Humanitarian Toolbox Cranks Out Open-Source Apps for Disaster Relief

9/24/13Follow @XconomyDET

Bill Wagner spent his career building SRT Solutions, a successful software development company based in Ann Arbor, MI, that was recently acquired by Atomic Object. Now, he’s putting his coding skills to use for the benefit of human welfare with a new startup called Humanitarian Toolbox, a global effort led by four co-founders in Michigan, Illinois, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Humanitarian Toolbox, which has applied for 501(c)(3) status, seeks to use the skills of developers across the world to build apps to modernize and streamline the operations of disaster-relief and humanitarian-aid efforts. “We want Humanitarian Toolbox to be global, ready-to-use, and sustainable,” Wagner explains.

The startup recruits experienced developers to help solve the technological needs of response organizations through open source coding. The ideas for Humanitarian Toolbox apps come from organizations like the United Nations, NetHope, and the Red Cross. The company has also partnered with Geeks Without Bounds, Crisis Commons, .Net Rocks, and Microsoft.

According to Wagner, it was Tony Surma, chief technical officer of Microsoft Disaster Response, who kick-started the idea for Humanitarian Toolbox when he issued a worldwide call to developers for help providing digital solutions to on-the-ground organizational challenges. Wagner and his co-founders heard the call and were all in a place financially where they could devote significant time to a passion project.

Wagner says Humanitarian Toolbox is preparing to release its first apps by the end of the year. There’s a volunteer crisis check-in app that he describes as “Foursquare for disaster relief workers.” Volunteers can use the app to say when and where they’re arriving, along with their relevant skill set. Coordinators then contact them and tell them where exactly to report and what equipment to bring. “Hopefully, it cuts down on people waiting around at base camp,” Wagner says.

Another app in the final stages of development is a library of mobile training videos. Say it’s been a year since a volunteer used a field defibrillator. On the plane ride to the disaster relief efforts, that volunteer can use the app to watch training videos and refresh her skills rather than trying to remember on the fly. Wagner says he’s currently in the process of working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to load content onto the app.

Humanitarian Toolbox’s focus this year, he says, is releasing a small number of apps and getting them in the hands of the NGOs that need them. “We’re really trying to make sure it scales worldwide, gets global reach, and is something the NGOs are actually going to use,” he adds. “Once we’ve achieved that, we’ll start rolling out apps for our backlog of ideas.”

In the meantime, he’s working to get developers to check out Humanitarian Toolbox’s listing on GitHub so they can start getting involved in the open source projects housed there. He’s also hoping that if others are working on similar apps to help disaster-relief efforts, they’ll reach out so Humanitarian Toolbox can let their partner humanitarian-aid coordinators know. “If we can get that information out to disaster coordinators before stuff happens and get them a list of curated apps that we know work, we want to leverage that,” Wagner says.

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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