This past weekend my wife and I tried to get involved with relief efforts for Sandy. We used Twitter and Facebook and found organizations who needed help, and found lists of supplies that were needed as well.
We went from an Occupy Sandy center in Sunset Park to a drive by of the Gowanus Houses to stocking up at Target to delivering goods to the outer reaches of Far Rockaway. There were many who did much more and many who wanted to as well. The impact that the storm had on people's lives was terrible and heartbreaking. You don't need to see that close up to know it.
But without minimizing that, what struck me ultimately was how incredibly disorganized the civilian relief efforts were. In VC terms we would call this an inefficient market, or the failure of bringing together buyers and sellers. In this case, it was those who needed help and those who wanted to give it. There was an imbalance between the support of the NYC community and its impact on those who were suffering.
Twitter and Facebook were great, but the information was scattershot and not always reliable and coordinated. When we showed up at the Occupy Sandy church there were a vast excess of volunteers. When I asked one of the volunteers what we could do the young man in front of the church said: "We have too many clothes donations. We don't need them and they are taking up space. Can you bring them to goodwill?" So we did. We removed excess donations and brought them to the salvation army. That's what they needed but it felt like such a waste - to remove people's well intentioned donations. When we headed to the Rockaways, a friend posted on Facebook - "Good luck, yesterday they turned away our donations."
In Far Rockaway at the community center, lines were too long; they had people filling out blank pieces of paper with what they needed. In the Internet enabled, entrepreneurial software as a service world in which we live, I couldn't help think that what we needed was some sort of API for help, or an open source answer to disaster relief in local communities. Tweeting is great but before this happens again, I hope entrepreneurs much more talented than I can rise to this challenge.
What do we need? In my opinion, to start:
- Real-time volunteer management solutions that can be updated by any device. Imagine a single site with every volunteer opportunity as well as if there is a current need or not. Imagine signing up online or with your phone to say, yes, I will show up from 4 - 6 and this is what I will do. This is organizing and mapping power that exists for other industries, even for signing up for courses or races, but it was sorely needed for coordinating the help people were willing to give. There was too much hearsay and not enough real information. That meant too many well-meaning folks found their relief efforts going to waste.
- Real-time supply chain analysis. Everything I knew was from Twitter. Someone would say, "Over here they need Batteries." Six hours later they would have too many batteries. Why couldn't we, in real-time, have volunteers update from their phones what is needed, coordinate with drop off points and efficiently distribute critical goods. There was no balance of diapers, batteries and canned goods across all the sites that needed them.
- Direct contribution and donations. Donors Choose, for example, allows teachers to request specific things for their classrooms from one universal platform. I would rather buy someone a generator or help someone find a new car more than I want to donate to a large national organization like the Red Cross. The Red Cross is great, but sometimes you want to make a very specific local impact and know where your money goes. Imagine a single place where all those who lost everything could ask for help, and where volunteers could verify and help them.
I am sure there are many other ways that our vast technical brainpower could create cloud based, open source solutions to helping people in our communities. It's part Facebook, part Twitter, part Foursquare and part Seamless Web, but for this need specifically. And it's across web and mobile.
When we spent a short amount of time at a local community center in Far Rockaway the lines were long and the donated goods inside, according to my wife who was in there, were vast but not organized. One of the volunteers suggested we go to the Far Rockaway public library a block away. Inside the Library was incredible.
The librarians (all of whom had volunteered above and beyond) had organized all the donations and spread them out on separate tables and had a smooth efficient line running. Our donations were sorted and subsumed within minutes. It was a revelation. In only the way brilliant librarians could, they most likely served thousands of people quickly and efficiently while other locales were serving only hundreds with long lines. They did what they knew how to do and were trained to do - but with relief supplies instead of books.
Tech community, let's do the same and do what we know how to do with software solutions leveraging text, mobile and real time web so if this happens again, our community based responses can be efficient and tactical. It's products and make shift companies that go public, in the true sense of the word.
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