New Space and Tech

NASA Establishes Tournament Lab For Software Developers

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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NASA and Harvard University have established the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), which will enable software developers to compete with each other to create the best computer code for NASA systems. The NTL provides an online virtual facility for NASA researchers with a computational or complex data processing challenge to “order” a solution, just like they would order laboratory tests or supplies.

Software developers will compete with each other to create a winning solution, as measured by internal code quality, performance against benchmarks, and the ability to be integrated into NASA systems. The competition will provide the researchers with a finished software solution at a lower cost than if they hired an individual developer or team.

“NASA is at the forefront of this cutting edge approach,” said Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We want to advance knowledge of how to manage these tournaments and gain solutions to technical mission requirements with real world results for operational and future programs.”

This approach, often termed “crowd sourcing” or “broadcast search,” lessens the effects of uncertainty in software development by searching for a problem’s solution through multiple, parallel paths. Instead of relying on one individual or team, the researcher can access many, independent ideas, which increases the chances of a successful solution.
The lab will be housed at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science under the direction of Principal Investigator and Harvard Business School Professor Karim R. Lakhani, a leading scholar on distributed innovation and crowdsourcing. London Business School Professor Kevin Boudreau, an expert on platform-based competition, will be the chief economist of the NTL.

Under the NTL initiative, Lakhani and Boudreau also will conduct basic empirical research on the appropriate contest design parameters that yield the most effective solutions in a tournament setting. This will enable the routine use of innovation tournaments as a problem solving approach within NASA and the rest of the public sector. Harvard will collaborate with TopCoder Inc., a company that administers contests in software architecture and development, to manage and conduct the tournaments.

Lakhani and Boudreau have previously worked with challenge implementation companies to launch three experimental competitions using problems from the Harvard Medical School’s Clinical and Translational Science Center and NASA’s division of Space Life Sciences. Results from the experiments demonstrated the ability to deliver high performing solutions and extend the concept of innovation tournaments to scientific and engineering contexts.

Founded in 2001, TopCoder provides a stable infrastructure for conducting competitions. Through its website, members obtain problems; submit solutions, judge submissions, and view results, scores and statistics.

All member activities are tracked in real-time and performance statistics are made available for all to see. The website also enhances interaction through a “town square” with discussion boards and a wiki to share information.

For additional information about the NASA Tournament Lab initiative, visit:

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