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

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community. Largely connected in an ad hoc fashion through Slack and social media, these groups are gaining a higher profile through their work helping with emergency management, such as with Harvey or Irma. These groups’ efforts also include so-called data rescue projects in which they seek to preserve official government data that might be lost because of political squabbles.

“I don’t think the term ‘civic tech’ existed five years ago,” says Christopher Whitaker, brigade program manager at Code for America in Chicago, which supports “brigades” of civic-minded technologists in 70 cities across the country.

In Houston, Sketch City founder Jeff Reichman was leading regular civic tech workshops before he officially founded the organization two years ago. The group tackled a number of nuts-and-bolts projects, such as creating calendar alerts for recycling and heavy trash pickup, as well as digitizing information available at the Houston Police Department, such as towed vehicle records.

“There was a point where people … were dismissing [civic tech] as people playing around,” says Code for America’s Whitaker.

But developing tech tools that help governments leverage their public data not only helps those agencies become more effective, the effort also creates relationships between private citizens and public officials that build the kind of trust needed during disasters, he says.

“The time spent tinkering and being able to come together on a regular basis to learn” helped season these tech volunteers, giving them the experience necessary to create useful tools, Whitaker says. “We can share lessons with each other and amplify our effect. That came in handy with hurricane response.”

A logo designed by techies developing tools to help Irma victims. (Photo courtesy: Alyssa Patmos.)

On Wednesday evening, Tom Dooner, a Code for America fellow living in San Francisco, piped up on the Irma Slack channel, offering to recruit five to 10 people from the West Coast to join the effort. One of the problems he’s working on is how do you develop tech tools for groups not known for embracing technology? Florida is, for example, home to a large senior population, one that is not likely glued to Facebook or Slack.

“We’d like to make a chatbot that can understand and speak English like one of those automated phone systems,” he says. “We’re trying to get a minimum viable product up ASAP so we can start publicizing it, and then add features later as we see people start to use it.”

The chatbot, which is being relayed through SMS text, will also be available in Spanish, while the Irmaresponse.org website will be available in both Spanish and Creole—key for a state with large Hispanic and Caribbean populations.

Halbina estimates about 300 hackers have joined their Irma Slack channel, hailing from places like the Public Lab in Philadelphia, GISCorps in Illinois, and Microsoft, by way of MIT.

“I’m just very impressed about what they’ve been able to do in the middle of a hurricane,” says Code for America’s Whitaker. “I don’t even think the waters have fully receded yet [in Houston] and they’re already using their volunteer time to help out another community across the country.”


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