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A Chance to Imagine the Possibilities

Scott Phillips is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.

George Luc

Scott Phillips is being honored as a Champion of Change for applying his tech skills for civic good.

Leading up to the National Day of Civic Hacking (NDoCH), the Code for Tulsa team worked hard to produce an amazing event. Twelve days before our event, a massive EF-5 Tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma leaving a trail of destruction over a mile wide and 17 miles long. In the wake of the disaster, we struggled with an appropriate response and even considered cancelling our event. Our concern turned to opportunity when Open FEMA contacted us and offered their resources. We realized we could build something at our hackathon that could help in future disasters. With this project we could honor those impacted by the tragedy and turn our sorrow into action.

Subsequent brain storming led me to the orange spray paint X’s that were used to identify searched buildings after a disaster. I remembered seeing the process repeated each time our country had a disaster and thinking how inefficient it was and how easily technology could improve this process. Code for Tulsa had developed a map project for the Tulsa Fire Department and I knew we could build something that could help in a disaster.

Based on this idea, we worked with Open FEMA, the Oklahoma All Hazard Incident Management Team, and Oklahoma Task Force 1, our state-run Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) Task Force, to develop a basic design spec that came together the morning of our hackathon. Both the Oklahoma Incident Management Team and Oklahoma Task Force 1 had just returned from their deployment to Moore, so they brought incredible real world perspective.

Shortly after our hackathon, Open FEMA also connected us with an NDoCH team in Rockaway Beach, NY that was working on disaster response challenges from Hurricane Sandy. As soon as we saw the incredible overlap in our visions both teams decided to collaborate

The Open Search & Rescue Map Project we subsequently built is an HTML5 mobile web app for use by First Responders and US&R personnel during all phases of a major disaster response.  Its primary use is to augment the orange spray paint X’s with virtual X’s on geo-located maps that can be viewed on smart phones, tablets and other devices. The app allows search personnel to use any mobile device to virtually X the start of a search, the end of a search, and to document victim findings, hazardous conditions found, and building condition. The app also has advanced map layering features that allow search teams to turn on or off layers that include geo-located post disaster aerial imagery, previous search findings, and locations of other teams and search & rescue assets. The project also allows commanders at the Base of Operations (BOO) to track all of the US&R teams in the field simultaneously giving them real time map based situational awareness in addition to real time search progress monitoring. In aggregate all of the features allow US&R teams to deploy faster, and search more efficiently saving precious time and potentially even lives.

As inspiring as this project sounds, the real take away is how well it illustrates the story of Civic Hacking and hints at its true potential. Over the period of a few days a Federal agency was able to connect with a group of civic minded volunteers who then connected with two different state organizations and ultimately, a team half way across the country. The resulting collaboration led to a tool that actually has the potential to save lives.

Pivotal to that success was a culture of people feeling they had enough ownership to inspire meaningful action. Government in America can feel so large and distant that people often do not feel that they can make a difference. The Civic Hacking movement not only shows people that they can, it actually lets them.

The ultimate potential for this is seen when we extrapolate this story to all facets of government. The easiest way to consider this is to view it in three steps; give citizens transparency, give citizens a voice, then give citizens ownership. I can only imagine the possibilities.

Scott Phillips is the Co-Founder and CEO of Isocentric Networks