Innovation

Why IBM is offering $200K to developers to create tech solutions for natural disaster relief

IBM invites developers to Call for Code, a hackathon competition aimed at building digital tools to help with some of nature's worst disasters.

As natural disasters continue to ravage the globe, IBM is calling on one particular group to direct their expertise toward the issue: Developers.

The 2018 Call for Code Global Challenge is a competition created by IBM that asks developers to find solutions to aid those impacted by natural disasters.

"We can't stop a hurricane or a lava flow from wreaking havoc, but we can work together to predict their path; get much needed supplies into an area before disaster strikes, and help emergency support teams allocate their precariously stretched resources," said Bob Lord, IBM's chief digital officer, in a blog post.

SEE: Disaster recovery and business continuity plan (Tech Pro Research)

Call for Code was created earlier this year when Angel Diaz, IBM vice president of developer technology, open source, and advocacy, began wondering how to better harness the power of developers for good, he told TechRepublic.

"Here's the thing about disasters—things like hurricanes and droughts—there's no technology for stopping it. It's coming," Diaz said. "So the question is, how can you better prepare for it?"

Today, the United Nations, Red Cross, Linux Foundation, and NEA have all jumped on board to collaborate with Call for Code. Tens of thousands of developers have signed up for the competition, said Diaz, motivated by both the social cause and the impressive cash prizes. Winners are awarded $200,000, with second and third place following suit at $25,000, and fourth and fifth receiving $10,000.

Even more exciting, the winner's project will actually be deployed in the field, implemented in the event of a real natural disaster. "Usually with these hackathons, people build stuff and then nothing happens, usually just a cash prize," Diaz said. "We're gonna deploy this."

Teams of up to five individuals are permitted in the competition. Each submission will be scored on four key areas: Completeness and transferability, effectiveness and efficiency, design and usability, along with creativity and innovation, according to the participation agreement. IBM has invested $30 million into a five year commitment to the initiative, and natural disasters won't be the only effort developers will be motivated to help solve—each year will focus on a different topic, said Diaz.

With his parents living in Puerto Rico, which was devastated by Hurricane Maria last year, Diaz holds a deeply personal connection to this year's cause. Call for Code's incredible turnout has made a large impact on Diaz: "It feels pretty freaking amazing," he said. " I just came back from Puerto Rico, personally, and it has still not recovered to this day."

Using technology to assist during natural disasters isn't a new idea, with many tech solutions already being implemented in some areas. When hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, for example, government officials were able to track the amount of flooding throughout Houston in real-time. The Harris County Flood Warning System had 142 gauge stations, each with rainfall and water level sensors to monitor the flood. This system allowed officials to see which areas needed the most assistance, and when.

Drones are another tool being used for natural disaster relief, according to our sister site CNET. These devices can be used to direct people to evacuation areas, and can also be assess conditions in unsafe or inaccessible locations. Instead of wasting valuable time waiting for a helicopter, officials could use drones to quickly search for people in hard-to-reach areas.

The deadline to enter Call for Code has been extended to September 28, so there is still plenty of time to submit your ideas and help the cause. Diaz's biggest piece of advice for participants is to go to IBM's tech and domain talks for inspiration. On the site, participants can listen to experts whose focus areas are natural disasters, and learn where they should direct their projects to be the most useful.

Click here to "answer" the Call for Code.

About Macy Bayern

Macy Bayern is an Associate Staff Writer for TechRepublic. A recent graduate from the University of Texas at Austin's Liberal Arts Honors Program, Macy covers tech news and trends.

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