The Best Technology is still People

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting pieces from ourFounding Mission List Members. Every day, these women are using their influence to shape their communities and create positive change at home and abroad. The below post is from Morgan O'Neill. True story: I was in the Boston Museum of Science last summer, playing with the mini-tornado exhibit, when an EF-3 tornado struck my family's home in Western Massachusetts. I drove home that night, as soon as the supercells stopped dancing along the Mass Pike. The damage across the sleepy town was unbelievable. My sister Caitria and I helped our family move into temporary shelter as we became aware of what some call "the second disaster": the relief response. The large church across the street from our house became a sort of unofficial kitchen/donation center/community space for the town, and this is where volunteers started pouring in. The problem was, even on day three, no one knew the full extent of the damage. No one was responsible for directing volunteers, from all over New England, to go help all the families that needed it so badly. No one had all the answers that families needed as they sought shelter, food, and medical supplies.

It became immediately obvious that the answer to these problems was online infrastructure. The Western Massachusetts tornado dominated the media cycle for the next week. A high school senior, Laura Sauriol, had set up a town Facebook page where residents were able to share news and information. It was an imperfect tool (imagine dramatic photos taking up the space FEMA needed to announce their emergency food stamp program). Nonetheless, it was the only tool we had, so we brought an internet aircard to the local church and started posting immediate needs in real-time: "We need a case of chainsaw oil." "We need ice and leather work gloves." "Please stop bringing ice! Or bring coolers so that we can keep it cool!" Incredibly, people were watching, hungry for information on how they could help. The items we needed for the hundreds of volunteers who donated tens of thousands of hours would come in within 20 minutes of being posted. Furthermore, we tracked all of our volunteers electronically, with contact information and relevant skills (chainsaw, electrician, free childcare). We had a database we could tap the moment a survivor walked up and asked for something. Soon our small town was sending out vanloads of donations to other towns. We had extra of whatever we needed, because we knew how to ask via the internet.

Social media is incredibly powerful. It impacted hundreds of lives, instantly, within our small town. It's great for sharing stories, and interesting news articles, and photos of friends, absolutely - but social media also fuels national revolutions and disaster recovery. And it can do so at the speed of light. My sister and I and a small team of amazing individuals are now running an organization, recovers.org. We are tapping this social power to help heal the wounds wrought so blindly by nature. Because here is the problem: right now, disaster response plans, amazingly, don't include the role that the community necessarily plays in its own recovery. There's no blueprint for how community churches, PTAs and Boy or Girl Scout troops contribute. Their role is different in every disaster, but it is always - always - significant. No other group is even authorized to dispatch spontaneous volunteers or solicit requests for donations: yet it is precisely these groups that receive least support, the fewest tools, and zero training. That's a recipe for disaster.

Recovers.org codifies our organizing experience in Western Massachusetts in a way that any community can use. BOOM - NewTown gets hit by a flash flood. 'NewTown.recovers.org' is a fully functioning website within an hour, accepting donations, logging volunteer information and serving as a platform for all groups operating in recovery to communicate with each other and the world. It is the central hub where any question can be answered and any need fulfilled, locally, peer-to-peer. The internet community is so good at crowd sourcing talent. Why not apply these same ideas to disaster recovery? It's obvious, it's long overdue, and we're doing it. We are passionate about using the best technology out there to repair lives and homes, faster; and the best technology is still people. To find the right people, social media is incomparable.

Morgan O'Neill is a co-founder of recovers.org and a Ph.D. candidate at MIT; naturally, she studies hurricanes.