UH Computer Science Professor Sees Responsibilities and Possibilities in Nepal

Gnawali Returns to his Homeland to See How He Can Help

As other people were sending blankets and bottled water to Nepal, Omprakash Gnawali was thinking about software.

Omprakash Gnawali, assistant professor of computer science, helped organize and served as a judge for the ReNepal Hackathon.
After nearly 24 hours, programmers at the ReNepal Hackathon were getting tired, but they continued to develop apps to help their country.
Gnawali raised money to build metal shelters, allowing residents to stay dry during the coming monsoon rains.
It seemed the perfect blend of his experience – Gnawali is an assistant professor of computer science in University of Houston’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, as well as a native of Kathmandu, Nepal. When a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city and surrounding area in late April, he knew he couldn’t turn away.

“I had a responsibility and the connections,” he said.

Those connections had been reaffirmed the previous year, when Gnawali and computer science professor Rakesh Verma traveled to Nepal to recruit Ph.D. students to UH and to forge research collaborations with universities there.

This year, he arrived in Nepal in early May, shortly before a major aftershock roiled a region still struggling to recover from the initial quake, which had killed more than 8,000 people and injured three times as many. Once there, Gnawali worked with local experts, along with software engineers from Facebook and General Electric, to organize the ReNepal Hackathon, where students and software professionals built programs designed to boost the recovery and make the country more resilient in the future.

The 24-hour coding marathon at Kathmandu Engineering College was just one part of what Gnawali wanted to accomplish. He also raised money – including contributions from members of the UH Nepalese Student Association – to build 130 galvanized iron shelters for families whose homes had been destroyed. The shelters will allow some people to move out of tents and makeshift shelters as monsoon season begins. About 100 shelters have been built so far, all in Dharmasthali, on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

And the Nepalese Children’s Education Fund (www.nepalchildren.org), a nonprofit organization he started with friends in 2002 as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will provide longer term support for some students, as well as rebuilding a few of the most severely damaged schools.

Fundraising for the charity is ongoing, and Gnawali, who serves as president of the board, says some of the work may unfurl over years, including projects developed during the ReNepal Hackathon.

Jaspal Subhlok, chairman of the Department of Computer Science, said the department’s research initiatives with top universities in Nepal will continue, as well.
“Dr. Gnawali’s mission in Nepal is a great example of how a university faculty member can make a meaningful difference to the community by simply taking the time to share their expertise when it is desperately needed,” Subhlok said. “This noblest of faculty roles is becoming rare as universities around the world become more like businesses.”

Gnawali said he was inspired to help organize ReNepal Hackathon after seeing the energy from CodeRED, a Houston hackathon held last spring and sponsored by UH student organization CougarCS, as well as the University’s RED Labs.

Some people held similar events – hackathons are marathon events during which computer programmers, software experts and other people collaborate on a software project – in the United States to brainstorm solutions for the earthquake-stricken country.

“But I thought it would be more effective if we could do it in Nepal, because they know the challenges better,” Gnawali said.

Almost 70 people, representing 12 colleges and six companies participated, competing for $750 in prize money. The Additional Inspector General for the Armed Police Force and a team leader from the United Mission to Nepal addressed the group to explain what is needed.

“Their message was, basically, Nepal needs a lot of inexpensive, robust technology,” said Gnawali, who also served as one of the judges.

The top three teams produced projects dealing with recovery from trauma, speeding search and rescue through a cell phone application that reports the location of missing people, and a method for more broadly and quickly broadcasting information to the public.

What happens next is unclear – the goal of a hackathon is to discover and draw attention to the possibilities. Gnawali said he hopes the event, which was covered by the local media, will lead to at least some of the projects gaining funding for development and distribution.

His goal, as with the other projects in Nepal, is to expand the possibilities for relief.

“The destruction is massive,” he said. “I want to help, partly because I’m from there, and partly because I have the connections and I can do something.”

- Jeannie Kever, University Media Relations