numerous events to encourage hackers to expand their
skills, and produce meaningful gadgets and products. A
special conference "Random Hacks of Kindness" came to
Hacker Dojo on November 17th through 20th to provide a
unique opportunity for the creative developers. The goal of
the event was to design gadgets or programs that would
help people survive or recover in the event of a natural
disaster. At its heart, it's a competition designed to display a
wide range of products created to solve many different
aspects of a tragedy.
All of the contestants were judged based on three
criteria: innovation, impact, and practicality. The event was
sponsored by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, World Bank, and
Nasa-Ames. Craig Fugate, a FEMA (Federal Emergency
Management Agency) administrator, gave a keynote
presentation detailing the importance of these types of
projects. The requirements of the contest were generated
based on the idea that most victims in a disaster have
difficulty comprehending new and complicated technology,
and can't use them effectively in a disaster situation.
Groups of contestants were formed and gathered
together to discuss their plans. Some went for highly
technical plans, while others believed that simple ideas
would be the most practical. Each group had two days to
create a prototype or a proof of concept to demonstrate
their idea. With so little time, core functionality was
essential; the finer aspects could be developed at later
conferences or on their own time.
After time ran out, the contestants presented their
ideas to the judges one at a time. The judges were all
experts in their fields and had backgrounds with major
technology companies. The short presentations had to
prove that the idea was visionary and ready to be launched
to every area that needed it; all met the constraints of easy
to learn and use.
Many innovative projects were presented by groups
ranging from college students to seasoned professionals.
Two women from the University of Colorado started
the presentation phase with their project "Tweak the
Tweet." They focused on using Twitter to get useful and
relevant information to emergency response crews from the
survivors who witnessed the disaster first hand. It has been
noticed during recent disasters that there may be hundreds
of tweets sent containing information like "The house next
door is on fire" or "I am heading north, away from the fire."
This doesn't provide much information to rescue workers.
Instead, the college students suggested that a simple
language could be set up by authorities to make the tweets
easily searchable and readable. Examples included using
"#addy" and then the address to specify where the people
were located. Other notations would be about safe house
location and how many people could fit there. With a
62 SERVO 01.2010
special search engine, this data could be easily accessible by
emergency response personnel to help them quickly assess
situations and determine appropriate measures.
The next group presented an SMS (Short Message
Service) application that sends disaster information to
people in the corresponding area. All a person has to do is
type in his/her phone number and zip code into a website.
Then, authorities could use the list and send messages to
people in certain areas.
The key to this design is simplicity because it requires
very little effort from the average citizen. It also provides a
reliable way of spreading information if survivors could not
get to TV or radios for updates on a disaster.
A third project focused on enabling citizens with the
ability to provide unverified information that could help
locate missing individuals. This project took the form of a
website with a map and fields to fill in information about a
missing person. The location, time, and description of the
missing person would be captured. If this information could
be corroborated by other individuals, the authorities would
have a fairly good idea that the person was, in fact, alive
and in that area.
Gathering together unverified information instead of
only waiting for verified data from emergency crews could
speed up the time it took to allocate resources to help the
missing people. It also could provide the families of the
missing person with more timely information on their loved
For another project, one team ("Break Glass") used the
popular iPhone to construct an app that could easily and
simply display the family's emergency plan. It also holds
contact information for family friends that live out of the
state. The advantage of this is the ability to find ways to
meet up with and contact people even if the phone has no
service or someone picked up the device and wanted to
find out who it belonged to.
Requiring very little battery power, the app displayed
what the person needed to do in order to locate family
members and remain safe throughout the disaster. It also
has the ability to quickly send out a message to everyone in
the family with the push of a single button, including the
updating of social networking sites such as Facebook and
For another project, the group "I'm OK," created an app
for iPhones that lets users easily send out a message to
relatives — in the event of an emergency — stating they are
okay. The simple interface and ease of contact made this
convenient for victims in a disaster.
The application would alert any number of family
members and did not require any further action from the
user to send a simple message to others. This saved the
user from having to send multiple text messages or calls.
Several other projects were presented. Each group
offered unique solutions that would benefit people during a
natural disaster. Some had creative ideas for using local