How a Smartphone App Helps Ensure Tsunami Warnings

April 15, 2014; 2:11 AM ET
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On the islands of Hawaii, public officials face a unique problem in maintaining the tsunami sirens. These sirens are often vandalized and have their batteries removed, rendering them ineffective in case of an impending tsunami.

However, a re-purposed app from the non-profit organization Code for America provided an opportunity to utilize technology to solve a simple, but crucial, problem.

Code For America is a non-profit organization that offers year-long fellowships to talented programmers and visionaries to provide services to overhaul the outdated and overburdened local governments.

The original app named Adopt-a-Hydrant was created in January of 2011 during a massive snowstorm in Boston. The Code for America fellow Erik Michaels-Ober noticed the fire hydrants were engulfed in snow, and therefore difficult for emergency services to access.

Once users downloaded Adopt-a-Hydrant, they were able to "adopt" a nearby fire hydrant and pledge responsibility for making it accessible to firefighters during snowstorms. By integrating game dynamics, such as being able to name your hydrant and the ability for users to "steal" ownership if it is not done in a timely manner, the app went viral.

A tsunami siren in Maui, Hawaii. Photo by: Flickr user MïK Watson

Forest Frizzell, the deputy IT director for the city and county of Honolulu, took note and approached Code For America to use the framework in Hawaii. Hawaii's fire hydrants are not in danger of being buried by snow, but their tsunami sirens are often disabled by thieves stealing the batteries.

Without the batteries, the sirens would be rendered useless and citizens left vulnerable to incoming tsunamis without warning. Frizzell told NPR the resulting app, Adopt-A-Siren, was an enormous success with an adoption rate of 75 percent.

Jennifer Pahlka, the Code for America founder, says these innovations are "showing what's possible with technology today." In stark contrast to traditional government work, the coding for the original app was created in a single weekend and was later seamlessly applied to tsunami sirens.

Code For America hopes to bring the power of the people to the 21st century by streamlining and advancing important government projects. By adapting new technologies, the future of these initiatives are limitless.

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