Hackers create tools for disaster relief

At the first-ever Random Hacks of Kindness event, developers work on technology tools that emergency relief workers can use in disasters.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo may be tough competitors when it comes to Internet software and services, but they are putting their differences aside to build a developer community to tackle bigger picture problems like saving lives in emergencies.

The companies have joined with NASA, the World Bank, and PR agency SecondMuse to organize the first-ever Random Hacks of Kindness event, which was held at a warehouse space-cum community center called Hacker Dojo this weekend. For two days, coders worked on ways to use technology to help solve real-world problems, such as how people can get information and find each other during disasters.

Developers gave presentations on their projects at the Random Hacks of Kindness event on Saturday at a space dubbed Hacker Dojo. Elinor Mills/CNET

The event came about after representatives from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo attended a Crisis Camp conference for emergency and disaster relief groups in Washington, D.C. in May. The technologists decided that they would join forces to create a community of developers to build tools to help emergency workers.

"We're trying to seed the community," said Jeffery Martin, business product manager for Google Crisis Response. "We're saying, partner with the private sector and we can push technology forward and innovate."

Developers worked on a dozen or so tools that could help disaster and emergency workers in times of crisis. Several tools took advantage of social media sites, like Twitter, and SMS for information sharing. One project envisioned using laptops, routers, mobile devices, USB keys and Wi-Fi to create a mesh network for times when normal networks are down.

Several projects explored the use of maps, including one group that built a widget that allows a user to click on a point in a map to have the coordinates automatically inserted into a message that can then be posted to multiple social networks at once via the HelloTXT service.

The first-place prize went to a group of Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley researchers who also work at NASA. They worked on a mobile notification app that can be used when regular cellular networks are so bogged down people can't make phone calls. Using the "I'm OK" app, people can easily notify friends and family members that they are safe via SMS by clicking one button. The "I'm OK" message is then instantly distributed to everyone a user has designated on a pre-set contact list.

The I'm OK mobile app lets people notify loved ones via SMS that they are safe. Elinor Mills/CNET

Separately, NASA coders collaborated with Google on a GeoCam tool that was used by people fighting California fires earlier this year to place photos of burn areas that were taken by GPS-enabled cell phones on maps so workers can see what damage is like in specific locations.

In addition to training AMES Research Center employees to be first responders in disasters, NASA wants to offer developers use of the satellite and other earth science data collected by its space crafts, which comes to about four terabytes per day, said Robert Schingler, a project manager in the office of center director at NASA Ames research center at nearby Moffett Field. NASA also has tools to analyze the data, which provide information about things like sea surface temperatures, ice sheet activity, and aerosols in the upper atmosphere, he said.

"We've got 40 years of data," Schingler said. But, NASA needs a good application programming interface (API) so developers can make better use of it, he said. Meanwhile, the tools developed at Random Hacks of Kindness events could be used by workers at the World Bank and other agencies.

"It's a perfect opportunity to mobilize the technology community to work on issues such as sustainable development and disaster relief," said Emma Phillips, a consultant in disaster risk management and sustainable development at the World Bank. "This is a first step in building community, and bringing together the public and private sectors for a common goal."

The next Random Hacks of Kindness event will be early next year in Washington, D.C.

 

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