Hack the Risk! Smart Solutions on Water Issues and Floods

Hack the Risk! Smart Solutions on Water Issues and Floods

Water Youth Network representatives explore innovative solutions to Disaster Risk Reduction and the creative input of youth in risk management at the Hack the Risk! hackathon held in Colombia from 5-7 April, 2019.

By: Camilo Fernandez (c.fernandez@wateryouthnetwork.org), Nhilce Esquivel (n.esquivel@wateryouthnetwork.org) & Miguel Trejo (m.trejo@wateryouthnetwork.org)


It is likely that when we have in mind technology we think of advanced devices or something similar, but what if we add risk management to this concept? How could we take advantage of this in order to be more resilient to the impacts of certain hazards either natural or anthropogenic? And how do we involve youth in a creative way to propose solutions on water issues and floods? 


Hack the Risk! was an idea led by young professionals that was possible thanks to the collaboration of  NASA Earth Science Disaster Program, University of the Andes and Water Youth Network, which are interested in generating innovative solutions for  some of the water related issues that are causing so much distress in Latin America.

 Organizing team. From left to right: Ricardo (UniAndes), Camilo (WYN), Nhilce (WYN), Diego (UniAndes) & Miguel (WYN).


The event was held at the University of the Andes, Colombia last April from the 5th to the 7th. 45 participants from four different countries (Afghanistan, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico), about 20 mentors, 7 speakers and 5 organizers gathered for around 48 hours. The event was also possible thanks to the sponsorship and support of ESRI Colombia, Microsoft Colombia and FM-Global.


What did we do?

During a three-day event, we facilitated several activities where participants were able to develop their ideas and learn from senior professionals.


During the first day, the participants attended different presentations given by speakers from diverse organizations, institutions and insurance companies who developed their work on water related issues, floods, technology and are focused on enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) practices. The presentations had the goal to give a general overview of what DRR is and which are the most urgent needs in this field for each of the organizations that the panelists represented. 


After the presentations, the participants had to choose a challenge based on the presentations and since the very first night they started to think and develop their ideas. Their main challenge was to develop solutions that could couple technology, open source software and earth observation data.


Left: Marcelo Lima from FM-Global; Right: participants  during the presentations.


Then, during the night of the first day and the second day, participants had to develop their prototypes with the support of experts and making use of their creativity. At this time they were able to meet with professionals from different areas who helped them to organize their ideas and guide them for coming out with products, which could be useful for DRR. The idea was that they could take advantage of the expertise of different professionals working on the different areas and that they could put together all this information in a concrete prototype in a very limited period of time, as it may happen in real life. 



Participants discussing and developing their projects before presenting the final prototypes.


During the third day, participants presented their ideas and the winners were chosen by the jury, which was a group of senior professionals from the DRR field. 


What were the final prototypes?

By the end of the event we had 10 different ideas that became prototypes. All of them were amazing and very diverse. Here is a brief description of each of them:

  • The team called DATARISK, developed maps of threats that vary in time according to two main sources: the analysis of the latest atmospheric conditions  data published in official sites and from pictures of the sky that users provide in real time by the usage of an app. They based their prototype on risk knowledge, monitoring, communication, preparedness and response.
  • The team XPLORA proposed an early warning system which optimization will be done automatically by implementing machine learning.
  • SARANDIB, accelerates the process of risk estimation through an open source methodology with satellite images and GIS (exposure, vulnerability and hazard simplified analysis). Read about their idea at http://sarandib.geoimec.com/
  • The prototype MYALERTAPP seeks to keep people alert and generate a guide to reaching safe sites, in addition to providing the user with an action guide in real time. One of the by-products of MYALERTAPP is an app with information related to risk zones for flash floods and landslides that gives alerts in real time and shows the safest routes for evacuation.
  • The team called MIAU developed maps by a superposition of layers with information that could help with the analysis for implementation and location of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) in some sectors of Bogotá. 
  • MAGNA team made a tool for temporal monitoring of swamps by means of multispectral images with the purpose of characterizing climatic or anthropic changes in the water exchanges between the river and the swamp.
  • The team RESILIENCE made a hydrological forecast to 8 days in the future, starting from the current conditions, and identifying the populations exposed to flood threat. They classified the threat qualitatively based on water sheet heights and percentage of exceedance based on comparisons against past records of flow stations. 
  • Team SABERES provided a tool that identifies the location of flood zones and safe areas perceived by the community, which can be easily contrasted with information sources such as satellite images, radar and other tools used to generate risk management models and strategies. 
  • GURÚ team developed a game that seeks to make people learn for making decisions about water risks, by strengthening their resilience. To know more, contact them at: guru@uniandes.edu.co
  • Finally, the winning team IG made a tool for a real-time monitoring of ecosystems using this information as an approximation to risk, developed a prototype for the analysis and spatialization of flash floods and created an app for supporting territorial planning decisions.


