Explore a Biodiversity Hotspot with Imaging Spectroscopy

Use your skills to explore life on Earth! New imaging spectrometer data from NASA is dramatically improving our ability to measure and monitor biodiversity from space.

Your challenge is to use publicly available imaging spectroscopy data to characterize and map a biodiversity hotspot in South Africa.


NASA’s evolving technology equips us with ever-improving tools to explore life on Earth and assess the potential for other planets to support and sustain life. Biodiversity enables processes essential for maintaining life on Earth, including climate regulation, air and water purification, nutrient cycling, and more. NASA's focus on biodiversity aligns with its mission to study Earth's complex interconnected systems and support long-term planetary health and sustainability.

NASA's spectrometers capture detailed spectral signatures of Earth's surface at high resolution, exceeding the data capabilities of traditional remote sensing methods. For example, NASA currently uses spectrometers like EMIT (the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation) on the International Space Station to capture reflected light from the Earth’s surface. Unlike a regular digital image, each pixel of EMIT data has a detailed spectral signature with hundreds of narrow, contiguous bands—a fingerprint of the Earth System. This massive amount of information presents more opportunities for mapping than conventional remote sensing methods, which often capture only a few broad bands (e.g., near-infrared, red, green, blue). Each location’s detailed spectral signature is determined by the biotic and abiotic components in the pixel. For example, oak and pine trees have different spectral signatures, as do different types of soil, water, and anthropogenic materials. These differences allow us to differentiate specific ecosystems, survey vegetation types, measure plant functional traits (such as how much nitrogen is in the canopy), or even distinguish what types of phytoplankton are in the water.

Before sending spectrometers to space, NASA tests these tools by conducting field campaigns that simultaneously collect observations obtained from the instruments in airplanes and observations taken by scientists on the ground. These two sets of simultaneous observations are used to validate the remotely sensed data and understand what we can observe from above.

During this hackathon, NASA’s Biodiversity Survey of the Cape (BioSCape) will be in full swing, flying NASA instruments on aircraft and deploying field teams to collect data in the exceptionally biodiverse Cape Floristic Region of South Africa. BioSCape’s primary objective is to understand the structure, function, and composition of the region’s ecosystems, and it aims to learn how and why they are changing in time and space, on land and in water. BioSCape research themes include:

1.The distribution and abundance of biodiversity
2.The role of biodiversity in ecosystem functions
3.The feedbacks between global change, biodiversity change, and ecosystem services


Your challenge is to use publicly available imaging spectroscopy data to characterize and map information about the biodiversity in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa. You may use publicly available data from NASA sensors (including EMIT), citizen scientists, and other reliable sources.

Are you ready to solve this challenge? Can you use the data to map plant communities or phytoplankton communities? Can you explain why certain species reside in some locations and not others? Can you identify how some ecosystems (or ecosystem components) contribute to human livelihoods or respond to global change? Can you use imaging spectroscopy data to create a compelling visualization of the biodiversity of this area? This open-ended challenge has no bounds!


You may (but are not required to) consider the following:

  • The BioSCape domain has a rectangular latitude/longitude bounding box (WGS84) of:
    xmin=16.2, ymin=-35.56, xmax=27.76, ymax= -27.72.

    [insert photo]

    Figure 1: Map illustrating the BioSCape domain in South Africa. Image created by the BioSCape team with ESRI “World Imagery” basemap.

  • Tips to obtain and use EMIT data:
  • EMIT Imaging Spectroscopy data (see Resources) are relatively new (EMIT launched in late 2022) and require pre-processing for most analyses.
  • The NASA EMIT team has released the EMIT Data Tutorial Series (see Resources) with topics on converting EMIT data to ENVI (Environment for Visualizing Image) Format, orthorectifying, extracting point/area data, and using information about the quality of EMIT data to remove noisy observations.
  • It’s also possible to directly access EMIT data through Amazon S3; check out the EMIT Data Tutorial Series (see Resources) for directions.
  • You can also use NASA's Common Metadata Repository (CMR) Application Programming Interface (API) (see Resources) to obtain EMIT Data.

  • Here are some possible approaches you could employ to meet this challenge:
  • Spectral Diversity: use spatial variability of reflectance as a proxy for biological variation on the ground or in the water to explore which areas have more diversity on Earth’s surface.
  • Habitat Mapping: identify different habitats on land or in water and map their distribution, thereby providing insight into the diversity of species that inhabit these areas.
  • Species Distribution Mapping: combine gridded data with other information about where particular species of conservation interest live to identify their habitats and inform conservation efforts.
  • Ecosystem Health Monitoring: quantify ecosystem health by identifying variation in water quality, distinguishing water sources and availability, accounting for wildfire, identifying areas of land cover change, and monitoring the impact of climate change.
  • Communication and Storytelling: create visual or other storytelling devices that help communicate information about biodiversity from the Cape Floristic Region to a wide audience. You could develop interactive maps that allow users to explore different habitats, species distributions, and ecosystem dynamics or a creative visualization of spectral signatures.
  • Solutions to this challenge could possibly include:
  • A website summarizing your analysis and visualizing the results
  • A coding notebook (jupyter/markdown/quarto/etc.) including code used to generate maps, images, or other visualizations
  • Artistic images or renderings of imaging spectroscopy and biodiversity in this region.

    For data and resources related to this challenge, refer to the Resources tab at the top of the page. More resources may be added before the hackathon begins.

  • Jubail
    Sep 30, 2023


    Oct 02, 2023

    Pollution Control Center

    Skills Needed
    Business developer
    Expert in space science
    Members Needed
    2 Request to Join the Team