Preparing for the Worst, Hoping for the Best: Data Standards, Superstorm Sandy, and Our Resilient Future

Originally posted at OpenReferral

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, many residents of New York City were left struggling.

Occupy Sandy Relief Effort at St. Matthew St. Luke Episcopal

Though a broad array of supportive services were available to survivors — from home rebuilding funds to mental health treatment — it’s often hard for people to know what’s available and how to access it. New York City lacks any kind of centralized system of information about non-profit health and human services. Given the centrality of non-profit organizations in disaster relief and recovery in the United States, this information scarcity means that for many NYC residents recovery from Sandy never quite happened.

As in any federally-declared emergency scenario, every officially-designated disaster case management program was mandated to use the same information system — the Coordinated Access Network ( — to manage survivors’ access to benefits and other steps along the path to recovery. CAN has its own resource directory system, but it is proprietary and not available to the public; survivors often need to make a phone call to a case manager to get even the most basic information about the services. In conversations with those case managers who have had the privilege of being able to access this resource, we’ve heard that its interface is confusing and its data is often duplicated and outdated.

As a result, most disaster case management agencies ended up managing their own resource directories — in isolation from each other. Some organizations were able to cobble together relatively comprehensive service directories, but others don’t have any, and rely on individual case managers to solve the problem themselves. Now, just a bit over two years after the storm, the funding for these disaster case management programs is coming to a close — and so the local, personal knowledge about Sandy recovery services held by these social workers will disappear.

Yet the need remains great. Less than 3% of houses that applied to be rebuilt after Sandy have been completed – and people involved know that this may be a decade-long process for thousands of New Yorkers. The organizations that will serve them will be local, under-funded or entirely unfunded, and organized through a volunteer-based ‘long-term recovery organizations’.

sarapis-logo-red-300x64Our organization, Sarapis, has been providing free/libre/open-source software solutions to grassroots groups and long term recovery coalitions since the storm first hit New York City in October 2012. Through our community technology initiative, NYC:Prepared, we’ve been helping community-based recovery groups make information about critical services accessible to the public.  We’ve aggregated what may be the most comprehensive and searchable directory of services for Sandy victims in NYC on the web (a scary thought, considering our organization’s tiny budget).

NYC:Prepared's Post-Sandy Recovery Resource directory can be embedded within the websites operated by NYC's volunteer disaster recovery networks.

The data in our directory comes from a hodgepodge of sources: nonprofit websites, PDF printout, shared spreadsheets created by long term recovery group members, and .CSVs produced by individual case managers passionate about sharing resources. Initially, we used Google Spreadsheet and Fusion tables to manage all of this.

With the introduction of the Human Services Data Specification (HSDS), through the Open Referral initiative, we’re now able to manage this information using a standardized, well documented format that others can also use and share. And that’s precisely what we try to encourage others to do.

Openly accessible, standardized human service directory data is critical for each of the phases of a disaster. For disaster preparedness, service information can help identify gaps in the allocation of resources that communities might need during a disaster. For disaster response, many different kinds of organizations and service providers need simultaneous access to the same information. For disaster recovery, survivors need an array of services to get back on their feet, and they should be able to find this information in a variety of ways.

With the Ohana API, we can glimpse a world in which all of the needs above can be met. So we’ve deployed a demonstration implementation of Ohana at In Ohana, we now have a lightweight admin interface for organizing our data and a front-end application to serve it to the public in a beautiful and mobile friendly way.  Since Ohana is an API, other developers can use it to make whatever interfaces they please.

sahanalogoWhile we’re quite impressed with the Ohana product, its out-of-the-box web search interface won’t meet everyone’s needs. The system that we’d most like to use would be our open source disaster management software called Sahana. Sahana is the world’s leading open source resource management software and we want to build a component — available to any community — that will enable it to consume, produce and deliver HSDS-compatible resource directory data.

By making it possible for any agency using Sahana-based systems to consume and publish resource directory data in the Open Referral format, we can shift the entire field of relief and recovery agencies towards more interoperable, sustainable, and reliable practices. Sahana specialists are ready to develop this open source, HSDS-compatible resource directory component — at an estimated cost of $5,000.  Please consider donating to our effort. And please reach out to Sarapis if you know of other communities and use cases in which this technology could enhance resilience in the face of crisis.

“Sharing Data to Improve How We Cooperate, Coordinate, Communicate & Collaborate” at NVOAD 5/14/15

This presentation was delivered at the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster Conference 2015 in New Orleans.

I’ve been an active (and actively marginalized) participant in my local NYCVOAD community, so it was nice to feel accepted by the broader VOAD community.

Of all the presentations I’ve given, this one felt the best. The audience was very engaged and we had a robust back and forth. It felt electric. Outbursts came from the audience. It felt like a unique space. The feedback was fantastic. Much thanks goes to Marie Irvine who helped put the presentation together and who co-presented with me.

This presentation is based around the concept that “Open Networks that efficiently provide relief after a disaster are built on Open Technology and Open Data. It explains NYC:Prepared’s toolset and has extensive training materials about open data within the context of disaster.

Google Presentation

PDF Archive

Scattered Showers of Interest

The establishment, at least a very small subset of it, discovered my work the second week of October.  It wasn’t a thunderstorm of interest — more like scattered showers — but when you’ve been in the desert for a while, a little rain can go a long way.

First stop on my tour was Washington DC, where I spoke on a panel organized by STAR-TIDES at National Defense University about Occupy Sandy, along with Shlomo Roth and Isadora Blachman-Biatch, who was one of the authors of the fantastic Occupy Sandy report funded by DHS.  I think there is video somewhere…

Then, was flown to San Jose by the IEEE for their Global Humanitarian Technology Conference to give a talk about “How Humanitarian Organizations and Grassroots Networks Can Collaborate on Disaster Response and Recovery

The last day of the conference I got on a red eye flight back to New York City so I could give “Grassroots Disaster Relief Network Response to Superstorm Sandy: Successes and Opportunities” at The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) of John Jay College.

You can find more public presentation about NYC:Prepared here.


 Rain designed by SuperAtic LABS from the Noun Project

NYC:Prepared Presentation at RaCERS John Jay College 10/14/14

“The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) is a unique applied research center focused on documentation of lessons learned and planning for future large-scale incidents.”

