Coders are the new superheroes of natural disasters

A new film born from an IBM hackathon profiles how four world tragedies were the impetus for innovative, mitigating tech.

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A new documentary, Code and Response, reminds viewers that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for natural disasters, taxing governments, straining relief organizations, and overwhelming communities attempting to rebuild. It reveals a new, surprising, type of disaster responders: coders.

Hero coders

The film, produced by IBM and directed by Austin Peck, centers on the increasing incidents of the devastation of natural disasters, and a cadre of coders who've dedicated their attentions and tech talent to help facilitate and expedite the responders' response to natural disasters. The social-activist developers serve as a frontline defense against some of the society-at-large greatest dangers. 

A relentless villain

The impact of climate change has not only brought more natural disasters to the world, it's increased the frequency. 

So far, water hasn't been turned into blood, no locusts or frogs or boils, or darkness. Still, the world has been experiencing natural disasters of biblical plague proportions: earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and fires, and perhaps worse, the tragedy each brings.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

"I've been doing this about 13 years, disaster response," Trevor Riggen of the Red Cross said in the film. 

"We always based our responses on the seasons—you had fire season, you had hurricane season, tornado season, blizzard season and you'd be able to pace yourself, how we do our work, after each season. The seasons have gone. It's just constant." 

"So we're rolling from one huge disaster to another," Riggen added. "Whereas before, we would see about a five-year gap between large events. Now, we're seeing it on an annual basiss. We're seeing three to five. We're now seeing three to five really complex events, like Hurricane Harvey, like Maria in Puerto Rico, like the wild fires up here…We're resilient, but we've got to have some better tools to get there."

Personal experience + mad code skills

Daniel Krook, chief technology officer, IBM Code and Response, said the developers "created applications in response to a personal experience with a natural disaster. Having experienced an event helps developers create powerful solutions by literally putting themselves in the shoes of the intended end user of their technology."

The stars

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Kenji Kato's Wildfire Report takes publicly available geographic data from NASA, NOAA and the Forest Service and applies it to fly-through videos of impacted areas that make the fire's path and speed easy to understand. 

Photo: Code and Response

The developer-activists who experienced the incidents that provided an impetus for their code development:  Subalekha Udayasanka (Mexico City earthquake), Pedro Cruz (Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico), the WOTA team of coders and engineers (2011 Tsunami in Japan), and Kenji Kato (2014 Washington State fire). Each bring both a uniquely creative and innovative tech to mitigate different types of disasters which span the globe, but all affect the populace tragically. 

Open-source assistance

Massively destructive natural disasters are increasing everywhere in the world, and assistance, relief and recovery efforts need to be expedited. The codes these developers created do each and more. 

Code and Response is not only a documentary highlighting information about developing code, but also an open-source movement. The open-source technology-based solutions were created to save lives, assist responders and facilitate recovery efforts. 

From hackathon to applicable innovation

George Hammer, chief content officer, IBM and executive producer of the film, said IBM was a founding partner of the 2018 Call for Code global hackathon challenge and initially wanted to document the story of the contest. "As we were doing research, we were compelled by the interesting characters we met and decided to make the coders the centerpiece of the film instead."
 
Kenji Kato, a developer/activist profiled in the film, said: "When I was invited to the Wildfire specific Call for Code hackathon in Fremont, California, in 2018, I knew that I had to go and participate at the event as it was a perfect place to test out the idea that had been formulating in my head." 
 
He said he learned about IBM technologies like IBM Watson APIs, the ability to deliver iOS CoreML models from IBM Cloud to iOS apps, and IBM's purchase of The Weather Company at the event.
 
"I took those newly learned facts and technologies, and mixed them with the skills I had been building in creating mobile apps, and mixed it together with the ideas I had verified from the wildfire fly-through videos. The result was the first iteration of the Wildfire.Report app." 
 
Kato's app mixes "the idea of building an automated video briefing running on IBM Cloud that synthesizes multiple GIS data sets, including Weather Company data, and deliver that information and video into a mobile app. This app gives users the ability to access the videos, interactive base maps, fire information, and other data, as well as share that data with others around them, even if they don't have internet connectivity at the time."

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After participating in the film and IBM's Code & Response deployment initiative, Pedro Cruz was enlisted by IBM to be a developer advocate dedicated to helping others accelerate cutting edge, open technologies.

Photo: Code and Response

Unlikely humanitarians and heroes

Hammer of IBM said: "Our goal was to introduce audiences to the unlikely humanitarians, developers, who are bringing new ideas and solutions to disaster response organizations. We want audiences walking away with hope and inspired to do something to help." 

But, he stressed: "We didn't want this to come across as an advertisement. We wanted to be in places where the great content lives, [on] streaming platforms."
 
"At first," Hammer explained, "we set out to document one hero's journey as he tried, failed and iterated his solution to help first responders ahead of the next hurricane season." 
 
"We used the hackathon as a source for casting and we found numerous characters who had personal reasons why they are entering this fight against mother nature and in support of first responders," he added. "So we pivoted to create a feature documentary to give us time to get to know characters from around the world. Alone they are making an impact. United and collaborating using open source technologies, we were confident they could accelerate innovation even faster."

Diversity 

According to Krook, what stood out for producers was, "diversity within teams led to the most effective applications."
 
