Scenes from the 2014 Civic Hardware Hackathon for Disaster Preparedness

Scenes from the 2014 Civic Hardware Hackathon for Disaster Preparedness

Technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators come together to address community challenges after natural disasters

Michelle Hum, PSFK Labs
  • 14 october 2014

Last Friday and Saturday, a group of technologists and entrepreneurs gathered at Pioneer Works Center in Red Hook for a two-day civic hardware hackathon as part of The Feast social conference. In the wake of the devastation Hurricane Sandy brought to Red Hook and the surrounding areas, the goal of the hackathon was to find solutions to help communities become more resilient in the aftermath of natural disasters. The event was a collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, FEMA, Intel, IDEO, and The Feast.

Participants had the opportunity to speak with experts from IDEO and the Ideation Community of Practice, brainstorm in rapid iteration cycles and one-on-one feedback with first responders, emergency managers, and other stakeholders in disaster situations. While some teams came to the event to make improvements and adapt their already existing technologies, others were inspired from these feedback session and started from scratch. Here are the results of this year’s Civic Hardware Hackathon for Disaster Preparedness.

LDLN (Landline)


Image Credit: @mmlee

LDLN – which stands for Local Distributed Logistics Network – specializes in creating off the grid communications solutions for disaster relief. Their solution focuses on helping aid workers communicate in disaster areas in cases when communications and power infrastructures are affected. The current process relies on workers going out into the field with pencils and paper to assess victims’ needs, coming back to scattered base stations, manually entering data into the stations computer, then transferring the data to a flash drive that is then couriered to other stations for centralized information.

LDLN offers agencies a set of tools that replace this process. A base station, laptop, and mobile app work together to reduce backlogs of paperwork and share information across an offline network of daisy-chained Raspberry Pi hubs. LDLN’s initial prototype was created in 2013 from NextDayBetter’s Typhoon Haiyan Relief Hackathon. During this year’s event, several improvements were made including a more resilient base station case, increasing the range for hubs to communicate, and integrating an GPS auto-locator.

Citizen’s Power Brigade

Charging Car

The Citizen’s Power Brigade is part of the Civic Ninjas community of civic hackers, makers, and entrepreneurs. After disasters like hurricane Sandy, electricity becomes a precious resource. New York saw cafes and other businesses lucky enough to have power become community spaces of daisy chained surge protectors for citizens to charge their electronics. The Citizen’s Power Brigade adapted a simple field power kit to work with a hybrid electric vehicle to create a clean, fuel efficient source of emergency mobile power for disaster areas. One vehicle with one tank of gas can last about a week to charge 8,400 mobile devices and deliver roughly two million minutes of talk time. Events can run from a USB output or wirelessly. This allows victims of natural disasters as well as aid workers keep their devices running for communication, relief efforts, and simple moral.

Red Hook Initiative

The Red Hook Initiative is a program that looks to empower local youths from the Red Hook community. Last year, their Digital Stewards program catering to young adults 19-24 deployed a community WiFi network to their underserved neighborhood. During this year’s hackathon, the Stewards brainstormed opportunities to make that more resilient and integrated a solar power station for their wireless internet stations. With this addition, a WiFi network may still be viable in the event of total power loss.

Cascade Designs

Cascade Designs.jpg

Image Credit: PATH

Cascade Designs is perhaps best known for their camping equipment for outdoor enthusiasts. However, through private and public partnerships, they have also produced solutions for disaster situations such as the Smart Electrochlorinator SE200. The device runs on a 12v car battery and uses salt to create a chlorine solution that can treat 55 gallons of water in five minutes. Chlorine kills germs like cholera and e. coli that proliferate in the wake of storms when sanitation can be a problem. After feedback sessions, the Cascade Design team worked to adapt their technology to go past drinking water and also treat cooking water and water for surface disinfection.

Peter Haas

After the earthquake in Haiti, Peter ran a building inspection team. With a damaged cell network, it was difficult to communicate urgent information. Over the weekend, Peter continued working on Chatpoint – a WiFi chat base station that pairs with a smartphone app to help people communicate. It uses an RC Helicopter backbone to create a mesh network similar to Firechat which was used after the government shut down communication lines in Hong Kong during recent protests. With drones, the signal can go several miles as opposed to several hundred feet. His solution uses off-the-shelf hardware and runs for a couple days on battery pack, essentially creating a deployable corporate intranet.

Voltaic Systems

Marianne Spinning Voltaic Systems Crank

Born from a solar backpack, Voltaic Systems has the simple goal to keep personal electronics charged. Unlike other groups, Voltaic did not come to the event with a product in mind. Instead, after listening to the expert speakers and a quick run to IKEA, Voltaic devised a cheap, portable solution to harness mechanical energy in order to create just enough power to charge cell phones. Right now, the prototype is a bent IKEA hanger, two blocks of wood, and a hacked drill with a USB power output. Users can charge their phones relatively easily simply by spinning the hanger. In the future, Voltaic envisions this attached to public spaces so people can generate their own power without relying on the grid.

Marianne Bellotti

For this project, Marianne focused on making data systems more manageable. In a crisis, multiple stakeholders generate and seek similar information but have difficulty sharing it outside their organizations. This delays first responders from knowing where they are needed and what supplies are necessary, government organizations from adequately distributing resources, and journalists from disseminating information to the public. During the hackathon, Marianne began building an infrastructure to share data that hooks into existing technology and platforms to make inter-organization sharing seamless in disaster scenarios.

Eskuwela Now

Shoebox Projector

Image Credit: @kmgong

Smart Board

After a disaster, school enrollment is delayed for an average of six months. Attrition rates after storms soar and in some communities, students never come back. Eskuwela Now aims to combat this by delivering pop-up classrooms to communities hit hardest by disasters. Eskuwela Now has already provided a communications platform for teachers to provide education lessons and help students know where and when their classes will be. During the hackathon, the team created a multi-touch smartboard using a shoebox, Wii-mote, projector, infrared pen, and raspberry pi that can be projected onto any flat surface. While smartboards are generally sold for around $1500, this kit was put together for about $150. With the kit, teachers can create their own pop up classrooms to deliver education when it is most needed.

By bringing together experts from public and private sectors, each of the participants were able to strengthen their innovations for disaster relief. All of the projects will continue to be refined going forward.

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