I had the honor of presenting to one of their classes of students pursuing masters degrees in Emergency Management as well as a number of professors in the school.

This presentation was very similar to the one at the IEEE HTC Conference a few days earlier, but since it was to a New York focused audience, I explored the connection between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy a bit more extensively.

The audience reaction was extremely positive. The professors and students asked a ton of questions and everyone expressed frustration with the state of information sharing in the Emergency Management sector. There was one older man who mean mugged me the entire presentation, had no questions and didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell if he was upset with me for arriving late (sorry!) or because he really didn’t like the way I presented Occupy Wall Street as an important element in the resilience of New York City.

Google Presentation

PDF Archive

NYC:Prepared Presentation at IEEE HTC 2014

I had the honor of presenting NYC:Prepared at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Humanitarian Technology Conference 2014 held in San Jose, California.

The presentation situates Occupy Sandy within the context of Occupy Wall Street and explains how social movements prepare participants to respond during disaster.

It goes on to outline four phases of Occupy Sandy activity:

  • Scouting
  • Networking
  • Relationship Building
  • Autonomy Projects

NYC:Prepared is one of the autonomous projects that emerged from Occupy Sandy. The presentation continue with a vision of how grassroots communities and institutional relief providers can use free and open technology to more effectively collaborate.

I review the software and data needs of various stakeholders and propose a set of free and open solutions.  Then I present the various tools and template we’ve made available in New York City and beyond.

The presentation is long and pretty comprehensive – too much so for the audience. They appreciated my style and enthusiasm but in the future I’ll certainly try to reduce the comprehensive nature of the presentation and focus more on precisely what I want to deliver the specific audience.

Presentation on Google

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Five Ways to Fight ISIS Without Killing People

Like many Americans with a memory, I’m stunned how easily this country can be convinced to support another undeclared war in the Middle East.  All the media has to do is run a week of programming alluding to nice folks getting their heads chopped off, then do a big poll that establishes the “fact” that the general public wants action and then BAM: Drop the bombs!  No Congress necessary.

This new war with ISIS, just like other undeclared wars in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, is justified by the same logic as the others: “We’re fighting them over there so we’re not fighting them over here.”  It’s a childish idea that only makes sense in a world without airlines, the internet, and history.

So first, a brief history of American interactions with “ISIS”.

During the “Arab Spring”, people throughout the Middle East came out into the streets to protest their corrupt political leaders.  In Syria, the leader was Bashar al-Assad, who is Shia (aligned with Iran) and Baathist (aligned with the late Saddam Hussein.)  Assad is obviously not popular with the western powers, but he’s particularly despised by Israel, which identifies his regime, along with Iran, as the main patrons of Hezbollah, a “terrorist” force fighting on Israel’s northern border.

When Assad was challenged by his people, many of his geopolitical opponents hoped his government would fall, and they put their money where their politics was: giving hundreds of millions (maybe billions?) to support rebel groups fighting a civil war against Assad.  One such segment of the groups fighting Assad were Islamist Sunni, and one such group in this segment was ISIS.

I’ll let the mainstream media tell you why the USA is now fighting ISIS. I’m not entirely clear on the matter.  One thing I am clear about is that the strategy of funding Syrian rebels to fight anyone, be it Assad or ISIS, hasn’t been working.  If past performance is any indication of future results, it won’t be long before the training and weapons the US government sends over to Syria fall into ISIS hands as well.

A broader question Americans should asking themselves and their politicians is: do we really want to send more weapons into a region of the world that has been bombed by America for decades?  Why would people there do anything but take our weapons and use them against us?

Another question worth asking is why do we want to keep increasing the number of Syrians and Iraqis being bombed by America?  Isn’t that a surefire way to make more people hate America?  And, in these technologically empowered times of $500 drones, plastic explosives and polished online videos inciting people to conduct lone wolf attacks on Americans, isn’t it clear that it’s never been easier for hatred of America to turn into a terrorist attack on Americans?

More weapons won’t solve the ISIS problem. Neither will bombing our new allies enemies.

We need nothing less than a new foreign policy approach: one that focuses on achieving our objectives without murdering people and making more folks hate America.

Below are a few ideas to suppress ISIS without resorting to murder, from someone whose only qualification is that he graduated from a prestigious university with a major in history (and a concentration in Middle Eastern and African.)

1. Partition Plan


Iraq and Syria are nations created by Europeans during the fall of the Ottoman Empire with World War I, and the borders were designed for purely European political reasons.  It was called the Sykes-Picot agreement, and it basically said that the French could influence Syria without interference from the British and the British could influence Iraq without interference from the French.

Notice how the USA wasn't involved.
Notice how the USA wasn’t involved.

By the 1970s, both Iraq and Syria were governed by Baathist political parties using “big man” patronage and violence to hold onto power.  They also both resisted US domination of the region and acted belligerently towards Israel, resulting in the US targeting them for regime change.

If your interest is political stability, pursuing regime change is a bad idea, because regimes enforce borders, and during the process of change, those borders become weaker.  If people don’t like the borders, during the transition between regimes, they’re going to want to change them.

After the USA invaded Iraq and changed the regime, one might have expected the US to facilitate a process whereby the Iraqi people could rethink their borders – particularly since these borders were imposed a century ago by foreign nations and have always been unpopular.  Splitting up Iraq would have likely been quite popular among Iraqis, and this could have been done in a managed way that empowered civil society and limited sectarian violence.  It might not have been a pretty process, but it would have been a whole lot prettier than a decade of civil war in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

iraqsyriaDue to the logistical realities of the Middle East, the US could have never invaded Iraq without Turkey’s support.  And, due to political realities, the Turkish government wouldn’t have supported a US invasion if the US’s intention was to partition Iraq.  Why?  Because Turkey wants to make sure the Kurds in Iraq and the Kurds in eastern Turkey don’t get together to form a Kurdish nation with territory in both Iraq and Turkey. Indeed, Turkey has been fighting Kurdish separatists who’ve been trying to do just that for decades.

Other nations aren’t so excited about partition either.  Once people start rewriting borders – no one knows where it will stop: Turkey, Syria, Iran, Kuwait, Egypt, Spain, Scotland, Texas.  The prospect of border instability terrifies the global power structure – even more than ISIS does.

