Coding for Catastrophe: Contest Seeks Apps to Mitigate Effects of Natural Disasters

Got a great idea for an app to help people deal with a natural disaster? Call for Code wants to hear from you

2 min read
Illustration of phones with scenarios from natural disasters.
Illustrations: iStockphoto and Shutterstock

The United Nations’ Human Rights Office, the American Red Cross, the David Clark Cause, and IBM today announced Call for Code, a contest seeking applications that address natural disasters—aiding either prevention, response, or recovery.  The disasters of 2017—fires, floods, earthquakes, and storms—stretched the capacity of traditional response methods, and sparked the United Nations to look for innovative ways to improve the situation, a press release from IBM indicated.

The contest’s application window opens 18 June; the last day for submissions is 31 August. Every entrant will, during the contest period, receive access to a number of IBM’s technologies, including its Cloud, Blockchain, Watson, PowerAI, and Z mainframe platforms. The winner of the Call for Code Global Prize, to be announced in October, will receive US $200,000, and two semifinalists will receive $25,000 each.

Entrants will also be encouraged to attend hackathons, to be held in 50 cities around the world, including Amsterdam, Bengaluru, Berlin, Delhi, Dubai, London, New York, Sao Paulo, and Tel Aviv, as well as San Francisco.

Generally, contest entrants should show that they are “reducing vulnerability by mitigating disaster risk over the long run, anticipating impending threats to improve precautionary short and long-term measures, responding to medical needs during the disaster, and improving the overall resiliency of communities to rebuild health services in the wake of major disruptions,” said the press release.

What kind of apps will win? Only the judging panel—which will include Linus Torvalds—knows. But IBM chief developer advocate William Tejada told me that software that combines technologies and data in unique and helpful ways are of particular interest.

One example from the press release: “developers might create an application that alerts pharmacies to increase their stocks of antibiotics, insulin, bottled water, and vaccines based on predicted weather-related disruptions.” In a similar vein, Tejada suggested, an app might be able to analyze the impact of hurricane preparedness on hardware stores and make sure the most important items are easily available.

In addition to the cash prizes, winning teams will get help from the Linux Foundation, introductions to venture capitalists, and assistance with rolling out their technologies from IBM’s Corporate Services Corps, Tejada said.

More details are available at

The Conversation (0)

The Future of Deep Learning Is Photonic

Computing with light could slash the energy needs of neural networks

10 min read

This computer rendering depicts the pattern on a photonic chip that the author and his colleagues have devised for performing neural-network calculations using light.

Alexander Sludds

Think of the many tasks to which computers are being applied that in the not-so-distant past required human intuition. Computers routinely identify objects in images, transcribe speech, translate between languages, diagnose medical conditions, play complex games, and drive cars.

The technique that has empowered these stunning developments is called deep learning, a term that refers to mathematical models known as artificial neural networks. Deep learning is a subfield of machine learning, a branch of computer science based on fitting complex models to data.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less