Citizen Volunteer Technology for CrisisCamp Sandy

After a disaster some people want to do more than just send money, they want to share their time, knowledge and expertise to provide potentially far more valuable assistance than just $10. This weekend, volunteer hackers and technologists convened at CrisisCamps in over 10 cities and virtually online to assist in developing tools to assist the ongoing response and recovery for people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Driven by requests for help from citizens as well as traditional response organizations it is clear that there is a shift into new capabilities for remotely helping in disasters.

CrisisCampDCCollaborating in realtime over Skype, IRC, Wiki, Hackpad, and likely more these volunteers in collaboration with HurricaneHackers worked on over a dozen projects to assist people in finding &reporting open gas stations, identify building damage, room sharing, getting kids back to school, and a lot more you can read about on the wiki. For the more visually inclined, Willow from Geeks Without Bounds made a great summary Prezi presentation.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to visit the FEMA National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) and work directly with people from FEMA, the White House, and Red Cross. In particular I became involved in the problem where gas stations around New Jersey and New York have been running low or out of fuel and citizens currently cannot find where to get gas near their location or what they can expect to pay. This data should be available from the companies, and indeed HESS is a model that is openly publishing their fuel inventory data.

What was surprising were other unofficially official sources of data that are from volunteer organizations and users that are more accurate and more up to date than anything that was available through official organizations. All Hazards Consortium is an non-profit that is publishing daily exports of data from the point of sales for about 70% of the fuel stations. This is augmented with data from ImSocio, a group of Youth Community maping group of high school students in Somerset, New Jersey. They are individually calling stations directly and updating the information that is published in an open KML feed and maps.

Together, a non-profit and a group of volunteer high schools students working through the weekend, represented the some of the best up-to-date information that was broadly available. Additional sources of data included social media monitoring of hashtags like #findgas, #njgas, #nygas, mobile web collection interfaces, and communities such as Waze that published their drivers' 'chit-chat' notes about gas station status.

Individuals armed with easily accessible open data and no programming skills can literally publish informative interactive web maps during their lunch break and then send them out to the world via social networks. '” Chris Brown

FEMA has made it very clear that they want to enable as much local support and response as possible. They are in the business of coordination and the more that citizens and local organizations can help one another the better the resiliency. The concept of "crowd-sourcing" means as much for on-the-ground scaling as it does for web scale. And the "crowd" is not just full of amateurs, but experts in a variety of domains and experience that are offering tremendous support that can provide meaningful support to affected citizens. There is still a lot of learning. It was clear in discussions at the NRCC that these concepts are new and difficult to accomodate within the traditional response protocols, but there is definitely a desire to evolve and adapt to these new communities.

There will likely be more CrisisCamps coming up in the future that you can join. If you just have a computer and internet connection you can help.

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.