Since the US and its allies failed to redraw Iraq’s borders, ISIS is more than happy to do it instead — and give the people of that area something they genuinely want: to more easily travel between Iraq and Syria.

2. Administrative Support


Governance — more specifically, the administration of a municipality or a nation — isn’t easy.  You have to collect taxes, provide services, respond to constituencies, maintain roads, organize elections and so much more.  A lot of this work is an information management challenge — and there are software tools and operational techniques that can make this process easier, more efficient and more equitable.  Did America provide these tools to the Iraqi government so it could efficiently provide services to its citizens?  No.  Did they outsource this process to contractors who took US taxpayer money and provided the Iraqi government with the lowest quality products they could get away with providing?  Of course!  Does the Iraqi government have any type of modern administrative system to deliver services to constituents?  Doubtful.  Do people now aligned with ISIS praise its administrative effectiveness and capacity to provide for local people?  You bet.

Instead of setting Iraqi governments up to get ripped off by US corporations, the US government should be providing free of charge administrative software tools and operational techniques to the governments it wants to see succeed.  The US should be vigorously training an effective bureaucracy that empowers the Iraqi people to govern themselves in more effective ways instead of spending its resources on an ineffective army that handed its weapons over to ISIS.

If people think their government is doing a good job, they’re less likely to side with the rebels that want to overthrow them.

3. Treat PTSD from the Sky


It’s safe to say that every time a bomb goes off in Iraq and Syria, many of the people who witnessed the explosion develop some type of post traumatic stress disorder.  PTSD is a difficult to diagnose.  One of its symptoms is rage.  That’s a symptom that many people in Iraq and Syria certainly have — and lots of it is directed at Americans.

Fortunately, studies now show that PTSD is actually relatively easy to treat using a substance called MDMA.  Unfortunately, MDMA is classified by the US government as a Schedule 1 drug – meaning it’s illegal to possess for any reason.  Is the recreational use of MDMA more of a threat to public health than millions of people running around with untreated PTSD?  I doubt it.

Instead of dropping bombs on Iraq and Syria, we should be dropping MDMA and training people there to facilitate sessions that, in conjunction with MDMA, can treat and even cure people of PTSD.  Obviously this won’t bring back the lives of family members that have been lost, or the homes that have been destroyed, but it would help create opportunities for folks to get relief and heal themselves, at least partially, from the damage war brings to individuals and communities.

4. Engage over Social Media


ISIS is very active on social media – which means their members can easily send messages out to the world, and the world can send messages to them.  This is a pretty new phenomenon.  Smaller terrorist groups have been active on social media, but never has such a large group been so active.

This creates a lot of opportunities for the US.  It enables genuine engagement and dialogue with the enemy.  We should be talking with them, not just to convince them to be nice, but also to learn more about them.

That’s a nice thing to do, but there also ways to go on the offensive using social media. We can create fake ISIS accounts that distribute confusing messages – messages that create ambiguity about ISIS’s activities, political objectives, religious interpretations, cultural norms, etc.  The US can also engage in classic trolling activities by dumping ridiculous comments into ISIS forums, sending them pornography, and being just plain old mean – so mean that people no longer want to hang out in the online spaces that ISIS hangs out in.  This is tactic that worked against Occupy.  It’s hard to organize online if all the online spaces that people organize are filled with meanness.

5. War for Oil or Peace for Water?


People make decisions based on perceived economic benefit.  Are people going to prosper more under ISIS or a regime more friendly with the US?

At the end of the day, issues in Iraq and Syria, like issues everywhere, boil down to economic realities.  Who has the jobs?  Currently the answer is the oil industry.  Where is the money?  The places where the oil industry is active.

The US can and should help develop economic engines in Iraq and Syria that have nothing to do with oil.  A great way to do this is to focus on water instead of oil – and help people in the Middle East turn barren deserts into lush landscapes that produce an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables.  It’s very possible to do this using proven permaculture techniques.  It  requires some heavy machinery (no tanks), designers who understand how to build-up water resources in arid climates, and folks who want to grow lots of food.

If the US were turning Middle Eastern deserts into verdant farm land that created local jobs (instead of extracting resources and bombing people) groups like ISIS wouldn’t have any recruits.

These are just a few ideas that come from a different perspective – one that attempts to propose that Americans will be safer if Iraqis and Syrians are happier with their lives.

I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none….”

Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

“History bears witness to the fact, that a just nation is taken on its word, when recourse is had to armaments and wars to bridle others.”

“All the world is becoming commercial. Was it practicable to keep our new empire separated from them we might indulge ourselves in speculating whether commerce contributes to the happiness of mankind. But we cannot separate ourselves from them. Our citizens have had too full a taste of the comforts furnished by the arts & manufactures to be debarred the use of them. We must then in our defence endeavour to share as large a portion as we can of this modern source of wealth & power.”

Additional Resources


NYC:Prepared Presentation at NYC OEM Volunteer Conference 5/31/14

Thanks to a positive reviews from my presentation at the Red Cross in April 2014, I was invited to present at NYC Office of Emergency Management’s Volunteer Conference on 5/31/14.

Since I was speaking to city officials and volunteers, I tried to show the audience how they could use simple techniques to understand, share and collaborate using data.

Some of the elements in this presentation were developed further to create my Data Basics Training.

Google Presentation

PDF Archive

Tools of the New Economy: Cryptocurrency, Games and POS Systems

The last five years have transformed conventional and alternative economics.

During this time period, the Federal Reserve Bank has created more US dollars than it had in its entire history before 2008 – and it’s still creating around $85 billion/month through its “quantitative easing” program. Many economists, especially those from the Austrian school, are anticipating some type of currency crisis in the not too distant future.


Meanwhile, in less than five years, the value of a unit of Bitcoin has gone from $.01 to over $1000 (at the time of this writing), with a market capitalization of over $15 billion dollars.  Thousands of businesses have been created to service the Bitcoin economy and three more robust cryptocurrencies have emerged, ensuring that the concept of cryptocurrency will live on no matter what happens to Bitcoin.

