Hacking for a Good Cause

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing many others to go missing. In response to this tragedy, Google developed a web application called Person Finder, which allows individuals to post the status of relatives and friends affected by catastrophes. But there's a catch: it requires Internet access, which is often not available in disaster zones.

During a 24-hour hackathon in June, Kevin Conley (ESE'12) came up with a solution. While in Silicon Valley for his summer internship, the electrical engineering student attended a Random Hacks of Kindness competition held at Google's headquarters. At the event, company representatives gave talks about their products to encourage the participants to use them during the contest. While listening to a presentation about Person Finder, Conley realized that he could improve the program by making it accept text messages, which mobile phones can deliver by way of cell phone towers rather than the Internet.

Rising to the Challenge

Shortly after pitching his idea, Conley assembled a group of 14 hackers—including Penn Engineering computer science students Alexey Komissarouk (CIS'12) and Ayaka Nonaka (CIS'13)—to create a web application named SMS Person Finder. They planned to funnel incoming text messages into a database and display them on a user interface, and then format the information and transfer it to Google Person Finder.

"I had never worked on a team that large, so it was a challenge to get organized for tackling this kind of problem," Conley says.

To demonstrate the finished product, the group instructed audience members to imagine that they were in a shelter after having survived a natural disaster, and to send text messages about their condition and whereabouts to a designated phone number. All of the messages appeared on the Google Person Finder website, and the judges were so impressed that the team won first prize.

The next month, Google showcased SMS Person Finder at a multinational meeting hosted by the State Department and explained how the innovation could help governments cope with catastrophes. "I hope that Google is able to work with us to incorporate it into the official Google Person Finder product," Conley says.

Training Ground

As sources of inspiration for his hacking pursuits, Conley credits the biannual hackathon called PennApps, as well as ESE 350, the embedded systems and microcontroller laboratory course taught by Rahul Mangharam, Stephen J. Angello Term Assistant Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering. While taking this course, which he dubbed "Introduction to Hacking," Conley learned how to build gadgets as diverse as a Morse code transmitter and decoder, a simple telephone and a small elevator."Kevin's passion and enthusiasm became contagious among the students," Mangharam says.

View the article in Penn Engineering magazine "Hacking for a Good Cause" by Janelle Weaver.

Interested? Learn more!

Random Hacks of Kindness website
PennApps 2012 Hackathon website

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