'Hurricane Hackers' Brainstorm Ways To Coordinate Storm Response

Omar Said, right, and Robert Stewart, center, place sandbags in front of Mills Fine Wine and Spirits in downtown Annapolis, M
Omar Said, right, and Robert Stewart, center, place sandbags in front of Mills Fine Wine and Spirits in downtown Annapolis, Md., Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, as Hurricane Sandy bears down on the region. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

What do software developers do when a hurricane approaches? They use their hacking skills to help.

On Monday, dozens of developers and designers were exchanging ideas for building online tools related to Hurricane Sandy. They were sharing code and data sets in chat rooms and in a Google doc, as well as spreading word of their projects on Twitter under the hashtag #hurricanehackers.

In less than a day, they built a tool that collects livestreams of the storm into a single map and created a timeline of major Hurricane Sandy events, images, videos, audio clips, tweets and maps.

But they were just getting started, and many still had ideas aimed at directly helping with the storm response. Some suggested building crowd-sourced maps of places that needed sandbags, or grocery stores that are still open, or places that still have power. One developer proposed building a tool that takes online emergency response information -- like water distribution locations and shelter updates -- and making it available through a phone number.

Others suggested creating an online platform to organize fundraisers for people who lose possessions in the storm, or building an automated system that broadcasts road closures on a common radio frequency.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and creator of "Hurricane Hackers," said interest in the project swelled Monday after it was posted on

He said he wasn't surprised by the response. There has long been a community of developers who create free software to promote civic participation and social action, he said.

"Whenever there is an event that draws a lot of attention, we try to gather people to brainstorm ideas for new tools that would be potentially useful," he said.

Such brainstorming sessions among developers often occur during natural disasters. Crisis Mappers, for example, is one of several organizations that uses real-time data to create crowd-sourced maps that help first responders prioritize food, shelter and sanitation services in humanitarian emergencies.

Projects like "Hurricane Hackers" offer another example of what is possible by bringing people with experience responding to hurricanes together with those who know how to code, Costanza-Chock said.

"What's most exciting is to see a community of humanitarians and crisis responders getting linked to these new communties of developers and designers who want to use their skills for social good," he said.