To understand the emerging field of cryptocurrency-based economics, we need to look beyond Bitcoin and towards the ecosystem of solutions that will make new/alternative economics a lived experience.  Before we can do that, we need to define some terms.


First, let’s define money.  It has has three functions.

  • It’s a means of exchange – so you can use it to trade with people.  Ex. I give you a dollar, you give me a cup of coffee.

  • It’s a store of value – so the unit can hold value over time. Ex. A dollar won’t “go bad” like a bushel of wheat.

  • It’s a unit of account – so you can use units of money to request payment, document your income and expenses, and plan for big purchases, retirement, etc.

Fiat money

Fiat is a Latin word that means “let it be done”.  I’ll let Wikipedia define fiat money for me:

  • any money declared by a government to be legal tender.

  • state-issued money which is neither convertible by law to any other thing, nor fixed in value in terms of any objective standard.

  • money without intrinsic value.

Another way to describe fiat money is that its value is derived from the capacity of a government to force people to use it.

The US Dollar, Euro and all major national currencies all qualify as fiat.


Dollar bills have a variety of “security features” that make them difficult to counterfeit: the intricate designs, the quality of the cloth/paper on which they’re printed, special threading, plastic inserts, holograms, serial numbers, and more.

Bitcoin and Litecoin the new silver and goal?
Bitcoin and Litecoin: the new gold and silver?

Digital currencies also need security features so they can’t be counterfeited. To create these features, software developers use the practice of cryptography.  Cryptography allows people to turn a message into a nonsensical string of symbols, numbers and letters that can only be “deciphered” with a “key”.  People who have the key can see the message, while people who don’t, can’t. Cryptocurrencies use a network of computers to authenticate units of digital currency during transaction. These networks operate similarly to how the popular peer-to-peer file sharing system BitTorrent works: a user downloads and runs a client on their computer which holds their files (or bitcoins) and lets the user send, receive and authenticate them.


Games are a form of structured play. The structure is made up of rules and rewards. In many games, the reward is explained as a “victory condition”: the set of things that need to take place for someone to win the game. Games without victory conditions often have reward systems that become much more intricate. While there are many possible reward systems in games, the two I’m focusing on are points and badges.

Points are tokens that players earn by engaging in certain activities. The accumulation of points is proof of a player’s progress in the game. Sometimes games allow players to spend their points on items in the game (ex. new costume for an avatar), trade their points with other players or cash out their points so they can spend them in the real world. When games allow players to do these things, point systems become a form of money.

Badges are issued to players to indicate achievement and status. They often accompany another type of reward, such as access to additional levels or components of a game.  Unlike points, they can’t be spent or traded among players, but they can be used within games and outside of them to signal reputation. Everything from diplomas to credit ratings can be displayed as badges.

POS Systems

POS system on an Android Tablet
POS system on an Android Tablet

POS is an acronym that stands for “point of sale”. 50 years ago, cash registers were the main type of POS systems. 30 years ago, credit card terminals connected through telephone lines to banking servers were added to many POS systems so that people could use credit cards in stores. 10 years ago, many POS systems added custom computer operating systems so they could provide more features to their users such as managing inventory and dynamic pricing. Now, people are using consumer-grade smart phones, tablets and laptops with (often free) POS applications as POS systems. Since merchants are now using  consumer hardware and software, they have an unprecedented amount of control over the systems they use to transact — and software developers can make POS solutions just as easily as they can make any other type of application. This means that, from a technical perspective, many stores are just an application download away from accepting gaming rewards and/or cryptocurrencies for their products and services. Indeed, there are already a number of commercial loyalty programs that merchants are using with their POS systems to sell their items for points or give people with special status (i.e. badges) specific discounts and deals.

Predictions and Implications

As the old currency system breaks down, the question many people are asking is: what will take its place?

The answer is, in my opinion, an unimaginable diversity of things that will no longer be limited to solutions based in national fiat currencies.

Here’s a list of predictions I’ll continue to explore going forward:

  • The proliferation of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin and Litecoin. Some will be reputable and stable; others will be scams. Over time, the market will separate the wheat from the chaff.

  • The integration of cryptocurrency technologies into gaming platforms so that games can provide people with rewards they can spend in the real world.

  • The development of “productivity games” whereby people work or volunteer to earn “game” credits or point that they can use in the real world.

  • The incorporation of cryptocurrencies and gaming reward mechanisms into modern POS systems, making it as easy to spend alternative currencies as it is to use a credit card.

  • As it becomes increasingly easy for people to use the rewards they earn for day-to-day transactions, the lines will blur between conventional currencies and reward currencies; and conventional jobs and rewarded game play.

My Next Steps

I believe that these developments will democratize finance by enabling anyone to turn their assets and resources into “reserves” that they can use to “back” their own currencies.

Nonprofits can benefit greatly from this type of activity.  Here’s how:

  • A group creates a list of tasks they’d like their constituents to complete
  • Each task is descibed and assigned a point value
  • People complete tasks, send in proof and receive points that they can spend in the group’s online store
  • The group can modulate demand for it’s points by modifying the contents and prices in their online store.

In a subsequent post, I’ll explain how to turn this theory into reality using WordPress, the world’s most popular free/libre/open-source content management system.

FLO Disaster Relief Software – Recommendations for NVOAD

Three and a half months ago, I attended the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (NVOAD) Convening in Elizabeth, NJ. It was a fantastic event in which people from over 50 nonprofit, mostly religious, organizations came together to network, troubleshoot the ways they were providing Sandy disaster relief, and discuss how they might better tackle disaster relief challenges in the future. The need for better information-sharing tools and techniques was obvious in every event session.

I scribbled notes and promised myself that I’d write a blog post about how the VOAD community could adopt a comprehensive information management strategy using free/libre/open-source software. The post grew in length and complexity, quickly ballooning into multiple posts, and launching Sarapis into a new knowledge management project. Three and a half months later, we have a 100+ page (and growing) wiki at that catalogs some of the best practices for community-led disaster relief that we’ve encountered. Please check out the wiki, send us feedback and let us know if there is some information you’d like to see covered or you want to contribute.


The National Convening

The NVOAD national convening was organized by National VOAD (NVOAD), which is led by volunteers and staff from its 108 member organizations. There is a VOAD in every state (ex. NYVOAD) and often in large cities as well (ex. NYCVOAD) — each of which is member-run and organized using a structure similar to that of the National VOAD.

