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Civic Tech Is the Star of a New Documentary About Disasters

The film, which is titled Code & Response, is part of a larger effort by IBM to help foster and support projects aimed at helping communities prepare for and recover from a global spike in natural disasters.

A new documentary is making the film festival rounds and collecting accolades, and, perhaps a bit surprisingly, it’s all about civic tech.

Dubbed Code & Response, the movie was directed by Austin Peck and produced by George Hammer, and it follows a group of developers as they use their skills to help first responders battle the ongoing wave of global natural disasters. Through the course of the 1 hour and 15 minute run time, disasters strike before response efforts are subsequently aided by projects straight out of a hackathon. It is, essentially, a new and creative way to tell the story of what can happen when citizen expertise comes together with government needs, leading to products that can be scaled to public agencies across the planet, yielding real changes in people’s lives.

The film takes audiences to Northern California, where Kenji Kato builds an app called Wildfire Report, which helps first responders and communities accurately track the progress of fires and also find the safest paths to evacuate. It also goes to Puerto Rico, where Pedro Cruz struggles to communicate with his grandmother during Hurricane Maria, before subsequently building an AI-driven technology called DroneAid that is designed to help him do just that.

The film includes similar examples of civic tech work in Japan and Mexico as well. In fact, Code & Response producer George Hammer said that as the crew was making the film, the unprecedented rate of disasters in 2018 gave them constant choices for incidents and subsequent civic tech work to help recover. 

“The problem is accelerating, but the innovation is accelerating now too after we’ve connected a community and allowed them to build upon open source technologies,” Hammer said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to eventually catch up and go from disaster recovery to disaster prevention.”

In addition to chronicling the work already being done, part of the goal of the new film is to serve as a call for action for others who want to help, Hammer said. In fact, that was why they decided to make the film in the first place.

Code & Response is part of a program of the same name created by the tech giant IBM, where Hammer is also the head of content. The Code and Response program is IBM’s $25 million, four-year initiative aimed at building, testing and launching open tech solutions like the ones in the film that help with disaster prep and recovery. 

Hammer and others involved with the program decided to essentially advertise it through making the documentary, citing research that showed that the vast majority of IT professionals — roughly 80 percent — run ad-blocking programs on their computers. Telling the story with a documentary is an effort to reach a wider audience, versus simply advertising the program’s basics through traditional channels that are likely to be ignored.

“There was already a story there,” Hammer said. “We just had to point a camera at it and find the most interesting stories with a strong 'why.'”

Developer Kenji Kato, who built the aforementioned wildfire information app, was happy to share his own story and time in the documentary. Kato is actually a veteran of hackathons, which are more traditional civic tech events designed to spawn creations like those featured in the film. In fact, the Northern California resident has been attending them steadily since 2010. 

Kato said what he appreciates most about the film and the associated program is how it has the support — both in terms of financing and media visibility — to really drive results.

“Technology by itself is just technology,” Kato said. “Unless it has a focus that really draws people into how you use it and how it’s helpful, it doesn’t have that element that really makes it possible to be useful for everybody.”

Daniel Krook, CTO of IBM’s Code and Response initiative, elaborated on these ideas, noting that part of what the stakeholders here want to get across is that one doesn’t have to be a technologist to participate — or at least, doesn’t have to fit the traditional idea of a developer with a computer science degree. Krook said that there is much tech nowadays that enables people with all sorts of skill sets to execute ideas, and that IBM’s program is designed to pair people with technologists who have more advanced skills.

On Sunday evening, the Code & Response film played at the Napa Valley Film Festival following a week of showings to local students. Kato, who attended the festival, said he spoke to many of those students’ parents, all of whom had been encouraged to attend and watch the movie by their children. 

It was a level of interest that Kato has rarely seen in his many years of civic tech work, and he left feeling encouraged, not just about what he’d built but about the potential for the public to get behind a culture of creating tech-based solutions to the problems facing us all.

The Code & Response documentary is slated to go live this week on several platforms, including Amazon, Vimeo, and AppleTV. Those interested in viewing the film can find more on IBM’s Code & Response website.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.