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After Sandy, Hackers Help Storm Victims One Hack At A Time

Hackathon in BrooklynRelief came to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in numerous ways. Emergency personnel were on hand, as were hundreds of volunteers, many of who brought food and clothes and assisted in the cleanup. But one group of relief volunteers took another approach. They gathered in a school in downtown Brooklyn to help electronically by creating apps.

A week and a half after Sandy struck, 100 people participated at a “hackathon” at the Hacker School to create apps. One of the apps helped make a list of information such as supplies or services needed, in a natural disaster situation, easy to gather and to download into a computer before being sent to disaster relief offices. Another app helped anyone in the same situation to send a SOS SMS to emergency services and family members with the push of one button.

The volunteers availed themselves of piles of pizza, red wine and a large variety of sodas, as they mingled and shared ideas on their projects.

Sandy affected the New York area but it was heavily reported around the country and some viewers felt they had to get involved in the recovery.
“I experienced Sandy through images.” Said Patrick Cushing, a product manager who came all the way from San Fransisco to participate in the hackathon.
“Part of that was seeing all the people who were stuck charging their phones in Time Square or off of a light post. It dawned on me that we really rely on these phones.”

Cushing wanted to build an app, called “Storm Search” to take control of the power of people’s phones. His idea was to trigger signal text messages that would then trigger several other text messages to important family members and send a tweet to NYC 311. His four members team started working on Friday night.

Glued to his laptop screen for hours in a row, Cushing, wearing a navy blue and black layered hoodie, seemed stressed, but his natural detached composure helped him overcome it.
“The first time you download it you register to a bunch of important contacts and it sits there and just waits until you need it,” Cushing said.
“It allows us to reach out to a bunch of people with a single SMS,” he added.

Other participants of the hackathon experienced the storm live.

“Yesterday I was volunteering in Red Hook before I came here,” said Ana Becker, a designer from New York. “I wanted to use my experience volunteering as inspiration for a mobile website.”

Becker was collected information from the people living in Red Hook, and she had to scribble on it, write extra information in the margins and circle yes or no on a list of supplies or services people needed. Once back at the headquarters, someone had to type everybody’s scribbles into the computer. She found the system disorganized and wanted to fix it.

“I thought it would be great if there was a way volunteers could go out with their smartphones and take all their information that they’re gathering about the neighborhood and submit it via a web app,” she said.

Absorbed in designing the app, Becker was compulsively taking her eyes of her screen to see if anyone from her group had any questions. She was in her late 20’s, wearing black glasses matching her short hair. Her anxious demeanor made it clear that she had no time to waste.
After pitching the idea, she started working on the project, named “voluntarily” on Friday evening with programmers and engineers who joined her group.

Becker, Cushing and dozens of other participants, spent all Saturday sitting around red iron tables in an industrial looking room, glued to their screens, hacking, designing, writing and eating pizza.
There were experts, throughout the hackathon who helped them for any questions they had, from what application programming interface to choose—a set of programming instructions for programmers to use in designing softwares–to whether the project would be helpful to future users.

“Based on my experience of talking to all sorts of people that have been supporting and leading the recovery effort I was able to give them advice on whether something would work for the victims or the recovery folks,” said Jessica Lawrence, the managing director of New York Tech meetup.

The group is a non-profit organization with over 28,000 members supporting the New York technology community. She partnered with Karri Silverman, the CEO and co-founder of Hack’N’Jill, an organization whose goal is to change the conversation about women in tech.

“We wanted to give people an opportunity to think about their community in ways that technology can make it better. We had a coincidence with needing to help the hurricane cause it’s channeling everybody’s efforts,” Silverman said.

“Folks are taking the seriousness of helping people affected by the hurricane to heart and trying to give back to the New York community by building stuff they’ll use,” she added.

According to Silverman, tech companies are sexier now than they were before. People like Mark Zuckerberg who are hackers and developers at heart, are getting a lot of media attention. There are a lot of people who see hacking as a way to bring their own ideas to life and the more they see it happening in the media, the more they want to do it.

“We’re mostly interacting with other relief organizations because this is the first time that a tech meetup has played this role in disaster recovery,” Lawrence said.

“But as we go forward and start building out plans for how people can help their own cities get prepared for other disasters definitely connecting with other tech meetups will be important,” Lawrence said.

One Response to “After Sandy, Hackers Help Storm Victims One Hack At A Time”

  1. Storm Search app was a realy good app created for future use. Very good ideea to develop such an app.

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