Ariel Waldman hacks new ways to collaborate in science and tech

26 May 2015

Ariel Waldman

Through hacks and open data, Inspirefest 2015 speaker Ariel Waldman is enabling ‘massive multi-player’ science.

Have you ever yearned to make a scientific discovery about space but felt hampered by, say, the lack of a PhD in astrophysics? Or maybe you can see better ways of designing tech, but how do you make that a reality?

San Francisco-based Ariel Waldman can help, by enabling citizen science, where anyone with an interest and an internet connection can contribute online through collaborative websites, or in person through hackathons.

“I focus on creating ‘massively multi-player science’,” she explains. “That means getting people without formal science backgrounds to actively contribute to science and, equally, getting scientists to engage in multi-disciplinary collaborations to produce serendipitous discoveries.”

From ads to NASA

Waldman, whose background is in graphic design, had something of an epiphany about discovery when she watched a documentary about the early days of space exploration at NASA. “One of the things in the documentary that really stuck with me was when they were interviewing different people who were part of NASA at that time,” she recalls. “They didn’t know about spacecrafts or orbits or rocket science and they were having to figure it out and learn as they went along.”

That inspired Waldman to contact NASA, and her timing was perfect. “They had just created a job description [that suited] and I applied for the job and got it, which was incredibly unexpected and it completely changed my life,” she says. “I had never self-identified as a space geek but being given the chance to work at NASA, how could you not be into it.”

She worked on a programme called Co-Lab that linked NASA with outside communities, such as amateur astronomers and start-ups, and sought to make data more accessible and to build collaborations.


Her time with NASA inspired Waldman to set up, an online directory of projects where people can contribute online to space exploration, perhaps by sourcing images of Mars for surface features, seeking out new exoplanets or spotting solar explosions.

“I had realised there were a lot of different ways in which people could do this, but a lot of them were hidden in government websites or were promoted to people who were already identified as space geeks,” she explains. “I think there are a lot of people who say they were would love to work at NASA or work on a Mars rover but they don’t self-identify as a space geek necessarily, and it is important to me to focus on how to break space and science out [of that].”

Science hack day

Waldman is also global director of Science Hack Day, which started in 2010. “It’s a two-day, all-night event in which scientists, designers, developers and people from all different backgrounds get together in the same physical space to see what they can rapidly prototype in 24 consecutive hours,” she explains. “The mission is really around getting people excited and making things with science.”

More than 50 Science Hack Days have now taken place around the world, including several in Ireland, where rocket scientist and engineer Dr David McKeown is a driving force of Science Hack Day Dublin.

Waldman is reluctant to choose a favourite among the ‘hacks’ that result from such events, saying there are too many that stand out. “Because Science Hack Day is inherently as broad as science is, representing neuroscience, oceanography, geophysics, space, biotech and everything else, there are always amazing hacks in every direction.”

Recognising women

in 2013, Waldman was honoured at the US White House ‘as a Champion of Change for her dedication to increasing public engagement in science and science literacy’, and she would like to see the women who are working in science and tech being more widely represented.

“It is really fascinating being in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, because I don’t think I have been to a place where I have encountered more women that are doing amazing things, yet Silicon Valley suffers from a huge issue about this,” she says. “And when I went to work at NASA I expected it to be male dominated but, at least from my personal perspective of when I was working there, it didn’t feel that way at all, there were a lot of women. I am speaking anecdotally rather than from data, but there is an amazing diversity of women doing amazing things, and it’s sad to see women not properly represented.”

 Science and art mash

Waldman is looking forward to revisiting Dublin for Inspirefest2015 next month, because she likes the way we mix disciplines and perspectives. “I go to a lot of cities where science and art and tech are divided up,” she says. “But in Dublin I met so many people who were already doing all these multi-disciplinary collaborations … I was blown away by the culture you have.”

Inspirefest 2015 is Silicon Republic’s international event running 18-20 June in Dublin that connects sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

To celebrate Ireland’s historic Yes to marriage equality, we are releasing a limited number of 2-for-1 Late Bird tickets for our readers. Simply email with the subject line ‘Inspirefest 2-for-1′ and we will send you a special code to purchase your tickets. Offer ends midnight May 31st. First come, first served!

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication