Hackathon weekend could yield solutions for disaster relief

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra encourages people to hack to save lives

A marathon weekend of hacking and coding competitions geared for developing software to support disaster relief efforts got underway this weekend after a keynote reception at the U.S. State Department.

Google, Microsoft, NASA, The World Bank and Yahoo are partners in an initiative called Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) with the mission to mobilize a global community of technologists to solve real-world problems through technology.

Random Hacks of Kindness brings together subject matter experts from the sustainable development, disaster risk management, and software developer communities to define problems. Then the initiative sets loose the best and brightest available hackers to solve them over the course of a single weekend.

The second Hackathon is international in scope, taking place June 4 through 6 at Microsoft offices in Chevy Chase, MD., with simultaneous events in Nairobi, Sydney, Jakarta and Sao Paolo. The Washington area event included a kickoff reception at the State Department.

Federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra endorsed the initiative, encouraging widespread participation in his June 3 blog.

“Participation is free and open to everyone, so software engineers, hackers, students, and volunteers, grab your laptops and come out this weekend to put your expertise to work in helping to solve some of the most pressing issues we face around the world,” Chopra wrote.

The U.S. event will conclude with an awards ceremony showcasing the winning hacks in the Microsoft Atrium.


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The first Hackathon, held in November 2009 in Mountain View, Calif., resulted in software solutions that were later implemented in Haiti and Chile following the massive earthquakes there in early 2010.

The winner was an application called “I’m OK,” which runs on Android, BlackBerry or iPhone smart phones, said Robbie Schlesinger, an executive with NASA’s Office for Open Government

“When installed on your phone it tells you who to contact. It will call or text someone or change your Facebook or Twitter status,” Schlesinger said, adding that NASA developers worked along with other developers on the application. The application has been installed on people’s phones in the World Bank’s Latin American and Caribbean division and was used during the Chile earthquake, he said.

This time around NASA has posted about 15 problem statements on its Web site, focused on solving problems related to sustainable development.

“We are trying to build a community of developers who understand the needs of people doing sustainable development activity, and sustainable development practitioners who kind of understand something about technology -- the early adopters,” Schlesinger said.

Then the people on the ground who understand the problems can communicate with developers so they can better understand how to build specifications that will in turn result in the development of the appropriate technology solution, he said.

Other applications that could come out of the effort include real-time imagery processing solutions and people finder software, said Curt Kolcun, vice president of Microsoft’s U.S. Public Sector.

Everything developed in the Hackathon is free and open-source, so developers can build interfaces and add to the applications, Kolcun and Schlesinger said.

“The point is to build a community of people and have fun doing it," Schlesinger noted.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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