Call for Code initiative: technology in the face of natural disaster

By and Lauren Konchan | 3 minute read | August 22, 2018

In a connected world, we’ve come to rely on consistent communications for our everyday lives. But what happens when disaster strikes? In the aftermath of devastating weather events and natural disasters, can the Internet of Things help restore emergency communications – or even save lives?

Call for Code is an IBM-led initiative seeking to answer questions just like these. It hosts and supports events where people come together to build, integrate and prepare technologies that can help us cope with natural disasters. One such initiative at Engine 4, a Coworking space in Puerto Rico. There, they explored how mesh networks could provide methods of communication in an emergency.

When the power goes out: why technology matters

On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma swept Puerto Rico, leaving the island vulnerable and without power. Just ten days later, Hurricane Maria struck – further devastating the island. During the storms, Puerto Rico lost more than just electricity. Without power, it was left quite literally in the dark – without communications, transportation or the means of implementing safety procedures.

In desperate situations like these, emergency communications and the ability to call for help can mean the difference between life and death. The event at Engine 4, supported by IBM Wolfpack, recognized the potential for IoT-led technologies in a state of emergency. And they invited its participants to design a solution based on mesh network technology that would help restore basic communications.

IoT architecture: an answer to emergency communications?

With their IoT architecture, mesh networks may have the answer to creating a spread that can endure natural disasters. This is because a mesh network’s infrastructure nodes are designed to connect to as many other nodes as possible. There’s no hierarchy or intermediary, so it’s an efficient way of routing data.

At Engine 4, eight teams presented their mesh network masterpieces. The winning effort came from a pair of local engineers, who built a communications solution around a low-cost SDR, or software defined radio. The SDR could reconfigure itself to connect various kinds of existing radio infrastructure, depending on what was available. In this way, the SDR could act as hot spot or cell phone – rapidly restoring basic communications following a crisis.

The team prototyped a cheap device that piggy-backed on a HAM radio signal to send messages at 600 bits per second. Considering that the alternative is 0 bits per second, this is an extraordinary achievement – allowing stricken communities to communicate their urgent need for aid.

Another team developed an offline wallet, aimed at offering an alternative means of making payment in the absence of working ATMs and cash registers.

Each prototyped device provided a temporary solution to some of the most immediate problems caused by lack of technology. Problems like the inability to communicate with the outside world. The inability to transact business. And the inability to coordinate rescue efforts.

It is for applications like these that we need technology the most. Those infrequent, but devastating scenarios where our innovative power can have the greatest impact.

IBM IoT Connection Service: a vital solution

The IoT is at the heart of what makes mesh networks so successful as emergency communications providers. A mesh network’s IoT architecture means that it can create a virtual wireless backbone without relying on a central access point. This makes mesh networks an excellent tool for establishing communications when WiFi is unavailable and when cell towers are down.

While the IoT is an invaluable tool, connecting devices and getting started with an IoT strategy is not always easy. Luckily, IBM has a solution to make it simple to connect and collect data from devices. It’s called the IBM IoT Connection Service, and is built on the IBM Watson Platform. For more information about IoT Connection Service, please visit our site.

How you can join Call for Code

Learn more in this video with Kait Parker, a meteorologist with The Weather Company. She sat down with developers and emergency operations personnel for a deeper dive into the program. Then, see how you can get involved with Call for Code and use the power of IoT to support those most in need.