Rounding Up Volunteers, via New Apps

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LIKE many other New Yorkers horrified by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, I leapt at the chance to volunteer and get the city back on its feet, particularly the hardest-hit sections of Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens.

Yet it was hard to figure out how to sort through the various relief organizations and community-led efforts to donate money, supplies and my personal time.

For someone who is accustomed to procuring information quickly and efficiently with a few searches, taps and clicks, the chaos was bewildering. And some of the tools and services that we use in our everyday lives -- Facebook, Twitter, simple e-mails and the like -- were less effective in the mayhem that followed the storm.

In many kinds of disasters, it can be hard to sift through the dozens, or hundreds, of images and messages to determine where help is most needed -- and who needs what. In addition, many of the neediest people are often left without cellular reception and access to a reliable Internet connection.

After a disaster, a top priority "is organizing information and being able to allocate resources," said Mac Sims, who works at the Rain Agency, a digital advertising agency that has a New York office.

Not long after the hurricane hit, Mr. Sims's company was among those that began organizing events known as hackathons, where programmers and engineers develop applications and services around a central need or theme.

George Shank, an interactive software developer who works with Mr. Sims, helped build a service called Sprout Help that relays information about where to send supplies and how to volunteer effectively.

"A lot of it stemmed from wanting to help but not being sure how to do it," Mr. Shank said. "We heard stories of people going to fire stations to volunteer and being turned away."

Although voice and data connections often succumb to power failures, many people can still send text messages over cellphone networks. Sprout takes advantage of that loophole. Volunteers could post fliers with information about how to send a text to Sprout to join the service, which doubles as a real-time alert system that fires off messages with information about where volunteers should go. Those in need can also send messages through Sprout outlining their location, and detailing the area's needs, like fresh water or medical help.

Mr. Shank said the company wanted to recreate the effectiveness of posting a beacon for help on Facebook or Twitter, but one that would not become lost in the myriad other messages coursing through those systems at any given moment. Sprout, he said, is similar to a social network system like Facebook, but is "one that people would have access to during a disaster."

Robert Grazioli and Eric Candino, who work at Rounded, a design agency in Syracuse, developed a service called HugoHelps that lets disaster victims search for places to stay after their homes have been flooded or stripped of basic utilities like electricity and heat.

Mr. Grazioli said they built their application after hearing that several friends were stranded in Lower Manhattan without a warm place to sleep.

"They were safe, but displaced," he said. "We wanted to help them find better places to stay nearby that had power."

Their application also delivers information via text message.

"Data is very difficult during a disaster, and we wanted to make sure people without smartphones could also use it too," he said.

Currently, the application funnels information about nearby hotels, but Mr. Grazioli and Mr. Candino think that future iterations could relay details about shelters, free disaster housing and inexpensive rooms for rent.

NOT all such applications and tools developed were turned into full-fledged products. Instead, their makers hope that they can serve as guidelines for the types of services that could be deployed by government and relief organizations during future disasters or national crises.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says disaster preparedness is about more than stocking up on bottled water, packaged meals and fresh batteries. It's also a matter of pooling technical resources to solve the problems that can arise quickly, like how to move supplies to those in need and relay reliable information about shelters and food.

In the hours before the hurricane struck, Mr. Costanza-Chock started Hurricane Hackers, an online hub where software engineers and developers could share ideas as the storm advanced.

"We were looking at ways to support and build together, even people from a distance who wanted to support relief efforts," he said.

Mr. Costanza-Chock emphasized the importance of realistic ideas that can be deployed quickly.

"It's easy to dream up fantastic solutions, but what works on the ground and will be useful in the moment are the ones that are the most successful," he said. "Whether it is beautiful or not does not matter."

In his experience, tools that are tied to a real need -- grounded in an organization with people working on the scene, and limited to a specific geographic area -- are those that have worked the best.

"The challenge is not to build the tools," he said, "but rather, how do you capture the attention and energy that people have and plug it in?"

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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