How 700 volunteer hackers across the U.S. came together to aid Irma relief

By Tuesday, Sept. 5, Greg Bloom could see that Irma was not going to turn away.

The community organizer and civic hacker, who lives part-time in Miami, had been volunteering as a developer in the Slack channel, or online community forum, that Houston-based tech group Sketch City had set up for Hurricane Harvey relief. As Irma approached, East Coast-based “Slackers” set up a separate Irma Slack channel within the Harvey channel, but it became clear that an entire new team dedicated to Irma would be needed.

Bloom reached out to Leah Halbina, a West Palm Beach marketing professional who’d been active in the Harvey Slack, and she reached out to Julie Kramer, the co-captain of Code for Miami, to get the new team up and running.

Within 24 hours, they recruited about 100 more people from Florida and around the country to set to work on compiling essential information and making it accessible to the public, using tools and code created for Harvey relief.

Greg Bloom

In the years since it launched in the fall of 2013, Slack has become the go-to digital platform for project and workplace coordination. But Hurricanes Harvey and Irma showed how a tech community could come together to handle major natural disasters using the platform.

“With each big storm, we see more immediate and adaptive responses emerging from networks of community leaders and remote supporters – while formal responder organizations struggle to show up, let alone keep up,” Bloom said.

For Bloom, the team proved a failsafe as it became clear that other forms of response were having trouble getting their bearings.

“I do think a lot of traditional means of crisis response are very top down, and they didn’t really kick in — we saw headlines about how the Red Cross didn’t show up to shelters,” Bloom said. “It was just not clear what the plan was for very anticipatable crises, so on the spot we created place where people could process options and information.”

The Irma Response team’s two principal fruits were IrmaShelters.org, a live page showing the status and needs of shelters across the state, and a chatbot that users could text to get up-to-date information on shelters if they couldn’t access the Internet.

One piece of information the responders focused on, for instance, was finding pet-friendly shelters, which Halbina called a “huge issue” for Floridians.

“A lot of people don’t want to evacuate because they don’t want to leave their pets, or they have to make the decision to leave their pets behind,” she said. “That information is not always immediately released, so we had people calling to find out.”  

The team  also set up a mechanism for crowdsourcing reports of flooding, which the city of Miami and other locales plan to use going forward as they determine how to best respond to future disasters.

And the team allowed coders from other parts of the country to step in once power went down across the Sunshine State. A week after the channel was born, it had nearly 700 members and had almost a dozen channels for coordinating everything from rescue to food coordination.

Their work was also an amazing exercise in operational organization and discipline in a seemingly unwieldy online environment, with hundreds  of people looking to help.

Julie Kramer

“It was really just a lot of patience on everyone’s part,” Kramer said. “Waiting to ask for an answer to their questions…I give people a lot of credit.”

Since the storm has passed, the channel has turned its attention to making sure shelters have what they need. Developers have begun programming Amazon wish lists into the shelter info so they can obtain needed items. They’ve also created a site where people can donate to allow the shelters to get the info they need.

Bloom believes the products were well executed, but that the ability of getting the information out to the general public will have to be improved in the future. That said, the site has been seen 11,786 times since Saturday. 

“We should get better as a network,” he said. That was in part a function of the loss of power, but it also showed an opportunity to bridge the ongoing digital divide between those of means, who may have a better idea of where to find work like the team’s, and those without and who would not know.      

On the other hand, Bloom points out, the official information being put out by the county had some of the same issues.

“There was no central place for this information, the average person would have to dig through their county website, and then figure out where they were going, then dig through another county’s website,” she said. The Irma Response team took all the info available in Florida and centralized it.

More importantly, he says, is that the groundwork has now been laid for the next disaster. Kramer says a lessons-learned event will take place in October.

“I could imagine a future where a core group of people who work in these communities and know those networks can start to just get to work,” Bloom said.

This article has been updated to reflect the most current figure for the site’s pageviews.

By Rob Wile
Rob Wile, the curator for Startup.Miami, is a writer and entrepreneur living in Miami Beach. He’s a former staff writer for Fusion and Business Insider. His work has also appeared in Slate, Newsweek, Money Magazine and The New Tropic. He writes a newsletter on tech, business, and the South Florida economy called The Heatwave.