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How to hack a hurricane

Posted by Sarah Laskow  October 30, 2012 10:45 AM

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Yesterday, while most hurricane-bound Internet addicts were tracking the storm or posting pictures of the worst flooding, Sasha Costanza-Chock, an assistant professor of civic media at MIT, was coordinating #HurricaneHackers. The project's index - a shared Google doc that started getting enough traffic that Costanza-Chock and his collaborators had to create a read-only version to keep it from crashing - calls #HurricaneHackers "a shared space for gathering information and organizing tech and social projects related to Hurricane Sandy." But, more simply, it's hurricane-pegged hack-a-thon, occupying a few virtual rooms instead of a real-world space.

By Monday afternoon, participants had already started working on a map collecting live streams of the hurricane and an interactive timeline of the storm. They were also throwing out ideas for ways to help and to deal with the impacts, after the storm subsidied. By the time I got in touch with Costanza-Chock, he was without power but still had a phone connection.

Brainiac: Where'd the idea for #HurricaneHackers come from?

Costanza-Chock: When there are major events or actions, we organize hack-a-thons. Developers, designers and people with knowledge about the event gather to come up with new possible tools and apps and projects tied to whatever the situation is. For example, we did a hack-a-thon around Occupy and another one around the president debate.

Brainiac: How much did you have to plan in advance?

Costanza-Chock: Yesterday morning, I got up and was looking at the news. I thought I should called up a couple of people. We set up an EtherPad, which started getting so much traffic it crashed, so we set up a Google doc, which started crashing. We turned it into a series of different pages and read-only pages that don't go down. There's an IRC channel where developers and designers can talk. We organized it really quickly but through existing networks of people.

Brainiac: Why should people contribute to #HurricaneHackers instead of something like Twitter, which feels like defacto outlet for crowdsourced information during an event like this?

Costanza-Chock: Twitter is a public avenue for sharing links and information. There's an aspect of information sharing here, but we're trying to build new tools and projects and ideas. People are coding new stuff, or brainstorming things that would be useful in this context. For instance, someone was looking at different ways to call in reports that would be vetted and then pushed out over AM broadcast, if all other channels went down.

The sandbag platform was a neat idea, I thought. You would get people to volunteer to come and make sandbags. But to do that we would need info about locations and sandbag repositories. Someone actually came in to the IRC chat and said, "It would be a far better use of time to be making sandbags than what you're doing in here." We thought, hey, that would be a great idea. But where would I go if I wanted to make sandbags?

Brainiac: What are you hoping the outcome will be?

Costanza-Chock: Hack-a-thons produce two things, really. They create concepts and demo designs of stuff which sometimes get picked up and used later. And they create relationships between people who want to work on particular issues or problems together. It won't necessarily produce something that's going to have a really big impact within this 24 hour period, but it may produce some useful concepts ideas that may become real later and useful relationships between people.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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