CrisisCamp Boston January 2013 Retrospective

Last weekend we had a successful CrisisCamp Boston event at the MIT Media Lab. Here’s a short summary of how it came together and some of the outcomes.

I got together with Rodrigo Davis and Pablo Ray Mazon of the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media to discuss logistics for this CrisisCamp less than 24 hours after Mayor Menino declared the flu epidemic a Public Health Emergency. In retrospect, this was a great choice to make because of the issues it both revealed and created.

At first, it seemed as though the flu crisis itself wasn’t very accessibly hackable. More on this in the ‘lessons learned’ section toward the end.

After introductions and some basic discussion of the problem space, we broke off into groups to brainstorm ideas for problems we could work on solving.

Sean P Fay and Aaron Kite-Powell presenting on ‘Principles of Planning’ where they outlined facts and assumptions about flu and how what kinds of Apps might have impact. Changing behavior is key, and the biggest opportunities lies in changing social norms, expectations, and response. Framing the value of apps in terms of money saved is also important for showing their value to response organizations. Notes here.

Rodrigo Davies presented on the opportunity space for building solutions. His group explored which communities tend to be hit hardest by the flu and the difficulties involved in reaching them. Solution ideas converged upon a single area of focus: Apps developed around public education and outreach campaign. Notes here.

Jon Lin’s group presented an app idea. As part of the effort to combat the flu, Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics released a widely publicized web app to help people find clinics where they could get flu shots. Again, the challenge of accessibility to web based information came up. John Lin’s group decided that the best way to reach communities without access to technology is through the network of responders. They wanted to create an app for responders that facilitates resource matching, reporting, and general information dissemination. The biggest challenge identified in building this, the holy grail of response apps, is the inaccessibility of data. Just figuring out how to find, aggregate, and represent data locked in the diaspora of response organization silos (or not even collected in the first place) in a useful way to developers would be a significant win. Notes here.

At the end of the day we ended up with seven possible projects to work on:

  • Flu game – More of a brainstorming exercise than a hackable project.
  • ‘Toolkit for street teams’
  • CrisisPro – A mobile app to help responders disseminate information to under-served communities.
  • InnCrisis – a social fundraising system continuing development from the previous CrisisCamp even in November
  • FluShot – hacking new features for the app deployed by Boston’s New Urban Mechanics office
  • A Trend tracking & early warning system
  • FluReporter

Ultimately, the two projects we ended up working on during Sunday’s session were FluReporter and InnCrisis.

InnCrisis is a continuing project from the Hurricane Sandy CrisisCamp. As I’ve spent a bit of time contributing to this project since then, I was pleased to see it maintain momentum and gather more contributors. I’ll be posting an update on this project in a few weeks.

FluReporter, a project with potentially huge scope, was narrowed to a pilot project for gathering sources of mandated health reporting data and creating a standard means for representing data and engaging parties involved in both gathering and using this data. Mockups were created as was preliminary work on defining the data models. A number of contributors have expressed interest in continuing to work on this project beyond the weekend, so it’s entirely possible an initial prototype may be ready for presentation by the next CrisisCamp Boston event.

Some lessons learned:

  • Organizing a hackathon is a lot more work than the types of events I’ve organized in the past. Hopefully this will get easier as I and my collaborators gain more experience in this arena.
  • Running a CrisisCamp is very different from running a regular ol’ hackathon in the sense that there are problem spaces to be identified and documented. Whereas hackathons tend to be mostly developmental in nature, CrisisCamp requires a continuous feedback loop of R&D. I’d like to connect with other CrisisCamp organizers to see what their experience has been in facilitating this event dynamic.
  • Organizing the social media component should include specifying where to dump/share photo and video content after the event. Here are the pics that I took.
  • Our focus on the Flu exposed the challenges of working in areas where long-standing institutions have established processes that are ‘good enough’ and resistant to open innovation. This may be why the big success stories of previous CrisisCamps have involved natural disasters and innovation in mapping applications. Long/slow crises in areas such as healthcare, while leading to more suffering and loss, are not low hanging fruit for citizens participation in problem solving.
  • Sean P Fay gave a presentation on the Incident Command System (ICS) which is a standard organizing principle used by crisis responders. Awareness of this system may provide a means for CrisisCamp to better integrate with local crisis response organization. FEMA offers training in the ICS, and I’m going to follow Sean’s advice and see if I can get myself and a few other CrisisCampers certified.
  • Having emergency response professionals and subject matter experts available to share their knowledge and collaborate really made the event!

My todo list moving forward:

  • Keep connecting with emergency response professionals and subject matter experts.
  • Update the main hackathon organizer support materials I’ve been working from with lessons learned: Organizing CrisisCamp, Hack Weekends Guide
  • Start organizing the next CrisisCamp Boston. I’m thinking the sweet spot between events will be somewhere between 6 to 10 weeks. This will take a bit of experimentation. (If you’d like to help out, let me know!)
  • Research ICS trainings and broadcast the opportunity out to other CrisisCampers

If you were in attendance, let me know if there’s anything I missed that you’d like me to add or link to!