Disaster Relief, Dot-Com Style

Two days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City, one of many desperate pleas across the city went out: "We have over 50 seniors located at 80 Rutgers Street who are without electricity, cannot go down stairs, and are running low on food supplies."

Within an hour, volunteers were rushing over with supplies. But it was not a 911 dispatcher or a FEMA representative who had heeded the call for help. It was members of the Lower East Side community responding to a message on recovers.org, an online hub that helps communities direct resources and volunteers where they're needed in an emergency. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, four microsites sprung up on the system for the Lower East Side, Astoria, Red Hook, and Staten Island to connect victims in New York City neighborhoods with volunteers and supplies. A fifth sprung up for Hoboken, New Jersey. 

In the chaos following a disaster, information becomes one of the most precious—and scant—resources. Any large-scale catastrophe unleashes an outpouring of support and donations. But victims' needs trickle out slowly, and often there's no venue to make them known. Matching donations with what's needed is often a nightmare and falls to people on the ground with little or no training. Balancing the desire to help with the reality of what's in demand is a problem large relief organizations have long struggled with. The Red Cross warns in its “Smart Giving” tips that volunteers should donate with an eye toward what's really needed, cautioning that some well-intentioned donations actually do more harm than good. 

"We encourage individuals who have items to donate to check with other relief organizations that might be in need of those individual items," says Anne Marie Borrego, an American Red Cross spokesperson. The Red Cross has said it prefers cash donations.

Large relief organizations like the Red Cross provide crucial services during disasters like establishing shelters and administering health services. But it's not in their mission to structure the resources available locally. Recovers.org provides locals with the framework to organize those resources. The site offers visitors three simple options: "I have a need," "I want to give," and "I want to volunteer." Volunteers scour the site for donations and requests for help as they roll in and swiftly make connections when there’s a match. 

“The matching is done manually, which is why the need for tech volunteers to help manage the site is so great,” said Miriam Young, a nonprofit outreach and engagement manager for NPower, one of the local organizations that coordinates volunteers and operations for the New York sites.

The grassroots nature of the site allows for nimble adjustments and quick responses that would inevitably be slowed by bureaucracy in a bigger organization.

 

Caitria O’Neill got a baptism-by-fire introduction to the world of tech volunteerism. In early June, she had just graduated from Harvard and was in the midst of moving boxes home for a brief stint before starting a masters program in foreign policy in Moscow. Shortly after she had finished moving, a violent tornado roared through her town of Monson, Massachusetts, taking her family’s roof with it.

Fortunately, the town didn’t suffer any fatalities, but it caused such rampant destruction that authorities had to shoo away onlookers who drove into town just to gawk. The day after the storm hit, O’Neill and her sister Morgan made their way to a church across the street, which had become a de facto organizing headquarters. They encountered chaos. The building was full of donated clothing and supplies that none of the affected families knew were there, and overwhelmed staff were turning away volunteers.

With the church’s blessing, the sisters took over.

They created an organizing system using a Frankenstein mash-up of online tools and pen-and-paper information collection. Facebook served as a communication tool, and a Facebook "document" cataloged current needs. A handful of retired secretaries entered volunteers’ contact information and skills in a Google document. The sisters used Google Voice to create a help hotline.

Their efforts resulted in hundreds more volunteers being logged in Monson than in any of the surrounding towns. Within a week, they dished out 3,000 meals a day for survivors and volunteers. Early fundraising pushed half a million dollars.

“We could request an item like leather-palmed work gloves online, and someone would drop them off at the worksite in 20 minutes,” O’Neill said.

The system, however, was far from perfect. Facebook was useful in disseminating information, but people were continually “liking” photos of rubble and beloved pets who’d gone missing; other important, non-visual information—information on small-business loans, offers of legal assistance, and warnings about potential scams—sank out of sight. 

“It occurred to me that some sort of organizing tool kit should exist in advance of a disaster,” O’Neill said. 

After training other locals and transitioning out of coordinating aid for her neighbors, she started reaching out to other recovering areas—Joplin, New Orleans, Tuscaloosa—and asking what they used for tools. 

“In every area it was the same. Untrained locals acted as the interface between the official and unofficial resources pouring in and those who needed help. In every area, they needed the same tools but had to piece them together themselves,” O'Neill said.

They started building a system with Alvin Liang, who became co-founder and eventually chief technology officer of recovers.org. He built the online tool in his spare time over a few months, initially without any funding. They tested the system in a few disaster areas and eventually won seed money from the MIT IDEAS competition and the Knight News Challenge. That allowed the site to build out the system and hire staff in the run-up to Sandy.

 

Sandy marked the first big test for recovers.org: A crippled New York City is a different ball game than a crippled Joplin. 

O’Neill thought the software could be useful to local volunteers but never imagined the site would see a crush of users. Soon after the storm, requests for flashlights, batteries, and labor slowly started rolling in. 

“If you think about it, trying to teach people to learn a new software program during a disaster,in a low- or no-connectivity area is absurd,” O’Neill said. “These systems are necessarily put in place before hand, to prepare residents, not just to react.”

On October 30, the day the microsites launched, recovers.org had a little over 12,000 visits. 

One of those initial posts—the request for help for the seniors on Rutgers Street—generated dozens of responses and updates about what had been rushed over and what was still needed. The site soon swelled with similar demands for supplies as people returned to their homes and assessed the damage.

As requests and volunteers kept climbing upward, outlets like The New York Times and the Huffington Post started to link to the different recovers.org neighborhood sites and sharing spread like through social media. By Friday, they were topping 39,000 visitors a day.

O’Neill says she held her breath while the servers gasped—but held. 

The tools she created to boost small-town, low-damage recoveries had withstood one of the costliest disasters in recent U.S. history. 

“We may not have been ready, or in place beforehand, but we did find out we can handle a landscape-scale disaster in the biggest city in the U.S. Not a bad stress test as far as software creation goes.”

 

As New York City slowly gets back on its feet, the need on the site has shifted from urgent basics like food and water to rebuilding—people need help cleaning out their homes and clothing donations. While the site got plenty of high-profile shoutouts in the immediate aftermath of the storm, O’Neill says the steady stream of returning traffic in the longer term is what’s most exciting.

“Usually, a disaster disappears from the news after week one, and people forget about it,” she said.

The Sandy sites are still going strong, traffic-wise, and the team thinks it will maintain a presence throughout the recovery. 

But O’Neil and her colleagues want to pay that success forward. The next challenge for the site: pivoting toward preparedness. The team is working on a tool kit for residents to prepare for and recover from disasters with minimal individual loss. The information they collect will be used by local emergency management to see what areas need priority assistance, and what areas are well prepared for, say, a ten-day power outage.

For all its havoc, the storm also gave the site an enormous profile boost, which will help facilitate the creation of new microsites whenever and wherever a new disaster hits. Aid is invariably easier to come by when you know whom to ask and where to look for it. As a community regroups, its citizens can take charge of their own recovery instead of waiting for the slow-moving aid of an outside group.

“Microsites are the future of localized disaster aid—period," O’Neill insists. "Mutual aid necessarily happens at the most local level possible. Would you want to carry a couch across New York? No, so you find someone who can give you a couch locally. "

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