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 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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