Helping reduce the chaos post-disaster, Imagine Cup drives social responsibility

When a disaster strikes a community, to describe the aftermath as anything other than chaos is sugar-coating the situation. When these natural or man-made disasters occur, obtaining high-quality and accurate information is a challenge that many first responders have to overcome. But if team Help Me Help from the US, who are competing in Microsoft's Imagine Cup, have their way, their solution can utilize the vast network of smartphones to improve the quality of information.

The team, who set out to create a solution that would track invasive species in Hawaii, built a platform that allows anyone in the field with an application on their Windows Phone to take a picture and then have it uploaded to a localized central service and, based on the geo-location of the photo, the image can be plotted on a map for authorities to review in real-time to understand how to best address the situation.

Imagine a tornado strikes a town. If that town is equipped with this service, citizens can then upload pictures from around the community to help create an action list for first responders, complete with an image of the disaster zone and its exact location.

The application works over both cellular networks and WiFi, which should help to increase the application's effectiveness even if cell towers go down. Further, because of how data is captured on an image, if an individual is in an area that has no connectivity options, when they do enter an area that allows for uploading, all of the data is retained to be sent back to the localized command center.

It's a simple twist on geo-tagging of photos but when used in this way, it creates a visual map of damage for first responders and it gives them nearly everything they need to make decisions based on the reports. With this software suite deployed, first responders no longer have to make decisions based only on the spoken word of the informant, but also on the visual record, helping to determine the extent of damage and even injuries.

More importantly, because the images are placed on a map based on their geo-tagging, multiple reports of the same incident would be located at the same place on the map and avoid a call center becoming overrun with hundreds of calls for one incident.

Microsoft's Imagine Cup is all about driving innovation among youth around the world, and team Help Me Help is only one example we will be highlighting as we approach the finals which will be held in Russia in mid July.

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