Changing the world – one line of code at a time

Members of Random Hacks of Kindness recently met at a so-called “Hackathon” in Silicon Valley, with the goal of promoting technology to help address worldwide problems.

The event saw hundreds of engineers join together to code for the “good of humanity” at Google’s Mountain View Campus – and at 17 other (simultaneous) locations worldwide.

The event was sponsored by Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, Microsoft, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration as well as the World Bank.

“The mission is hacking for humanity,” said Jeremy Johnstone, co-founder of Random Hacks of Kindness, or RHoK.

“What we are trying to do is improve the world in incremental steps, using technology solutions to address needs.”

The informal group of hackers has worked together on applications designed for disaster response that have already been deployed in trouble zones.

For example, I’mOK, a mobile messaging service, was used in Haiti and Chile in the aftermath of devastating earthquakes, alongside CHASM which maps landslide risks. 

Google’s Person Finder, a tool designed to help people find friends and family after a natural disaster was also tweaked and refined by RHoK volunteers for use in Haiti, Chile, and Japan.

It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but using the wheel for new purposes, explained Chris Messina, a Google employee who attended the third annual RHoK event.

“When the Internet goes down or when you lose the resources you depend on, we need to create new solutions.”

The thought incubator has spawned a number of new ideas for dealing with current problems using old technology.

For example, Messina highlighted the ham radio that truckers use on a regular basis.

“You wouldn’t think of the ham radio as bleeding-edge technology,” he said. “But it will work when other (technology) won’t when infrastructures go down. It’s sort of like Twitter for truckers. Using it for disasters, that’s the hack. It’s very cheap and can be massively deployed if necessary.”

Event organizers encourage volunteer input from around the world to perfect the program. That way, one group of engineers can start the projects, and others can contribute along the way.

“It’s a way of distributing the workload…If you’ve got one weekend to spend building something, someone else can come along later and take your project and improve it.”

“It’s one of the things you love doing,” said Ted Lee, a data engineer. This weekend, he worked on a program add-on to Person Finder that allows people to access the app with simple feature phones.

“We are launching today,” Lee said of the new Person Finder SMS service. “It’s ready to go. It shows you what you can do when you have a lot of passionate people.”

(Via San Jose Mercury News)