Grassroots Mutual Aid Coordination for Crisis Response

Posted on Sep 7, 2017 in Crisis Response, hackathons
Grassroots Mutual Aid Coordination for Crisis Response

NB: This is the initial challenge that started the virtual hackathon for disaster response this week. We have since opened the event up for additional challenges, including bug fixes and feature requests on existing open source disaster response projects. ALL WORK for this event is intended to be released with an open license listed at the Open Source Initiative. See also our initial post about his hackathon.

The Challenge

Presently, the US is facing a mind boggling number of major emergencies across the country:

  • Major fires from California up the West coast to Washington and East to Montana.
  • The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.
  • The approach of Hurrican Irma on the East coast from Florida up to the Carolinas.

In addition to the usual big players such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army Emergency Response, and FEMA there are grassroots groups such as CrowdRescue providing assistance through a combination of social media emergency management (smem) coordination and on the ground volunteers. Those grassroots groups are currently using a combination of Slack and Google Docs to keep lists of needs and resources to coordinate response. We want to build something that will work better for the data entry volunteers, the coordinators connecting the needs and the resources, and the people on the ground giving and receiving aid.



A request for help which may include food, water, transportation, housing, medical assistance, etc…
A volunteer, skill, or donated item which may fulfill a need
A geographic area which is covered by a local (as in geographic, not necessarily as in server) instance of the application. This may be as small as a neighborhood or as large as an entire region, depending on the group that is running the instance, the needs of the crisis situation, etc.
Social Media Emergency Response


The Initial Workflow We Want To Replicate

Initially, we would like to replicate the basic workflow that is being used by CrowdRescue, improving on it in ways that make sense given the capabilities of an intentionally written application instead of using Google Docs for coordination. The current workflow, as described by one volunteer is as follows:

  • A volunteer sees a request up on twitter or someone is in need of help
  • Data is entered into a google form, which is routed into a google sheet (sometimes incomplete, duplicate, or unclear)
  • The #medical channel has a process for going through each person and evaluating their condition.
  • #spreadsheet and #data-integration work on deduplicating, data cleaning, etc. (all manual)
  • We hope that all goes well.

This is all happening for a single geographic region/emergency situation. So, the volunteers for Harvey Response are using the Harvey Response documents for this, and having discussions in the Harvey Response Slack.


Coordinate Locally, Share Globally

The dream for this project is to create a single tool that will allow a new crisis response team to spin up an instance for their locality to track needs and resources available whether the information comes from social media or some other source, and that any surplus resources or unmet needs can be “escalated” to a national (or global) interface which allows response teams in other regions to share resources.

Example: Location 1 has not received any diaper donations and is in need of them. Location 2 has received a considerably more baby diapers than they can possibly distribute. Location 2 may push the resource of “n diapers” to the national interface, or Location 1 may push their need for diapers to the national interface (or both). Location 1 requests the diapers, and the coordinators at Location 1 and Location 2 arrange for shipping the diapers to a place where Location 1 can distribute them.

(This may create a new need for Location 2 for a volunteer who is heading to Location 1. Perhaps an EMT is heading from Location 2 where their services are less needed currently to Location 1, and can bring them with her. Or perhaps a cash donation which is in the resources list of one or the other location covers the mailing costs.)

Example 2: Location 3 has many volunteers with boats who have just been rescuing people from local floods. The boats are no longer needed for rescue, but many of those volunteers have said that they are willing to take their boats to other flooded locales for rescue. The resource of volunteers with boats is posted to the national interface, and various locations may request those resources be sent to their geographic locales.



  • Security must be planned for and built for from the start. People in emergencies are vulnerable people, and we don’t want to make matters worse!
  • User Interface design should make this project easy to use with little or no instruction for a new data entry volunteer
  • Duplication of items during data entry is a major problem with the Google Docs solution. Let’s use as many points as possible to help us eliminate duplicates WHILE a data entry volunteer is entering a new item, not just after they’ve completed the entry

More considerations will certainly be discussed in the hackathon channels.


Thinking Long Term

The current set of emergencies facing us are going to have long term recovery efforts. The software that we are building can hopefully help with more than just the immediate disaster response, and go on to help grassroots community groups continue to coordinate mutual aid during the long process ahead. There are some other possible applications for this software that you might want to consider as well.

  1. Community organizations and/or cooperatives which engage in mutual aid during non-crisis periods could use this tool for coordinating needs and resources within the organization and across partner orgs.
  2. Community organizations which deal with specific kinds of crises which are not disasters — domestic violence prevention and response, homeless resource organizations, etc — may use this tool both in house and for cooperating with other similar orgs. (eg homeless shelters could easily see what beds are available in their area at other shelters)
  3. Water Protector encampments are still a thing. They receive donations and volunteer support in a wide range of locations. This tool might help the encampments share resources more effectively.


Ready to Get Involved?

If you are not already signed up, you can join our global virtual hackathon running from today through Sunday September 10 by filling out this form.


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