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Cover of the Spring 2010 issue




Hacking for Haitian relief

Students use computing skills to hasten Haiti aid efforts

2010 earthquake in Haiti

Photo by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, USAF view larger image

“I have this bumper sticker that says, ‘Python will save the world. I don’t know how, but it will,’” says postdoctoral researcher Nicholas Preston.

On January 14, 2010, Preston got his chance to use the powerful programming language to help earthquake victims in Haiti. He and fellow members of student computing organization The Hacker Within, and staff of the UW-Madison Healthscapes project, worked day and night to help convert Sahana, an established web-based disaster management tool, from the web scripting language PHP into Python.

Sahana launched in response to the December 2004 Asian tsunami. Now the free, open-source system enables aid organizations to coordinate the logistics of disaster response and management, including tracking missing people, managing volunteers, mapping, and communicating among various groups.

When the Haiti earthquake occurred, Sahana developers were in the midst of converting the tool from PHP into Python. Since text messages pleading for assistance were pouring in from Haiti, Sahana developers needed help — fast — so that earthquake victims and aid organizations could use the tool in rescue and recovery efforts. “We were able to add this functionality that was specific to this disaster,” says Preston, who works as a programmer for Healthscapes under Jonathan Patz, a professor in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

Hacker members tackled a request management system that adds pleas for aid, as well as the locations of those requests, to a database so that aid organizations can respond.

Programmers worldwide contributed Python code to eight Sahana modules. In Madison, about seven students worked virtually around the clock for a week to finish writing the majority of the request management system.

The students used real-time Internet text messaging, called Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, to guide their work. “Because of the opensource nature of this, we went on IRC and we were instantly in contact with the lead developer of Sahana and the president of the Sahana Foundation,” says Milad Fatenejad, an engineering physics PhD student who co-founded The Hacker Within. “We were chatting with them on IRC, and it was only because of this process and these open-source tools that we were within two days actually contributing code into Sahana. And that for me was really amazing.”

Even though Haiti earthquake rescue efforts have become long-term relief initiatives, the UW-Madison students are still writing code for Sahana — an endeavor they find both personally and professionally rewarding.

“At one point, I was on the chat room, and I commented to someone, ‘I’m learning so much, I feel like I should be paying you tuition,’” says Fatenejad. “I got an education, and we got to help people.”

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