"There's a lot of untapped potential [there]. And you go to public health where it's being restricted. Ideas are there, solutions are there, we just don't open it up, and 'yun lang, sayang (it's just a waste)."

Like previous winners, the winning team will be invited to view a spacecraft launch at NASA in the United States, but have to raise their own funds for the trip.

Local challenge organizer Michael Lance Domagas called for support for the winners, finalists and other local innovators in developing their projects and holding more hackathons.

Filipinos interested to join the main NASA Space Apps Challenge for 2020 scheduled for October 2-4 may register beginning August 15 on its website.