After winning the IDEAS Global Challenge, our team took a hard look at our project’s mission and vision. One of our greatest strengths as first a student group and then a company has been that we never assume we are doing the right thing. I can imagine nothing less helpful to disaster recovery than to build a complicated pack of tools and try to force people on the ground to use them. For this reason, we develop by constantly flying into disaster areas and checking our development against needs on the ground.
It was during this same process of boot-on-the-ground testing, we realized that our favored method of dropping out of the sky to deploy software was not best way to help communities recover. In fact, we realized that much of the work needed to increase community resilience must be done before the storm.
Morgan and Dave flew to Florida in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby, only to find that no one they spoke to in the communities they visited seemed to realize how important it was that they begin taking in some of the aid being offered. After a frustrating week, they left (read more about the trip and our lessons here: http://recovers.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/slow-burn/). Eventually, a local organizer using Facebook to scrape together volunteers would take over use of the platform. Under her watch, the software has helped build a community of volunteers that not only responded to Debby’s damage, but also sandbagged homes to prepare for Hurricane Isaac.
Preparedness: the missing ingredient
Whoa, hit the backspace key. We’re talking about two very similar disasters in two very similar communities. What made New Port Richey, FL after TS Debby different than Northfield, VT after TS Irene? It wasn’t our ability to reach the community. We arrived at roughly the same time post-storm. It wasn’t the resources available on the ground – both areas were being served by a multitude of national and regional aid organizations.
It was preparedness.
Suddenly a lot of pieces fell into place. A group of four flying into disaster areas to save the day, while a cool plot for an action flick, is not practical or what is needed. A team of four focused on building tools that will prepare a community to recover, and distributing them before a disaster is infinitely more useful. We’ve pivoted accordingly, licensing the software as a preparedness tool to interested communities.
Back at the drawing board, we took a more critical look at the “community facing” side of our software. Small things, like an easy sign up process, a way to keep involved after signing up, preparedness tips and integration with existing social media chatter, are just as important as volunteer tracking features. It doesn’t matter if we have the best hours logging program in the world if the community isn’t aware they can volunteer.
We’ve swung our focus to getting these tools in place ahead of a storm. We can keep our team small and focused, build faster, and provide better service if we’re in place when things hit the proverbial fan. We’ve also realized that it is much more economically sustainable to charge a small fee for preparing towns than it would be to somehow find a sponsor for recovering towns.
We’re on our way – with this new list of priorities, we’re able to narrow our focus and devote more time to the features that will have the greatest impact upon recovery. We still fly into disasters to test things, but we’re building a sustainable business around being there before that.
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Written by Caitria O’Neill with Recovers.org, a 2012 IDEAS Global Challenge award recipient.