Random Hacks of Kindness


rhokOn Friday November 13th Chris and I attended the first “Random Hacks of Kindness” (RHoK) codejam at the Hacker Dojo in Mountain View California, jointly organized by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Worldbank and NASA.

RHoK is an initiative that brings together disaster relief experts and software engineers to work on identifying key challenges to disaster relief, and developing solutions to these critical issues. This Codejam is the first of a series of RHoK events that will bring developers and domain experts together for a “give camp” to solve real world-problems related to Crisis/Disaster Relief.

The day started off with a keynote by Craig Fugate, the current FEMA administrator.  He emphasized the current need for better technologies to crowd source information to  identify the area’s where help is needed the most. He had an interesting example of deploying a Food and Water distribution center in the parking lot of a fully functional Wal Mart.  There is a need to deploy systems in rural areas and poor areas without competing against private sector companies.  There is a real need to find better ways of aggregating information.

The keynote was followed by technology demonstrations and lightning talks from Google, Yahoo and Microsoft and  disaster and relief experts.  It was no surprise that the technology demonstrations focused on the companies various API technologies and how they could interact better. It would have been nice if they had discussed some of the existing open source dissaster management technologies that are out there and in active use. The developer tools mentioned included Google’s Open Data Kit built on java Rosa, GeoSpacial, Data API’s and the App Engine along with Yahoo’s YQL query lanugage and Microsoft’s Silverlight. Chris Wanstrath one of the co-founders of GitHub gave a  talk about distributed Version control systems, which was oddly out of place in that talk grouping.

As the talks progressed, the event organizers presented several “challenges” that they wanted participants to start exploring possible solutions to. The problem definition’s can be found here.

After the talks we met up with Chris and Matt,  two Sahana developers from IBM who had flown in from NYC to attend. Together we made up the Sahana disaster management system contingent at the event. We spent the afternoon session attending bar camp style discussion groups, we proposed and held a session on “no Tech low Tech” to discuss solutions for situations when advanced technology isn’t a a viable solution.

After the bar camp sessions participants self organized into groups to look at the various challenges. We took a look at the “people finder” problem and came to the conclusion that many of the issues identified had potential solutions already implemented in Sahana. We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening playing with the instance of Sahana we had customized over the past few days for the Camp Roberts instance.  The folks from IBM demonstrated a bootable USB stick instance of Sahana and Mesh networking capability on Saturday, called disaster mesh, winning a RHoK sweatshirt in the process.

Chris and I had to leave around 8:30 pm to catch our red eyes back to Hartford.  We look forward to attending the next RHoK event in Washington DC in the first quarter of 2010.

  1. #1 by Roger on November 29, 2009 - 6:50 am

    What is meant by FEMAs “crisis” ?

    Is it new command & control technologies for deploying riot police!

    Surely you should be working with NGO aid agencies, in Africa or wherever sudden natural disasters happen.

    The real challenge is fast mobilisation of aid & state rescue/supplies. Currently we can mobilse hundreds of useless journalsts to fly out to the remotist places, but it takes weeks to mobilse emergency aid eg. rescue teams.

    I think you should be sorting out global satalite broadband for communication for NGOs/charities.

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