What did this experience mean for the participants? 

According to the survey that was sent to participants, for around 96% of them the hackathon fulfilled their expectations. All of them considered that it was a positive experience that challenged their skills and helped them to develop new ones, even when sometimes they had mixed feelings, especially due to the complexity of the challenge they had to solve. About 90% believed that it was an experience that would help them in their professional careers. Also, more than 80% of the responders thought that the event was useful for their knowledge in DRR, and impressed upon them the importance of interdisciplinarity and teamwork. 

A few of the participants’ testimonials are:

“It was a different experience than expected, partly because before the event it was not known that the prototypes should be highly operational at the end of the challenge. This allowed us to strive to find a way to make it operational in such a short period of time.”

Nicolas, Hydrologist.

“The potential that exists when combining the best skills in different areas of good professionals to achieve the same goal. I was really expecting something more chaotic, but it ended up being unexpectedly much more constructive than I had imagined.”

Kevin, Hydrologist.

“…See how different people face a problem when there is a common goal for the benefit of people who need it…”

José, IT specialist 


What happened after the event?  

The experience and the results of the prototypes were displayed in the Global Platform for Disaster Reduction, in Geneva, Switzerland. Then, the assistants could know the innovative ways that HacktheRisk! sought to engage youth in the current challenge on Disaster Risk Reduction, as well as perceive the actions that young professionals from Latin America are taking to reduce the risk in many different fronts of work. Such an approach could be replicated globally to determine local solutions for enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction.


Sharing the results at the GPDRR gave another tool to the decision-makers that attended the event about ways to involve youth in DRR processes. They expressed that events like this hackathon were not being conducted thus far in their regions  but that this is a great idea to find innovative solutions that involve technologies available nowadays. 


Camilo and Nhilce presenting the final outputs and overall experience at the GPDRR2019.


The hackathon also served as a platform for promoting local talent and to show the National Agencies in Colombia that young professionals have amazing ideas and skills. The quality of the prototypes impressed many professionals and was recognised as an important contribution to enhancing national DRR strategies and even solving some technical issues that have caused difficulties when implementing them. Such was the case of the IG team who presented their work and were awarded by the School of Military Engineers of Colombia. 


The winners presented their prototype and received a diploma and medal granted by the School of Military Engineers of Colombia at the Symposium called “Risk Management of Hydrometeorological Risks”


Hack the Risk! has been an excellent opportunity to gather young professionals from different backgrounds, giving them a space to learn, exchange ideas and knowledge with senior professionals to propose innovative ideas to tackle risk reduction challenges. But, always taking into account that the participation of different stakeholders is remarkable for aiming such challenges. 


Participants, mentors, organizers and jury after final presentations.


Would you like to have Hack the Risk! In your region? Contact us:

Nhilce Esquivel: n.esquivel@wateryouthnetwork.org – DRR Coordinator

Miguel Trejo: m.trejo@wateryouthnetwork.org – Advisory Board Member