Opinion:Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) Melbourne – an extraordinary collaboration for good

prototypes available to assist in disaster relief planning, emergency management and community recovery.

A marathon hack event held over a June weekend in Melbourne attracted more than 50 developers and designers, and a dozen subject matter and technical experts to ‘hack for humanity’.  They volunteered their time to create open source solutions for communities impacted by natural disasters and climate change.  These prototypes are available to assist in disaster relief planning, emergency management and community recovery.

Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), a global collaboration across communities of innovators and experts, was conceived in 2010 following the Haiti earthquake. It founding partners are the World Bank, NASA, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo.  Its mission is to mobilize a world-wide community of technologists to solve real-world problems through technology.

As a former Victorian CIO, Jane Treadwell was approached by a World Bank colleague to see if Melbourne’s government and industry leaders were interested in sponsoring a RHoK event.  The response was brilliant with a dynamic Steering Group up and running by March and each member drawing on their personal and professional networks to attract sponsorship; find a location; engage the subject matter experts to define a set of problems; plan and manage the event; establish the judging panel and ensure sufficient food, snacks and drinks would be available for the hackers.

RHoK Melbourne was one of the eighteen ‘main stages’, or cities around the world to host the third event.  It began with a launch bringing together government, industry, academic, international community organisations and the hack event participants, and finished with the presentation of awards for the prototypes created over the weekend on Sunday afternoon.

Swinburne University’s new Advanced Technology Centre provided a perfect location for the hack event.  Seven problem statements in four key ‘disaster’ categories provided the focus for the projects:

  • Earthquakes
  • Bushfires
  • Floods 
  • General Disaster Preparedness

Bushfire Connect
Bushfire Connect started life at RHoK#1 in Sydney in mid 2010, as a response to the devastating bushfires in Victoria in 2009. At RHoK Melbourne, 2 of the 3 main organisers challenged participants to help improve various aspects of this already quite well established system for bushfire preparedness, response, and recovery.

This underscores the importance of not just new projects emerging from RHoK but of existing projects growing in maturity and usefulness.

At RHoK Melbourne around a dozen participants worked on three aspects of the BC system

  • Improving the usefulness of the overall landing page user experience
  • Rebuilding the core mapping widget that helps users locate fires, and learn more about them in real time (a goal of this part of the project is to have a self contained mapping component that similar projects can adopt easily)
  • Implementing a mobile web version of the moderator dashboard. During crises, quality of information is vital, and moderators sift through reports coming from many different sources to ensure as much as possible their accuracy. To date, this needed to be done at a laptop of desktop computer, but now it can be done using a mobile or tablet web enabled device.

Bushfire Connect is built on top of the open source Ushahidi platform, and improvements are being contributed back to the main Ushahidi code base, to the benefit of any project worldwide.  Ushahidi has been used extensively worldwide on disaster response, citizen journalism, election monitoring and other projects.

Geoscience Australia has an existing pilot project to gather information from those who have felt earth tremors and quakes to better understand and predict earthquakes, and the likely consequences of seismic activity based on previous events.

Geoscience Australia challenged participants to develop a mobile application to further this capability. Around a dozen participants developed both mobile web and Android applications to enable users to report their experiences of seismic activity (including location, and observed results such as damage to buildings and duration of the event), as well as to see reports from around the world in real time in response to such event. They also created a "back end" system able to aggregate the reports sent in from the reporting applications.

In the area of general disaster preparedness, two problem areas were proposed.  One addressed the need for those with chronic illnesses who rely on medication for their wellbeing, and often survival, to access medication in the aftermath of a disaster, and to enable emergency services to identify and locate these people; with the other being the broader

More broadly, Geosciences Australia proposed the need for general disaster preparedness. Several participants took up these challenges in a combined solution. MyPlan enables users to create a customized disaster preparedness plan with specific familial and medical circumstances based on their location, to be printed out and placed on a fridge door, or in another prominent location, so that regardless of access to power and networks, it is always available.

VicAlert and VicSafe
Judged our overall winner for its widespread and systemic potential, VicAlert exemplifies the value of hack events, and their spontaneous, emergent qualities. The Bureau of Meteorology proposed a problem area focussing on helping people understand flood warnings, and the specific relevance to them, based on location.

A group of participants took this idea, and went considerably further. ABC Radio staff informed them that during a crisis, a range of government and emergency support organisations as well as individuals using social media, generate a huge volume of warnings and alerts.  However, these are typically in disparate formats, with no centralised hub to assist its co-ordination. After research to confirm no such emergency alert clearinghouse is available, and that an international Common Alerting Protocol exists, they set themselves the ambitious challenge to develop a prototype solution.

The solution comprised three components, divided into two projects, VicAlert and VicSafe. VicAlert is the back end, clearing house application. It aggregates alerts generated by agencies such as CFA and VicRoads, and exposes them via an API (Application Programming Interface) for other developers to take these alerts, and make them available via SMS, a mobile web application, as well as to the media, and so on. VicAlert features both a prototype back end system built on a highly scalable open source database system, MongoDB, and a very high performance server architecture, ideal for high traffic real time messaging, node.js. VicAlert is architected to be extensible, so that additional message sources can be easily added independently to the main project, and the work on the day featured a reference implementation of a plug in module.

The other main component of the project was VicSafe, a sample Java Script application giving people a visual indicator of the danger they were facing when flood waters are rising around them.  It consumes VicAlert data via its web API, and displays it on the web. VicAlert has already garnered considerable media interest (including coverage on the ABC 774 drive program), and interest from representatives from Victorian State Government’s emergency services and road authority.


How did RHoK Melbourne compare to the other main stages?

Globally there were 31 events with a total of 64 solutions developed in response to the 119 problems posed.  Of the 7 Australian problems identified, all 7 were addressed by RHoK Melbourne participants.  RHoK Melbourne attracted almost double the average number of participants/event.

What did the Participants think?

Most would like to attend again and provided their ideas on how we could improve the event.  These included how to align peoples’ skillsets to each of the projects; and facilitating and project managing some of the steps over the course of the weekend (but not too much to dampen the energy of the groups).

To quote one of the participants,
- Everyone had a great time
- Everyone loved the networking aspect
- Everyone loved the venue and the skill level of attendees
- Everyone hoped that they had contributed something that can be built upon

Where to next?

Given the success of RHoK Melbourne, the Steering Group is keen to keep going, and is in touch with RHoK Global, to work out when the next RHoK event will be held – probably towards the end of this year.

To view photos of the Melbourne event click here

To read any of the participant’s Blogs from the Melbourne event


Who is on the RHoK Steering Group?

RHoK Melbourne Steering Group (in-kind support)
- Algonquin Investments
- Australian Software Innovation Forum
- Deloitte Digital
- Department of Business and Innovation, Victoria
- Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victoria (particularly for access to data)
- Jane Treadwell Consulting
- Seran
- SMS Management & Technology
- The Mastermind Group
- Tourism Victoria

RHoK Melbourne Judging Panel
- Paul Cooper, SMS Management & Technology
- Grant Tidswell, Centrelink
- Venessa Paech, community engine & Awesome Foundation

Follow CSO Australia on Twitter @ CSO_Australia

Tags RHoKVicAlert and VicSafehack eventMyPlanBushfire ConnectQuakefelt

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