Hurricane Relief and the Open Source Citizen Brigade
Submitted about 3 years Ago
Open Source Hurricane Relief
My goodness it has been quite a season of weather events. As I write this, we have seen a series of record breaking hurricanes - Harvey, Irma, Maria - and two serious earthquakes. I will leave the climate change debate for another time (one word: duh).
For the first major weather event of this season, Hurricane Harvey, I watched from afar. While I don't have family in the Houston area we are having some business discussions with folks there. My thoughts were with them and their neighbors as the hurricane hit and the massive flooding ensued.
Next, Hurricane Irma. She starting heading towards Florida after nearly decimating the Caribbean. This time I couldn't just stand by and watch. It didn't seem practical to head down to Florida to help since much of the state was evacuating.
Programmer Volunteers Send Code
Perfect timing! I saw this in my inbox from Code for America ...
"Hurricane relief efforts shift from Harvey to Irma: What's happening"
"Sketch City, Houston's Code for America Brigade, turned its attention to Florida as Hurricane Irma made landfall. Volunteers from around the country, including from Code for Miami, Code for Fort Lauderdale, Code for Orlando, are pouring resources into Irma Response and repurposing tools used in Houston to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Join the slack channel to help out remotely."
So I joined in, and played a small part in helping, from my desk. I helped create tools for food distribution.
This was incredibly eye opening. It was so amazing to see this unfold. As it became clear that Irma was headed directly for Florida, these citizen brigades started mobilizing. Some of them were local folks who were grabbing connectivity where they could.
What became clear is that many of the technology tools and code from Hurricane Harvey could be repurposed. Code was forked, copied from previous open source Harvey repositories. Slack channels were established. PRs were submitted, reviewed, and merged at lightning speed. At one point the volunteers, for this group all working online, were so eager to help that issues were being claimed as quickly as they were posted. One team was working on a central API information service for shelter updates that fed various other applications. Another team was working on alerts for services. Another, an online Have food / Need food distribution system.
As the news continued to be bad, and the hurricane actually hit Florida, the volunteer activities moved onto helping with Shelters and Disaster Redeployment. Local members that went quiet were hopefully heard from again, all ok. There was a Slack channel for mental-relief. Pictures of cakes with hurricane messages were offered as a way to release some of the tension. I learned people in Florida have an impressive sense of humor. My favorite was the video of the "trash can race" as they seemingly raced each other under their own power down the street (regrettably, been taken down for copyright).
Open Source Relief Efforts
What was so amazing to me was how this effort came together incredibly quickly and how people were contributing from all over the country, and maybe the world. Many were gathering in groups in their home location to work remotely. Glad to see SF step up for this! It expanded beyond programmers. At one point, a drone company from Miami came onto Slack and offered to upload landscape pictures from their drones to aid data collection and recovery efforts.
In the midst of all this tragedy, feeling that you are able to help in some way beyond just giving money is very welcome. To see this citizen brigade mobilize was truly spectacular and wonderful.
I read there were 700 people helping through this online effort "How 700 volunteer hackers across the U.S. came together to aid Irma relief" Article Here
Shortly after, as Hurricane Maria made her presence known, these volunteers began to focus on that. Open source code to the rescue again. Since Puerto Rico is without power as I write this, the main suggestion was to donate. And the brigade began to help again. The power of open source code.