STORY: New York Tech Community “Hacks” for Help to the Red Cross

Written by: Emily White

Sandy Relief

NEW YORK, N.Y., November 22, 2012 – For the Red Cross, Hurricane Sandy created a logistical and strategic array of challenges previously unseen in disaster relief. For a group of New York techies, it bore the design and development of the latest and greatest 21st century gadgetry for 21st century problems.

This was the inspiration behind weekend-long Relief Agency Conference and Hackathon that brought more than 70 tech gurus together in support of the Red Cross effort to help New York recover from the worst natural disaster in its recorded history. Many of the “computer geeks” had already volunteered their time and talents to set New York back on its feet, but they found extra energy to provide modern solutions for demands such as: interagency coordination, data management, volunteer engagement, survivor reunification and resource dissemination.

“The NY Tech Meetup community is about more than just technology; it’s about helping the city come together whenever there is a need” said Jessica Lawrence, managing director of NY Tech Meet up, a 28,000-strong nonprofit organization that supports the growing New York technology community. “Hurricane Sandy had a devastating impact on a huge number of New Yorkers, and we are ready to do our part to speed the recovery.”

The Hackathon began on December 1st with a Relief Agency Conference hosted at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Representatives from FEMA, Red Cross, Occupy Sandy, Team Rubican, United Way and others explained the response’s successful strategies and asked the New York hackers to consider the ways in which technology can help relief agencies prepare for catastrophes. “Most of the technologies we have now are designed for a perfect world, and disasters shatter perfect worlds,” said Gregory L. Smith, Deputy Director for the Sandy relief effort at the Red Cross.

After the three-hour conference, teams made up of developers, coders, programmers and designers formed at General Assembly and The Alley – two communal work spaces – to design potential solutions. With the help of donated food and energy-infused drinks, these teams spent 24 hours building disaster-friendly user software for the assistance community.

The following day, Hackathon gurus presented solutions to a panel of industry judges. Winners included a mobile application called Voluntarily, which helps volunteers coordinate efforts and collect survey data in the field; Spark Relief’s real-time multi-agency map of disaster relief resources; and Q11, text messaging-based event management platform. The winning teams won the opportunity to pitch Steve Schliemann, a principal at Lehrer Ventures and a partner at tech incubator ff Ventures, as well as prize money to allocate to the disaster relief agency of their choice.

The weekend-long Hackathon sparked dialogue among the relief agencies who met with the hackers the following week to determine how best to implement the various solutions. Some of the programs could build off of existing technologies such as Red Cross mobile apps that help users monitor weather conditions, perform basic first aid, find a shelter and report their safety. These Red Cross apps also provide simple ways for families to create and share their emergency plan so that they are better prepared whenever a disaster strikes.

“Technologies that are more integrated into our lives before a disaster are more likely to be utilized to aid the response efforts afterwards,” Smith said. “We have much more to conceptualize and invent – as Sandy has taught us – to enable people everywhere to take simple preparedness actions before it’s too late.”

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