When you think of first responders, you might imagine disaster relief services like police, firefighters, medical personnel or the National Guard. But there’s another breed of first responders that’s largely invisible, and whose contributions are easy to take for granted: the coders whose skill and creativity power the tools that bring relief to those affected by disaster.
In collaboration with IBM Originals, Media.Monks produced a feature-length documentary film, Code & Response, that examines the ambition that drives several members of the global coding community to develop new, first-responder solutions amidst a backdrop of natural disasters that have grown in strength and number—and stand to become even worse in the future.
The film features four projects around the world, each tackling disasters that may have seemed far away and abstract to viewers before watching, but that are all too real for the coders and their communities. “We wanted to raise their profile in the culture’s discourse,” says Elisa Thomas, Content Strategist at IBM Originals. “To do that meant going deeper into their motivations and allowing their stories to unfold in a way that couldn’t be done in a two-minute clip. We wanted high-production value and time to do it right.”
And it looks like those stories have resonated with viewers; running the film festival circuit, Code & Response has taken home a few awards, like Best Documentary at International New York Film Festival and a Gold Award for Best Feature at the Southeast Regional Film Festival. A writer from The Next Web called it “the single most touching, inspiring documentary I’ve seen this year.”
Bringing Ideas to Life
The documentary’s acclaim offers a great lesson on what brands can achieve when they marry creativity with authenticity; despite its being made by IBM Originals, the brand doesn’t insert itself into the narrative. Instead, it focuses on the everyday people bringing their innovative (and important) ideas to life: for example, an offline mesh network that lets people communicate when normal connections are down, or drone scouts that identify SOS signals with image recognition technology.
“The point isn’t about the brand in the story, but telling a good story,” says Heather Hosey, VP Client Engagement at Media.Monks, who worked on the project. “IBM was pushing to tell a good story without promoting themselves, which is so different among what others do.”
Kenji Kato developed an application that helps first responders track and understand the path of wildfires.
Celebrating coders and letting them tell their own stories does more than demystify tech to a general audience. For developers, the stories can be inspiring. For those with the motivation to make something, too, IBM’s larger Code & Response initiative—including its “Call for Code” contest, local events and a resource platform for self-learning—is there to support them.
“When we titled the film, we didn’t expect it to become the title for a greater IBM initiative,” says Joe Esposito, Creative Director at IBM Originals. “Code & Response is now a $25 million, four-year IBM initiative to help bring these new open source technologies and solutions into the world. We hope the movie bolsters that commitment.”
An Authentic Connection to Community
The film owes much of its power to distilling complicated technology into relatable, human stories. “We didn’t want to typecast, so we featured normal people who are very passionate about their work,” said Hosey. The secret to surfacing up such powerful stories lies in embedding the creative team directly within the community: “We went to them, rather than ask that they come to us, and that yielded a better output,” says Hosey.
This meant digging deep and building contacts at IBM’s hackathons on a local level—easy enough if you’re profiling a single one, but requiring a bit of dedication when your focus extends across the globe. This led the team to meet with Pedro Cruz, one of the film’s subjects, who won first place at IBM’s Call for Code in Puerto Rico for DroneAid, his drone scouting project. Subalekha Udayasankar, also portrayed in the film, was a finalist in the global Call for Code with Project Lantern. But the team wasn’t interested in just the winners. Their drive to unearth the most compelling stories brought them in touch with Kenji Kato, who participated in Fremont, CA with a wildfire tracking system; and WOTA, a team of Tokyo-based engineers who developed a water circulation system that provides access to clean, running water to disaster victims.
Subalekha Udayasankar developed an offline mesh network that connects people when typical connections are down.
Keeping Goals Aligned
This investigative style of digging into the trenches ensures the story doesn’t get lost in the tech. Instead, the process authentically weaves in the impact that the coders have made on their communities through their work, aligning well with the film’s goals of challenging the way audiences look at developers and inspire its community of developers.
“There are so many archetypes for developers in the media—mostly, they’re wearing hoodies in basements, hacking companies for some sort of monetary gain,” says Thomas. “In reality, many are incredibly thoughtful and passionate people who use their skills to help people. And they do so with such humility and sincerity.”
Assessing all company priorities ahead of time is key to building a better story.
Hosey emphasizes the importance of ensuring everyone is on the same page early in the process. Film is a big endeavor, incorporating several players: brand leadership, the creative team, the production team and more. “Assessing all company priorities—creative and business—ahead of time is key to building a better story.” she says. “There will always be many players, and it helps creative and production to understand all those angles to set up a successful story.”
For IBM, the film not only brings to light the impact that coders have on their communities—it serves as example of how we can work together to build a better future. “IBM has always taken a progressive stand about building a smarter planet and we have thrived for more than 100 years because we focus on the shared success of business and society,” says Christopher Schifando, Creative Director at IBM. “By putting smart technologies to work in the hands of coders, we can invent new ways to help first responders save lives and create lasting and sustainable change.”
It takes close trust and partnership to align the narrative with what the creative team wants to convey and the results that leadership wants to achieve. The Media.Monks team worked alongside IBM throughout the film and production process, and the shared vision of the project kept the team focused and energized. “Our tagline was ‘One team, one dream,’” says Hosey. “What kept us all going was that it was a really cool project.”
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