MENTOR SUPPORT AVAILABLE FOR CODE FOR RESILIENCE ONLINE INNOVATION CHALLENGE PARTICIPANTS - A Q&A WITH MENTOR TRISHAN DE LANEROLLE

On March 14, participants in the Code for Resilience Online Innovation Challenge become eligible to be paired with mentors—experts in various aspects of technology, business development and design who will offer input and feedback on app development. Trishan de Lanerolle, one of the Code for Resilience mentors, and Project Director for the Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software Project (www.hfoss.org), a National Science Foundation-funded collaborative program between Trinity College, Connecticut College and Wesleyan University, weighs in on why he’s involved.

Q: How did you get involved in using technology for disaster resilience?

A: I grew up in Sri Lanka—and moved to the States in 2000 for college. I was here (in the U.S.) and working at Trinity College during the tsunami in Sri Lanka in 2006.

At first I was just following the tsunami. But then Prof. Ralph Morelli from the Computer Science Department and I began looking at ways (Trinity) students could get involved in making computer science more meaningful. We were thinking they could work on socially engaging projects—showing that computer science is more than just coding.

Hackathons were not mainstream then in 2006. We were sort of on the cutting edge, and we were looking at ways students could be involved. So we brought Sahana (an open source disaster management platform developed after the Sri Lanka Tsunami) to Trinity. The idea was to revitalize computer science, and we ended up contributing the first volunteer management modules to Sahana. That’s how we got started in this space.

Q: Tell us about your past experience as a mentor—what has made it successful?

A: People come with their own concepts and ideas about what would work or not. The mentor’s role is to help, and not stifle creativity. But at same time keep mentees grounded in realities of what they’re doing.

Doing a project in Haiti, for example, someone might come up with an idea like: “We can create a system that uses 4G networks to sync in real times with phones and databases!” And, as a mentor, you might say: “No, no, no, the only thing that works reliably in field is SMS.” As a mentor, you can give them those realities a little bit. Let them then work with it.

For the Sanitation Hackathon (organized by the World Bank), I provided feedback for the “hack at home” portion that is similar to the Online Innovation Challenge. Some of the participants hadn’t done their homework. So I would ask: ‘Have you looked at xyz which does that?’ You don’t want to reinvent the wheel. That’s another thing that a mentor can do—serve as an information repository of what’s already been done and what’s already out there. A mentor can help you get a lay of the land in terms of what’s done and what’s available.

Q: How did you get involved in Code for Resilience?

A: I’ve had the opportunity to participate in disaster and relief focused hackathons going way back to when Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) first started in 2009. I happened to be in the Bay Area during the first one, and I was able to go to the first RHoK event at the hacker dojo in Mountain View. I have run several RHoK hackathons in Hartford, CT and served as an external ICT expert to the World Bank for the Sanitation Hackathon, helping to breakdown and articulate sanitation sector problems in a way that’s actionable on the tech side.

Q: How do you plan to mentor with C4R? What are inputs to a good mentor-mentee relationship?

A: How you mentor depends on your background. You can tell them what you’ve done and identify potential hurdles they may encounter. . You’re not preaching from behind the desk—you’ve been out in the field and you’ve seen the on-the-ground realities of natural disasters. I can draw from past projects, including mobile application work in Haiti to a web based application used by an relief organization in New York City In my case, I’ve been to ISCRAM (a disaster risk management conference) and presented several papers so I can draw on this experience as well.

Q: What have you learned from your mentees?

A: We’ve had teams—undergrad teams—doing development work and software projects. I let them develop the idea. It has often surprised me how, especially if you’re working with students, the maturity of their projects jumps up a notch when working on something with real impact.

Q: What do you hope to learn from your Code for Resilience mentees?

A: I’d like to see some out of the box thinking, potentially approaching a problem from a different angle, connecting thoughts and methodologies from different practice areas.

For more information about Code for Resilience Online Innovation Challenge mentors, visit http://codeforresilience.org/page/meet-mentors and to inquire about becoming a mentor, email CodeForResilience@gmail.com