Sunday, December 2, 2012


 Date: December 03 2012 Craig Butt
It is something out of a Hollywood movie - hackers pooling their talents to help people handle natural disasters.
At the weekend, with bushfire season on the way, software developers, designers and health experts gathered in Melbourne to find ways that people can stay safe and have access to current data when disasters strike.
The effort was part of Random Hacks of Kindness, a global initiative started by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, NASA and the World Bank in 2009, which involves weekend coding marathons, or hackathons.
This weekend saw two dozen events, held everywhere from Australia to Zambia, as those attending tackled everything from earthquakes to landslides.
In Melbourne, rooms at Swinburne University's campus in Hawthorn were used to house the teams for the weekend.
An eight-person team headed by Julian Smith, a policy officer at the Department of Sustainability and Environment, worked on a way for emergency crews to keep track of one another's locations and share real-time information about a fire. ''We use paper maps and voice communications and they work very well in the field but we can augment that system. Most people now are carrying smart devices, so can we create something around them?'' he said.
Mr Smith, who is a fire crew leader, said the team had investigated ways servers could be housed on fire trucks to ensure they could still communicate wirelessly if 3G networks failed.
''I'm in awe of what they have done in 24 hours,'' he said.
Other projects at the two-day hackathon included an online dashboard for collating warning information from the Country Fire Authority, VicRoads and Bureau of Meteorology, and websites that help families devise bushfire survival plans.
One of the founders of Random Hacks of Kindness is Melbourne-born Stuart Gill. An astrophysicist, he was working in disaster management at the World Bank when the idea came up of using hackathons to tap into the goodwill and expertise of the tech community.
''I always think of Random Hacks of Kindness as a Cambrian explosion [the Earth period in which life forms rapidly appeared] - this massive explosion of innovation,'' Mr Gill said. He said hundreds of ideas had been developed during the hackathons.
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