nasa space apps challenge hackathon team

The NASA Space Apps Challenge 2017 hackathon took place this past weekend, and my team won first place for our location!

The event was a great opportunity to learn about invasive species, dance to really loud electro-pop music that may or may not still be stuck in my head, and build a product to help the local ecosystem.

Trace Invaders: Tackling Florida’s Lionfish Problem

All of the challenges posted on the official website invited participants to solve problems related to outer space and Earth’s environment. My team chose Trace Invaders, a challenge to create a tool that gathers information about local invasive species from people in the area.


I personally think that lionfish are pretty ugly, but they were originally brought into Florida because people thought they looked cool and wanted them for their aquariums. When the lionfish started eating just about everything else in the tank, though, their owners released them into the ocean. Bad idea! They reproduce faster than rabbits, adapt extremely well to their environments, prey on native fish, and have no natural predators. Nowadays, lionfish are a huge threat to Florida’s underwater ecosystem.

To help combat this issue, my team developed Gulf Keeper.

Gulf Keeper: A Lionfish Tracking App

gulf keeper loading screen

Gulf Keeper is an Android app that collects data about the lionfish’s whereabouts from users who upload details about their catches to our database.

gulf keeper sign up screen

Because it can be hard to get an Internet connection when you’re out at sea, Gulf Keeper can be used in offline mode — upload your catch info anywhere, and the database will update once you’re connected again.

gulf keeper main screen

gulf keeper map screen

It’s easy to tell the app about your catch. Clicking “Add Catch” under the main screen will bring up a map. Tap a location on the map, enter the date, time, and weather, and you’re done. You’ll also be able to see markers left by other people — the map is blank right now because we haven’t gotten any user data yet.

gulf keeper fish buttons screen

The app also aims to keep people from hunting endangered fish by providing pictures and descriptions of vulnerable species in the area.

gulf keeper queen triggerfish screen

gulf keeper hogfish screen

As the map becomes more and more populated with each user entry, lionfish hunters will know the best places to hunt with one quick look at the app.

Developmental Challenges

No one on the team had built Android apps before, but one of us found MIT App Inventor 2, which allows users to build apps through a graphical interface. With AI2, we were able to get the UI done fairly quickly, allowing us to concentrate our efforts on implementing features. The AI2 emulator only worked on one of our laptops, which got annoying at times, but other than that, there weren’t any significant challenges we encountered during the development phase.

Post-Hackathon Development + Extra Features to Implement

Of course, 48 hours is only enough to build a prototype and not a fully functional app. We’re currently working on fixing bugs and giving Gulf Keeper a few new features:

Catch leaderboard. Lionfish derby season is coming up soon — how cool would it be if participants used Gulf Keeper to track the lionfish they caught? With a leaderboard, users would be able to see how far they’re ranked compared to people they know. There’s nothing like the sweet, sweet victory of seeing your name appear highly ranked on a leaderboard; the competitive spirit will get people going and motivate them to hunt even more lionfish.

gulf keeper lionfish screen

Endangered species marker. The markers put down on the map are red for lionfish; we’re working on a feature that will put down a different colored marker for endangered fish species. This way, the app can be used to not only spot good lionfish hunting areas, but tell others which areas to avoid fishing in in order to preserve vulnerable fish.

Possible iOS release version. As a lover of all things Apple and an aspiring iOS developer, I’m strongly considering keeping this version as a prototype and developing Gulf Keeper for iPhone. App Inventor 2 was good for what we needed to get done, but it doesn’t offer a lot in terms of customization. I’d love to re-create Gulf Keeper with a beautiful user interface and easily extensible code in the background.

The Prizes

mission mini

We won an Endless Mission Mini and two tickets to Cape Canaveral. I’m excited to go this summer — look out for a blog post when the time comes!

What’s Next?

Because we won first place for our area, my team gets to go on and compete in the global judging round. I’m looking forward to seeing the winning ideas from other places. If we win the next round, we’ll get to go to a NASA launch event — how cool would that be?

Participating in the Space Apps challenge and learning how to quickly prototype an app was invaluable. I can see myself using App Inventor 2 in the future to demonstrate basic functionality (and mess around with it to make dumb apps when I’m bored). I can’t wait for the next hackathon!

Mimi Chenyao