Novoda in Italy: ESA AppCamp 2014

Ataul is a Google Developer Expert for Android focusing on inclusive design for mobile platforms and loves facilitating the production of universally useable apps. Also, he watches a lot of movies.

One month on, we look back to September when Novoda were selected to join four other teams at ESRIN in Italy to take part in the third annual ESA App Camp.

The European Space Agency (ESA) created the first AppCamp in 2012, inviting researchers and developers from all over Europe to participate in an eight-day competition. This year, we were lucky enough to be chosen from over a hundred applications, to visit ESRIN, ESA’s Centre for Earth Observation based in Frascati, Italy, where we would spend a little over a week building a prototype for an app backed by Earth Observation data.

What is Earth Observation?

In a nutshell, Earth Observation is the collecting of information about our planet, as well as the analysis and presentation of this data. ESA is huge player in this field, leading the European initiative to learn more about Earth via the use of remote sensors.

Copernicus

Copernicus is the European Commission’s Earth Observation Programme, aggregating data from a variety of sources:

ESA is responsible for the design and launch phases.

The Brief

Each group needed to develop an app to solve some existing problem (that is, has some market value), that was feasible to get started with currently available data, and one that used, in some way, the satellite data from the Copernicus Programme.

Devs hard at work

Copernicus offers six main services (datasets). We had to develop an app that fit into one of these services:

We entered under the land monitoring category; we released Cattle Manager early in 2013 under the Apps for Good programme, and we thought it’d be nice to expand on that and provide some utility for agricultural farmers too.

Antonio and Zvonko pairing

When we arrived and learned a bit more about what we had to do, we decided to switch to the marine monitoring category; no one else was tackling that and we had a good idea what we could do.

Qinu

Here’s the app: Qinu (the name is based on one of many Inuit words for ice), was built on the idea that the sea is dangerous. It provides easy to understand forecasts for ice thickness, ice density, speed and more, and is meant to facilitate the planning of shipping and fishing routes. There’s also the ability to collaborate with other vessels to enrich the data for everyone.

Layers were obtained from the Ramani API, providing overlays for Google Maps containing data (either based on samples or from the Contributing Missions) regarding all of the services mentioned before. We chose to include a subset of the layers pertaining to the marine service.

We added mock data to help visualise the social/crowd-sourced data aspect to Qinu: the idea is that users of the app would be able to augment the data obtained from the APIs, either verifying, correcting or adding information, inspired by spotter services that exist today. The hardest part of the camp was understanding what the end goal was. Working at Novoda, we had become used to a process where we work with a client that has a business need, typically approaching us with an existing customer base. The clients come with the knowledge about the product requirements, and we provide them with guidance and expertise in the Android space. In this case, we had a bunch of data sources, but no client. We decided to come up with a user persona (a small, unnamed fisherman) and tried to represent his needs in the app.

As it turns out, this was precisely the way to go. The judges at the end were looking for a story in the presentation—something to convince them that the app we proposed was going to use the data from the Copernicus programme to solve a real need, or at least a viable business opportunity. It wasn’t only the app they were interested in - they wanted to see ideas for the promotion (marketing) of the app, how we expected to grow and scale; the camp was just as much business as it was technical, which is something we didn’t expect but was really good to see from other teams.

Now that we have a decent idea of what the AppCamp is about, I can see us applying again next year with a pre-baked idea and a designer to add some sparkle and magic. If you’re a mobile developer (or development team), I’d highly recommend applying to the 2015 camp; there’s a great mix of people and very sharp minds, and it feels wonderful to work on something a little “bigger-picture” than usual.

A+++ would go again

About Novoda

We plan, design, and develop the world’s most desirable Android products. Our team’s expertise helps brands like Sony, Motorola, Tesco, Channel4, BBC, and News Corp build fully customized Android devices or simply make their mobile experiences the best on the market. Since 2008, our full in-house teams work from London, Liverpool, Berlin, Barcelona, and NYC.

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