How Python Saved 263 Lives, and Our Sanity

Accepted Session
Short Form
Scheduled: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 from 9:00 – 9:45am in B304


Faced with bit rot, expired proprietary software, and imminent collapse, we spent 2 weeks re-inventing a tsunami casualty simulator using open-source technologies. Come hear about the pitfalls, the elation, and how switching to an open stack changes the economics of city planning.


In 2009 I inherited a poorly documented tsunami evacuation simulator and used it to study the impact of proposed city planning on tsunami survival in Longbeach, WA. Half of the project was to learn how to use the pile of hacked-together proprietary software and script I was handed. The second half was to baby-sit a Windows machine on which the simulator would reliably take extended naps.

In 2011 we expanded the study into a new community. Facing new data formats, bit rot, mysterious crashes, expired software, and imminent project failure we re-built the simulator using open-source technologies in two weeks. In addition to simply completing the project, this change has liberated us from specific operating systems and per-seat software licensing.

Outcome? Faster results, less expensive setup, and a transition from a per-simulation pricing model to one focused on finding the best possible result.

Come learn how the time we spent prying ourselves open (and free) allowed us to deliver a better analysis in less time, guarantee future users less pain, and change the dominant paradigm from proving preconceptions to exploring alternatives. I will even run an exploratory simulation live, so we can all experience the power of asking good questions.

Speaking experience