USAID’s stock in trade is disaster relief and "technical assistance" programs. But on a recent weekend it got down to a something more unusual: hacking. Or, to be exact: a hackathon.
Part of a White House effort to open up and make better use of data, the hack brought together six teams to create solutions on the theme of "food security." Like other hackathons-for-good the idea is to mine, crowdsource, and mash up data for some useful purpose. Below are some projects that impressed the judges.
Grameen & Palantir
Software outfit Palantir worked with the Grameen Foundation on a phone-based app that aims to improve agricultural efficiency by giving farmers better information on optimal crops and growing times. Palantir took 28,000 geo-located soil samples Grameen had taken from across Uganda and combined them with data on soil types, population, income, and other factors. The developers hope the system can also help identify potential disease outbreaks, and help create an alert system for farmers who might be affected.
Pinapple Project & Growers Nation
Pinapple and Grower’s Nation are twin projects with a similar goal: to build mapping apps that enable farmers and amateur growers to plug in location, soil, climate, and other data, and to receive information on the "optimal time in their area for planting and harvesting different produce." Such an application could be useful for farmers in Africa, as well as, say, growers trying to plant in unused urban areas.
Sonjara, a Virginia-based company, built an app that digitizes the "food frequency questionnaire"—a standard method of assessing nutrition risk. Health workers can use the data to build up food scarcity maps, and to help them give advice on nutrient-giving food and seeds families can buy locally.
Geo-Wiki’s bigger idea is build a "global earth observation system" using a mixture of institutional and crowdsourced data. But, for the purposes of the hack, it focused on a single issue (land grabbing) and a single country (Ethiopia). It cross-referenced Google Earth data showing what land has been cultivated with data from Land Matrix, a group that tracks land-grabbing deals. See more in the video below:
"Data is very valuable, but it needs to be actionable and accessible," says Nat Manning, who oversaw the challenge as part of his duties as "presidential innovation fellow" working temporarily at USAID. "These projects are still prototypes, but the teams have got a lot done over a weekend. I think very quickly people are able to see how this data can become actionable and spark new ideas."
USAID hopes the hackathon is only the start of efforts to make better use of the agency’s data. Manning, who is on leave from his usual position with a non-profit called Ushahidi, says he wants USAID’s current data resources, including the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET), to be easier for outsiders to use.
"We’re looking to make data within USAID machine readable. Open data is not just for transparency. It’s also about interaction with developers who can work with the data and build things," says Manning.