Boston hackathons to target mobile apps for disaster response

by Andrew Oram

This was originally published on O’Reilly Media’s Strata blog, September 21, 2012.

Boston-area programmers can do a good deed and experiment with some unusual technologies at two upcoming hackathons that aid disaster response. The first hackathon takes place at MIT on October 5 and 6, and the second is at MassChallenge on November 2 and 3. Both are sponsored by AT&T along with other organizations, and feature mobile development.

I talked with Willow Brugh of Geeks Without Bounds, a self-described "accelerator for humanitarian projects" that mentors teams working on such things as development efforts and disaster response. GWB vetted the hackathon challenges and helped put them on a footing that should maximize success. Brugh told me of some of foci for the challenges.

Each challenge will allow developers to take the spotlight to propose their projects, as at most hackathons, and recruit other developers to work on them. But the MIT challenge will include an opportunity to work on an MIT project called OpenIR, which makes it easier to use satellite data to pick out features of the landscape of critical importance to disaster recovery, such as water or fire damage.

The MassChallenge event will similarly highlight Need Comms Now, a tool with the dual purpose of helping disaster respondents find working cell phone towers and conserve phone batteries. This project includes a server and an Android app. When the app detects the presence of a cell phone tower, it uploads the information to the server to help other respondents using the app. The app also downloads fresh data regularly about available towers, so that a respondent can avoid trying to connect until the signal is good, saving the battery.

Like many technologies designed for special purposes, OpenIR and Need Comms Now may prove valuable in more common scenarios too. Anyway, the disaster response technologies promise to be interesting and worth checking out at the hackathons.

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