This weekend, Parsons The New School for Design and the United Nations Global Pulse hosted the New York event of Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), a global initiative held in over twenty locations around the world, organized by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA and the World Bank. RHoK brought together software developers and experts in disaster risk management for a weekend-long "hackathon" to create software solutions that can help mitigate or respond to disasters around the world and help save lives.
A group of over 50 hackers, including many Parsons students, participated in RHoK New York, creating projects that tackled a range of humanitarian challenges. Some of these came directly out of the United Nations Global Pulse camp, a three-day workshop held December 1-3 to design a software platform that will help monitor the social and economic impact of global crises in real time. Other problems came from participants as well as organizations all around the world, including the UN Development Program, UN World Food Programme and the global series of Crisis Camps.
"The recent series of global shocks have revealed the importance of timely information to guide government decisions on how to protect the world's poorest and most vulnerable populations. That is why the UN has established Global Pulse; to enrich its data gathering and analysis by using real-time data," said Robert Kirkpatrick, Director of the UN's Global Pulse project.
Over the course of the weekend, the teams worked together to develop a software solution for their chosen issue. The resulting prototype technology platforms fused existing UN data, open source mapping and visualization tools, and new sources of information sharing such as mobile phones and social networks.
"Next-generation information sharing and analysis are now linked to policy and governance in ways never before possible. This paradigm shift is reaching maturity as humanitarian concerns increasingly drive the development of Web 2.0 tools and open source software," said Joel Towers, dean of Parsons The New School for Design. "Our students and faculty constantly seek out ways to connect new technologies to questions of social justice, in order to respond to the more complex global risks we face today. The RHoK mission brings design thinking into contact with a global community interested in redeploying commonly held knowledge toward the creation of a world with less scarcity and less vulnerability."
At the conclusion of the weekend, the projects were presented to a panel of judges, including Nigel Snoad, Global Problem Coordinator for Random Hacks of Kindness (Architect Evangelist US Public Sector at Microsoft and a lecturer at Parsons); Robert Kirkpatrick, Director, UN Global Pulse; Sven Travis, Dean of the School of Art, Media and Technology, Parsons; Prem Ramaswami, Product Manager for humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, Google; and Abby Baca, Risk assessment specialist, World Bank.
Awards were given to the teams that created the best simple, open source platforms that tackled issues of crisis response, risk reduction, recovery or development. Two projects shared the title of Best Hack: TaskMeUp, an open source platform that allows users in a crisis situation to easily organize and assign out a large number of tasks, and Incident Commander, an Android application that allows firefighters and other emergency response personnel to track incident responders and their needs in real time. OpenScribble, a simple, collaborative mapping service designed by two Parsons undergraduates, was named Best Small Hack.
In addition to New York, RHoK events took place across the U.S., including Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle; and internationally, including Toronto; Aarhus, Denmark; Berlin; Bangalore; Birmingham, UK; Jakarta; Nairobi; Lusaka, Zambia; Mexico City; Bogota; Buenos Aires; Singapore; Tel Aviv; and São Paolo, Brazil. Through satellite technology, program organizers will attempt to connect participants in the various cities with others as the event progresses.
The first RHoK event was held in Mountain View, California in November 2009 and resulted in applications that were later used on the ground during the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. The second RHoK hackathon was held simultaneously in six countries around the world in June 2010 and one of the winning applications - a tool that allows engineers to easily visualize landslide risk to help guide urban and rural development and building planning - is already being piloted by the World Bank in the Caribbean.