The VOAD meetings that I’ve attended have consisted of representatives of member organizations engaging in a facilitated conversation about how to overcome disaster-related issues, and then breaking out into working groups or committees to tackle specific challenges. While it was clear that the larger, better-funded organizations within the VOADs such as the Red Cross have more influence than the other organizations, there was — at least to me — a sense of horizontality and a genuine desire among participants to coordinate and collaborate with each other. Indeed, the VOAD structures reminded me more of “spokes councils” than they did traditional nonprofit organizations — which is pretty cool.

VOADs help groups “active in disasters” coordinate better. From what I’ve seen, discussions center around a range of topics, from food distribution or rebuilding homes to performing case management or analyzing policy issues. Somehow, though, they all seem to end in the same place: with a discussion about how member organizations can better share information.

In general, VOAD conversations are open, inclusive and generative: people recognize the expertise that they and others have gained from on-the-ground relief work, and eagerly share knowledge and information derived from those experiences. However, when the topic turns to software and data, the tone changes. People seem to imagine software and data to be obscure, complicated topics best left to experts — and they don’t imagine those experts to be the people in their network or the room.

Many of the VOAD members I spoke with didn’t know what software they use, told me they don’t feel empowered to make changes to their websites or software systems, and don’t think they can have a software system that meets their needs without someone spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It doesn’t have to be this way.


Go with the FLO!

The VOAD community takes pride in its DIY character. Rebuilding a house? No problem! Feeding ten thousand people a day? We’re on it!  But when it comes to websites, databases and information management systems, people become overwhelmed. Yes, databases were extremely difficult and expensive to set up 10 years ago — but things have changed. There has been rapid and sustained progress in software technology, making most common technical challenges easy to overcome with relatively simple FLO (free/libre/open-source) software.

For folks who don’t know what FLO is, a brief explanation is in order. FLO software is free (no-cost), libre (without restriction), and open (you can use, edit, modify and share its source code). Linux, Firefox, WordPress and Wikipedia are just a few of the tens of thousands of extremely popular FLO software packages being used by people everyday. FLO software, like VOADs, are developed by communities of people who work together to build systems that help people help each other. To learn more about FLO software, read this brief explanation and the “free and open source software” page on Wikipedia.

I’m confident that the more VOADs learn about FLO, the more they’ll realize how FLO solutions can help them overcome many of the information management, communication and coordination challenges they face during disasters.

Preliminary Recommendations

Through a three-pronged strategy of trainings, support group cultivation and technical strategy, VOADs can transform their approach to information management.

Software trainings: There is a tremendous need within the VOAD community for training in basic web-based software tools — especially WordPress, CiviCRM, LibreOffice and free (but not libre and open source) Gmail, Google Groups, Google Drive, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube web applications.

Data trainings: There is also a massive need for education in basic data management and sharing techniques. The VOAD community needs to create a set of standard templates for common tasks such as canvassing, volunteer intake, work order management and sharing different types of data among organizations.

Technology Support Group: The VOAD community should form a technology support working group where people can organize skill shares about various technologies useful to the community. If that goes well, such a group could also work with stakeholders to co-create a software development roadmap for local, state and national VOAD groups.

You can see a list of tools referenced throughout this blog post in the tools section of the FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief wiki.


Attractive, Easy-to-Use Website

Your organization should have an attractive website that is easy for anyone who knows how to use basic office applications to maintain. The technology that makes this possible is called a content management system (aka CMS).

Recommendation: WordPress


There are a number of FLO CMS systems. Our favorite is WordPress, which makes it extremely easy to create web pages, blog/news posts, photo galleries, videos, events calendars, custom forms you can use to collect email addresses, contact info, surveys, process donations, and more. Hosting a WordPress website costs between $5-$50/month depending on how much traffic the website receives.

Bottom Line

Even if your organization isn’t interested in upgrading its website, building a WordPress site is cheap and easy enough that it might be worth creating one for your own team or for a specific disaster.


Contact and Case Management

The one piece of technology the VOADs do “share” is the Coordinated Assistance Network system (aka CAN). CAN is a disaster case management system owned and operated by the Red Cross and developed by VisionLink, a for-profit corporation that has also built the National VOAD website and the database systems that powers many of the nation’s 211 “human service” directories. While many organizations in the VOAD community can access CAN, access is often difficult to obtain and limited in scope. Moreover, there are no readily-apparent opportunities for the community to contribute to the system’s development.

The general sentiment about CAN at the NVOAD event was that it’s a terrible piece of software, but it’s the best thing the community’s got. Even still, few organizations use it and it’s widely cited as one of the largest bottlenecks to effective disaster case management.

Some of the problems with CAN articulated during the event include:

  • It takes days, sometimes weeks, to be granted access to CAN; and many grassroots relief groups and some VOAD member groups simply don’t qualify for access. Many groups waste time and energy trying to access CAN when they could be using those resources to develop and deploy CRM systems that meet their own unique set of needs.
  • All data that goes into CAN becomes the property of the Red Cross under terms that are difficult to question or change.
  • Only CAN employees and CAN partners can perform import and export functions.
  • No one but VisionLink can modify the CAN software.

One of the first things that becomes evident to people providing disaster relief is that they need a system to manage contacts and document their interactions with at least four types of people:

  • volunteers who want to give their time
  • donors who want to give their money
  • survivors who need assistance
  • human service providers who can help people in need

CRM (customer/constituent relationship management) systems are designed to help a large and physically dispersed group of people collect information about individuals and groups, record interactions and document outcomes.

This type of tool is being used very successfully by a few VOAD member groups that I spoke with — but, by and large, the VOAD community isn’t using CRMs. Instead, most VOAD members I spoke with were either using spreadsheets or desktop-based database systems to track and manage their relationships. The few organizations that were using the CAN system for disaster case management and human services directory functionality lacked a solution for the CRM functions CAN doesn’t provide, such as volunteer and donor management.

Recommendation: CiviCRM


CiviCRM is a fantastic FLO case management solution, and also happens to be the world’s most popular FLO CRM system for nonprofits. A standard CiviCRM installation package can do donor, volunteer and case management, send out e-newsletters, process donations, generate event pages and maintain a directory of service providers to the public. Since CiviCRM is FLO, organizations can run it on their own servers or they can pay around $300/year for a CiviCRM specialist to install and host the software for them.

