At Ushahidi, we’re big fans of Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK). Our team participates and organizes these important hackathons in a few locations. It is inspiring to encourage brainy hacks from global participants aimed at solving real-world problems. RHoK held a Water Hackathon on October 21/22/23, 2011. One London (UK) team ) used Ushahidi as part of their water hack solution.
(photo by Charmermrk)
The past weekend I finally got the chance to attend one of the RHOK hackathon events. These events concentrate on using technology to solve humanitarian problems such as those related to draught, overpopulation, earthquakes, etc. The current hackathon was the first to concentrate solely on water and sanitation related problems. Held in 9 cities across the world, I attended the London event, organized by fellow compatriate Julian Harou.
I was one of the first to arrive, and although there weren’t too many people we quickly had a good mix of water and tech people. The event started with pizza and calling in to various countries around the globe so the problem submitters could briefly describe the motivation behind their problem statement. There were quite a few problems, some with curious names such as “Map the crap”. Initially my interest went out to a problem that involved writing a Google Earth plugin that would enable water management people & researchers to quickly and automatically identify catchment areas for a given location. A challenging algorithmic problem I figured. Unfortunately I was one of the few (or only?) person interested in the problem & the problem submitter was not physically available. So progress would have been difficult & slow.
Instead I decided to join fellow attendee and problem owner Mark Iliffe. Mark had just started working at the World Bank and his problem revolved around extending the Ushahidi platform to improve the reporting and feedback process of complaints. If you have never heard of Ushahidi, don’t worry, neither had I. Turned out is quite a useful and successful CMS system that allows users to file reports about problems in their area (broken pipes, blocked public toilets, etc.).
From the start it was great to see how enthusiastic Mark was about his team (about 4 of us). Quickly we were sketching out use case diagrams, sequence diagrams, flow charts, TODO lists, etc. I think we pretty much filled up all the white boards available. We were only about 20 minutes into this and our progress was already caught on the akvo.org blog by Mark Charmer. Great stuff.
As people were working stuff out Mark would bring on beer, biscuits, wine, and gently coerce other hackers in joining us (at peak we had about 12 people!). Star of the team was probably Caz. Ushahidi is written in php and my php foo is … well … not stellar But no worries for Caz who did a great job of coding stuff up. The hardest part about the whole exercise was understanding the code structure (Ushadhidi uses a custom framework based on Codeigniter and Kohana). I helped around with various bits and pieces and added support for geocoding sms messages by using a custom location code (Tanzania lacks an official postcode system). We worked right up to the deadline, with our tweaked Android application only finally working during our presentation (props to Gitmeister Florian!).
Anyways, long story short. We won The other teams had some good stuff too but I think we had the edge with Marks mad selling skills and a very clear route to sustainability. So what did we win? Not quite sure yet. Some gadgets from Google and a teleconference with some IBM guys next week. Lets see what happens. After a great social gathering at the local pub it was time to head home.
As I undertook the 2 hour journey back to Southampton it struck me again how important these kinds of events are. First of all for meeting new and interesting people, secondly for learning new stuff and learning to get something together quickly. I still have a long way to go but that’s a great excuse for attending a next event
About some of the London RHoK team members:
Dirk Gorissen is computer scientist fascinated with engineering and using IT to solve real world technical problems. He has worked in research labs in the US, Canada, and Belgium and currently lives in the UK where he works as a research fellow at the University of Southampton. There he develops a software suite to help engineers design and build civilian UAVs. However, as he was born in Burundi and grew up all around Eastern Africa he hopes to contribute more to projects with a social and/or humanitarian value.
Mark Iliffe is the founder of 7Clusters Ltd a GIS/Infrastructure consultancy based in the United Kingdom. He is a PhD student at Nottingham University’s Horizon Doctoral Training Centre researching trust in citizen reported crisis information.
Caroline Glassberg-Powell is a third year BEng Computer Science at Imperial College, London. She is enthralled with the idea of using her degree to solve some of the world’s crises. She currently works for Firmstep, a Cambridge based company which builds council websites in Drupal; and is a freelance web developer. She worked for the defence research company QinetiQ in her gap year; and was a member of the winning team of the Technion’s SciTech 2007. In her spare time, she reads, writes, hikes and travels.
Stay tuned for RHoK Global December 2011! We’ll be posting some problem definitions and getting involved in Nairobi and other locations.