I presented the following in Nashville, Tennessee on May 6th, 2019
This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017
Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”
As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.
The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.
211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.
Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.
Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they’re entitled to receive?
Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.
211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.
While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.
Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on October 3, 2017
Photo: After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)
“Open source” is a method for putting intellectual property in the public domain, allowing anyone to use it however they see fit. I’m an advocate of the “open source way” because I believe that if more people shared intellectual property of all types – whether its farming techniques, software code, music, etc – then we’ll eventually be able to meet the basic needs of everyone in the world, allowing all people to pursue their own happiness without fear of material scarcity.
This type of thinking can lead to some pretty impractical theorizing, so my route in actualizing this belief is to help build the open source movement by demonstrating how open source can improve the world. As president of the Sahana Software Foundation, a world leader in open source information systems for disaster and humanitarian aid management, it’s gratifying to work with talented people who feel similarly about open source and its role in the world as I do.
In my work with Sahana, I’ve discovered that there is a lot of curiosity among disaster management professionals about how open source thinking is impacting their field. I’ve given presentations about this topic at nearly a dozen disaster management conferences including those organized by IAEM, NVOAD, OASIS, IEEE SIGHT, NYCEM, ARC, STAR-TIDES, and other acronym-ed groups.
The basic thesis of my talk is that an “open aid movement” is emerging because of two factors: (1) The maturity of free and open source software tools; and (2) The proliferation of open data practices among NGOs and government agencies. Together, these expand the public’s capacity to respond to disasters and enable them to form peer-to-peer disaster relief groups that can become assets during disaster relief efforts.
These groups come in two formats: (a) “grassroots disaster relief networks” organized by local people affected by disasters and (b) “volunteer technical communities” consisting of volunteers who organize information online from anywhere on the globe to serve those affected by disasters.
This June, I had the pleasure of talking with an audience who has an affinity for open source, as opposed to a sole interest in disaster and humanitarian aid. This presentation took place at the Open Source Bridge conference, which is held annually in Portland, Oregon and “focused on building open source community and citizenship.” The presentation was modified to be more relevant to this unique audience. You can see it below.
Despite the conference’s general nature, most of my time was spent in conversations with people involved in other open source humanitarian projects such as Open Data Kit, Digital Impact Alliance and LibreHealth. These conversations focus on two critical topics: (a) how we understand, articulate and build awareness of open source as a coherent movement within the disaster/humanitarian sector, and (b) how open source projects within the disaster/humanitarian sector can achieve sustainability and scale without building centralized bureaucracies that ultimately undermine the peer-to-peer structure that makes open source projects so dynamic and successful.
The takeaway? We have A LOT of work to do on both fronts to address the challenges ahead.
The first challenge is that there is very little collaboration taking place between the people and projects advancing open source in the humanitarian sector, despite the fact that open source developers and advocates within the sector recognize that they’re doing complementary work, encountering similar challenges and overcoming them in similar ways. This is something many people have identified as an issue, and something folks from DIAL’s very new Open Source Center are likely able to affect. DIAL’s OSC plans to “convene a vibrant, inclusive, free & open source software community that promotes knowledge sharing, collaboration, and co-investment in technology & human capacity to support positive social change in communities around the world.” Really exciting and certainly needed!
The second challenge is to define the “open aid movement” and use that shared understanding to organize an ecosystem of support services that make it easier for open source projects to deliver humanitarian practitioners the solutions they need while also ensuring those projects are stable over the long term. By doing this work, we can demonstrate that open source is more than just a useful “type” of software, but also a production methodology that enables the disaster and humanitarian management sector to most effectively utilize networked communication technologies.
As the maker of Sahana EDEN, the world’s most widely used information system for disaster and humanitarian management, Sahana Foundation can help define the movement and leverage its unique organizational format and administrative capacity to offer fiscal sponsorship and other support services to aligned open source humanitarian projects.
My Open Source Bridge experience confirmed to me that this is the right way to go. Let’s do it!
These are the slides: