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NASA To Crowdsource Software Development

The agency has created an online lab that allows developers to compete to create solutions for problems submitted by NASA researchers.

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NASA has collaborated with Harvard University to open a new virtual laboratory in which software developers can compete to create code for the space agency.

Taking a crowdsourcing approach to software development, NASA researchers will use the NASA Tournament Lab, an online environment, to ask for a solution to a computational or complex data-processing challenge, according to the space agency.

Developers then can compete with each other to solve the problems, with solutions rated based on internal code quality, performance against benchmarks and the ability to be integrated into NASA systems. The win for the space agency is that it will receive new applications for a lower cost than if it were to hire outside developers, according to NASA.

The Obama administration has encouraged government agencies to use challenges to foster innovation and make the U.S. more competitive overseas in technology and science. NASA especially has embraced this strategy, offering numerous developer challenges to help it develop new technology. The NTL is actually a follow-up to NASA's TopCoder Challenge, in which developers were asked to develop algorithms to improve medical kits for use in long-duration human space exploration for NASA's Space Life Sciences Directorate. TopCoder Inc., which worked with NASA on that challenge, also is working with Harvard to administer NTL tournaments.

The Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science is hosting the lab under the direction of a crowdsourcing scholar, Harvard Business School Professor Karim R. Lakhani. The chief economist for the NTL is London Business School Professor Kevin Boudreau, an expert on platform-based competition. Both institutions also took part in the TopCoder Challenge.

Lakhani and Boudreau will use the lab to conduct their own research on contest design to determine what yields the best results. NASA and other government agencies will use this research to design future challenges, according to the space agency.

NASA will track the activities of NTL developers in real time and post performance statistics online. The NTL site also will feature discussion boards and a wiki on which developers can share information.

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