By Xiaoyi Liu
Natural disasters are 25 times more likely to impact people in Southeast Asia than those in Europe or North America due to global climate change and surging populations in urban areas.
This is why students in a partnership that included Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology designed the digital prototype BAO to help provide relief and coordination for flood and storm-related disasters in Southeast Asia.
BAO, the acronym of “Basic Aid Outreach,” took the Code for Impact Winners top award as part of the 2018 Clinton Foundation Codeathon competition. Codeathon judges announced the winner Friday at the University of Chicago. Students f rom Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Ashesi University in Ghana and University of Georgia also helped develop the collaborative tool as part of the BAO team.
“The application of this is to deal with natural disasters which are not exclusively caused by climate change but are certainly worsened by climate change,” said BAO team member Dylan Kennedy, a junior in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.
The BAO team members knew that they wanted the project name to be a single syllable, making it easy to remember and easy to pronounce. Then they started to throw out random words until they felt like they had something with significant meaning.
BAO received continued mentorship from IBM as part of the top award. The project completed against five other finalists.
“The reason we ultimately settled on BAO was for the dual meaning it can have…in Mandarin Chinese – baozi, what is often seen as a comfort and family-oriented food, and baobei, a term of endearment,” said team member Alice Dong, a Swarthmore senior studying mathematics and economics. “As such, we felt like the project name was able to provide feelings of comfort and familiarity while being easy to pronounce.”
BAO aims to provide preparation, response, and recovery resources to victims of natural disasters in Southeast Asia and empowers local volunteers and agencies to take the lead in delivering aid. The platform leverages existing social networks, the power of AI, and crowd-sourced data to coordinate relief efforts efficiently and accurately.
It’s a program that would work through social media such as Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp. Anyone with those applications already installed on a cell phone would just need to find the relevant page and start messaging with it to get information.
“One thing that we discovered was the particularly high social media use in Southeast Asia,” Kennedy said. Their group figured out that by integrating BAO with platforms that people have already familiar and comfortable with, it would be able to reach a wider audience than if it were an app.
“It seems like one small step to finally decide to work on an already established platform like Messenger, but in reality it took what was probably hours to make that final step,” Dong said.
This year’s Codeathon challenged students to develop over the course of two days digital tools that can increase the effectiveness of response and recovery efforts following natural disasters. They worked in teams and then pitched their projects to a panel of expert judges.
“After presenting, I felt a surge of pride,” Kennedy said. “Just stepping down from the stage, being like we did it, we gave a good presentation, we gave a good pitch. This is a great idea.”
Kennedy switched his major from civil engineering to computer science after he was convinced that the wide-reaching tools and applications in computer science allow him to better help people. “It had a goal and focus that was completely in line with the kind of things I wanted to do,” said Kennedy, referring to the Codeathon. He figured that he had to apply since the mission of Codeathon matched the reason why he switched to computer science.
According to Kennedy, a huge part of figuring out what he and his teammates wanted to create with their digital prototype was to empathize and try to put themselves in a situation where people afflicted by the natural disasters could get help quickly.
“That whole thing can push you in a different direction to view problems differently, and think about how can this help, how can this make the world a better place?” Kennedy said.
Kennedy saw the BAO team as one of the most balanced ones he had ever participated in. “You can’t trace the idea to any one person,” he said. “We wanted to make sure everyone was involved and everyone made their slides that they were talking about.”
Dong, agreed. “Something else I realized as the Codeathon drew to a close was how important the team mattered,” she recalled. “We had both great chemistry and balance in that whenever some of us were becoming too serious there was always someone else to crack us up or remind us that ultimately we were there to have fun and enjoy ourselves,” she said.
Bob Lord, one of the judges and chief digital officer of IBM, announced the winner Friday and said that insightful digital applications gave BAO the edge to win first place.
“Your application is scalable for wherever it may be needed,” Lord said. “We are never gonna stop these natural disasters from happening around the world, but if we can give first responders better information, like you are proposing with BAO, they can actually make better decisions and therefore they can actually save lives because they are making better decisions.”
The BAO team discussed the future of their digital prototype after winning the prize. “While I’m sure most of us would love to continue the project, realistically we are all incredibly spread out and the chances of a collaborative future effort are near impossible,” Dong said. “However, should any of us want to continue on the project, I’m sure the rest of us would greatly support the effort whether as part of the team or as an observer.”
The Clinton Global Initiative University and other sponsors hosted the Codeathon and honored the team at a ceremony Saturday at the University of Chicago.