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In Soggy UK, Is #FloodHack A Solution or a Shield?

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, February 18 2014

Screenshot of a Youtube video depicting a flooded Worcester overtaken by swans (credit:INT/youtube)

What's that Prince William is cradling? His son Prince George? Nope—that's a sandbag. Prince William and Prince Harry pitched in to flood defense efforts Valentine's Day ahead of yet another winter storm. The storms have been so bad this season that they have earned their own BBC listicle, beginning with the October storm St. Jude, which cost four people their lives, and ending with severe flooding along the Thames last week as it reached its highest level in 60 years. On Sunday, London's technology community took a different approach to flood relief as they came together for a hackathon dubbed #FloodHack.

Some 100 or 200 developers participated in the event, which was hosted by Tech City UK at the Google start-up office Campus. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter were all represented.

One major coup for the organizers was getting the Environmental Agency to release flood data for use by attendees, which had previously been available on a pay-to-use basis.

The FloodHack projects have been compiled on this hackpad with short descriptions of each product. For example:

fludbud https://twitter.com/fludbuduk

Desc: Try to spread the word about floodvolunteers.co.uk via Twitter. We will find twitter users who are near flood affected areas (as they are likely to still have internet connectivity, and also know people who are in need of help) and tweet them information about floodvolunteers.co.uk and potentially volunteers near them.

Team: @riceo100 @ambrowning89 @tarnfeld @VictoriaDomalik @molintosh @paulscott @lvdeason @tomhennigan

Sitting: Downstairs at the back next to the "Central Working" painting thing 'muriel'.

Needs: To not get blocked on Twitter or run out of redbull.

Unfortunately they did get suspended by Twitter for messaging too many people at once.

Joanna Shields, chairman of Tech City UK, told The Guardian that the idea was proposed after a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street in February and took place only two days later.

Shields said:

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.

Not everyone is so optimistic about FloodHack. On his website, programmer and OpenStreetMap contributor Tom Morris writes that not only will the FloodHack be of doubtful use to flood victims, but that it will shield politicians from taking responsibility for flood relief, or lack thereof.

Why would he say this, when he contributes to the site used in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake?

Morris writes, in part:

But there’s an important difference between Haiti post-earthquake and Britain post-flood (or, more accurately, mid-flood).

In Haiti, the reason emergency responders aren’t rescuing you is because they didn’t know you were there and didn’t know the roads to take to get to you and didn’t have any communications infrastructure. . .In Britain, we have the technology and the capability to solve these problems in a way that other country’s don’t. The reason we don’t seem to be able to fix it is because of failures of governance, failure to invest in public services and emergency services, failure to contemplate the big picture of environmental responsibility, and probably a lot of other things starting with the word “failure”. . .When hack days start popping up to try and fix what are essentially political problems, it gives cover to the people who wish to avoid actually fixing the political problems. [sic]

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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