CiviCRM makes it extremely easy to build a content-based website around it since it is a component of the three most popular FLO content management systems (WordPress, Drupal and Joomla). Indeed, if your organization is already using one of these CMSs, adding CiviCRM can be extremely simple. CiviCRM can be useful for any nonprofit organization that needs to send out email newsletters, process online donations and collect contact information — so even if your organization is happy with CAN’s case management functionality, you might nevertheless want to consider CiviCRM for other common nonprofit functions.

CiviCRM could become a fantastic disaster contact and case management solution that any VOAD could use for itself and in partnership with others. And since the solution would be FLO, any organization wanting to become active in disaster relief would be able to “spin up” their own system and keep ownership over their own data. At the very least, the existence of a CiviCRM powered alternative to CAN will encourage VisionLink to be more responsive to the community of VOADs who use CAN. Of course, CiviCRM can play well with CAN by being configured to export and share data using CAN-compliant format and standards. Compliance with Federal requirements and standards is something that could also be built into a CiviCRM component, as could a basic reporting mechanism that would enable each disaster case management deployments to share basic identity information about clients to ensure that people aren’t enrolled in more than one case management system to get “double benefits”.

Bottom Line

If your organization or local VOAD group doesn’t currently have a CRM system for its basic operations such as sending our email newsletters, collecting online donations and tracking donors, then it should consider getting a CiviCRM.

National VOAD and larger VOAD groups should come together to ensure CiviCRM works well for disaster relief. I recommend pursuing the following course of activity:

  • Develop a case management template (in XML) that could be imported into any CiviCRM to turn it into a disaster case management system. Estimated cost: under $10,000.

  • Fund the development of a user interface for CiviCase configuration. There is a fundraising campaign currently underway to raise $30,000 to create a user interface that would make it much easier for people to customize CiviCase.

  • Develop capacity within the NVOAD network for managing CiviCRM hosting, either by hiring a CiviCRM expert or contracting with a provider like

  • Run database management trainings so VOADs learn how databases can be used to solve a wide range of challenges they encounter.


Human Services and Referral Directories

During a disaster, relief providers need good information about where to refer victims for “human-services” assistance such as homeless shelters, mental health counselling and food pantries. Unlike local business information, which was made readily available via the internet over a decade ago, “human service” information sits locked up in proprietary database systems that not even most VOADs — let alone disaster survivors — can access.

This means disaster relief providers often have to direct people who need assistance to call their local 211 system operator and speak to a call center worker to access critical human services information. This can lead to confusion and wasted time for survivors. It also creates a problem for relief providers who want to ensure that survivors receive high-quality information and access to critical services.

VisionLink, the company that makes CAN software, is also the nation’s leading provider of proprietary 211 software — making the inaccessibility of human services information inexplicable.

Recommendations: Drupal, CiviCRM or Sahana EDEN

Directory powered by Sahana

Directory software isn’t particularly complicated. Indeed, there are a number of FLO software packages that could be used to organize and display 211 information to the public, as well as provide additional functionality like granular “agency-by-agency” permissions, calendaring, volunteer management, document management and other solutions touted by VisionLink as “what makes CommunityOS different.” Drupal and CiviCRM could both power 211 directories, as could Sahana EDEN and the Knight Foundation-funded Open211 software development project.

Of course, software is just one part of the challenge. The other critical piece is a taxonomy for organizing 211 information. Fortunately, the Open Eligibility Project has produced a FLO taxonomy for 211 information that anyone can use to organize 211 data.

With FLO software and data taxonomies available, the time is right for a group of organizations to come together to set up open 211 systems around the country. Such an effort presents an amazing opportunity for the VOADs — not only to increase information accessible to disaster relief providers, but to make “human services” information easier for everyone to access.

Bottom Line

National VOAD should ensure that 211 information is accessible during a disaster. This means having an easy-to-deploy FLO 211 directory software solution ready for when disaster strikes. This solution could be offered to state and city based VOADs immediately. A FLO 211 directory software solution could be built with CiviCRM and Drupal or with Sahana..


Data and Knowledge Repository

Each stage of a disaster presents a tremendous information challenge. People might disagree about what, when, where and how to share disaster related information, but it’s hard to imagine anyone will argue against better tools for data and information sharing.

Recommendation: OwnCloud and/or CKAN

CKAN Data Repository

At the most basic level, VOADs should have access to a dropbox-like file sharing system which can host both public and private files and folder systems. OwnCloud is an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-use system that could meet this need.

If a VOAD network wants to make it easy for its member organizations to benefit from the open data revolution, they can set up a CKAN “data repository”, which provides groups with the ability to upload, describe, preview, download, host and stream a wide variety of data formats. It can be used to host and organize PDFs, turn CSVs (spreadsheets) into interactive maps and serve dynamic data streams in real time to other software applications. For the more technically ambitious, it can also wrap data in an API that software developers can use to create applications, produce visualizations and build semantic information resources.

VOADs could use a data repository to share a wide variety of data and knowledge information, including:

  • information about affected areas, such as demographics, geography/geology, environmental reports, important places, and mapping layers
  • canvassing data related to individual and neighborhood needs for things like food, shelter, and health care
  • raw data about who is providing disaster relief and which populations they are serving
  • templates for managing inventory, work sites, damage assessment surveys, volunteer registration forms and other tools for disaster relief groups
  • how-to’s and trainings guides about everything from killing mold to anonymizing and responsibly sharing data

Data repositories allow users to upload both public data that can be shared with everyone, and private data that can be managed by particular users without anyone else seeing it. To prevent confidential information from being made public, the system can be configured such that all public data uploads are moderated, and only approved data sets are made public. In such a configuration, when users find incorrect data or data that shouldn’t be shared on the system, they can flag it as inappropriate so it can be taken offline. Of course, with more data tools available, it would be incumbent on the VOAD community to learn more about how to use data and data tools to improve their operations.

