Missing Persons Application!

This is a draft of a blog entry. The idea needs further refinement, and we welcome your feedback!

When a disaster occurs, whether fast like an earthquake or slow like a drought or war, people go missing. As outsiders wishing to contribute to restoring the stability of our worlds, the desire to reunite friends and loved ones through the technology we know so well can be tempting. Making use of our knowledge of social platforms, geotagging, and databases is far easier than addressing the long-term systemic injustices which allow these crises to affect entire populations in the way they do, afterall. But let’s say a typhoon has just made landfall, or that there’s a sudden influx of refugees from a drought-blighted country, and you and a group of your friends have gathered to see what you can do about it. This is beautiful — we need to learn how to work in solidarity with those in other geographies. But it’s also a delicate space. This particular post is about whether or not you should build that missing persons app, or spend your time contributing to something like Google Person Finder, OpenStreetMap, Sahana, or Standby Task Force instead.

The missing persons/reunification domain of humanitarian response is not just about people logging themselves so as to be findable by those missing them. It’s also about those individuals being protected during the process, having support in finding those they’ve been separated from, and the infrastructure which surrounds these actions. Software has a lot to contribute to connection, information security, and sorting through indexes, but missing persons is a delicate space with real humans in the mix.

This is an inhabited space

There are already missing persons tools and organizations which have been vetted for capacity and integrity for follow-through and security. Here are the few most successfully used ones: American Red Cross’ Safe and Well, Google Person Finder, Sahana, Refugees United, International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Please offer to help improve and maintain these existing tools (code repos and communities are linked to from each name)! If you are uncomfortable or unsure of how to contact them, please let me/Tim know!

However, we also understand that the world changes. We gain access to new technologies, there are new clever people in the world, and our understandings of situations change. There is *always* room for improvement in this space, just as any other. Want to do something substantively “better” or different than what the existing tools and organizations already do? Here’s what you need to know:

A component, not a solution

The software-based frontend and backing database are a TINY FRACTION of the overall system of missing persons reunification efforts. People are often missing for a *reason*, possibly because of political unrest, domestic violence, or displacement. If your platform publishes photos of someone or their geographic location, will someone try to come after them? Can you protect their physical and emotional wellbeing? There are national and international laws in place to protect such individuals, especially children, and your component of the system must be in alignment with those laws (or have a damn good and intentional reason for not being as such). Ethically, you should also respect an individual’s desire or need for privacy. In the Missing Persons Community of Interest, organizations handling missing persons data are reviewed by external parties for their ability to perform long-term maintainence and protection of said data. You and your tool will need to undergo the same rigor before being launched.

Complications versus easing interaction

Your goal is to make finding loved ones easier, right? Think about how many tools are already in play (see “This is an inhabited space” section above), and what adding one more to the mix would be like. Every new missing persons platform is another point of decision-making stress on the missing persons and those seeking them. Imagine being asked for personal information about yourself while under extreme duress over and over and over again.. or having to repeatedly enter in the details of someone you love and are deeply worried about while on a desperate search for them. The listed existing tools have gone through (and in some cases, are still working out) data sharing flows to reduce these stressors while still maintaining their committments to privacy and security of the data they hold. If you launch your tool, you’ll need to adhere to the same levels of empathy, respect, privacy, and sharing. (Side note, please don’t start a “uniting platform,” either, lest we get here. That’s what sharing standards are about.)

We look forward to your heartfelt, well-thought out contributions to this space.

Tim and Willow

Heatwave Hackathon

Hugs and thanks to Lindsay Oliver and the Kenya Red Cross team for their contributions to this entry.

On November 15th, I helped facilitate the Red Cross Crescent Climate Center’s HeatHack 2014, a gathering of amazing people to collaborate on solutions to climate-related challenges. This event focused on the risks and impacts of heatwaves, and how to provide community care and safety nets for at-risk people during extreme weather episodes.

In case you wonder what a hackathon is:

A hackathon is a gathering of diverse people who form teams to work on addressing challenges over a short period of time. These challenges can be technical, physical, resource-based, or even social. During HeatHack, participants learned about heatwave challenges from climate experts and people who have experienced heatwaves firsthand. Teams formed around potential ways to address these challenges, and worked together to come up with solutions to present to the judges. Prizes were awarded based on innovation, documentation, usability, and inclusiveness.

Why “HeatHack”?

Heatwaves can cause power outages, wildfires during a drought, buckling and melting roads, burst water lines, and serious health effects such as severe sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death.

