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Tech group plans ‘hackathon’ to develop wildfire assistance software

Local software developers will compete against each other to see who can invent the best computer app for assisting wildfire victims and emergency responders

By John Cox
The Bakersfield Californian

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. If the wildfires that recently devastated parts of Kern County had a positive side, it was that they brought together local communities for good, often through the use of mobile technology.

That may have been just the beginning.

Kern Innovation & Technology Community, an organization formed to promote the local tech industry, is putting together a competition next month pitting local software developers against each other to see who can invent the best computer app for assisting wildfire victims and emergency responders.

The idea for the Aug. 5 event, titled Technology Fighting the Wildfires, was born in the aftermath of the Erskine Fire that last month destroyed more than 200 homes in the Lake Isabella area. A group of volunteers calling itself the All for One Movement formed to help in the recovery and rebuilding process. It soon reached out to KIT looking for help for fire victims in the Kern River Valley.

KIT knew just what to do: Host a hackathon.

A hackathon is where teams compete, in this case for an entire weekend, to come up with the best computer program fitting the contest’s parameters. At KIT’s last hackathon in April, close to two dozen local software developers divided into three teams to create an alcohol-themed smartphone app.

Clearly, next month’s event will be more weighty than the last one.

“With what is surely only the beginning of a particularly devastating wildfire season in California, and Kern County in particular, the timing is right to come up with ideas and solutions to help responders and communities deal with the threat and aftermath of wildfires,” Justin Powers, a representative of All for One, wrote by email.

He noted the group is already using computer technology to connect emergency responders with people affected by the Erskine Fire.

Local tech entrepreneurs say Kern’s computer programming circles are up to the challenge. Besides that, the hackathon is a chance to show the wider community that technology “isn’t just about video games or dating apps,” as Bakersfield programmer Scott Burton put it.

More than that, Kevin Mershon, president of Bakersfield software developer Mershon Enterprises LLC, said the event is an opportunity for the public to “get a taste for a career in technology” — and for business leaders to get a look at top local talent.

KIT founder Alyssa Haerle sees the event as part of the organization’s mission to improve and build up its community, responding to needs that arise. When All for One’s Powers contacted her about supporting his efforts in the Kern River Valley, she convened a brainstorming session with Burton, Mershon and others. Up came the hackathon idea.

She hopes to see the event succeed on many levels, including creating partnerships and collaborations in the larger community, and broadening perceptions about the utility of computer technology.

“Most importantly, though, I want us as a community to work together to create tools that help the parts of the community that are currently hurting,” she said.

Copyright 2016 The Bakersfield Californian

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