Asteroid Design Jam at EchoUser

EchoUser brought together designers, astronomers, and researchers for a design jam on the problem of distilling complex asteroid data into compelling information for the general public.

At EchoUser HQ this week, our office held a design jam of armageddon-sized proportions. Designers and researchers from EU, along with designers from Further, SpaceGAMBIT, and Premise, were given the following challenge:
“How do we distill dense and complex asteroid data into useful, interesting, compelling, and intelligible information for the general public?”
NASA Minor Planet Center's Jose Luis Galache, our representing scientist and astronomer, gave the designers background on the data available. Essentially, NASA has a ton of data (size! composition! orbit! etc!) on over 60,000 objects. Great...now what do we do with it?

After digesting both our morning coffee and the challenge, we broke out into 4 teams and spent 2 hours conceptualizing and brainstorming ideas on how we could potentially bring this complicated data to the general public. As a group of non-scientific designers and researchers, we started with what we normally do in such design quandaries: learning about the users. Luckily, we were our target users!

Here’s what we came up with:

Team 1: (aste)Roid Rage!

This was my team! We focused on kids and the idea that we could trick them into learning about asteroids by turning the data into a super fun game. Our game (Asteroid Rage!) lets the user gain control of nearby asteroids (NEAs) using nukes, gyros, and white paint to attack friends. Users earn currency in the game by researching, observing, and analyzing much like an astronomer would. Currency can also be used to build asteroid defenses to protect your home base. Ideally the game would create a community of aspiring scientists and informed youngsters. Future versions would include mining, building custom asteroids, and the ability to launch asteroids at Minecraft environments.

Team 2: BadAsteroids

This team approached the challenge from a higher level by first identifying each type of persona that represented the array of users that make up "the public." Their three levels then informed the design of a basic platform where a user could drill into the information — and, at the very highest level, actually contribute information as well as develop apps that interact with the data in meaningful ways. Their solution engages everyone from the curious science student to the amateur astronomer.

Team 3: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Asteroid — The Winners!

During the initial briefing, JL brought up the fact that traffic on the Minor Planet Center’s website always spikes whenever an asteroid makes the news — such as the one that blew up over Russia last year. Based on this nugget of insight, Team HGttA decided that the MPC’s website could be enhanced with a more whimsical and innovative approach to the data. What if there was some sort of sidebar on the MPC’s website that looked similar to the trip-planning widget used for sites like Kayak and Expedia? Essentially, a user can "book" a trip on a nearby asteroid (currently there are 5 upcoming "flights") to better understand things like its flight path and how many NEAs are around at any given time, connecting the user to the data in a very human way. This unconventional idea won, and it’s no surprise given how cool it would be to allow a user to hitch a virtual ride around the solar system on a giant asteroid!

Team 4: Asteroid Runners

Also taking a page from the unconventional playbook, the Asteroid Runners proposed that the best way to get the public engaged with data is by pulling them out from behind their computers and onto the pavement. In this asteroid race, runners would be the asteroids with the goal to destroy Earth! Obstacles (Jupiter, the Asteroid Belt, etc.) would pop up over the course of this Ragnar Relay-style race. But alas, Earth is not totally doomed. There would be public participation as well for non-runners who, by answering trivia questions, could potentially save Earth from the asteroid-runners. The race would raise awareness as well as potentially raise funding for NEA research.
All in all, the jam was a success. The ideas were creative, inspiring, and definitely a springboard for integrating alternative ways of thinking into our upcoming Asteroid Hackathon event in October. For such a beastly problem as presenting a wealth of difficult data to the public, the jammers accomplished quite a bit in only 2 hours!

Can you spot our judge, Jose Luis?

Want even more? Along with our Asteroid Hackathon event in October, our very own Mick McGee and Amelia Altavena, submitted a SXSW talk to explore the topic even further and dive into the next generation of asteroids. SXSW serves as the perfect venue to replace the visions of blasting pixelated rocks in archaic video games with real ideas on how to use big data visualization and crowdsourcing to save the world from planet-destroying asteroids.

But - we can’t get to Austin without your help. Vote for Mick and Amelia to give them a chance to discuss more at SXSW Interactive next year!