Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

Hacking isn't always helping

Do you remember the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? For those who don’t remember it, let me remind you of the key facts. On April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico drilling to a depth of 35,000 feet exploded. The US government estimate the equivalent of 4.9 million barrels of oil leaked into the Gulf, causing damage to 68,000 square miles of ocean.

BP (and TransOcean) did not have the technology necessary to stem the flow of oil from the well. It took until August 4 for an effective solution to the oil leak to appear, in which time thousands of barrels worth of oil were spilling out into the Gulf, harming the ocean habitat as well as the economy of the coastal states. The environmental effects were devastating: dead dolphins turned up on the coasts at a rate ten times higher than usual, and the unique ocean habitat of many endangered species was severely damaged. The economic costs are estimated by BP themselves to be as much as $37.2 billion. Others think the cost is much higher. The explosion itself caused the fatality of eleven people.

A significant failure of environmental regulation was found in the aftermath. The Minerals Management Service was negligent in the duty they owed to the public in ensuring that technical decisions about the “failsafe” mechanisms used on Deepwater Horizon. Investigations into the Minerals Management Service found corruption too: a “revolving door” between the regulator and the very industry they regulate. The Union of Concerned Scientists have also stated that the MMS pressured scientists to “tone down” environmental impact reports submitted to the agency, and had reports rewritten so as to avoid having to do lengthy and expensive investigations into potential environmental harms from deepwater drilling.

Now imagine that in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon if the US Government and BP had announced that one of the ways they sought to help improve the situation was through… running a hack day.

In London tomorrow, that’s what you can do to help with the floods that are currently destroying thousands of homes. FloodHack allows London hackers to work on hacks “for the greater good” of flooding victims.

Never mind that pumps, sandbags and evacuation from their rapidly flooding houses might be a bit more useful than iPhone apps. For every social problem, there’ll soon be an opportunity for bright young hackers to get together in London and feel good about looking at JSON files.

Don’t get me wrong. There might be some very positive things that come out of FloodHack, and I am perhaps being excessively cynical here. There are ways technology can help. Crisis mapping is an excellent approach that has had genuine real-world benefits for humanitarian first responders in a variety of crisis situations. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, the work of OpenStreetMap volunteers provided high-quality maps to aid agencies providing relief on the ground.

But there’s an important difference between Haiti post-earthquake and Britain post-flood (or, more accurately, mid-flood).

In Haiti, the reason emergency responders aren’t rescuing you is because they didn’t know you were there and didn’t know the roads to take to get to you and didn’t have any communications infrastructure.

In Britain, the reason emergency responders aren’t rescuing you is because politicians have their thumbs up their arses and are arguing about budgets and inter-agency responsibilities, and doing a lot of dick-swinging and blame-gaming to go with it.

In Britain, we have the technology and the capability to solve these problems in a way that other country’s don’t. The reason we don’t seem to be able to fix it is because of failures of governance, failure to invest in public services and emergency services, failure to contemplate the big picture of environmental responsibility, and probably a lot of other things starting with the word “failure”.

You only have to know a few people in the emergency services to see a recurring pattern: politicians and people in power wanting more for less. Budget cuts, “fiscal responsibility”, target culture, more management, less investment. I used to drink with a Met officer and heard unpleasant stories about stabbings and shootings and all sorts of other shit. I certainly wouldn’t want to deal with that kind of crap every day for the amount they were paying him. Outside of the emergency services, we see the cycle of politicians coming up with brilliant new policy wheezes, then not actually subjecting them to an evidence-based process to work out whether they actually work or not.

As I said: I don’t want to be too cynical. It’s certainly preferable to have some developer brains going into trying to fix social problems rather than the problems of trying to get more sticky eyeballs to click punch the monkey adverts and share bullshit on Facebook, or whatever it is that we work on at work so we can pay the bills. But there’s a very dodgy bit of politicking going on here.

When hack days start popping up to try and fix what are essentially political problems, it gives cover to the people who wish to avoid actually fixing the political problems. There’s a lot of things we can do with Python and JavaScript: getting a frightened pensioner out of their flooded home and to a safe place needs people on the ground with local knowledge and resources and the will to solve it, not people with MacBooks and silly facial hair in Shoreditch. Those of us in the hacker camp (although I’m clean shaven and try to stay the fuck away from Shoreditch on principle) shouldn’t allow ourselves to be used as cover for the failure to provide boots on the ground support to people in need.

As with Deepwater Horizon, in the next few months, smart people—not political ideologues—will investigate the response to the flooding and they will very likely find regulatory and operational failure from the Cabinet on down. The only thing I’d find at all surprising is if they didn’t find incompetence, negligence and idiocy. Fixing that requires more than iPhone apps, it requires politics and it requires accountability.

I will repeat again: I don’t want to single out FloodHack, nor do I want to suggest that it is done with anything but the best of intentions on the part of the organisers. But I’m worried that the idealism of well-intentioned hacker types can be so easily co-opted and used as a means of whiz-bang distraction from underlying political failures. Hacks are cool, but finding and fixing the complex bugs in our power and governance machine is just as important important: don’t let one distract you from the other.