Up to the Challenge

Up to the Challenge

In his leisure time, rather than solving crossword or Sudoku puzzles for intellectual stimulation, Abdal Elhassari enjoys solving challenges that are real problems for cash prizes. Last summer after reading about the NASA OpenNEX Challenge Phase I, the master’s student in management information systems (MS-MIT) at the IU South Bend Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics decided he was up to the task. “I knew I could do it,” he said in a confident, soft-spoken voice. “I have some experience with spatial data working part-time at Data Realty.”

In August, NASA announced Elhassari’s idea was one of four selected to win the OpenNex Challenge. Phase I of the challenge was to propose an innovative use for NASA’s OpenNEX large collection of climate projection and Earth-observing data. Elhassari suggested an application to predict how plant hardiness zones will change in the future with a changing climate. “I brainstormed what other data sets could be combined with the NASA climate projection data,” Elhassari explained. “I asked myself what if we could combine the plant hardiness zone map with NASA’s climate projection data to see how the zones might change in 50 or 100 years?”

Using experience gained in his MS-MIT Decisions Support Systems class, which taught him how to gather data from different sources and organize it for good decision support, Elhassari suggested the idea of connecting NASA’s data sets of spatial climate projections with the USDA plants database and the plants hardiness zone map to predict how the plant hardiness zone map will look in ten year increments over the next 100 years.

Elhassari’s contest ambitions didn’t end with winning Phase I of the OpenNEX Challenge. He’s on to Phase II, building the application. “Phase I is coming up with idea,” he said. “Phase ll is doing it.” If his application wins the NASA OpenEX Phase ll challenge, he’ll win $25K, four times the prize money he won in Phase I.

So what is the predicted future for plant hardiness zones over the next 100 years with climate change? Elhassari isn’t sure, but he predicts that likely there will be some change. “We could still grow the plants that are hardy today in Zone 6,” he predicted, “but we might also be able to grow some new plants in our zone that for now can only grow in Kentucky.” Although it might sound exciting to be able to grow a new species of plants in an area, Elhassari suggested there may also be some negative consequences. “An invasive plant species could begin to grow in the region just because conditions are warmer, threatening crops and landscapes,” he explained.

This isn’t the first challenge contest Elhassari has entered and won. Last May, he won the Research Institute Nomenclature Listings Challenge along with a $4500 prize. “It’s something I can do on my own and be as creative as I like,” he commented. “I enjoy the challenge and winning the prize money.”

A native of Morocco, Elhassari came to the United States to earn his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology at North Dakota State. In 2012, he arrived at IU South Bend to pursue his MS-MIT degree at the Judd Leighton School of Business and Economics. When he graduates in the spring, he plans to work full-time at Data Realty, and continue to solve challenges in his spare time.

As the conversation wrapped up, Elhassari’s shared his hopes for Phase II of NASA’s OpenEx Challenge. “Maybe will meet again after NASA announces the Phase II winner,” he said with a smile.