Hackathons Challenge Asia’s Tech-Savvy Innovators to Strengthen Disaster Resilience

During monsoon season in Southern Leyte province of the Philippines, heavy rains pound down, flooding local waterways. As the earth saturates, soil and rocks on barren hillsides give way, in some cases triggering deadly landslides.

One landslide in 2006 claimed the lives of some 2,000 people. Over 200 of the victims were children who became trapped in a school after it was buried by fast-moving mud and boulders. Teachers were able to send text messages for help, but the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of the school were unknown and the rescue crews were unable to reach the students in time.

The need to identify the exact coordinates of schools in disaster-prone areas during emergencies like the 2006 landslide is one of the challenges being tackled by tech-savvy innovators participating in a series of hackathons being held across Asia by Code for Resilience, a collaboration of the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) and Code for Japan, a civil society organization dedicated to using software coding as a means of improving social welfare. 

The hackathons pit local technologists against disaster risk management challenges identified by World Bank staff, local and international partner organizations, and governments. Developers working on “hacks” to these problem statements are invited to adapt existing open source software applications or develop new tools, such as mobile applications or rain gauges outfitted with remote sensing devices.

Innovating Resilience in Japan

This week, teams of software and hardware developers are gathering in the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Ishinomaki, and Nagoya to explore how technology can help communities better prepare for and respond to natural hazards like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.

The events coincide with the launch of the Japan-World Bank Program for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Management, and opening of a new Disaster Risk Management (DRM) Hubin the Tokyo Office of the World Bank. The program will leverage Japanese expertise to mainstream disaster risk management in development planning and investment programs. It will provide technical assistance and support pilot projects, knowledge and capacity building activities, and thematic initiatives focused on reducing vulnerability to natural hazards.  

“Japan is prone to natural hazards like earthquakes and tsunamis, so we understand first-hand the importance of making communities more resilient to disasters,” said Taichi Furuhashi, lead local organizer for the Japan hackathons. “We are pleased to leverage the power of Japan’s civic hacker community to source innovative solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing our region.”

Hackathons in Action

GFDRR has supported cutting edge solutions from similar initiatives over the years, including Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), which helped St. Lucia develop and operationalize a visualization tool for complex landslide risk models called CHASM. World Bank-backed hackathons have led to innovations including a mobile phone  that teaches children good sanitation and hygiene practices; a  that allows students, parents and teachers to relay concerns about local school facilities to a regional government or ministry of education; and an application that tracks the flow of development contracting funds into or out of a country.

For the new resilience hackathons, Code for Resilience has been collecting problem statements, identified by a range of partners, for the hackers to work on. These disaster resilience challenges range from the need for an early warning system to alert fisherman in coastal communities to impending storms to prevent loss of life at sea, to developing a rainfall prediction tool for farmers to help protect crops grown in flood-prone areas.

“Collaborative initiatives like Code for Resilience help us bring together disaster risk management experts and local developers to create innovative applications that enable communities to become more resilient to natural hazards,” said Francis Ghesquiere, head of the GFDRR Secretariat.

Code for Resilience, working with local partners, is organizing hackathons in cities across Asia, where high population density and rapid urbanization make communities particularly vulnerable to the impacts of natural disasters. Cities hosting local events include: Bangalore, India; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Jakarta, Indonesia; Manila, the Philippines; and Peshawar, Pakistan.

Hackers who have identified prototype solutions that address the problem statement challenges will be invited to continue building, testing, and refining their tools through the Code for Resilience Online Innovation Challenge. This online continuation of the hackathon activities enables ongoing collaboration between developers, and provide access to expert mentoring support.

Grand prize winners of the Online Innovation Challenge will be invited to pitch their tools to an audience of some of the world’s leading disaster risk management experts at theUnderstanding Risk conference in London in July 2014.

This story originally appeared on the World Bank homepage