Astun Technology Hosts MapAction ‘Hackathon’

May 21, 2013 -- On 27th April Astun Technology hosted a ‘hackathon’ at its Epsom offices on behalf of the AGI and MapAction, the charity that specialises in providing a mapping resource for humanitarian emergencies. A ‘hackathon’ is an event where computer programmers come together to work intensively on a number of software projects.  

MapAction sends teams to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, and works in complex humanitarian emergencies such as the refugee crisis unfolding in Syria today. Volunteers tend to have expertise in GIS, GPS and other geospatial technologies. Teams trained in disaster response assist NGOs, the UN and other agencies in their planning and decision making by assemblying data from disparate sources and providing a vital mapping resource. 

For the Hackathon, the MapAction team had compiled a list of problems and ideas drawn from their experience in the field. The participants on the day were free to pick those which interested them, leading to a wide range of different approaches. 

Three of the highlights include developing a tool to help display population movement on a map. In a situation like the current Syrian conflict it is important be able to visualise the complex migration of the affected population. Think maps with multiple large sweeping arrows! Updating this regularly as the situation changes on the ground has proved a cartographic challenge. Two separate solutions where created for this using both proprietary and open source tools. 

The second, affectionately called the ‘Dirty Data Dashboard’ was a training objective. This sought to create a tool that could take some good quality data, such as might be available in the UK and jumble it up so that it would be more like the data that the field teams might encounter in the real world. 

The third objective focused on metadata, vital when rapidly assembling disparate datasets for map use. This focused on tweaking an existing Python script to enable the non-technical to produce clean readable (XML) text. 

“It was hugely gratifying to have so many people come to use their talents and enthusiasm to help us with tasks that sometimes get hidden in the background of our work," said Andy Smith (Technical Project Leader) from MapAction. "It’s great that we’ve already been able to pass on the work on population movement to our team working on the Syria Crisis and the Dirty Data Dashboard will get its first real test later this month at our largest annual disaster scenario training exercise. We are very grateful to everyone who turned up and contributed and to Astun Technology and AGI for making the day possible.” 

“We had a pretty good turnout on the day with over 35 of us including some members of the Astun development team and three of our customers,” said Mike Saunt Managing Director of Astun Technology. "It’s terrific when people volunteer and come together to do something for the greater good and very much in the spirit of Open Source which underpins all our work. It was a very enjoyable day and I am sure we will do it again. MapAction is a fantastic organisation." 

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