Listen to the full "Future of the City" presentation from Innovation Uncensored New York 2013, featuring Rachel Haot (Chief Digital Officer, City of New York), Jessica Lawrence (Executive Director, NY Tech Meetup), Emily Rahimi (Social and Digital Media Manager, New York City Fire Department), and Nigel Snoad (Product Manager, Google Crisis Response), and narrated by Fast Company senior writer Chuck Salter, below:
The nine days New York City endured during and after Superstorm Sandy were slow, confusing, and dark—literally and metaphorically.
But "nothing galvanizes a community like a crisis," Fast Company senior writer Chuck Salter said Tuesday during a live storytelling event about the ways in which Sandy influenced how cities use digital technology to engage with citizens.
As the Big Apple began to pick itself up in the wake of the storm, digital first responders had already sprung into action, including Google's Nigel Snoad, who oversees New York City's Crisis Response division.
"People come to us to look for information about everything, but particularly during a disaster," Snoad said. "We see these peaks: 'How can I find shelters? Where do I evacuate? Tell me about Hurricane Sandy.' And that's where we have an opportunity to really contribute." The Google team assembled maps to help New Yorkers deal with the aftermath of the storm, including a map to help New Yorkers find gas.
As Sandy raged through the city, Emily Rahimi, the social media manager for the Fire Department of New York, noticed New Yorkers were sending emergency-related tweets.
"At 8 p.m. it really started to get crazy with a lot more tweets, and a lot more urgent tweets. People started tweeting me 911 calls," Rahimi recalls. Lacking the technology to transfer tweeters' information into the FDNY dispatcher system, she tweeted back, instructing them to call 911 the old-fashioned way.
"But then someone tweeted me back two seconds later and told me he had lost all power, all phone service," she said. "This was his only connection to the outside world. That made my heart sink," said Rahimi, who also recalled distress tweets from citizens whose homes were filling with water.
Rahimi began responding to each tweet, collecting information firefighters and EMS members needed in order to respond, such as phone numbers and the type of emergency taking place. She sorted the incoming data and called each of the city's borough dispatch centers to explain what was happening.
"I went back to Twitter, tweeted all these people back to let them know that I had passed their information off to dispatch, and also reminded them to continue trying to call 911 if they could," she remembered.
During and after the storm, Rachel Haot, New York City's chief digital officer, dealt with social media overload. She was responsible for organizing responses to the hundreds of Twitter questions flooding in and making sure the 200 people who manage social media for the City of New York were uniformly accurate and calm as they disseminated information across multiple channels.
Haot said this was much more effective than putting the onus of approving updates on only a few people, which could have potentially led to a bottleneck.
"We want them to be as autonomous as possible when they can be, because they're the subject matter experts," Haot said.
And though 200 people may seem like a lot of staff to oversee during an emergency, Jessica Lawrence, the executive director of New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), tapped 30,000 technologists for their help in the first days after the storm.
"Disaster response was not something in my job description when I first started working with New York Tech Meetup, but it was one of those things that felt like it was in our genes," Lawrence said of the nine-year-old Meetup community.
Lawrence, with the help of close friends and community-building experts, as well as long-time NTYM members, quickly put out a call for volunteers. As Lawrence set out to create a website, she discovered a NYTM member had already bought the URL nytechresponds.org.
Soon, more than 900 technologists had come out of the NYTM woodwork, offering their help and expertise.
"We had this amazing community of almost 30,000 people with great skillsets that could be put to use in terms of helping out with disaster response," Lawrence said. "And I also knew this is a community that cared a lot about giving back."
"We had massive Google spreadsheets going of all the different projects we were working on," said Lawrence. "One of the first projects that we did was put up a coworking crowdmap" with open-source map platform Ushahidi. The public could add available short- and long-term office spaces with Internet and phone access to the map. "Very shortly we had over 80 offices spaces available on the map where people could work pretty much immediately after the storm," Lawrence said.
"We sent volunteers to help FEMA set up the computer terminals at different assistance stations," recalled Lawrence. "We had a spreadsheet expert work with the Department of Education on matching some needs with donated goods."
However, plugging those 900 volunteers into the City of New York's project base, which Haot was overseeing, was nearly impossible, for various reasons.
"It was wonderful that we had these 900 people," Haot said. "But how well could we match them with the projects that we have? How do we navigate privacy issues if we're talking about data that needs to be better analyzed to serve people?"
According to Haot, never before had someone like Lawrence brought a volunteer army of techies to New York City's aid.
Since the storm, Haot has created a new organization, Code Corps, which she hopes will help the city to better tap into its existing community in the wake of the next disaster. "This is a way for the city to partner with organizations that are interested in helping to build technology for life-saving purposes," Haot said.
Listen to the full "Future of the City" presentation from Innovation Uncensored below: