Harvey Techies Pass Baton, And APIs, To Florida Peers as Irma Nears

Houston—As Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall in Houston, Florida resident Leah Halbina messaged friends in the city asking how she could help.

That was how she found out about Sketch City and the various civic tech projects the group and others were developing to aid rescue efforts, help people find shelter, and tend to other immediate needs. As a digital marketer, Halbina says she was instantly drawn to the group of developers and programmers.

“I jumped right in,” she says. “You feel like you’re helping somebody.”

Less than a week later, Halbina finds herself tapping those contacts and the knowledge she gained from the Houston effort to replicate those tech tools for use closer to home.

Screenshot of a chatbot in Spanish created by civic hackers in response to Hurricane Irma. (Photo courtesy: Leah Halbina.)

Hurricane Irma is expected to make landfall in Florida Sunday. The storm—one of the strongest on record—has so far barreled through the Caribbean with winds of up to 185 mph, killing at least 19 people as of Friday, according to media reports.

Halbina, and her techie cohorts in the Irma Slack channel, are rapidly deploying tools of their own in response to meet Irma’s Florida arrival.

“Essentially, we’re replicating everything that was built for Harvey,” Halbina says. “We are so fortunate to have them start this because if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have this technology. Palm Beach County, the extent of their technology is text updates, and that’s it.”

Within a day of the Florida hackers—and some Harvey alums—setting up the Slack channel, the volunteers had created an Irmaresponse.org webpage. The site gives people information on which shelters are available and their capacity, and gives donors information on what each shelter needs. Rescue maps and chatbots are being delivered, and Halbina says they are already thinking about recovery post-storm: tools to support fundraising and cleanup like a Muck Map. (There is also a Facebook page dedicated to Irma response.)

Rob Underwood, an IT consultant in New York and a member of NY Tech Responds, helped to organize the tech community when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. He, along with others in New York, joined the Harvey efforts in Houston and has now shifted his focus to Florida.

“Mostly I wanted to impart to them the sense that they could do it,” he says. “When a disasters hits, that the tech community can be mobilized, and they need to know what resources are out there so they don’t have to invent things from scratch.”

In addition to helping with Florida-specific projects, Underwood on Wednesday created the Disaster Response Volunteer Corps, a one-stop site for techies to register and list the skills they can provide, whether that’s a fluency in Spanish or Ruby. The idea is to streamline the intake process of volunteers and their skills so that they can be quickly dispatched to a project—whether that’s hurricanes in Texas or Florida, fires in the western U.S., or earthquakes in Italy. So far, about 100 people have signed up, he says.

These efforts illustrate a coming into its own for civic tech, a less-heralded segment of the innovation … Next Page »

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