SBA hackathon developers leverage AI, agency data sets for disaster recovery tools

In the aftermath of natural disasters, small businesses can get overwhelmed trying to get back up and running. But as part of Small Business Week, the Small Business Administration partnered with Visa for its second annual hackathon, which gave developers an opportunity to leverage government data and build tools to speed up disaster recovery.

More than 200 participants signed up for this year’s hackathon, which ran from May 3-5, and 27 teams vied for the $25,000 prize for the first-place award. SBA Chief Information Officer Maria Roat, one of the judges for the hackathon, said businesses, in the aftermath of a disaster, often need short and long-term assistance to resume normal operations.

“Not only do they have to deal with damage potentially to their businesses. If they have a storefront … they need to restore the revenue,” Roat said in an interview Thursday.

But before they can continue generating a profit, Roat said businesses need to address everything from damaged inventory, to employee payroll, to restoring power and network connectivity.

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The first-place team, Team SnapShot, developed an artificial intelligence tool that helps businesses, through a few photos snapped from a smartphone, assess the value of damaged inventory for insurance appraisals.

Roat described a demo where the developers took a photo of a broken coffee pot, then used the AI tool to identify replacements on e-commerce websites like Amazon and eBay.

“We were really focused on what could go to market quickly: What are those things that would really add value, based on the challenge [of] how to restore the revenue stream,” Roat said about the criteria she and her fellow judges used to rank the contestants.

The second-place winner, Disaster Recovery Score, focused on making disaster recovery forms and resources from agencies more easily available to customers.

Developers had access to data sets from SBA and partner agencies, including the Census Bureau and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as application programming interfaces (APIs) from the federal government and Visa’s Developer Center platform. 

“It’s not just about the APIs, but also how do you use the data that’s available from the federal government … as well as the work that Visa already makes available for small businesses,” Roat said. “And how do you take all of that data and use some of the APIs that are already developed, or build something new to interface and bring that data together for a new solution?”

Combining these agencies’ data with data available from the private sector, developers were also able to develop solutions that would, for example, enable small businesses to monitor their power and fuel consumption from generators.

Other solutions focused on preventative solutions, like having businesses upload all of their important documents and contact information to the cloud, to have as a backup plan.

“In the federal government, when there’s a disaster, we have emergency response plans, we know how to contact people, we know where to get ahold of them. We keep those lists up to date. Many businesses don’t do that, so part of some of the solution was really addressing that risk factor for small businesses, to put those financial documents, those emergency documents and contact information all in one place,” Roat said.

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