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Hacking for Humanity: Parsons Hosts RHoK New York



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Parsons Executive Dean Joel Towers poses with United Nations
Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon at the opening reception for Random Hacks of Kindness
While Wiki-Leaks is grabbing headlines, another form of strategic security breach brought The New School and the United Nations together with Google, the World Bank, Microsoft, Yahoo and NASA. At Parsons The New School for Design, sharing information online is a means of saving lives.

That was the premise of Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), an event that took place in more than 20 cities around the world over the December 4–5 weekend.

At the New York event, co-hosted by Parsons and the United Nations’ Global Pulse initiative, a monitoring system that tracks the impact of crises on vulnerable populations, more than 50 hackers, including Parsons students, gathered around computers on campus and developed software solutions to mitigate or respond to disasters around the world and save lives. Organized by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, NASA, and the World Bank, RHoK challenged teams of software developers and experts in disaster risk management to create simple open-source platforms that tackled issues of crisis response, risk reduction, recovery and development.

Parsons was a natural fit for RHoK, according to New York coordinator Nigel Snoad. Snoad, global problem coordinator for Random Hacks of Kindness, works for Microsoft and is a lecturer at Parsons, where he co-teaches a course on humanitarian design with Mathan Ratinam. “We were excited to involve a design school in RHoK, because it is not only computer scientists who have things to contribute to these spaces,” Snoad told the crowd at Sunday’s awards presentation. “Design can add a lot to this conversation.”

On Friday, Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons, was joined by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at an opening reception, held at Digital Sandbox. “Humanitarian concerns increasingly drive the development of Web 2.0 tools and open-source software,” said Towers. “Our students and faculty constantly seek out ways to connect new technologies to questions of social justice in order to respond to the more complex global risks we face today.”

Of the many projects presented to a panel of distinguished judges, two were selected as the weekend’s Best Hacks. TaskMeUp is a software program that allows users in a crisis situation to easily organize and delegate a large number of tasks. Incident Commander is an Android app that allows firefighters and other emergency response personnel to track incident responders and their needs in real time. Parsons undergraduates Pritika Nilaratna and Luke Brown Gold won the award for Best Tiny Hack of the weekend for OpenScribble, a simple collaborative online mapping service.

Though they varied in function and execution, all the projects created during RHoK reflected a commitment to deploying hacking in the service of humanity and demonstrated its potential to radically influence disaster response in the future. “The recent series of global shocks have revealed the importance of timely information to guide government decisions on how to protect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable populations,” said Robert Kirkpatrick, director of Global Pulse. With the projects of the weekend continuing in various forms, RHoK will bring us one step closer to this goal.

For more information on RHoK events in New York and around the world, visit www.rhok.org.



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