  • According to NASA, when the temperature hits 95*F (35*C) your ability to function drops by 45%. Your loss of accuracy is 700%.
  • MPR News reports that body temperature can rise to 105*F (40.6*C) if working outside in a heatwave. Death occurs usually when a body temperature reaches 107.6*F (42*C).

Despite the severity of heatwaves, the health risks often go unnoticed because the people most affected are easily overlooked in a large population, especially if they are poor. We need to create ways of responding to these challenges to care for people who are currently at risk and to prepare for future heatwaves. As the effects of climate change become more severe, the number, length, and temperature of heatwaves will increase – including in Nairobi! Climate change affects the entire globe, and Kenya can lead the way in creating solutions that help as many people worldwide as possible. Continue reading

The “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon

Author’s note: I go to, organize, and facilitate a *lot* of hackathons, and while I’m thrilled about most of them as chances for people to learn and get involved in a field of research, I’m also fairly skeptical of them. So I’ve limited myself lately to events that can really make a difference, not only for the participants, but for the people who would benefit from the things they work on. Most recently, I’ve been doing events in Dar es Salaam with Taarifa and Geeks Without Bounds around water point mapping. I think this event has an opportunity for significant impact as well – this event especially in the arenas of health and gender equality. The following post was written by the hackathon team, of which I’m honored to nominally be a part.

Why Breastmilk and Breast Pumps?

Breast pumping is an experience many women dislike, yet it saves the lives of premature babies and permits working women to continue a nursing relationship with their babies. The health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby are numerous, and include reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, female cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Despite the overwhelming data and worldwide endorsement of breastfeeding for the first two years of life, many women do not breastfeed at all or wean after several months. In particular, low-income, working women are rarely able to take extended maternity leave, afford the cost of a pump, or pump breastmilk at their workplace. In emerging economies around the world, women who go back to work wean their babies rather than using a breast pump.


The breast pump is the rallying cry for the event because it is a symbol of a technology that could be better integrated into people’s everyday lives in order to save lives, save money, and lead to healthier and happier families. At the same time, our goal is to make space for innovation in family life more broadly, and to support a wide variety of different kinds of projects at the hackathon- and beyond.

This is the second of these events, with a writeup of the first here. Check out some challenge definitions and inspirations on the Tumblr, and join us if you can!

When: Saturday, September 20 & Sunday, September 21, 10am-6pm

Where: MIT Media Lab

Win! World-class judges will be giving cash prizes to the best ideas

Register Now (Registration is free but space is limited)

Bringing together parents, medical professionals, designers, policymakers, MIT students, and engineers to radically redesign the breast pump, as well as explore other innovations in maternal and pediatric health to improve the lives of families and children around the globe.

Our generous supporters of this event include Vecna TechnologiesMedela and Naia Health.

Presented by the MIT Media Lab with organizational support of iKatun.

Pre-Hackathon Movie Screening

Join us for a free public screening and discussion of Breastmilk: The Movie on Wednesday, September 10, at 7pm at MIT Bartos Theater, 20 Ames Street, Building E15, Lower Level, Cambridge, MA.

No RSVP required! Babies welcome.

Questions? Check out our website or contact us at breastpump-organizers@media.mit.edu.

Projects from the Boston Aaron Swartz Hackathon

Written with Erhardt GraeffSJ Klein

Intro Talk Ethan led us out by talking about the breadth of Aaron’s work, and what it is to be an “effective citizen.”


(Second day’s talks are written up already on the Civic blog here.)

Projects We Worked On We are deeply appreciative of all of the hard work done at the event, and about the social bonds built in our time together.

Ableson Report TL; DR Distillation and restating the Report to the President on MIT’s role (or lack thereof) in the arrest and suicide of Aaron Swartz, such that more people can join in the conversations around the issues specific to MIT.


Finished with: Prioritized and referenced questions for the FAQ doc, this prezi (which can still be expanded upon, but this is a start), and a super pretty interface to put it all into as we work.


Emerson Working with Mozilla’s web API structures to to wrangle control of personal data across the web back into the hands of users.


Repeal the CFAA Repeal the CFAA: The CFAA is broken; no one but prosecutors like it. Building a constructive, normative replacement, and strategies for getting support at all levels: executive, policy, law, prosecution, activists, cyberwar. Cooperating with Aaron’s Law and EFF work; but also tackling. Most discussions of “CFAA reform” have been incremental, in a framework of discussing what changes to current law are possible and would help fix recent problems; as opposed to describing why CFAA is broken and what proportionate and moral laws in that space wold look like. We’re trying to describe what effective policy would look like, starting from scratch. Policy, Legal, Social, Tech/Security, and Prosecutorial norms which make sense. Project details and analysis


Strong Box A platform for whistleblowers to transfer documents to newspapers directly. Initial code by Aaron Swartz.


