June 28, 2013 By Hilton Collins
A series of violent storms put Aaron Titus, disaster coordinator for the New Jersey branch of Mormon Helping Hands, through his paces last summer. He coordinated the dispatching of several hundred volunteers to about 300 locations to help remove damaged trees. The effort was so taxing that he doubted one person would be able to successfully coordinate large-scale disaster mitigation smoothly in all cases.
“I realized, if you try to do it as a single individual, you’re never going to be able to,” Titus said.
In response, he developed an early version of Crisis Cleanup, a free open source mapping tool that allows disaster relief organizations to coordinate cleanup and rebuilding efforts after catastrophes. The system’s undergone successive modifications since, and today members of volunteer disaster relief organizations logon to the tool and input data into an assessment form about a resident who needs help. This data includes the resident’s address and the type of incident, like flooding, tree removal or food delivery. That information then generates icons on a dynamic map alongside the assessment form.
All participating organizations can view the data after it’s been submitted, and any can claim the work order. No single group is in charge of the system, which has been designed to simplify coordination efforts between disaster relief organizations. Each responding organization can change the status of a work order after responding to it, so the next organization can pick up where the previous one left off. This feature helps ensure that groups with specific specialties can handle different relief needs at the same disaster site without overlap and duplication of effort.
Titus and his colleagues view this style of work as a Craigslist philosophy.
“It’s very much like Craigslist. Who’s in charge of Craigslist? What makes Craigslist run? I think they have a staff of three or four people, and they keep the servers running, but that’s not what drives Craigslist,” Titus said. “What drives Craigslist is the community — the users who create the content and interact with one another. And Crisis Cleanup’s philosophy is very much that same.”
Currently, organizations can input data about damage and cleanup involving Hurricane Sandy, the Colorado wildfires and various tornado incidents. Andy Gimma, the system’s developer and project manager, thinks that the Crisis Cleanup process allows for a more seamless and collaborative environment for disaster relief organizations than he’s usually experienced in the past. He’s seen groups argue about data sharing, and working together has been chaotic.
“I was in a hackathon that was attended by different organizations, and there were literally shouting matches over why they would not share data with one another,” Gimma said.
Crisis Cleanup has already connected more than 30,000 volunteers from 100 organizations with close to 8,000 families since its summer 2012 debut, but Titus and Gimma need help. Creating and maintaining the system has mostly been a volunteer effort, and additional funding and support would make it easier for them and other volunteers to continue maintenance and modifications.
“Since we’ve started working, I think we’ve had about two dozen volunteer programmers that have participated in one way or another,” Titus said.
The program was released under an Apache 2.0 open source license and uses the Google Maps engine, written in the Python programming language. It’s supported by a NoSQL database.
“A couple of other volunteers are covering the costs of hosting,” Titus said. “We did have one small stipend from a voluntary agency that funded a few weeks of work, and that was very helpful, but for the vast majority of it, it’s just been lots of volunteers.”
These days, Crisis Cleanup is mostly a labor of love for Titus and Gimma. They’ve had little time to focus on writing grants and organizing other sophisticated fundraising efforts, but they’re confident that they can subsist on internal volunteer efforts. Titus hopes to partner with a nonprofit organization in the future.
“It doesn’t entirely depend on funding, but funding would allow us to get some help and make sure that we can do this in a way that’s healthy and sustainable,” Gimma said.
So far, Crisis Cleanup has impressed other groups with its coordination abilities. The National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster awarded it the FedEx Innovative Program of the Year Award in May.
This article was updated June 28.