This post was co-written by Pablo Rey Mazón.

A day before Hurricane Sandy touched down, netizens began to congregate via etherpads, Google Docs and IRC, assuming the name “HurricaneHackers.”

HurricaneHackers teamed up with Sandy CrisisCamps — a series of hackathons organized by CrisisCommons around the world — to host a hackathon here at MIT Media Lab. About 30 participants worked together throughout the day to figure out how a remote set of volunteers could support Sandy relief with communication technologies.

We were the main facilitators for the hackathon. With Pablo’s experience organizing OccupyData hackathons and Denise’s participation in hackathons, we knew that a common gathering place is powerful for imaginative and holistic thinking — and can help match-make that thinking with real-world needs.

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Hackathon team projects

A crucial difference between OccupyData and HurricaneHackers was the urgency of a crisis. Participants wanted to help existing projects without duplicating efforts. We rallied around a few of the official requests that CrisisCommons had documented, which resulted in two projects:

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  • InnCrisis – Based on a request to determine hotel room availability as well as conversations in IRC with other SandyCrisis netizens, this team brainstormed how people with hotel loyalty points could donate their points to those who needed medium-term housing. After several hours researching legal precedents and getting in touch with official requesters, hotel loyalists and hotel PR, we decided that the initial goals were too ambitious to handle with the solutions and workflows we were designing towards, and so InnCrisis was put on hold.
  • Needs assessments – Synthesizing several requests, this team forked into two projects: rapid needs assessment for first responders, such as the Red Cross, and long-term needs assessment for parties such as FEMA and shelters. By the end of the hackathon, they presented a tool that, given a list of phone numbers and locations, would feed into an application to automatically call survivors to determine if they have phone service, power, and so on.

Not finding a good fit with her skills and interests in any of the projects, Mayo Fuster, a postdoctoral fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, spent the hackathon documenting technological tools coming out of Sandy and how often they were used by those affected. As this record grows, analysts and researchers can eventually share quantitative data on which tools lend themselves to adoption and why.

Meanwhile, blogger Lyre Calliope lobbied hackathon participants to coalesce under CrisisCamp Boston, reviving CCB as an ongoing group so that we could all grow together rather than starting afresh whenever Bostonian netizens rally around a crisis.

Denise’s lessons learned

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  • With nine hours to crisscross the concept-to-demo process, project scope is crucial. Project leads who can contextualize existing needs or foresee needs will keep a team grounded and whittle down to essential tasks. To all my fellow non-tech nerds, we need you! You don’t have to be a technologist to contribute to smarter workflows. Hackathons often struggle to attract diverse skill sets, but “hacker” can mean anybody who dreams up smart shortcuts, tips and tricks to get things done (h/t LifeHacker).
  • Finally, there’s a lot of momentum around Sandy and a sense of urgency to provide immediate relief. It turns out that immediate needs are often already addressed by local dispatchers and ad-hoc organizers. In a city four hours away from New York, a hackathon can’t address primary needs like food and shelter, but how can we bottle some of the momentum for later, when Sandy survivors will need help from lawyers to file insurance claims? Participant Matt Stempeck — a Media Lab researcher exploring how to leverage diverse skills in the hackathon process — suggested building a skills pledge page in the midst of the momentum to continue the groundswell past phase one of crisis relief.

Pablo’s lessons learned

  • Media attention and hackers’ response – HurricaneHackers found early resonance with media outlets (Boing Boing, CNet, techPresident), which brought a lot of attention and people. During the hackathon, we realized that journalists and their audiences may not be aware that we were developing demos, not ready-to-use platforms to take the place of on-the-ground organizations (Red Cross, FEMA, etc). Rather, HurricaneHackers was an outlet for netizenship. For example, there were people developing the #SandyAid Followup project who tried to track followup to aid requests using the #SandyAid hashtag. It was far from complete, and with all of its developers maxed out just building the platform, it was not ready for media coverage. This became problematic because it did not fall in line with social media advice during a disaster: “Do not even attempt to set up a disaster recovery site unless you are fully prepared to devote yourself 24/7 to the effort.”
  • Simplifying/reducing the channels of internal communication – There were too many communications channels to keep them all updated. At a global level, we had a Trello board, a wiki, two Skype chats, an IRC channel and several emails; at the camp level, we had the etherpads, a mind map, and in-person meetings. We need tools that allow multiple users to edit simultaneously (sorry, wikis; welcome etherpads and gdocs), free admission (sorry, Skype; welcome IRC), and users who are familiar with those interfaces. Then we need to manage the order in which communication is distributed through those tools.
  • Think and work with the community of users – People naturally want to help, and many rallied around HurricaneHackers as an outlet. In the rush of the crisis, people also tend to jump into projects without enough reflection. Generally, programmers want to develop new tools, but as Mayo pointed out, “Projects that seem to be ‘alone’ and without connection to previously existing communities, or without association to trusted and visible actors, seem to face difficulties in engaging participation.” We should pay more real attention to the communities we are going to work with, not invent solutions to problems nobody has raised, and account for the time and people who will feed and use the project.
  • Have clear instructions, data and a contact person to start a project: why, what, how, who, where – A basic hackathon rule is to get familiar with similar projects to avoid duplication. We dedicated the first part of the hackathon to understanding which Hurricane Sandy projects already existed. We then tried to tackle the Crisis Commons requests but had a hard time getting hold of the official requesters, which resulted in difficulty going deeper and staying focused on the best solutions to the problems.

To see or work off shared documentation across Sandy tech efforts, go to:

CrisisCamps

HurricaneHackers (Boston CrisisCamp)

This post first appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media’s blog.

A West Coast girl at heart, Denise Cheng comes to MIT from all over. Her background is a mix of journalism, media empowerment and community building, including as a Peace Corps volunteer and the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, a hyperlocal based in Grand Rapids, Mich. She has long examined the rise of participatory media and its implications for journalism and also explored civic media off the Web, from low power FM to digital storytelling and the Indy Media movement. Denise is drawn to neighborhoods, design and coding, languages, civic empowerment, DIY and handmade media. You can find out more about her and keep up with her at her blog.

Pablo is visiting scientist at the Center for Civic Media. He takes part and develops his projects in several independent research groups such as: Basurama (Trash-o-rama), where he has developed 6000km.org, a project that, through geotagged information, researches about the landscapes that the Spanish real estate crisis has left behind; Meipi, which develops the open source software meipi.org for participatory mapping; Kulturometer.org, that researches about cultural expenses in Madrid Region; Montera34, a research group that develops organization and visualization tools such as newspaper surface coverage. He is now developing PageOneX, a tool to track news in newspaper front pages. He holds a Master in Architecture by the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid. He has also studied in the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany.

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