This gentleman fixed a bug in how to delete files which a journalist may no longer find relevant.

Tor2Web Set out to work on tor2web, which makes it possible for internet users to view content from Tor hidden services. It’s online in a (mostly) functioning form at http://tor2web.org. Worked on by Aaron Swartz.


Finished with: a WORKING simple anonymous editable pastebin (no public code yet; on AWS w/ sponsorship). Hot damn!

What’s Next? Keep going, of course!

Recurring Calls We’ll have an ongoing call—once a week on Mondays for November, then monthly. These are to touch base about our work, to help solve issues and celebrate successes. If you’d like to be added to the calendar, invite, please leave a comment or email Willow

Open Atrium We’ll track our progress and objectives on this open source project management platform. It’s a way for us to remain ambiently aware of each other while still being accountable. If you’d like to hop on a project, or be aware of how projects are progressing, check out atrium.aaronswartzhackathon.org

IRC As always, you can join us in the OFTC IRC room #aaronswhack


There’s something about the fantastic Saving The Hackathon blog post on TokBox, that gets to the crux of the cognitive dissonance around hackathons. People expect the next technological tool or application that will change the world to come out of these. Sometimes they do, but rarely. (Insert side-rant about the expectation of perfectly-formed tools, objects, or people appearing from anywhere; as specifically articulated in my comments to this blog post). As I’m sure we’ve talked about before, I deeply believe that technologies only amplify human intent. I have yet to see anything that contradicts this. When it comes to disaster and humanitarian response hackathons, they get a lot of press. But what is the tangible output? What expectations can we set for ourselves and attendees?

So far as tools which can immediately be deployed in the field, not much. Not to say it doesn’t happen at all, but it is rare. The amount of forethought and digging which must happen to find the specific pain point which tech can help ease or automate is not something the affected population or the responders really have time to deal with while they are also doing response. Even when something appropriate is built, you have to worry about dissemination, training, and failure modes. Thus why the most useful things come out of things like Random Hacks of Kindness and CrisisCamps are awareness building and warm fuzzy feelings.

Yes, both warm fuzzies and awareness are legitimate, useful things. Too often, as technologists, we are separated from our world. We spend time behind screens, acutely aware of crises and issues but detached from the response and ownership of those situations. Civic media is an exceptional example of how technology has helped to close that detachment rather than deepen it. I see the same reclamation of involvement at the heart of the maker movement also at the heart of digital humanitarian work. No, this is not something we can leave up to some organization that we don’t know about, that isn’t accountable to us, and that doesn’t have mechanisms for listening to the very people it claims to serve. This is something we must do ourselves, calling upon the institutional knowledge and resources of those large organizations as needed. The things we create, which work, including processes, need to be codified. Sometimes into consensual hierarchies, sometimes into bureaucracy (both of which can be useful, as painful as that might seem). These assumptions of interaction allow us to operate at the next higher level, just as a language allows us to converse more easily, and a shared word set (for a discipline, say) allows us to have even more specific and deep conversation.

rhythmic tapping will solve everything!

rhythmic tapping solves everything

And on the institutionalized side of another false dichotomy, the awareness and warm fuzzies remove the mysticism of tech. People in traditional sectors all too often see applications and networks as some ruby slippers, easily deployed and perfectly aligned if you just knew the right phrase. And the same fear that goes along with a belief in such power, the misunderstanding of a very real (but also not ultimate) power. It’s not just developers who think the thing they build will be the next big thing – it’s also the people in response-based orgs not knowing that they need one section of a workflow automated, not a geotagged photo sharing platform (we already have those).

So response hackathons are a great place for the amplification of human intent and desire to assist the rest of humanity. That’s great. Now – how do you make those intentions deployable? IE, now that you’ve had the cancer walk, who’s doing the research and implementation? That’s a smaller group of people, who are willing to take the risk of plunging into work that doesn’t pay like the rest of the software world. That’s a small group of people who are willing to suffer the heart break and soul crushing that seeing the horrors of the world can cause, in order to see your tiny steps (maybe) make way against that. That’s an even smaller group of people who also understand how to support and care for themselves while they do that work, to find sustained income (sometimes from the people you are wanting to help most – which is still a cognitively sticky bucket for me), so they can keep going. And the fight isn’t just to make things better, it’s also about how that exists in the current world, with policy and with culture.

