Disaster readiness, fisherfolk apps are PH entries to Space Apps challenge

Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 23 2018 12:08 PM | Updated as of Oct 29 2018 03:28 AM

Young Pinoys present their solutions to real-world problems. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

MANILA -- (UPDATED) If you had access to data on Earth and space from the world's premier space agency and use it to solve pressing problems, what would you do?

With a countdown of 48 hours, more than 100 students and young professionals racked their brains and ran data from the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on their laptops and phones to do just that.

The results of their all-nighter "hackathons" at the De La Salle University in Manila and the Microsoft office in Makati this weekend ranged from space exploration games to apps for monitoring volcanoes.

Of the concepts from 14 groups in Manila and nine in Makati, four got the approval of judges from sectors such as the US Embassy, the Philippine government's science and information technology agencies, the private sector, and the academe. 

One is an app that could enable users to contact each other when telecoms break down during disasters.

In the other, fisherfolk could learn via SMS what the weather is when they set out to fish.

For their first try in the event's third run in Manila, the young Filipinos behind these apps were surprised to be chosen as the best.

DISASTER LIFELINE

Space Force shows off the Vita app. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

The quintet of 18-year-old IT, computer science, and engineering students who dubbed themselves Space Force did not expect to win.

The group, made up of Gino Araullo, Jeorge Loui Delfin, Bluen Ginez, Samuel Jose, and Rainier Narboneta named their app Vita, the Italian word for life.

Vita is a one-stop shop for disaster readiness.

There's a checklist for an emergency kit, a red-screen notification for disasters in the area, and map guides to evacuation sites.

But Space Force banks on Vita's connectability. It saves a list of contacts and shows a stream of real-time messages from the user's area.

And should cell towers go down, the app would use a peer to peer interface called a mesh network to let users talk to each other.

To create such a network, though, a large number of people have to be using the app.

Screengrabs from the Vita app

Araullo said the concept came naturally to them.

"Most of us have computer backgrounds and we like talking about technology a lot. So we thought, why not focus on the Philippines, on technology, and integrate it especially those who are not able to reach [it]," he said.

By the time they presented it to the judges, Araullo was swiping through a prototype on his smartphone.

Their first time at a hackathon dealt more with trying to stay awake, the group joked.

"I guess it's about really working together as a team and finding something that everybody can connect with, and trying to be at the same page at all times," Araullo said.

A 'CATCH' OF ALERTS

Team iNON. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

iNON, the other winning group, found themselves among the oldest participants in the hackathon.

Their group name stands for "it's now or never." That, said member Revbrain Martin, mirrored their motivation to join the hackathon.

Martin and Jeddah Legaspi, his workmate at ABS-CBN's Creative Communications Management, developed the concept of their entry ISDApp. They then enlisted IT professional JC Torreda and two others to help build the software.

The idea was close to their hearts, Martin said.

"[Jeddah] is from Malabon and I'm from Obando [Bulacan], which are both fishing areas. We thought of something that could help fishermen who have no access to the Internet," he said.

"ISDApp", which combines "app" with the Tagalog word for fish, has two components.

Screenshot of ISDApp interface

The app will be installed in the phones of village leaders. They can then use it to issue text blasts in the vernacular to local fisher folk whose numbers are entered into the app's database.

The messages could be hourly weather updates, sea conditions, or local announcements.

"In our research, we saw many of our fisher folk are in danger when they sail off into the sea, because they do not have first-hand information if it is safe to fish. They have to rely on their feelings or senses. Sometimes they continue even under cloudy weather," Martin said.

Sample of an SMS message under the ISDApp

Their group had to be called again onstage to receive their P5,000 award since they did not realize at once that they won.

For Legaspi, their encouragement to produce the app came from much closer to home.

"I was motivated by our company's tagline: 'In the service of the Filipino worldwide.' So this app is not for leisure but one we believe can really help," she said.

VIRTUAL TRIP 

An image from the Mars2Earth VR program. Courtesy: Philippine Cyber Institute / Seaversity

At the Makati leg of the hackathon, a virtual reality program called Mars2Earth VR won over the judges with its immersive experience of the red planet's carbon-dioxide-filled atmosphere.  

The creators, Sergio Ramos III, Ricardo De Guzman Jr., Charlou Abulencia, and Mikaela Faith Cooper from the Seaversity division of the Philippine Cyber Institute, said the app also presents a warning for the future of Earth if the environment is not protected. 

Ramos said it was a choice between Mars or the Moon. 

"We picked Mars since one, it was discovered that Mars housed water and good atmosphere before, just like Earth. That's why we want people to learn Mars through an immersive experience, VR," he said. 

Completing the global nominees from Makati is Project Soteria, named after the Greek goddess of safety and salvation.  

It's a web application focused on wildfire monitoring and mitigation, produced by students Pocholo Pantoja, Lorenz Laurenciano, and Van Philip Panugan from the Mapúa University; Arvin Verain from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños; and Jasper Redd Raphael Pia from Quezon City Science High School. 

Using open weather data, it hopes to categorize wildfires as natural or manmade by correlating conditions in the forest and in the region. 

"We wanted to include features that do not exist in other wildfire tracking systems -- like giving recommendations for fire agencies to implement the controlled burn technique using wind speed and direction," said Pantoja. 

Mark Eborde, organizer of the Makati leg of the Space Apps Challenge, said the projects produced in the amount of time given were beyond their expectations. 

"It was a moment when we realized that the Filipino talent on technology advancement is underappreciated. But truly, all of them deserved to showcase their talents on global platforms," he said. 

OPEN DATA

But their journey is not over. The apps will compete with the winners of similar hackathons in around 200 locations all over the world who also answered the NASA Space Apps challenge.

NASA's data, like the agency's image library, is available to anyone, not just Space App challenge participants.

"NASA wants to give meaning to the data they're giving out," said Michael Lance, who organized the Space Apps challenge in Manila since 2016.

"It's not limited to those in programming. Storytellers, designers, and artists are welcome, not just software developers."

The hackathon participants stayed the night to finish their concepts. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News

Space fascinated other participants in the hackathon, like group Cosmos X, whose immersive augmented reality game concept was recognized with a special award for best hardware.

GreenSpot, an app that would evaluate the amount of greenery in a location, was also noticed.

Other groups thought up varying takes similar to "Vita" such as emergency plans for buildings, a disaster relief social network, and a flooding monitor.

Jeanie Duwan, assistant cultural director of the US Embassy in Manila, which is hosting the Space Apps challenge for the first time, said they hope the event was not only fun, inspiring, and challenging, but also had real-world applications.
 
 "It's the hard skills. It's the science, but it's also the drive, the determination and the resilience, you know, believing in science and keeping that going for the future of humanity," she said.

"So I think it's of incredible importance here in the Philippines but also for the human race."

The 2018 Space Apps Philippines participants. Anjo Bagaoisan, ABS-CBN News