The night of Superstorm Sandy, Deidre Roberts watched helplessly from high ground with her parents and neighbors as her uncle’s pub, the Harbor Light, an institution in the Rockaways section of Queens, burned to the ground. They had no phone, no electricity, no television.
“The water was so high, the fire trucks were stuck,” said Roberts, 30, who lives in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways. “It was every man for himself. Thank God, Rockaway is so close knit. The neighbors helped each other.”
A large part of the chaos in the Rockaways, Staten Island, Red Hook in Brooklyn, the Jersey shore and other Sandy-ravaged areas came from technological breakdowns. With no access to computers or cellphones, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross didn’t know which areas were the hardest hit, how many residents were stranded or where to transport clothes, food and other provisions.
But just as communities banded together to help one another, designers, programmers and tech leaders united to figure out the best ways to use technology in real time during the disaster.
About 10 days after the storm, NY Tech Meetup, a 28,000-member nonprofit group supporting the New York technology community, held a “hackathon.” The goal was to find ways technology could help with organizational challenges (data management, volunteer engagement, survivor reunification), as well as to figure out how to handle future catastrophes. The event kicked off with representatives from FEMA, the Red Cross, the United Way, Occupy Sandy and Team Rubicon discussing what they wished they’d had at their disposal during Sandy.
The biggest need, said NY Tech Meetup Executive Director Jessica Lawrence, was restoring Internet and cellphone service. Connecting donors and volunteers with those in need was another challenge. “People were saying, ‘I have clothes I can donate, a space you can use, a shovel, gloves,’” she recalled. “On the other side, the different organizations were saying, ‘We need clothes, we need this, we need that.’”
How to match up the two? That question was on the minds of some 100 developers, coders, programmers and designers as they spent the next 24 hours at two communal workspaces in Manhattan. They built networks. They offered free information-technology advice. They launched real-time maps and social feeds.
Larger organizations have also devised ways to transmit critical information. In the summer of 2012, the Red Cross launched its Hurricane app, which includes a one-click “I’m safe” messaging feature that notifies family and friends via social media that users are OK.
Earlier this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Code Corps, a group of tech companies, nonprofits and academic institutions that will work with the city during emergencies to develop new databases, Web and mobile apps and emergency-related information maps using city data. And in September, Twitter introduced Twitter Alerts, which allows government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to send emergency messages directly to users’ phones.
The technologies are all exciting — and necessary. But as Sasha Costanza-Chock, a professor of civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted, ultimately the efforts are about something bigger than technology.
“The most interesting and important thing was connecting developers and designers more closely to community-based organizations that are doing the hard, ongoing work of the reconstruction and organization around redevelopment,” said Costanza-Chock, founder of Hurricane Hackers, an online hub for software engineers and developers during Sandy.
Lawrence, of NY Tech Meetup, agreed. After the storm, she met with volunteers and residents to hear what they needed. “It was neighbors helping neighbors,” she said. “After the relief organizations are all gone, that’s who’s left. So they need the tools to help each other. That’s what it’s about.”
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