RHoKers Working with MSF in the Philippines

rhok4Last weekend I organized the fourth edition of the Random Hacks of Kindness event in Southampton, UK. Again we were the only event in the UK, and this time it seemed even the only one in Europe. We had some excellent and relevant problem statements lined up and registrations came in nicely.

I was therefore quite surprised that the percentage of people that actually showed up was lower than usual. Together with the fact that one of the main domain experts (Ivan Gayton from MSF) was no longer able to make it in person had me a bit worried. However, it turned out this was really a blessing in disguise.

Ivan had prepared a whole suite of problem statements but since he was deployed to the Philippines to help coordinate the relief effort in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, he and UN colleague (and Columbian rhok-star) Luis would pitch a more urgent problem via Google Hangout:

The Philippine relief operation is incredibly complex. There are thousands of sites requiring assistance and hundreds of agencies including international NGOs like MSF, local governmental agencies, local businesses and volunteers, and UN agencies.

While the actual administrative boundaries of the Philippines are clear and unambiguous (Region, Province, Municipality, and Barangay, there are many duplicates; a huge proportion of Municipalities contain a Barangay called “San Isidro”. The official maps/data contain unique codes for every place (P-codes), but the local people do not know these codes, nor do many of the responding agencies. Furthermore, slight misspellings of the actual place-names are common.

Therefore much of the information we have about people’s needs, as well as who is doing what to help, takes a lot of time to match with an actual place. People in need go without assistance while we spend time figuring out where they are, or even deliver aid to the wrong place. Effort is wasted on duplication as we are not easily able to map who is doing what where. The Philippine people deserve well-coordinated aid efforts, and the current practice of semi-manually matching areas is not good enough.

The solution: A user-friendly tool capable of matching lists of places with three levels to a unique code, which is able to handle slight misspellings using fuzzy string matching with probabilistic ranking.

There were a couple of other problem pitches but very quickly consensus was reached that we should all work together and tackle Ivan’s more immediate problem. A chance to make a real, direct, impact. The group split into two with one half tackling the user experience and the other half the technical architecture. Soon the room was covered in post-its and discussions started on various technology stacks.


It was really quite inspiring to see everybody come together and join forces like that. It was just a shame the attendance meant we were really lacking in technical manpower. Big congratulations to Sue Thomas for taking on the challenge and doing most of the heavy lifting here. By Sunday afternoon she managed to put together an end-to-end prototype which was demonstrated and passed to MSF. The code is on Github and I hope it will continue to be developed, or at least serve as a template for future efforts. As Justine stressed in her closing statements, you can make a difference.

Sustainability is of course always the hardest part of these events. Hackathons are a great way to get people connected, spark enthusiasm, brainstorm, share ideas, and build prototypes. Turning this into a sustainable project is a whole different matter.

I have to say though that there has been real interest in follow up events/activities with people eager to tackle the original problem statements as well. Lets see where this leads.


In closing, I want to send out a massive thank you to Ivan and MSF for being so encouraging and closely involved. Also a big thank you to the DigiChamps for helping with the outreach and thanks to the sponsors for making the event possible:  Enterprise and Digital Economy at the University of SouthamptonBusiness Analyst MentorScanToSecure, and ATASS.

Im not sure what shape or form “the next one” will have or when it is to be held.
But Im sure there will be something. I look forward to seeing you all again soon.


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