Bottom Line

The VOAD community needs a place to share files. The first step is to set up an OwnCloud system (which would cost well under $1,000/year) and start giving VOAD members accounts and providing trainings that show people how to use widely-accessible online tools to collect, use, analyze, permission and share data. As people become more comfortable using this file sharing system, it might make sense to set up a CKAN data repository for the VOAD community. This is the same software used by and enables much deeper data utilization functionality.


Inventory and Logistics Tools

Before, during and after a disaster, many VOAD member organizations turn into logistics groups with a specific set of needs that FLO software solutions can meet:

  • requesting and receiving inventory items
  • tracking inventory through multiple spaces
  • distributing inventory to people in need
  • generating reports about their activities
  • sharing up-to-date inventory information with stakeholders such as government agencies such as FEMA, nonprofit and community groups, donors and the general public
  • developing an awareness of the other relief providers in the area

Without a software tool set to help organizations meet these needs, groups are often left using spreadsheets and personal relationships to make sense of the disaster logistics environment. Many people suffer and many resources are wasted because a coordinated disaster logistics network doesn’t exist — and it very well could.

Recommendation: Sahana EDEN

Sahana Foundation Logo

Sahana EDEN is a FLO “disaster management system” with robust logistics functionality that can be used by participating organizations to manage their own inventory, ship and receive inventory items, track assets (like vehicles and generators), build reports for various groups, and create maps. EDEN has robust directory functionality, for individuals, organizations, facilities, victims, volunteers, projects and more, making it a great tool for organizing information within a geographic area before disaster strikes. When disaster does strike, people can find the information they need in order to be effective in the aftermath.

Bottom Line

The National VOAD should work with Sahana EDEN developers to create a generic configuration that could be deployed by its chapter organizations, and/or in response to specific disasters. Sarapis has begun this work by helping to create an EDEN system for Long-Term Recovery Organizations in NYC. We will need assistance from the VOAD community, financial and otherwise, in order to see this project through.


Collaborative Work Order System

When disaster creates damage over a wide area, one of the biggest challenges is coordinating the (often volunteer) work crews to clean things up. This task requires a massive amount of information sharing: from the canvassing that results in comprehensive neighborhood damage assessments, to the assignment (or self-assignment) of work teams and the tracking of work statuses so the entire network knows what has been done and where.

Recommendation: CrisisCleanup


A new tool called CrisisCleanup distinguished itself during Superstorm Sandy relief work as an amazing solution to this challenge. It was developed by Aaron Titus, a volunteer within the Mormon disaster response community. As a part-time software developer, he saw a need for a tool that “implements a ‘Craigslist’ philosophy to recovery efforts—organizations that are aware of work orders enter them into the system, and organizations with capacity to help can claim and perform the work.” The tool’s success during Sandy was stunning: CWOS was used by over 100 organizations to coordinate nearly 30,000 volunteers fixing over 5,000 homes. What began as one person’s passion project has grown into an effort involving nearly a half dozen volunteer software developers and designers — and it is already changing the way disasters cleanup is managed.

CrisisCleanup wasn’t developed by a software group inspired by building intellectual property for themselves or a high end consulting firm: it was made by passionate people who want to help people help each other. By embracing FLO solutions, the VOAD community can encourage more of this type of innovation from a global community of do-gooders.

Bottom Line

The team behind CrisisCleanup is enthusiastic to work with VOAD. NVOAD should encourage its members to take CrisisCleanup trainings before a disaster strikes and, when it does, push member organizations to sign up for that disaster’s CrisisCleanup instance.


FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief


“Tux” with a Toolbox

The FLO solutions I’ve described above have been and will be continue to be used during future disasters. Some were used extensively during Sandy relief efforts, including CiviCRM for volunteer management and case tracking; Sahana EDEN for request fulfillment, inventory management and assessment tracking; CrisisCleanUp for collaborative work order management; and WordPress for fast and easy-to-use content-based websites.

If the VOAD community were to bring these tools together to make them more accessible to member organization, the entire VOAD community would benefit greatly — and so too would all the future victims of disaster for whom they serve.

This could be done by pursuing the following activities:

  • creating configurations for disaster response use cases,
  • creating a more unified interface for these tools,
  • providing some training and support for their implementation, and
  • maintaining deployments of these solutions for when disaster strikes.

Over the last few months, we at Sarapis have built out a knowledge resource for the VOAD community cataloging FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief. We have also continued to help Long-Term Recovery Groups in the New York City area access FLO solutions using best practices in knowledge management. We’re now coordinating a technology development effort that will bring together numerous FLO software communities to integrate effective FLO solutions for disaster relief. This will create an even more comprehensive set of FLO Solutions for Disaster Relief.

We’re looking for support from the VOAD community — city, state and national — for our work. Please connect with us if this post is interesting to you.

If you want to receive updates about our progress with this initiative, please sign up for our newsletter on the top right corner of this page.

If you have any questions, feel free to write a comment on this post or contact us directly.

We’re currently accepting tax-free donations through our fiscal sponsor, On The Commons. Please support our work by donating today.

The post FLO Disaster Relief Software – Recommendations for NVOAD appeared first on Sarapis.

Occupy Sandy’s FLO Databases

Have you ever been working on a spreadsheet and found that you just couldn’t get all the information you wanted into it?  Have you ever looked at the horizontal and vertical cells and wished there were—somehow—a third dimension that gave you the ability to define more stuff?  Well, that’s what databases do: they provide you with a third dimension of information, making it possible for web applications to make data so useful.

Occupy Sandy is fortunate to have access to a number of incredible database software “solutions.” The three on which I’d like to focus in this post are:

  • Sahana EDEN (located at a “humanitarian” platform designed to help NGOs and government agencies manage disaster responses.
  • CiviCRM (located at a system used for sending email newsletters and collecting information about volunteers; and
  • ShareTribe (located at a sharing platform that enables folks to post, find and fulfill offers and requests for products, services and spaces.

All three of these software solutions are free/libre/open-source (FLO), meaning they’re free to use, they have no licensing restrictions, and their source code is accessible to anyone who wants to view, use and modify it. Sahana and CiviCRM are both supported by nonprofit organizations, and all three pieces of software are developed by horizontal, non-coercive FLO communities motivated by the desire to make great software—not the desire to make a lot of money.

