Hacking Earthquake Resilience

In the technology hub of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the threat of a major earthquake is imminent, coping with the Big One means preparation. Luckily, smart cities, the Internet, and urban data offer unprecedented new opportunities to simulate and plan for disasters such a massive quake.

At swissnex San Francisco on May 31, 2014, as part of the National Civic Day of Hacking, data scientists from ETH Zurich FuturICT and UC Berkeley Smart Cities Research Center joined members of the public for a 12-hour hackathon aimed at facilitating a resilient local response to disaster.

Participating teams had one day to propose a solution to an immediate post-quake problem, such as reduced mobile and landline communication, limited water or energy supply, or emergency rescue. Infrastructure and environmental data and resources were provided by the Smart Cities Lab.

“We hit a nerve and we have identified promising ways in which societies can prepare themselves for disaster, how ideas can come together, how one can make things happen, and how to help people to help themselves.” Dirk Helbing, FuturICT Lab, ETH Zurich

At the end of the day, the jury (made up of Alexei Pozdnukhov, Smart City Research Center UC Berkeley; Thomas Maillart, UC Berkeley School of Information; Ian Johnson, d3 Meet-up; Dirk Helbing, FuturICT ETH Zurich; John A. McKnight, Emergency and Disaster Services, The Salvation Army; Michael Germeraad, Bay Area Governments; and Christian Simm, swissnex San Francisco)
 selected three main winners based on the criteria of user-friendly, actionable, and applicable solutions and ideas.

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Winning team Amigo Cloud with Sophie Lamparter of swissnex San Francisco

Amigo Cloud

First-prize ($3,000 plus a trip to Switzerland to work with the FuturICT team) went to this tool for allowing anyone with a smart phone to snap a photo of a damaged zone post quake and map its exact location with GPS. The app automatically updates when in network, so even if the data isn’t immediately available, the information is safe and accurate, helping response teams find where they are needed most.

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Helping Hands Mobile App

Helping Hands

A number of relief agencies and volunteer organizations mobilize in the event of a natural disaster. This second-place solution was awarded a $2,000 prize for designing a social media network for volunteers to communicate and coordinate needs in real-time: “Water over here,” for example, or, “Medical supplies needed here.”

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Visual of the “Charge Beacons”

Charge Beacon

Third-place (and a $1,000 prize) went to a group who proposed a network of solar charging stations that are active year-round, recognizable, and function after disaster as a meeting point not only to plug in, but also to exchange information and receive aid. The Charge Beacon team is: Xian Ke, Beth Ferguson, Sophie Schultze-Allen, and Mouly Kumar.

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Team “Are We Screwed?” presenting their project

Are we screwed?

The team behind this project was honored with a special mention for their simulation of what can happen in specific neighborhoods when a quake hits. Where is the nearest hospital to you? How badly will the surrounding roads be damaged? Can you even get out? Scary stuff, but better to know and to prepare.

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Project “Source”


Also recognized with a special mention was this visionary idea for a single disaster relief brand. Imagine if there was a recognizable meme for doing good and promoting health, not only during a disaster. “An API for earthquake response,” as it was described, integrating the world of technology and its tools for resilience.

All winners were invited to present during the netSci2014 conference, Systems Resilience in the Digital Society, satellite on June 3 at UC Berkeley.

All prizes generously sponsored by Zurich and Farmers Insurance.

See pictures from the hackathon on Flickr