Response hackathons absolutely have a place in this system of engagement. But it’s one part. Without the continuation programs like Geeks Without Bounds and SocialCoding4Good, we all just pat ourselves on the back and go home. We start to wonder if it’s even worth going to the next one. But accomplishment takes hard work, and sometimes working on the fiddly bits. And that means deep learning and conversations with the user. That means advance work, and continued work. Which I believe you can do. Don’t just create in response to things going pear-shaped. Build things to better understand them. Create to make the world better. Make with purpose. The disasters and obstacles we face in the near future are unpredictably complicated and massive. We have no way to train for them. But we also have massive untapped resources in the sharing of our brains and hearts, brought out when we create, and share, and build.

It is with all this in mind that I am excited about how Geeks Without Bounds is starting to look at how we will interact with OpenHatch, in an effort to contribute to (and learn from) the open source community. It is with all this in mind that I am excited about DataWind, and AppsToEmpower, and shipping low-cost tablets into developing area pre-loaded with useful tools. It is with these things in mind that I am excited about the continuation of EveryoneHacks, and how it creates space for new creators.

Gender-Based Violence hackathon in Port-au-Prince

Originally posted at Digital-Democracy’s website.

Apply to join Digital Democracy for a Hackathon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti from November 8-12, 2012.  We are inviting American and Haitian developers & designers to address these questions and support the inspiring work of Haitian women’s organization KOFAVIV. For over 8 years, KOFAVIV has provided critical, life-saving services to survivors of rape & gender-based violence.

With generous support from Abundance Foundation and partners ESIH (Ecole Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haïti) & Willow Brugh of Geeks Without Bounds, the Hackathon is focused on developing tools to help scale the impact of our current systems in two areas, resulting in three outputs that will dramatically improve the work of our partners.

Last fall, Dd & local partner KOFAVIV launched Haiti’s first Emergency Response Hotline for Gender Based Violence (GBV). In May, 2012, the hotline transitioned to 24 hour service and currently provides women survivors of violence free access to information on services for medical, legal and psychosocial care in Port-au-Prince. In order for the Call Center to serve national clients, operators need easy access to a map of resources outside of the Port-au-Prince area.

Hackathon goal:
•  Build a web platform to map/aggregate information on service providers throughout the country. Skills in SMS, GIS, and Drupal are especially useful.

Since 2010, Dd has worked with local partners to develop a cloud-based database to digitize information on incidents of violence. The system currently includes 50+ points of data on over 900 reports of rape and domestic violence in Haiti between 2010 and 2012. KOFAVIV is seeking to improve their ability to use data to advocate for increased security for Haitian women & girls.

Hackathon goal:
•  Develop live data visualization to generate visual monthly reports on cases received by local partners. Skills in Drupal, design, dynamic code, especially useful.
•  Identify new trends in existing data and develop creative ways to visualize data for advocacy and outreach. Skills in design, big data, and community engagement especially useful.

Join us!

If you or someone you know has skills in the following and would be interested in participating, please submit an application here (bit.ly/PaPhack) by October 9, 2012. Specifically, we’re looking for participants skilled in:

  • Drupal
  • Front end design
  • Graphic design
  • Dynamic code
  • Dataviz
  • Big data
  • Mapping / GIS

Participation includes Hackathon, travel, lodging, food and transport in country. All logistics taken care of by Digital Democracy. Estimated total travel and accomodation per participant is $5,000 with some scholarships available. For more information, about attending as a participant email Emilie Reiser – ereiser(at)digital-democracy(dot)org.

Become a Sponsor!

Help make the Hackathon possible. We are looking for premier sponsors as well as scholarship sponsors to help bring the right participants to the Hackathon. To discuss potential sponsorship, contact Emily Jacobi – ejacobi(at)digital-democracy(dot)org.

September happenings

August 28-31 : Burning Man : DPW Camp
September 1st : High School Reunion : Indiana
September 7th : Journey to the End of the Night : Seattle

The city spreads out before you. Rushing from point to point, lit by the slow strobe of fluorescent buses and dark streets. Stumbling into situations for a stranger’s signature. Fleeing unknown pursuers, breathing hard, admiring the landscape and the multitude of worlds hidden in it.

For one night, drop your relations, your work and leisure activities, and all your usual motives for movement and action, and let yourself be drawn by the attractions of the chase and the encounters you find there.

September 8th : CyborgCamp : Seattle

CyborgCamp is an unconference about the future of the relationship between humans and technology. We’ll discuss topics such as social media, design, code, inventions, web 2.0, twitter, the future of communication, cyborg technology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy.