Sahana, deployed at
Our Sahana system can help us manage a wide variety of tasks common to disaster relief, but we only use it for a few.

requestssandyreliefCurrently, people doing comms and dispatch use the system to record requests for supplies from sites. These requests usually come in via a phone call or email. Once a request is made, people check to see if the request can be fulfilled. If so, the system generates a “waybill,” which is a PDF that has the item names, their quantity, the intended destination and the driver on it. The PDF is printed out, taken to the inventory room where someone collects the items to be shipped, places them in their car and gives the driver the waybill to show him/her where to go. When the shipment is delivered, the hope is that the site that made the request will confirm their requests fulfillment with comms, but in practical use that rarely happens. Over 400 requests have gone through the system to date, with an average of six requests being registered per day since 2013 began.

sandyreliefmapRespond and Rebuild is using Sahana to track and map their work orders. When they assess a house, they record their findings in Sahana. Using the system, they’re currently tracking over 180 work orders, each with nearly 50 variables of information. Sahana also enables them to map each work order, letting them see on a map all the jobs they’re working on, the status of those jobs, and other useful information. The system could easily be configured to provide similar functionality for all the canvassing data that’s been collected by the Occupy Sandy relief effort, but so far that information hasn’t been made available to the Sahana team. If you’d like to connect with them, please email

There are many more ways we could use Sahana to keep Occupy Sandy organized. Some of these ideas are currently underway, while others are just suggestions at this point:

  • Organization and location information: We can use Sahana to keep records of organizations that Occupy Sandy members encounter. In these records we could map out all the places where organizations maintain facilities, add the names and contact information for people at those organizations and facilities, write notes about our interactions with them and more. This could be useful for folks involved in the NYDIS organization information update project.
  • Warehouse inventory: One of Sahana’s main features is its ability to track inventory items through time and space. We can list all the inventory in a warehouse and make it accessible to everyone with access to the system. Then people can use the Sahana system to search for items they’re looking for. This could be useful for the Coney-Childs space.
  • Asset tracking: We share a lot of high value items in the Occupy Sandy network, such as vehicles and expensive tools. We can use Sahana to create a directory of the “assets” we share in the Occupy Sandy network and indicate whether those assets are available or in use, log who is using them (including when, where and for how long), and more. This could be useful for managing vehicles and tools.
  • Canvassing Information: People have been collecting a tremendous amount of information by canvassing neighborhoods to identify needs, gaps, potential health issues and more. Sahana could make all of this data searchable, mappable and (more) actionable. If someone needs help with mold, their record can be assigned a mold workflow in which their status would move from “needs assessment” to “pending work order” to “project underway” to “project completed”. If someone lacks heat, a workflow could be created that goes from “needs heat” to “complaint filed” to “heat fixed.”  Workflows can be created and modified as needed.

CiviCRM, deployed at
Occupy Wall Street has been using CiviCRM for over a year to send out big email blasts (such as Your Inbox:Occupied). When Sandy hit, the folks at InterOccupy quickly created volunteer intake forms using their CiviCRM. These forms collected a bunch of information about over 10,000 volunteers for Occupy Sandy NY and thousands more for Occupy Sandy NJ.

civicrmosnjEmail newsletters and alerts are sent out to different groups of volunteers depending on how they answered questions on their intake form. This has enabled us to mobilize a tremendous amount of volunteers via email. Now, a group has emerged within Occupy Sandy called “Volunteer Infrastructure,” which is organizing to call the over-8,000 volunteers who gave us their phone numbers in order to update their info and invite them to contribute more time to the cause. It’s a promising endeavour that could bring a tremendous number of people back into the Occupy Sandy fold.

Occupy Sandy NJ has gone one step further than Occupy Sandy NY in their use of CiviCRM. OSNJ fills out a Civi form every time they get a request for assistance from someone in NJ. That information then goes into a queue monitored by OSNJ volunteers who then commit to fulfilling the request. The volunteer reports back when the request is fulfilled and can then commit to fulfilling another one. The kind folks at OSNJ have served thousands using this system and have documented how they do it with this not-very-short video.

There are many more ways we could use CiviCRM in the relief effort: for case management, event pages and RSVPs, fundraising, membership management and more. I encourage folks to check out to see all the ways the system can be used. If you’d like to get involved with CiviCRM use in the Occupy Sandy operation, email

ShareTribe, deployed at
In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, a group of technology-oriented activists hatched a plan to create a web application that facilitates sharing among its users. During the first months of Occupy Sandy, we finally deployed a FLO software package with the appropriate features called ShareTribe. It’s built by a community of developers centered in Finland and their intention is to create “Wordpress for Sharing”—which I think is the right idea.

permabankosdbPermaBank provides users with the ability to post offers and request items, services, rides and spaces from each other; and provides a workflow that makes it easy to do real world exchanges with messaging, commenting, and a transaction workflow that enables folks to commit to fulfilling a request and certifying that their request was indeed fulfilled. Folks who find Sahana’s administrator-oriented request fulfillment system too heavy and “industrial” might find the PermaBank system more to their liking.

It goes without saying that all the technology in the world is worthless without the folks in affected areas doing relief work and practicing mutual aid. A database isn’t going to muck-out a house, deliver diapers or give people the experience of personal connection. But what it will do is organize information critical for all those tasks taking place.

Some people feel weird using systems like Sahana or CiviCRM to work with data. The systems can feel awkward, impersonal and clunky, especially when you compare them to the slick applications from Facebook, Twitter and Google. But don’t be fooled by polished web apps from massive corporations—they’re providing you with the digital equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger or Starbucks Frappuccino.

Corporations provide you with “free” web applications because they make tons of money off of your data. They absolutely, positively do not want you to run free/libre/open-source (FLO) software such as Sahana and CiviCRM because FLO software empowers people to be producers instead of consumers.

More people using WordPress (ex. means more people producing grassroots media and consuming less mainstream media.

More people using CiviCRM means more people producing online fundraising and advocacy campaigns and consuming less corporate sponsored “clicktivism”.

More people using Sahana means more people producing effective resource and supply chain management systems and consuming fewer corporate products and services.

More people using PermaBank mean more people producing money-less exchanges and consuming fewer resources.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with the FLO technologies used by Occupy Sandy, email We need as much help as we can get.