Coding for a Cause: Women’s Hackathon Teams Simulate Disaster Response


This is a from the field report from Direct Relief’s Director of Research and Analytics, Andrew Schroeder: 

This past Saturday in Phoenix, Arizona I had the honor and the pleasure of helping out with one of a series of events being held around the world as part of Microsoft’s 3rd International Women’s Hackathon.  The young women huddled around tables and laptops in Phoenix were part of an enormous global community ranging from the U.S. to Europe to Nepal, Japan and many other locations.

The purpose of the Microsoft hackathons is to help motivate young women to become more engaged in information technology as a career path, and in the process to help develop new applications for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to use technology for social good.

On behalf of Direct Relief, I put together one of this year’s two challenges posed to the women involved in these events — to design a computer game simulation which can help both disaster responders and the general public think more clearly and creatively about how disaster response operations work and why they are so difficult to do well.

Games can enable situated, practical knowledge by allowing players to experience a set of dynamic events which respond to their choices and actions. We can use real data from past events to model how disasters impact people, infrastructures and environments, and how response actors set up various types of programs, from shelter to food to water, sanitation and healthcare, under constraints of time, money and information.  How do players collaborate and cooperate to overcome those constraints?  Why does collaboration break down? What sorts strategies exist to know more, to share that knowledge, to act more efficiently, and to improve the benefits to local people affected by emergencies?

One of the most exciting parts of these events is watching these smart and dedicated young women come up with unanticipated ideas and solutions. The group which won in Phoenix developed a concept for a virtual board game in which players would solve disaster relief problems, have the ability to form collaborative groups, and develop strategies for trading information and resources to improve their chances of helping more people. While I had not personally considered the viability of a board game format, their solution was thoughtful, creative, fun and promising.

The Microsoft hackathons will be ongoing around the world throughout the rest of this year. Participants in any of them will have the opportunity to continue virtually developing and elaborating on projects which take shape in the crucible of the in-person hackathons.

As Direct Relief continues to apply a variety of different technologies to improve the health and wellbeing for poor and socially vulnerable communities affected by disasters worldwide, the Microsoft women’s hackathons are an exciting opportunity for us to inspire exploration, invention and motivation to change the world for the better.

Watch the video to learn more.

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