Preview: ‘Code and Response’

Last year’s wildfires left a devastating impact on people’s lives and homes.

Last year’s wildfires left a devastating impact on people’s lives and homes.

Photo courtesy of IBM Originals

In 2018, the worst year on record for natural disasters, first responders lacked access to digital technology that could improve their ability to save lives and property. For starters, most still used paper maps. In the new documentary, Code & Response, a Bay Area fire battalion chief eyeballs the map pinned to the fire station wall, draws affected areas on his iPad and sends the drawing to the front lines.

First responders needed a better way to communicate, a collaborative platform not dependent on paper maps or the Internet, said Kenji Kato, a NASA engineer and app developer. Kato’s previous start-up was rooted in Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement. He was here recently for a hackathon, a team-based contest to create agile, tech-based solutions for firefighters and other first responders.

A personal mission drives the development of Kato’s latest app, “The Wildfire Report.” In the summer of 2014, as the Carlton Complex Fire burned more than 250,000 acres in north-central Washington state, where Kato grew up and where his parents and brother still lived, he got on his computer. He grabbed publicly available geographic data from government sources, and applied them to fly-through videos so the average person could discern the fire’s path and speed.

“Most people don’t know how to get access to this data. They don’t even know how to read the map, sometimes,” he said.

Kato posted the videos on YouTube and quickly amassed 100,000 views. He knew he was on to something big.

“Fast forward from 2014 to the [2019 Kincade] fire, the digital maps were at very high level. They didn’t go down to the individual street level or what I need to know about right here,” said Kato, patting the table in front of him. “That’s what I’m trying to build, an app that would give you individualized information.”

Kato is among the coders featured in Code & Response, an around-the-world tour of disaster-relief technology developed at IBM’s “Call for Code” hackathons.

He says he hopes to hold a meeting soon with government officials who attended the Sacramento hackathon. He’s ready to address other natural disasters that may be on the horizon.

“The Central Valley is at risk for floods. How do we make sure systems work together to create resiliency so that no matter what the disaster is, we can survive through it.”

He hopes to develop an app for that, soon. The documentary Code & Response is now available to stream on Amazon, iTunes and Vimeo.