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IBM is funding a fleet of rubber ducky-inspired gadgets to help disaster response

After being dropped from the sky, Project Owl’s devices create a network over an affected area that people can connect to and report their needs to rescue workers.

IBM is funding a fleet of rubber ducky-inspired gadgets to help disaster response
[Photo: IBM]

The classic rubber ducky has many attributes. It’s cute, tough, and super buoyant. For one team of coders, those kid-friendly, bath-time qualities inspired something more: a disaster response startup that just won $200,000 and the chance for worldwide implementation through IBM’s inaugural Call for Code competition.

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Project Owl–an acronym that stands for “organization, whereabouts, and logistics”–will air-drop (likely via drone) their plucky “Clusterduck” armada into a disaster area (they can float in water or just sit wherever they land). The devices are small, hexagonal rubber balls that are waterproof, durable, and house mini-Wi-Fi relays, which can work together to create an ad hoc mobile network.

[Photo: IBM]
Each individual “ducklink” has a transmission range of about 400 meters. These signals overlap and connect to “Mamaducks,” larger long-range, low-power transmitters that knit all that coverage together. Smartphone and laptop users who join the Project Owl network will receive a pop-up allowing them to report to rescue workers their location, condition, and make clear what exactly they need to survive (that’s about as much data as the limited network will allow).

The data the network collects can then be used to create a dashboard that will allow first responders to better understand the scope of any scenario. This IBM Cloud-based system relies heavily on IBM’s Watson Studio and related Cloud APIs, along with data from the Weather Company, its forecasting service. When combined, the idea is to map and display many aspects of devastation, from where group resources might already be deployed, to ongoing and projected weather patterns.

Click here for a larger version. [Image: IBM]
When it launched in May, IBM’s Call for Code Global Challenge offered entrepreneurs, academics, and developers worldwide free access to company products in order to design open-source solutions that improved disaster response and recovery efforts. This is part of the company’s newly announced five-year, $30 million effort to solve pressing social issues, which is still evolving.

The competition drew over 100,000 participants from 156 countries. “As an individual developer you are inspired to do this because you’re learning new skills, you’re using really cool IBM technology… but then you’re also doing something very good and very meaningful,” says Angel Diaz, IBM’s vice president of developer technology and open source. While IBM employees weren’t eligible to win, the company also held internal hack days to encourage its own employees to think bigger.

[Photo: IBM]

“It allows you to better prioritize delivery of medical supplies and water or also medical attention,” says Diaz about the winner. “It allows you to essentially to triage, right? You have to make decisions during disasters.” In addition to the cash prize, the concept will be adopted by IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, which works with nonprofits, social enterprises, and governments on ways to improve the world. Project Owl will also have the chance pitch their idea to New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital investor.

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Other notable entries included second place winner Post-Disaster Rapid Response Retrofit, a platform that uses AI to help construction workers in earthquake-ravaged areas figure out where and how to respond or rebuild. Third place went to Lali Wildfire Detection, which uses a deployable temperature sensor grid to help firefighters, particularly in developing countries, track how major blazes grow and spread.

The Linux Foundation will be posting details about the top 10 Call for Code finishers online, and developing a consortium for coders whose own work might dovetail with those projects. Diaz says that entrants made more than 2,500 potential apps, many of which overlapped in the issues they looked to fix or the methods they used. The goal now is consolidate brainpower to “build and augment” novel concepts that are on the verge of working. “There are obvious technologies that, if you marry them together, you can make a difference,” Diaz says. “And you kind of scratch your head and ask yourself, Why haven’t we done that as a society?”

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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