Sandy, Sahana and Sarapis

When “Superstorm Sandy” hit New York City on October 30th, dozens of relief organizations, hundreds of grassroots groups and thousands of people mobilized to provide aids to those most affected. The challenge of coordinating such a relief effort was felt by everyone involved.

How do you keep track of who has what resources, who is requesting those resources, where the resources are now—and where they’ll need to be tomorrow? How can you see whose needs have been fulfilled and who still needs help? The list of information challenges is extensive.

Sarapis saw the information management challenge coming. Within days of the hurricane we were on-location, helping grassroots-organized disaster relief hubs collect data more efficiently and feed it to folks who could turn it into actionable information for relief providers. We embedded ourselves in grassroots efforts and turned paper forms into spreadsheets and spreadsheets into database tables—and now we’re integrating the data in those tables together through a free/libre/open-source (FLO) disaster management solution provided by the Sahana Foundation.

The Sahana Foundation shepherds a number of FLO disaster management solutions.  The one we’re using, Sahana EDEN, was created after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Its first iteration was developed through a series of code sprints organized by local information and telecommunications companies in Sri Lanka, who wanted to develop a FLO resource management system that would enable a wide range of relief efforts to coordinate supplies, staff and volunteers over a massive area.

Within a week of Hurricane Sandy, the Sarapis team was touring Mark Prutsalis, CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation, around a half dozen community-organized relief hubs and sites, introducing him to key stakeholders and decision-makers who would ultimately determine whether the Sahana system would be implemented at their locations. Less than a month after Sandy hit New York, Sarapis is proud to announce that the Sahana system at is operational, has dozens of active users, and is being used at the largest “Occupy Sandy” communications hubs. It has been demonstrated for folks at a wide variety of voluntary organizations active in disasters (VOADs) including the American Red Cross, New York Cares, United Way and government agencies such as FEMA. It’s also likely that Sahana will be used on a permanent basis by grassroots and community organizations to provide various forms of relief to individuals and groups in the greater New York City. Our work has both facilitated the use of an amazing FLO resource management platform by grassroots organizing efforts and raised the profile of the Sahana Eden system in the eyes of large institutions who will hopefully, at some point in the future, abandon the proprietary systems that grassroots organizers can’t easily access in favor of FLO systems that everyone can use.

The Sahana Foundation’s commitment to supporting grassroots, community-led organizing endeavors has been astounding. Mark Prutsalis, the CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation is a resident of Brooklyn and has gotten deeply involved in the relief efforts, touring sites, organizing trainings and providing less-experienced disaster responders with a sense of confidence that only 20 years of disaster relief work can provide. He also flew in Sahana’s core team of developers to New York so they could work with the grassroots efforts in the Occupy Sandy network. Michael Howden of New Zealand and Fran Boon of England jumped right in, visiting sites, surveying users and making everyone feel closer to the technologies they were using for their work. They worked with everyone from user experience designers to warehouse floor managers and comms/dispatch teams to troubleshoot issues, build new features, and generally increase the usefulness of the software. They spent a week in New York and Mark documented their experience better than I ever could on the Sahana Foundation blog here and here.

Why did the Sahana Foundation dedicate over $40,000 worth of their time to the Occupy Sandy effort? Because they recognized it as something familiar: a physical manifestation of the free/libre/open movement. Unlike decades-old institutions that structure themselves around an industrial-age information technology ecology—fax machines, memos, bosses’s bosses’ bosses, and people who resist change in order to preserve their jobs—Occupy Sandy is a temporal network that organizes itself around its technological capabilities. For example, for a shipment of supplies to go out to a relief location, someone needs to create a waybill that has a list of item to be included in the shipment and a destination. If a technology (such as Sahana) comes along that automatically generates printable waybills, the person who used to perform that task isn’t going to lobby to keep their job—they’re going to go do something else.

Occupy works because everyone is trying to make useful contributions to the network, older institutions work because everyone is trying to keep their jobs. As a blank slate that molds itself to the technologies it can access, Occupy can be a technologist’s dream, but it can also be a nightmare. In traditional institutions where bosses tell their underlings what technologies to use, it’s easy to get people to use nifty new technologies: you just have to convince the boss that it’s a good idea. In the Occupy network, each user has to be personally convinced that a tool is worth his or her time. This is a complicated task that more closely resembles bringing a product to market than it does training folks to use software in an organization. And that is the unique work we do at Sarapis: getting people who perform the core functions of a healthy and effective civil society to use FLO solutions.

Learn more about Sarapis’s disaster relief work here.

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Welcome to the FLO Movement

The free, libre, and open source (FLO) movement has created many of the technologies local communities need to rebuild the world from the grassroots upward. These technologies include entire operating systems with complete suites of free software (ex. Ubuntu Linux, OpenOffice, GIMP), web applications for constructing enterprise grade inter/extranets and websites (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla), cloud computing server platforms (OpenStack), designs for local manufacturing of industrial equipment including tractors (Open Source Ecology), 3D printers (RepRap) and automobiles (WikiSpeed)—and much more.

As FLO technology development accelerates and access to information technologies increases, more people than ever could be using high-quality solutions to solve their local problems. But few people are aware the FLO phenomenon even exists, including the nonprofit organizations that could benefit most from its use.

Unlike for-profit enterprises which exist in a state of competition with each other, nonprofits have the opportunity to exist in a state of collaboration—one in which they help each other by spreading best practices, tools and techniques so they can all contribute more effectively to the work of building a better world. This collaboration is essential if the nonprofit sector wants to provide services efficiently in the 21st century and beyond.

By adopting FLO solutions, nonprofit organizations can get better tools for lower prices, increase their organizations’ capacity to collaborate with their stakeholders, and align themselves with an extremely active and productive social movement that wants to make sure people have the information they need to create the world they want to see.

FLO tools and techniques will be discussed in future blog posts, but for now, here’s a glimpse of the ways FLO can promote social justice goals:

Imagine if educators could download a complete technology system to operate a K-12 school and customize it to meet their needs with just a few mouse clicks.

Imagine if farmers could access designs and build procedures for all the tools they need to manage their land.

Imagine if medical researchers could freely share all their data and knowledge with each other.

Only FLO technologies can provide everyone with access to the tools and techniques they need to create wealth and wellness for themselves and their communities. We view universal access to basic technologies as a human right and the key to empowering people to escape poverty.

Participating in the FLO movement is easy. It begins with using FLO tools like Firefox for web browsing, WordPress for online publishing and Linux for your operating system. It continues when you use FLO techniques in your life and work, such as documenting solutions that will benefit others, gifting your time to projects that support the commons and helping people use FLO technologies. If you’re comfortable using software, help FLO projects identify bugs, field questions in forums, contribute to documentation, build extensions, and publish code to communities like Github.

As more people participate in the FLO movement, more people will be empowered by technology, enabling more people to participate in the movement, and more FLO production to take place. This cycle constructs an ecosystem of FLO technologies that we can all use to produce what we want, when we want, and how we want.

A bright future is possible if we all go with the FLO. :)

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