Coding for Community Resilience to Natural Disasters

By Keiko Saito

It was only three years ago that a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit Japan. I still remember vividly the horror of watching in disbelief as live television footage captured the tsunami rapidly moving inland. I was living abroad at the time, and tried frantically to get through to my family in Tokyo, not knowing the extent of the damage there.

According to official reports, of the approximately 18,000 deaths as a direct result of this catastrophe only 125 people were killed during the earthquake itself. The vast majority of lives lost were due to the tsunami that followed.
Had such an event been wrought on a less prepared nation, the devastation may have been much worse. Japan was able to cope with this disaster as it did because of decades spent putting disaster preparedness measures in place.

The lessons learnt from that experience are still fresh in the Japanese people’s minds.  So it was with great enthusiasm and inspiration that dozens of coders gathered in three cities across Japan recently for a ‘hackathon’ designed to increase community resilience to natural disasters.
Code for Resilience, an initiative supported by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction & Recovery (GFDRR ) in collaboration with Code for Japan, hosted events in the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Nagoya and Ishinomaki. This global initiative aims to build communities’ resilience to natural disasters by matching disaster risk management (DRM) challenges with software and hardware developers to create  technology-based solutions by and for local communities.
Challenges that coders in Japan addressed included a lack of understanding of the risks posed by potential natural hazards by local communities, and the need for community-based flood emergency warning systems. These and other challenges were identified by disaster risk management agencies and specialists at the World Bank, and as well as by the developers themselves—many of whom experienced natural hazard challenges first-hand in their communities in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

In Ishinomaki, Code for Resilience teamed up with Itonabu, a local non-governmental organization. Itonabu provides information communications technology (ICT) training to teenagers with the goal of building a new technology savvy generation who will be inspired to create startup companies in the local area. Teenagers who regularly participate in the Itonabu trainings teamed up with experienced coders on the day and jointly coded the DRM applications or “apps”.    

After two days of coding, and despite an unusually heavy snowfall in Tokyo and in Ishinomaki , a number of apps were submitted: 16 from Tokyo, 7 in Ishinomaki and 5 in Nagoya. All apps developed to date can be found on the Code for Resilience project page.

The winning apps were:

  • Save the baby!:  focuses on providing critical maternal, newborn and child health information in time-sensitive settings such as combatting disease epidemics following major disasters.
  • Exciting evacuation drill: an educational game using smartphones that simulates effective evacuation procedures in the event of a disaster.
  • AR Simulator: uses augmented reality to simulate the potential impacts of flooding or a tsunami

Following the Japan hackathon, Code for Resilience partnered with a local Water Hackathon & App Fest in Dhaka, Bangladesh that has engaged over 400 developers.  Similar events are being planned in Bangalore, India; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Manila, the Philippines and other locations.

We welcome your participation! Please visit to learn about the past and upcoming hackathon events, submit problem statements, contribute to the software application repository, and join the online innovation challenge. And stay up to date with by following us on Twitter .

The online innovation challenge continues after the events in each city, during which developers will receive mentorship support as they continue to refine their tools during the events. The winners of the global online innovation challenge will be announced and invited to present at the Understanding Risk conference in London in July 2014.

This post originally appeared on the World Bank's ICT4D blog.

Keiko Saito is a Disaster Risk Management (DRM) Specialist with the GFDRR Labs team, and a Code for Resilience leader.


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