Hackers Unite in the Name of Disaster Preparedness

Random Hacks of Kindness attracts disaster relief experts and software engineers to innovate technology solutions.

by / November 17, 2009
Jeremy Johnstone, Yahoo! Inc.

Building a developer community to tackle IT and communications issues related to disaster relief is not a simple task, but when Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, NASA and the WorldBank team up, they mean business. The entities sponsored the two-day event — called Random Hacks of Kindness (RhoK) — in which developers tried to solve real-world disaster relief issues with technology at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, Calif.

The idea came from the May 2009 Crisis Camp during which representatives from Microsoft, Google and Yahoo discussed what each company was doing regarding emergency response. “We also recognized that it’s sort of a stovepiped approach to what our companies are doing and the fact that we each have our own systems,” said Patrick Svenburg, senior manager of Microsoft Federal Business. “And one of the examples that we found was that during Katrina there was something like 17 different missing persons databases online.

“We painted this mental picture for ourselves that you’re sitting on a dial-up line computer in the Super Dome during Katrina with almost no electricity and trying to find your 8-year-old missing daughter. You have to go through 17 different databases that didn’t talk to each other — we know how to fix that.”

The first RhoK hackathon — an event where programmers get together over a period of time and work on creating technological solutions to a defined set of challenges — combined coders and subject-matter experts to address IT problems related to disaster preparedness and relief. Svenburg said 60 problems were defined at information gathering sessions held before the event that could be alleviated with technology solutions. The number was narrowed to 12 problems for hackers to choose from.

Svenburg said there were two goals for the hackathon: First, for programmers to develop programs that addressed the issues identified. “We actually had some progress, we don’t expect to solve world hunger or everything at one event, you know, it’s a 24-hour hackathon, you can only make so much progress,” he said. The second goal was to lay the foundation of building a global developer community around the initiative. All of the hacks will be posted on GitHub — an open source community — so developers can evolve the solution by taking part of the code and elaborating on it.

Although FEMA wasn’t an event sponsor, Administrator Craig Fugate keynoted the initiative. Fugate challenged the programmers to devise an easy way for families to put together emergency communications plans online. He also offered a prize for the best program addressing the issue: a chance to present the solution at a FEMA meeting in February 2010.

Svenburg said the winning program was called Break Glass and was a combination of an emergency preparedness plan and a disaster notification tool to alert friends and family about one’s well-being. Break Glass is a smartphone application that allows people to track their emergency preparedness plan, like where to meet, who is responsible for picking up children from school, etc. “It will actually let you document that stuff and think about it proactively,” Svenburg said. “Plus at the touch of a single button, you can choose to communicate with your network and not only do that through voice, which is quite data intensive and tough to get out at times, but also through [short message service], which has much smaller data packages that can be pushed out.”

Another program developed during the hackathon, called I’m OK, is an easy way for someone to tell their family and friends that they’re all right following a disaster. The user creates a group of people in their cell phone and then following an emergency can push one button to send a message to everyone that says, “I’m OK.”

The next RhoK event will take place in February or March 2010 in Washington, D.C. Svenburg encouraged first responders and emergency managers to bring their experience and expertise to the event and outline what technology is or isn’t working it the field.

“We fully understand that each state and local emergency response team out there aren’t experts on information technology or GIS, but team up with students, academia, at Random Hacks of Kindness to figure out how you can better use technologies that are available today for free and integrate them into your systems and crisis response management plans,” he said.

[Photo courtesy of Jeremy Johnstone, Yahoo Inc.]


Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.