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NGA hackathon creates new tools for disaster response

August 4, 2016  - By

Hackers-2-GEOINT-WThe National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), GEO Huntsville and AEgis Technologies hosted a two-day inaugural hackathon May 2-3 at Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Alabama, dubbed #GEOHackHSV.

Most of you are familiar with hackathons, but this one was focused on geospatial solutions for first responders with NGA’s GeoQ as a foundation. The goal was to hack unclassified geospatial datasets and open-source tools to build effective solutions for disaster response and recovery.

The foundation – NGA’s GeoQ

Ray Bauer, who heads up the NGA GeoQ effort, was the keynote speaker. He explained how GeoQ meets the goals set by former NGA Director Latisha Long and current Director Robert Cardillo to take advantage of open-source data, applications and most important talent. Ray explained how the growing complexity of the GEOINT world forces NGA to take advantage of every geospatial resource available while keeping their classified work secure.

Ray stated NGA’s hackathon goals, specifically:

“We are interested in working with participants to identify and create new, interactive and efficient ways of reading, disseminating and analyzing tons of data from disparate systems. We highly encourage leveraging open-source tools and other software solutions participants bring to the table. This hackathon is not just for those entrenched in the geo world! We’re interested in everything from new mapping interfaces, mobile solutions, lightweight and portable information dashboards, hardware integrations with commercial off-the-shelf tools like sensors and UAVs, and everything in between!

“The intent of this event is to think outside the box and employ new tools and alternative open-source data to more efficiently and accurately send the most relevant data to emergency responders quickly. Currently there are dozens of data sets that make it difficult to quickly search and integrate into a common operational environment, particularly across the sectors: firefighter, police, hospital, dispatcher, HEMSI, air evacuation, utilities, Department of Transportation, etc. How do we share information among these groups during disaster situations such as tornadoes, hurricanes, shootings, flooding, significant traffic events, chemical spills and other potentially catastrophic events?”

For those of you not familiar with GeoQ, there is an excellent overview produced by NGA that is on Youtube.

GeoHuntsville hackathon goals

Hackers-1-GEOINT-WThe pre-event announcements listed the following goal.

Combine commercial and proprietary hardware and software solutions to create unique concepts/solutions. Specifically:

  • Solve disparate data problems among current open source data sets (i.e. overlaying multiple shape files with real-time data from multiple sources such as emergency responder software, sensors in the field, social media, e.g.).
  • Recreate more aesthetically appealing user interfaces considering numerous data sets — to include mobile solutions.
  • Suggest new solutions leveraging a subset of currently available data. (Use the data we give you, use the data you bring, use the data we don’t know about — and create a solution to a problem we don’t know exists.)
  • Integrate new solutions or disparate data into open source tools, like GeoQ.
  • Identify ways to more efficiently and accurately receive and analyze updates from the field. (This could be anything from a tool an emergency responder uses or social media resources.)
  • Come up with a way to disseminate critical information across agencies and geographic locations.

First responder involvement

The aspect of this hackaton that was particularly valuable was the direct involvement of numerous Huntsville first responders. Policemen and firemen were able to explain their difficulties and needs face to face with the programmers and engineers who were participating in the hackathon, so the participants were not operating in a vacuum. See my interview with the Huntsville fire chief.

Fueled with sodas, chips and snacks, the hackers worked overnight to accomplish the goals. At stake were three prizes, including a top prize of $1,000. The prizes were not huge, but they provided some incentive including bragging rights.

Although some results were similar to existing applications, the different approaches were still very impressive for a two-day event. You may find one or two applications worth your further investigation for integration in your systems.

The teams

Mobile Damage Assessment

Micah Cleveland and Larry Wilbourn provided firefighters with a way to directly report the status of damaged structures or casualties and triage via a smartphone.

Situational Awareness

The team of Larry Mason, Tyler Hughes and Michael Carroll built an application displaying real-time locations of all emergency vehicles and the display of preplan floor plans and imagery to show details such as electric and gas cut offs.

Virtual Reality GIS Display

Jason Rade and Jason Nofki demonstrated their system of displaying GIS data and imagery using a virtual reality headset. They indicated that the next step was to display the data as augmented reality.


Steve Jones demonstrated a system to display Internet of Things (IoT) devices as live links on a map to display data, imagery and video from those sources. (Steve participated in the event, but did not enter into the competition.)

WEBEOC data to current devices

Two team members worked a problem proposed by Madison County Emergency Management Agency. They read legacy format WEBEOC data and converted the information into more modern device data structures.

And the winners are…

  • First Place: Mobile Damage Assessment
  • Second Place: WEBEOC data to current devices
  • Third Place: a tie between Situational Awareness and Virtual Reality GIS Display

A few gems developed at the hackathon may be useful with your applications effort. If you need additional information regarding the hackathon and participants, contact Chris Johnson of GeoHuntsville at

This article is tagged with , , and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Mapping, Opinions

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.