Code and Response Codeathon: Using Open Source Tech to Tackle Real World Issues

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By Thomas Galeon (7 min read)

In April 2019, IBM successfully ran the first “Code and Response Codeathon” at UC Berkeley in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). Code and Response is a platform for developers and IBM partners around the world to create innovative applications that will aid in natural disasters. Individuals as well as organizations can take part in coding challenges, deployment efforts, and volunteerism in support of disaster response and resilience. Throughout this year, IBM and CGI U are hosting in-person and virtual codeathons that address natural disasters at 10 universities across the United States and Europe. Students will harness modern, emerging, and open source technologies, and IBM developer advocates will mentor them to help bring their ideas to life.

Thomas Galeon, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, is one of the Code and Response Codeathon participants and a member of the winning team, AsTeR. In this blog, he writes about his perspective of the hackathon and what it meant to him, being a former firefighter and first responder himself.

The Code and Response Codeathon: Perfect Fit for my Firefighter Experience

As a little background, I was born in London to a French family. After completing high school in the UK, I moved to France to discover the country for myself. There I completed the equivalent of my undergraduate and master’s studies in engineering at Ecole Polytechnique. The university’s military heritage makes the university unique in France, with the first year spent doing military training. I chose to work at the Paris Firefighter Brigade where I led an ambulance team of three for six months. This was an incredible, eye-opening experience. My team led more than 300 rescue operations in one of Paris’ poorest neighborhoods. As a firefighter, I witnessed firsthand the distress of victims during emergencies. Interventions were varied and included assisting a mother in giving birth, as well as rescuing a trapped driver in a car. Despite their diversity, all interventions shared a common difficulty: collecting information. Whether onsite or over the phone, gathering facts was oftentimes the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of the operation. This observation laid the foundations for AsTeR as an information collection platform, ultimately the winning solution for the Code and Response Codeathon at UC Berkeley.

Upon receiving my master’s degree, I was eager to discover how things were done in America, so I moved to the US, first as a visiting student at MIT and then as a graduate student in the Master of Engineering in Bioengineering at UC Berkeley. Ever since I arrived in California, people have been telling me about the Big Onethe next big earthquake along the San Andreas Fault. If it hits, all people living in the area will become victims. As the more than seven million people living in the Bay Area start calling emergency services, call centers will rapidly become overloaded. This makes assigning priority to certain areas unfeasible and prevents emergency responders from focusing their efforts on those most in need. With AsTeR, we aim to create a platform for collecting and prioritizing information in large scale situations of emergency, such as an earthquake or a wildfire.

Challengers eagerly awaiting the results

Using Technology to Make a Difference

The hackathon was exactly as expected: dozens of people passionate about making a difference, hundreds of ideas being discussed, and thousands of lines of codes being written. Having a team with diverse backgrounds was crucial to the success of our project, too. Combining our different strengths, we were able to come up with an automatic way of dealing with emergency calls and prioritizing urgencies by using several IBM Watson technologies.

I feel it’s important to participate in events like “Code and Response Codeathons” because it provides inventive coders with the opportunity to tackle real world issues that may otherwise pass unnoticed. After a natural disaster, the media often pays tribute to the tremendous work of emergency responders. This can lure the public into believing that current systems are already optimal. However, as long as there are casualties, emergency services can be improved.

Seeing the Gaps in Emergency Response

Code and Response puts to the forefront some of the shortcomings of our response to natural disasters. For instance, fires are detected too late, information is relayed slowly, and help is not delivered fast enough. The hackathon can lead to a 24-hour reflection on some of these issues and hopefully yield some solutions. The diversity of teams and participants is crucial to the success of these coding challenges; one of the best ways to think outside the box is to ask people with little or no experience in the field what they would do. This is why taking part in Code and Response can be beneficial both to you and others, regardless of your level of experience and familiarity with the topic.

Taking part in the challenge made me realize that, despite the relative rarity of natural disasters, major companies still seek to improve our response to these events. On a day-to-day basis, emergency services operate well and can handle most emergencies. However, natural disasters are one-off events. No amount of training can prepare first responders for the chaos that ensues. Therefore, companies like IBM with a wealth of talent and expertise are crucial to this cause by drawing from their experience in other fields, they can improve the efficiency of emergency services.

Winning the Challenge

Winning the “Code and Response Codeathon”, a hackathon co-presented by IBM and Clinton Global Initiative University, was a great way to end the hackathon. Our victory also confirmed that we were on the right track and that our platform could potentially save livesthis is exactly why we signed up for the codeathon! The team must still decide how to move on with the project. All three members are graduating this month and are about to start new jobs. We want to give the AsTeR platform the best chance of success, so we have thought about getting more people involved in the project for the global competition. In fact, this is exactly what makes Call for Code stand out: all projects are open-source so ultimately anyone with a good idea can play a part and change the world for the better.

Interested in participating in upcoming Code and Response events? Find out more at Code and Response.


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