Thursday, August 17, 2017

Local developers build disaster app to track the floods

Outside Dagon Centre II in Yangon, it is not raining and the streets are dry. This marks the city as lucky compared to quite a lot of Myanmar, where whole villages have been swallowed up by what has been characterised by some residents as the worst flooding they’ve seen in decades.

Across the street and under the flyover, people sing and collect donations for those that the disaster has impacted. Meanwhile, inside at a coffee shop on August 3, Nex Android engineer and product manager Ko Swan Htet Aung and Google Developer Group Yangon community manager Ko Ye Lin Aung spoke about the local tech community’s efforts to do its part.

Ko Swan Htet Aung said that on the night of July 31, a friend from Singapore asked for help building a website providing up-to-date information on the flooding. “How about an app?” he asked, moving in turn to reach out to colleagues for assistance.

Their ideas turned into a tech marathon. Ko Ye Lin Aung said both the app and the website resulted from a team effort by local developer communities and individuals. Now, 15 developers are at work on the project, with that number on the rise, according to Ko Swan Htet Aung.

Ko Swan Htet Aung and a colleague burned the midnight battery, coding through the night of July 31. The first version of the app materialised at 5am the next day. The next morning brought more helpers, and by the evening the website was live. Ko Swan Htet Aung said people coded all day, dedicating their weekends to developing the technology.

Frustration fuelled Ko Swan Htet Aung forward. “I was frustrated because I couldn’t help in person,” he said. “I really want to go there ... but I can’t swim, so my parents won’t allow me to go.”

The site’s intention was to help users navigate an overflow of information on the flood, according to Ko Swan Htet Aung.

“As we are developers, we can help people with the technology,” he said. “We can provide the information and we can curate information from Facebook, which is cluttered, into centralised information into our website.”

Now, and its associated app, Info Center, give users a place to figure out what is going on with the flooding and the best way they can help.

Its feature set is evolving constantly. On August 3, Ko Swan Htet Aung said the developers had added a map to show flood locations, and that between 10 and 20 volunteers hunt down information to put forward on the platform. Meanwhile, he takes me through a developing feature on the app – a way for users to submit photos of the flooding.

“They can report the river condition, whether it’s normal or it’s at the flooding point,” he said. “They can also report the dam condition – it can be normal, bad or very bad.”

Since its inception, the app has been downloaded about 1000 times. On August 3, the tally for unique visitors after two days that headed to was approaching 40,000, and around 170 people surfed the site as The Myanmar Times interviewed the pair.

Soon, the developers will share their API to create even further collaboration. There are limits on the app and website’s scope, however, as not everyone in affected areas can connect to the internet.

“If we continue developing this I’m sure we will eventually have a platform that can help provide information for every disaster and we might be able to help prevent damage, maybe, in some way,” Ko Swan Htet Aung said. “We might not fully be able to help since [the site and app] rely heavily on the internet.”

“If telcos are helping us, too, we can send out notifications to them and they [can] send SMS to the area where the disaster might come.”

In the near term, though, the app and website’s mission could evolve from news and information gathering to help with recovery – a development necessitating more features like the ability to track what items are in most desperate need of donation, Ko Swan Htet Aung said.

“We will be the platform between donors and volunteers and for the people who need help,” he said. “We might be transformed into such a platform after this flood.”