Hacking for Change: Public Safety Mobile Applications

May 22, 2014
Theo Rushin Jr. and teammate Gary Cooper present their app "Beacon" at the Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Hackathon
Theo Rushin Jr. and teammate Gary Cooper present their app "Beacon" at the Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Hackathon

Most people think a hacker is just someone who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data and personal information – often to cause damage. So it may be surprising to hear that competitive events are held across the country called “Hackathons” that award thousands of dollars in prize money to the best hacker. The goal of a Hackathon, however, is not to crack the security of a computer or network; rather, it is to create the most innovative mobile applications (apps) for end users, including first responders.

Take the Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Hackathon held earlier this month in Washington, D.C. The event attracted more than a hundred mobile application developers, as well as public safety and government representatives to observe and engage in collaborative computer programming over the course of a weekend. By hacking for mobile apps at these events, developers are able to connect with their customer – in this case the public safety community – and rapidly mature their ideas to create something to benefit the end user. The Washington, D.C., event was facilitated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and sponsored by AT&T, Google, Intel, and Apperian. More than $25,000 in total prize money was up for grabs in several categories, including the best public safety and situational awareness apps. APCO International sponsored an award for the best location app.

Several DHS officials attended the Public Safety Hackathon to assist in the development of the event and provide the challenge criteria to give visibility of the market needs. The Secretary of DHS, Jeh Johnson, is a member of the FirstNet Board. DHS representatives from the Office of Emergency Communications also ensured that the apps provided the functionality, performance, and security that are critical to public safety. One of the big winners at the Hackathon is a self-taught software developer who participates in these types of events all over the country. Theo Rushin Jr. says he gets a “rush” from developing an app idea and building it from scratch in a competitive environment with time constraints and monetary incentives. His “Beacon” mobile app won best public safety app at the Washington, DC, event. This was his first public safety themed Hackathon, and he says he was drawn to it as a way of helping save lives during large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Theo’s team, which includes his longtime best friend and business partner Gary Cooper, developed two apps that work together. The first app is for injured persons or those lost in an emergency situation. With just two taps on the smart phone or tablet device, the user can quietly and quickly send a pre-configured distress notice to anyone they have designated as recipients. Those receiving the message will be notified immediately of the condition and location of the person in distress. The second “companion” app to Beacon continuously updates the location of the individual in distress using a map to inform emergency responders.

Beacon is expected to be released in app stores in late June. Version 1 of the product will feature the smartphone app and a web version of the mapping portal, enabling authorized users to see locations of user broadcasts on a map. It will also enable the online user to respond. The companion app is slated to be released in July and will include a mobile version of the mapping portal. Theo says his team will then begin to develop wearable solutions like Google Glass or smart bracelets that will work with and complement the Beacon solution.

Theo says Beacon will help calls for assistance. “We’re not trying to replace 9-1-1, we suggest the first thing you do is call 9-1-1,” he says. “But, usually when you are in that type of situation, the second thing that comes to mind is ‘I want to contact my loved ones, I want to contact my family and let them know how I am doing.’ You don’t want to have to go through your contact list and say, ‘OK, let me call my mother first, let me call my wife second, let me call my daughter third. With one touch, you can simply send a broadcast to all of them at the same time.”

Beacon also helps public safety responders know the user’s location, as opposed to having to search the entire building trying to locate that one person who has the app. “Because that information is stored, a first responder will receive a strong vibration to notify them they are getting close to somebody, that there is somebody nearby in this room,” Theo tells FirstNet. “Because it also broadcasts their condition, then one can easily see, ‘Oh, this one has a life threatening condition, maybe we need to direct resources to that person’.”

More than a hundred Hackathon-type events are scheduled for May 31 through June 1, 2014, as part of the “National Day of Civic Hacking.” The event is planned in coordination with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and will be supported by a number of federal, state and local agencies. For more information, please see: http://hackforchange.org/about/. In addition, there are more Public Safety Hackathons planned for later this year. The AT&T Developer Program plans to hold additional Public Safety & Emergency Preparedness Mobile App Hackathons this year in June in Plano, TX, and in August in Palo Alto, CA.

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