“Random Hacks of Kindness” to Aid Emergency Response

November 20, 2009
by Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
E-mail About the Author

Some of the digital world’s most bitter rivals have joined forces with government and public-sector organizations to develop solutions for disaster relief. An inaugural meeting November 12-14 in Mountain View, California, already has generated some products, and the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has lauded the effort and has pledged support.


Software developers work on solutions to disaster response challenges at the Random Hacks of Kindness codejam held in Mountain View, California, November 12-14.

Known as Random Hacks of Kindness, the initiative came together as a result of a Crisis Camp barcamp held in Washington, D.C., last June. At that meeting, representatives from Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! serving on a panel decided to work together to develop free and open-source coding for disaster response software solutions. They later were joined by SecondMuse, NASA and the World Bank, and this collaborative collection hosted the November event at which prizes were awarded to the best solutions presented and the groundwork was laid for a long-term effort.

Patrick Svenburg is a senior manager at Microsoft Federal who participated in the June Crisis Camp panel with counterparts from Google and Yahoo!. He explains that the “hacks” in the program’s name do not refer to computerized break-ins by malefactors. These benevolent hacks comprise constructive meetings by cooperative experts who seek to develop specific solutions for problems before they emerge. “We’re not trying to break into the Pentagon—nothing of the sort,” he emphasizes.

Instead, the group strives to develop solutions that may be unique to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami. Citing Katrina, he relates how 17 different missing-persons databases that could not merge or share information confounded people who were trying to find loved ones. A simple protocol that could provide interoperability among those diverse databases could avoid that confusion.

Many of these small but critical solutions can be developed by bringing together major players who can concentrate on open solutions. So, Random Hacks of Kindness was formed to create a global community of developers and software engineers that can be connected with subject matter experts to generate these solutions, Svenburg relates. “The focus is not on the companies involved; it’s on building a sustainable community,” he says.

The November codejam featured about a dozen different problem statements that were shared with the more than 100 developers who attended the first event. Roughly seven of these statements were “hacked” by the attending developers, who developed tangible solutions, Svenburg shares.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate attended the event and gave a keynote address in which he outlined the government’s needs. Emphasizing that all crisis response begins with a local initiative, Fugate declared that the event’s technologists are essential for building a strong national emergency response team, Svenburg relates.

Fugate specifically challenged programmers to develop an easy way for families to put together emergency communications plans. Solutions to that challenge were the top winners of event prizes, one of which was given by FEMA. The FEMA Prize went to “Break Glass,” a simple means to build and retrieve an emergency family communication plan using a telephone.


Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate addresses the more than 100 software developers attending the Random Hacks of Kindness codejam in November.

The event’s First-Prize award went to “I’m OK,” a Web site and mobile application that allows a user in a disaster situation to inform friends and family that he or she is okay. It has been configured for iPhones, and developers are working on an Android version. Runner-up prizes went to systems that empowered citizen event reporters through social media, created a mesh network of diverse types of digital platforms, and automatically processed aerial imagery collected by an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The initiative already is spreading overseas. The group has received inquiries from people seeking to engage in similar activities in other countries such as Italy, France and Australia. The initiative is open to all who want to participate, Svenburg emphasizes.

With the success of the November codejam in Mountain View, plans are underway for a sequel on the East Coast—probably in late February or early March in the Washington, D.C., area, Svenburg offers. Different regions feature dissimilar communities that have diverse expertise, which opens the door to new solutions. The goal is for a bigger and better event that builds on its November progenitor.

“We provide a lot of Red Bull, pizza, good ambience and a meaningful site where people can exchange ideas and build software solutions,” he says.

Photography by Jeremy Johnstone, Yahoo! Inc.

Enjoyed this article? SUBSCRIBE NOW to keep the content flowing.