Hacking Hardware to Prototype Resilience at the Feast

| Matt Stempeck

Top photo by @catcliffords used with permission

This weekend we had the great pleasure of supporting and attending The Feast (#Feast2014). It’s hard to adequately describe this interdisciplinary concoction of design, social innovation, and inspiration, but the official liveblog is a good place to start.

Setting matters, and on this front we benefitted from working out of an incredible art and community space, Pioneer Works in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Red Hook was hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, and still suffers. The Feast’s hardware hackathon was a collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and FEMA in support of the White House Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative. This event built on the same partners’ Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Demo Day.

There were two significant changes to the usual hackathon itinerary that I’d love to see adopted or modified by groups running similar events. First, the day started with a Human Centered Design training by IDEO designers. Part of this training asks designers to consider the community’s desire for designers’ ideas, as well as the long-term viability of their projects, which has traditionally limited the real impact of hackathons.

The second hack to the hackathon agenda occurred when the teams were whisked to key field locations and met with a variety of formal and community stakeholders before getting too deep into implementing their ideas. The participants I spoke to found the interactions with first responders and community members not just a pleasant experience, but helpful in testing their assumptions.

And the teams’ ideas, soon manifested into physical existence, were awesome:

Citizen Power Brigade modified a hybrid car with a field electrical kit to serve as a clean mobile generator, with the capability to power refrigerators or charge 8,400 cellphones with a single tank of gas:

LandlinePH is an off-the-grid decentralized communication network for relief agencies that allows them to continue using digital reporting methods. The team spent the weekend expanding the range of their base stations and integrating GPS auto-locators. An IKEA hanger was repurposed as a USB charger:

Cascade Designs built an electrochlorinator, which can turn water and table salt into chlorine:
Demo of an "electrochlorinator" at the #disastertec... on Twitpic

Photo by @FEMAspox

That chlorine can be used to clean water and fight cholera. The Clean Water STEM Education Program brings the equipment to schools and trains people how and why to use it. Then, when disaster strikes, members of the community not only have the equipment but also understand how to use it.

The Red Hook Initiative’s Digital Stewards team brainstormed ways to take their existing wireless mesh network (!!) and make it more resilient, like by running it on solar power.

Peter Haas’s experience inspecting damaged buildings with limited connectivity following the earthquake in Haiti led him to create Chatpoint, a wireless chat and image sharing system. It’s a lot like Firechat, but based on an RC helicopter transmitters that extend the network’s range over several miles. It runs off its battery pack for a couple of days on off-the-shelf hardware.

Voltaic Systems created a low-cost, high efficiency pedal powered electrical generator system. This manually generated electricity can output to USB to charge countless devices.

“The most expensive resource during a crisis is time.” –@bellmarr

There are many people collecting data in the aftermath of a crisis – governments, NGOs, journalists – but there’s poor sharing of data. Marianne is building a system for sharing this data that interoperates with existing systems so data collectors don’t need to adopt new approaches.

Natural disasters delay school enrollment by 6 months on average, and many students drop out completely. Eskuwela Now is an SMS platform to allow teachers to coordinate pop-up schools in disasters. The team hacked a Wiimote, projector, and Raspberry Pi to allow educators to continue teaching in just about any environment with a flat surface upon which to project lessons. With 12 Volts and under $150 in parts, teachers can build a device with capabilities similar to a $1500 smartboard.

Congratulations to all the teams, and good luck developing out your prototypes!

Photo by @janedelser used with permission.

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