"When creating a solution, personal experience with the challenges of a particular disaster is one key asset, but so is a wide range of other skills, such as those who can create great user interfaces, implement complex algorithms, and manage a large amount of data effectively," he said.
 
The film was shot between September and November 2018, and the filmmakers did not expect it to be the worst year on record for natural disasters, which it was. From a list of potential stories to highlight, they narrowed down choices based on assessing the tech potential each developer was creating. They also considered news coverage, because "As we were in production, disasters were happening everywhere," Hammer said.

Similarities and not

Regarding the tech between communities, Krook said, "…we did see common patterns for solutions emerge. For example, using blockchain to track contributions from donor to recipient, with each team adding their own unique twist on the concept."
 
"We've also seen the growth of chatbots that go beyond simple conversational interactions into deeper machine learning integrations that help them improve as they are used," Krook said.
 
"Overall," he added, "We were also happy to see that teams took a Design Thinking approach to the development of their applications, meaning that they deeply understood the needs of their intended end users in their community, rather than just throwing technology at a problem."

DroneAid 

Another profiled developer, Pedro Cruz, said his tech, DroneAid , was born at the Call for Code 2018 Puerto Rico Hackathon. It was based on his experience living through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
 
"Since there was no cell signal, in various communities, residents tried to signal helicopters and planes by drawing 'SOS' on roofs of houses or the roads," Cruz said. "I was frustrated to see so many forgotten people signaling for help that were promised relief by the government and NGOs, and never received anything."
 
"So I asked myself if it was possible for drones to recognize these 'SOS' messages using AI and plot the location of the people on a map, so first responders can quickly know where the most help was needed after a disaster." 
 
Kato's Wildfire app also features a map that can be used both on and offline for first responders.
 
"I thought if there was a way to standardize the SOS with a symbol, it could be easier to read and work across languages, and thus, DroneAid Symbol Language was born," Cruz said. 
 
"After interviewing community leaders and emergency response professionals, I learned that there were citizens in a small town in Humacao, PR, who used flags to signal when they needed water. Based on this real-world case, I created a set of six symbols that can be placed on mats, flags or balloons. I was lucky to have access to a print shop at the Hackathon venue, so I printed out the first DroneAid Mat with the symbols for testing, flew my drone in the parking lot, and it worked. I ended up receiving first prize at the Puerto Rico hackathon and am now developing DroneAid as an open-source project within IBM's Code and Response initiative."

Always room for improvement

Krook, who said that "no one solution eliminates the risk today and that there's always room for improvement," noted: "The impact of natural disasters is growing, both in terms of sheer power as well as in cost to people and property. Even if it wasn't growing however, these disasters would always represent a threat that needs to be mitigated so there will always be a need for new solutions to reduce their impact."

"My hope for the solutions is that they are adopted and adapted around the world through the open source community," he added. "What has been developed for hurricanes in Puerto Rico, for example, might also represent a good solution to typhoons in Africa and India as well as cyclones in the Philippines and Oceania. The same applies for wildfire technology, which affects every continent."

New movement

Code and Response has sparked a new movement, IBM's new $25 million, four-year deployment initiative to build, fortify, test and implement solutions including those at coding challenges such as Call for Code.

It will be a launching point for open-source programs like Call for Code, which unites developers and data scientists around the world to create sustainable, scalable, and live-saving open source technologies via the power of Cloud, AI, blockchain and IoT tech.

Code and Response is a Commitment to Action between IBM and Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) that was announced in January 2019 at the third Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Action Network on Post-Disaster Recovery in Puerto Rico. CGI U partners with IBM and commits to inspiring university students to harness modern, emerging and open-source technologies to develop solutions for disaster response and resilience challenge. As part of the commitment, in 2019, CGI U and IBM hosted 10 Code and Response Codeathons to activate college students from around the world in creating tech-driven social impact solutions. 

"Technology skills are increasingly valuable," Krook said, "even for students who don't intend to become professional software developers. For computer science students, putting the end user first, and empathizing with how they hope to use technology to solve their problems—particularly those that represent a danger to their health and well-being—will help them understand how to build high-quality and well-designed software."
 
Kato had this to offer other aspirational social activists: "Being open to new ideas and concepts, and stepping outside your comfort zone to learn new technologies, will serve you better than building a tech solution based solely on what you know."

Cruz offered: "Create a solution based on a real-world problem and validate it with the people who would actually use it. Many times as developers, we have an idea for an app and start coding away before evaluating its value proposition and user-requirements. We end up building something no wants to use. By first interviewing users, you have a better chance of creating something practical that they need, instead of want as a 'nice to have.'"

Honored and awarded

Code and Response won best documentary at the International New York Film Festival, Gold Award/best feature at the Southeast Regional Film Festival, the Founders Award at the North Beach American Film Festival, and was an official selection of the Golden Door International Film Festival, the New Haven International Film Festival, as well as the Napa Valley Film Festival.

Code and Response is available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Vimeo and Amazon Prime (on the latter, it's included with Prime). All proceeds are donated to first responders.

Click here to contribute to the open source project. 

Also see 

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The documentary "Code & Response" explores the idea of developers as social activists, serving as a frontline defense against some of society's greatest dangers.

Photo: Code and Response