Hundreds of developers spent Sunday coding apps to help those affected by floods in the south of England
A Twitter account that spreads information about volunteering for flood relief efforts, a web service that lets people find out who to call when they have a power cut, and a data visualisation tool that presents flood information were among the applications shortlisted at #floodhack. The event was hosted by Tech City UK in Google’s startup-focused office space, Campus.
Throughout the day developers worked on 18 different apps, of which eight were shortlisted by a judging team from the Cabinet Office. As well as the three above – @FludBud, “Who do I call when I have a power cut?”, and Flood Feeder – other shortlisted projects included:
- Don’t Panic, a system for centralising online and offline requests for help, while recording data for real-time response planning.
- UKFloodAlerts, which lets people set up alerts for specific issues like power loss, flooded roads or burst river banks and then be notified by text message or app notifications.
- Citizen Flood Journalism, which automates the process of finding people tweeting from flood-related areas, and asks them to post photos and other descriptive information.
Gareth Lloyd was the sole developer behind Citizen Flood Journalism. After just eight hours, the system was already able to take a feed of responses to the bot and map them. “Most Twitter ‘citizen journalism’ currently involves searching for people already discussing a topic or relying on people with information to contact you,” Lloyd said. “This approach – proactively identifying people near some event and soliciting information and photos – is an interesting twist. I think it has potential, but it also requires some caution.”
Joanna Shields, the former Bebo chief who is now chairman of Tech City UK, said that the initiative came about after a meeting at No. 10 Downing St on Friday. “The government called on the tech community to best use its wealth of flood data and the response we’ve seen from developers has been fantastic. Over the course of the weekend we had hundreds of people volunteer their time to produce genuinely innovative apps that are testament to the creativity, imagination and generosity of our local tech community and demonstrates the power of government opening up data.”
With just two days of planning, Joshua March, the chief executive of Conversocial, which pulled the event together, says he was amazed by the turnout. “We worked hard to get the word out - including Joanna Shields emailing everyone on the Tech City mailing list (which is a significant portion of the London tech community) … and Facebook, Microsoft and Google got the word out to their engineers and sent in teams.
March says he “didn’t have one overall favourite” from the event, but singles out ‘Who do I contact in case of a power cut?’ for actually being up and running after just a day’s work. “It’s something super simple but that can provide real help for people who need it, and who literally don’t know who they should call if the power goes out.”
For some apps, success created its own problems: Twitter suspended FludBud for sending too many messages at once.
“We focused on the people just outside of the affected area,” said Victoria Domalik of Playfair Capital, one of the team behind the app. “We reasoned that they were most likely to a) have power and b) be in a position to help. We did all of this to redirect traffic to floodvolunteers.co.uk, a platform that links volunteers to those who need them.
“We had incredible engagement, we had roughly one to one retweets from every tweet we sent out … The response on twitter was positive, that is, until we got shut down.”
Following the UK floods, Twitter signed up 38 fire brigades to its alert system, which notifies users with a text or twitter message whenever an account they’ve signed up with needs to send out an emergency warning. The Environment Agency already uses the system to send out flood warnings to affected areas.
• In 2007, developers were already expressing frustration at flood maps’ restrictions• Updated to correct Joanna Shields’ past jobs: she was the chief of Bebo, not AOL UK.
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image: © Gavin Lynn