How The Philippines Won the NASA Space Apps Challenge With a Dengue-Fighting Data Project
The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organizes an international hackathon annually to challenge people to use its free and open data to address real-world problems on Earth and in space. First held in 2012, it’s a prestigious competition that attracts coders, scientists, designers, storytellers, makers, builders, technologists, and many others across the globe.
Here in the Philippines, a local edition of the NASA Space Apps has been held since 2016. Two years ago, a group of Pinoy developers called iNON (or it’s Now or Never!) used a citizen science platform by NASA to develop an application seeking to communicate scientific data to fishermen even without Internet connection. This so-called ISDApp was named winner for a category called Galactic Impact, which was essentially a solution that NASA deemed had the most potential to improve life on Earth or in the universe. It was the first time that an entry from the Philippines was recognized in the global competition.
In the 2019 edition, yet another Filipino team won the NASA Space Apps Challenge, this time in the category of Best Use of Data, or a “solution that best makes space data accessible, or leverages it to a unique application.” Project Aedes, developed by a team led by Dominic Ligot, aims to improve public health response against dengue in the Philippines by predicting dengue cases from climate and digital data and pinpointing possible hotspots from satellite data.
“Aside from our country winning the global hackathon of NASA twice straight in a row, what also made our hackathon so special last year was the arrival of the leader of the Space Apps global organizing team,” says Michael Lance M. Domagas, lead organizer of the NASA International Space Apps Challenge in Manila. “Dr. Paula S. Bontempi is the acting deputy director of the Earth Science Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate. She was very impressed with the projects made by Pinoy innovators during her visit.”
Ligot, who is a data analyst, researcher, software developer, entrepreneur and technologist, is also the founder and chief technology officer of CirroLytix Research Services, the co-founder of Analytics Association of the Philippines and is a winner of the Manila and Southeast Asia legs of Break The Fake Hackathon. Esquire Philippines caught up with him and asked him to explain to us how he and his team developed Project Aedes, what he thinks about bringing home the coveted recognition from NASA, and what’s next for his band of scientists and developers. Excerpts:
Esquire Philippines: How did you come up with your idea for the Space Apps Challenge? Please walk us through the beginnings of the idea, when you decided to enter the NASA SAC and what the process was like.
Dominic Ligot: I had been working for nearly four years as a tech entrepreneur in the data science space and was looking for an opportunity to pivot into social impact work. I was fresh from a prior win in the Break The Fake Hackathon in August-September 2019 for a solution to fight disinformation when the opportunity to sign up for NASA came up. I heard about last year’s winners (IsDapp) and thought it would be a worthy challenge to see if we could come up with something using NASA data. At the time dengue was at an all-time high and I thought, maybe we can make an impact in dengue.
The project details of Aedes is in the NASA SAC website, but can you please explain in simpler terms how you are using NASA's data to forecast possible spikes in dengue cases in the country?
The main challenge we wanted to address was getting real time dengue alerts since data took time for the (Department of Health) to aggregate from the ground level. Our idea was, if there was a way to relate dengue to other data that was available on the fly such as Google Searches and Weather, it would be possible to infer the ongoing dengue cases at any time. In addition, having access to NASA satellite data allowed us to pinpoint possible mosquito hotspots by detecting stagnant water from satellite readings. It was an end-to-end approach—we would predict dengue spikes and panics, and be able to tell health workers where to focus.
Could you tell us about the actual competition? How did you present your findings and who were the judges for the competition?
Hackathons are always fast-paced events, and it was both exciting and daunting to be competing with other (and younger) teams who appeared to be quite versed in tech challenges. We walked into the challenge with some high-level ideas on what we wanted to do, but there was little room to relax during the 48-hour stretch. Some of the judges included notable experts such as Engr. Sabularse from DOST and ex-DTI-Usec Mon Ibrahim.
There are four members of your team in the Aedes Members' page in the SAC website. Could you tell us each member's specific role in the project? Are there other people not named in the page who are part of your team?
Ms. Frances Claire Tayco was our statistician. She modeled the dengue cases and deaths using PAGASA weather data and monitoring Google search patterns for dengue. Mr. Jansen Lopez was our satellite guru. He focused on extracting data from NASA and ESA satellites (Landsat and Copernicus) and performing the readings to detect stagnant water on the ground. Mr. Mark Toledo was our application engineer who put together all the data and findings into a convenient web application which allowed anyone to access and browse the data.
Now that the hackathon is done, other individuals in the teem are keen to bring AEDES to life operationally: Raki and Lennard Garcia and Cricket Soong. We were also assisted by three FTW (For The Women) Foundation Scholars who used AEDES as their capstone project: Mox Ballo, Janine Padilla, and Rache Melendres.
Tell us about your reaction when you won? How significant is it for you that your team won the NASA SAC?
We were already feeling fortunate to have made the local cut but the global win is blowing our minds. We feel that the NASA recognition is a validation that our mission is a worthy one and can really help make an impact on public health and reducing deaths from dengue and other mosquito-borne disesases. It’s also a further validation that my shift to social impact has promise and is encouraging me to pursue ways to leverage data and technology to help society and bring international recognition to the Philippines.
What is the timeline for the Aedes project? Do you see it being adopted by relevant agencies and becoming a tool to combat the spread of dengue in the country?
With the hackathon done, our next important step is bringing the solution out to the countryside for adoption. We are also looking to partner with health agencies such as WHO and UNICEF as well as government agencies DOH and DOST for funding. What makes social impact work interesting is there’s no shortage of beneficiaries if we are able to do our job and Philippines is a country that can really benefit from these solutions.
What other projects are you working on next?
Having a lead for dengue opens the path to other mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, Zika, and Chikungunya. Data science and satellite data can also have broader applications in disease and epidemic detection and mapping which we hope to be a leading provider in now that we’ve already gotten started. At the same time as stopping real diseases we’re keeping an eye out for that other epidemic: disinformation in web and social media, which we’re also putting our technology on. As we’ve seen in the current coronavirus outbreak, fake news follows viruses. We have our work cut out for us.
For more information on the NASA Space Apps Challenge, visit the website.