Hacking Hurrricane Sandy – online community comes together against storm

We all know the  increasingly outdated and cliched image of hackers – a young, socially awkward man, in a basement causing chaos (this despite the best efforts of Angelina Jolie). There is now a more socially aware type of hacker coming to the fore, using social media and opensource tools to build digital projects to help their community.

Hurricane Sandy, which has already swept across the Caribbean and is now hitting the East Coast of America, has illustrated this perfectly.

Called Hurricane Hackers, a group have come together to use digital and social tools to share information and organise recovery and safety for people affected by the powerful Frakenstorm. Some of the projects they are working on include helping finding people safe places to stay, monitoring power outages caused by the storm, and mapping places where sandbags are required.

The main tool used is Google Docs, where the hurricane hackers have been listing the progress of projects and key links.  Of course, social media has paid a huge role in promoting the projects and bringing the ideas together. The hurricane hackers are using the hashtag #hurricanehackers on Twitter to highlight the projects to anyone who may be able to contribute.  Additionally, they are communicating amongst themselves in realtime, via Internet Relay Chat, (IRC), making sure the work is co-ordinated. Watching the ideas be formed, discussed and come to fruition live is pretty extraordinary.

These are not the only public web based projects either. Using their charitable .org arm, Google have published a crisis map showing the affected areas. Additionally, the New York Times and the Washington Post newspapers have brought down their paywalls so that people can get up-to-date information from these trusted sources.

Social media looks set to continue to be a key part of the recovery too. Hurricane Hackers have a project called #SandyAid follow up which will “systematize tracking and follow up to aid requests using the #SandyAid hashtag.” It is rather reminiscent of when Londoners used the #riotcleanup tag to rebuild their communities after the riots last summer.

What is noticeable is how far techniques and projects like this have developed since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It is now much easier to follow these disasters in realtime, and respond to help people in the same manner.