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When hackers' talents are used to help

New tools ease the work of emergency managers.

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New Orleans resident Kenny Adams tried to contact relatives with a photographer’s phone after hurricane Katrina in 2005. A new app sends a one-click ‘I’m OK’ signal in such situations.

Lisa Krantz/San Antonio Express/Newscom /File

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Craig Fugate, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Washington, had a potentially lifesaving item on his wish list: a tool people in a disaster-hit area could use to tell friends and relatives that they are OK without swamping cellphone-service capacity needed for emergency crews.

Within 24 hours of Mr. Fugate's request, small groups of self-styled hackers produced two solutions, including a cellphone app called "I'm OK!" that with the push of a button sends a simple text message via the user's e-mail, Twitter, and Facebook accounts to spread the angst-relieving news.

That push in November 2009 marked the birth of Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) – a semiannual event that saw its latest code-a-thon this month. During these events, hackers worldwide develop and improve tools aimed at helping emergency managers respond more effectively to disasters, as well as software that can help identify and reduce risks from natural hazards.

It's a far cry from the darker side of hackers who recently disrupted the computer operations of companies trying to shut down WikiLeaks.

"We are taking back the word 'hacking,' " says Will Pate, with the World Bank's Global Facility for Disaster Reduction, who participated in the event from Toronto. "These are events where people are there because they care" about helping others.

Among the fruits of this month's effort: A team of programmers in Chicago improved "I'm OK!" It now has a "not OK" function that shares location information so emergency workers can more readily locate and aid senders who need help.

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