In Response to Sandy, Tech Community Steps Up

Marni Usheroff Dec 7, 2012

Eli Hayes stood before an auditorium full of nonprofit volunteers and computer programmers and broke into tears.

Hayes, founder of Sparkrelief, a disaster relief coordination website, told the audience how he’d directed a Hurricane Sandy victim to a warming center using New York City’s website. The site’s confusing design offered two differing lists and no map to help locate the nearest shelter.
“Yesterday I sent a woman through three hours of public transit to get to one of the shelters that was on that list,” Hayes recounted. “And it wasn’t open when she got there, and she couldn’t get back. She didn’t have enough money.”
That could have been prevented if better technological tools were in place, such as the ones developed this weekend at the #NYTechResponds Sandy Benefit Weekend. 
Roughly 60 coders and volunteers came together for a disaster relief agency conference followed by a “hackathon,” a computer programming competition, held in co-working spaces around Union Square, the Fashion District and at New York University. 
These collaborators set out to evaluate the effectiveness of technological tools used during the Sandy response and recovery effort, and to take a crack at the next generation of such software.
This weekend was the culmination of a tremendous post-Sandy volunteering drive organized by NY Tech Meetup, a nonprofit networking group on that organizes a monthly event where members gather to watch emerging companies demo new ideas.
Boasting nearly 29,000 members, this New York nonprofit is the largest Meetup group in the entire world. And when Superstorm Sandy hit the city, NY Tech Meetup quickly tapped its massive network to help small businesses and others in the community get back on their feet in a technical way through the #NYTechResponds initiative.
“The idea of creating something with very little money in a time of uncertainty…that’s very natural to people who work around startups,” said Robert Underwood, a strategy consultant who helped organize the weekend and over 900 volunteers after the storm.
Underwood and Jessica Lawrence, managing director of NY Tech Meetup, emceed the weekend. The event started out with a forum where disaster relief groups shared their thoughts about how technology has and hasn’t helped during post-Sandy response and recovery efforts.
Representatives deeply involved in the process, such as the American Red Cross, FEMA and Occupy Wall Street’s Occupy Sandy project, gathered in an NYU auditorium Saturday morning to advise the hackathon participants.
“People have been traumatized by this. Their lives will never be the same,” said Ken Higginbotham, an external affairs officer at FEMA. “It’s important that the technological field ensures that in reaching out to these disaster survivors, (we’re) giving them timely and accurate information.”
Other speakers echoed this sentiment stressing the importance of real-time data from the field so they can identify those in need as well as coordinate with other relief agencies.
Danielle Marchione of New York Cares, a nonprofit volunteer organization, said that a lot of groups are working together on crisis maps to identify and coordinate muck outs, the removal of water-damaged items from homes. But not everyone is communicating with one another.
“It’s not until literally people are standing shovel-to-shovel at somebody’s front door that they realize we’re both here for the same thing,” Marchione said.
Though this might seem more like an organizational issue than a technical one, Eli Hayes thinks the tech world can help solve the problem by choosing to build platforms incorporating relief efforts from multiple organizations.
“Then you have everyone playing in the same sandbox and they can talk to each other more easily,” Hayes said during his presentation.
Other speakers focused on the user experience of tech tools for volunteers and disaster victims in the field. 
Michael Premo, an artist and community organizer with Occupy Sandy, which emerged as disaster response and relief leader after the storm, voiced frustration with the lack of easy-to-use design in some tech products. 
“People can’t be scrolling and reading and dealing with acronyms,” Premo said. “They just need very simple, straightforward information at their fingertips and on devices that can be powered for long periods of time.”
Premo added that the people who need this technology are often in less than ideal circumstances without power or heat, a notion summarized well by Gregory L. Smith, a deputy director of planning and external relations for Superstorm Sandy with the American Red Cross.
“A lot of the technologies that we have now are designed for a perfect world. And disasters shatter a perfect world,” Smith said. 
During a coffee break, Gregory Gundersen, a web developer participating in the hackathon, reflected on the forum. “Good, elegant code is difficult and impressive, but code is still just code. Solving the right problem for the right people is the ultimate goal.”
Corinne Fenlon, a Rockaways resident and masters student at NYU, hoped that one of the problems the tech community would solve is targeting the right people when distributing resources.
She explained how people have been coming into the Rockaways from other towns to steal and sell donations. “My mother was staring at people filling up their car with donated coats,” Fenlon said. “Technology could help so that the right people are getting the goods they need.”
The computer programmers and some agency volunteers decamped to co-working spaces near Union Square and the Fashion District. 
Some clustered around computer screens sharing their project ideas, while others scrawled massive flowcharts on dry erase boards teasing out various concepts. Most spent the better part of the next 24 hours hunched over their laptops toiling away.
Eleven teams showcased the results of their labors on Sunday afternoon in an NYU classroom before an audience and panel of judges. The evaluators included representatives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a venture capitalist, successful tech entrepreneurs and a product manager from Google.
Participants either created new projects from scratch or augmented previously existing platforms. Some were still coding on the fringes of the classroom until the minute they stepped before the judges. 
The teams were being assessed on innovation, relevance and usability for disaster relief, sustainability and how much they collaborated with other projects.
Highlights included Voluntarily, a mobile app that helps volunteers coordinate their efforts, collect survey data in the field and send it back to an organization’s headquarters. It also allows the organization to analyze and view the data in a meaningful way.
Gregory Gundersen’s team further developed Q11, their text messaging-based platform meant for rapid registration and volunteer mobilization, which they’d created a couple weeks ago at another hackathon.
Gundersen had audience members take out their cell phones for a live demo, asking them to text various codes to a Q11 telephone number thereby allowing them to register for a volunteering event and check-in and check-out.
The Q11 team explained that the beauty of such a platform is that it doesn’t need an internet connection or even that strong of a cell signal. 
Gundersen noted that they’d added the check-in and check-out features over the weekend after speaking with a FEMA volunteer who explained the importance of keeping track of volunteer hours in order to get federal funding.
An Occupy Sandy member in the audience commented that they’d been using something similar, but Q11 is more robust and definitely useful in the real world.
Eli Hayes’ team also added some new features to the Sparkrelief website. These included rapid deployment of a new disaster on the site by a user, an easier to follow color palette for icons representing various resources on the site’s global map and a blind messaging system allowing victims and volunteers to communicate with each other without divulging certain pieces of their contact information.
Hayes mentioned that his team is working with the United Way, the Red Cross and government agencies to display live, updated information about those groups’ resources in Sparkrelief’s system. He also added that the speedy disaster deployment feature was still being worked out and should be ready in the next week or so.
Voluntarily, Q11 and Sparkrelief were among five teams that won awards for their work, which included hundreds of dollars to be donated to relief agencies of their choice. Q11 and Sparkrelief also nabbed meetings with venture capitalists to whom they could pitch their projects.
At the end of the day, the room buzzed with exhausted participants celebrating and exchanging contact information with folks from the disaster relief agencies. 
Dara Emru, online engagement manager for United Way of New York City, smiled as she thought back on the event.
“What I’ve really taken away from this weekend… is that the technology is all really there,” Emru said. “I think that the connections between the nonprofits and the government agencies and the technology is what really needed to happen. And I think this weekend was a great start to that.”
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