NIST lists winners of its first public app-building contest

The Reference Data Challenge called for apps to spur mobile usage of scientific data sets.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s ambition to make troves of scientific data easily accessible to the public via mobile devices took a step toward fruition Wednesday as it announced the victors of the Reference Data Challenge, its inaugural public app-building competition.

The challenge, announced in July, prompted developers to use six of NIST’s most popular data sets — from speed of light constants to the ionization energies for neutral atoms — to craft a user-friendly app that scientists could rely on to save time in the lab.

“We know that a lot of the data sets cover a range of basic and fundamental information to super-applied, everyday engineering data,” Heather Evans, a NIST policy analyst who oversaw the challenge, told FedScoop in July. “We don’t really have anything that we can give our stakeholders that want to view these websites on a mobile device.”

Over a span of two months, 25 developers submitted apps for consideration. A panel of experts from NIST and industry then evaluated the apps on four criteria: potential impact, creativity and innovation, user engagement, and effective use of NIST’s data.


First place, which carried a $30,000 prize, was awarded to Kris Reyes, founder of Meru Apps in Princeton, N.J., for his Meru Lab Reference. Reyes’ app takes advantage of near-field communication tags — “smart” chips which can exchange information with smart phones and other mobile devices — to allow scientists to access chemical species data with a simple tap, minimally interrupting workflow.

“In my first research job after earning my Ph.D., I became involved in research that combined data analysis and experimental materials science to accelerate scientific discovery,” Reyes said in a NIST announcement. “It’s there that I became really passionate toward developing techniques to use data to help scientists in their day-to-day work in a practical, data-driven manner.”

Second and third place awards, with prizes of $10,000 and $5,000, were awarded to Lab Pal, a quick reference engineering app, and Chembook, a compilation of chemical compounds and elements, respectively.

“I was really impressed with the creativity and hard work the app challenge participants put into generating fresh approaches to using NIST data,” said Evans. “I’m looking forward to building on the success of this challenge with more events in the future.”

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