September 14-15 : Education hackathon : Dallas, TX
September 21-23 : H4D2 hackathon : Birmingham, England

Aston University and the University of Warwick are happy to announce the Hackathon for Disaster Response, a 2-day event to bring together software developers and emergency management experts to hack out solutions to disaster-related problems. We will focus specifically on data available via social media, and on structured data (open data, linked data) available from a variety of sources. This event is sponsored as part of the Disaster 2.0 project

September 29 : CrisisCamp Ireland : Galway

First half of October I’ll be on the East Coast bouncing between DC, Boston, and NYC.

Please come out and participate!

Sea Change

So, there was this whole series of cultural shifts around hacker and maker spaces from about 2005 to now1. In America, people were realizing that they could work together. Then that they could pool resources and form spaces. Then that other spaces existed. Now, how we can link spaces together and how to help make more. Next will be what to turn them into. I vote schools. More on that another time.

A similar thing is happening with hackathon / app contest / civic engagement culture right now. Hackathons have been around for a long time, but more recently there have been a greater quantity in rapid succession. Another knee. Why? Tools are more accessible, people want to create something useful, but also because it’s a powerful motivator to be in something so engaging as OpenGov. Again, at first, it was “hey, other people are doing this?” Then “I want to do that!” and now, most of the discussions at OpenGovWest11 was about how to do it better. How do we make the things that hobby-ists are building sustainable, robust, and most of all – impactful2.

There are a few ideas. Beyond just the excitement of continued work, and post-geographical ideals of traveling to where the awesome is, we can also encourage people to maintain, improve, and build upon what already exists instead of just creating the new. It’s like maker ethics of Fix What You’ve Got brought to the hacker ethic of I Will Build It Better. So… how do we encourage a culture of maintenence while continuing to uphold a culture of innovation?

Hard question, but we have a few ideas.

Things like GameSave are a start with a format of long-running competition with an intense work weekend and the goal of the program being funding for full development.
This has also been done with things like the X Prize and other such things, but rarely quite so grassroots.

We can also start to look at progress between two phases made during a hackathon style competition instead of just how far from the startline someone is.
I think we should also give awards based on adaptation of or improvement on existing tools, or just the research time needed to discover that you don’t actually need the thing you were going to build.
Continued incentives and interest in further building of tools

We have to maintain and encourage the long term agility and mythos of our ideals to continue this sea change instead of just being co-opted and burning out. We can’t just use the scientific method in testing and building the tools we use because that almost guarantees failure.

1. Well of course it’s always been a cultural change. Outside the norm. Etc etc. I’m talking here about the knee of the curve, mostly sparked by the 2007 Chaos Computer Camp.
2. Yes that’s a word shut up

of hacks and thons

Random Hacks of Kindness was the first weekend of December, OpenDoor Hack-A-Thon this past weekend. Many amazing things were built, and we’ll be continuing endeavors on both counts. What I’m going to talk about now though is not the code or the implementation, but the social dynamics and what we can Do Better for hackathons.

The thons that I have participated with have, as a default, been intimidating. I hope this is not everyone’s experience, but it certainly is mine. I have limited coding experience, and a time-crunch competition is no time to show up and say “but I can learn!” I often offer to keep track of online communications, do research, layout order-of-use and menus and the like, and brew coffee. On occasion, while someone is waiting for code to compile or someone else to finish a contingency task, they’ll teach me about what they’ve written. I learn a lot and have a great time.

image by @aaronpk

There is a continuing problem of “the n00b and the clue-by-four”. This is happens when someone shows up with some combination of the following two features : arriving late1 and/or having extremely limited ability2. It is an issue I have yet to see addressed well. Incorporating a better way of guiding efforts of the thons would be beneficial to all participants, n00bs or l33t. So, in talking with James and Jordan and Strand, we’ve been thinking about the following solutions:

  • basic document (link to what the event is about, communication channels, documents created for event
  • IRC bots (check-in times, auto-answer basic questions, DM those joining the room with above doc, send log of IRC discussion
  • gamification (points towards what people should be working on, time allotments for each stage, etc)

So… I’m super excited to start the hackathons at Jigsaw third weekends in 2011. What would you do? What sorts of guidance do you need when participating in a group event where the details evolve as everyone works together, and few people know each other? We’re intending on having classes the Wednesday before, so people feel a bit more capable in their skills, or create a new skillset.

1. Problems and their potential solutions are discussed either before the hackathon or during its first breaths. Courses chosen are based on the skillsets of available people – to include a step which involves skills no one present has based on the hope that someone will walk through the door hours into the event with just that skill would be silly. This means arriving early is essential, ESPECIALLY if you haven’t been participating in the existing dialoge.
2. As stated before, time-crunch competitions are no time to pester people to teach you things, and promising you can deliver something you don’t have the skills for can be detrimental to everyone. Come, hang out, learn more, but temper your ambitions with your abilities.