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June 20, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
Monson Tornado builds a platform to structure data to improve local diaster relief

The site helps communities assess damage, organize volunteers, and direct donations.

During an emergency, one of any community’s most important asset is information. And that’s at least as true in the period after an emergency. When a flood sweeps through the streets or a hurricane lands, the civil authorities take hold and charitable groups start relief efforts. But neighbors often have to organize themselves with whatever tools are available at hand.

Knight News Challenge winner is designed to “turn interest into useful aid,” Caitria O’Neill told me. O’Neill, her sister Morgan, and software engineer Alvin Liang are the team behind, an online tool that towns and cities can use to better direct the flow of people and resources it takes to organize in the crucial period after an emergency. acts as a traffic cop, funneling donations and volunteers where they are needed most. But instead of focusing on the larger operators like the Red Cross, wants to help organize efforts on a smaller level — the people offering cooked meals, or an extra pickup truck. is trying to build a framework to help people during disasters by using existing systems, whether that’s Facebook or the local PTA. With its $340,000 award from Knight, will increase its staff, hiring both developers to build out the system and organizers to help communities with their disaster preparations.

Caitria O'Neill“The problem is these large aid organizations, it’s not in their mission to structure the…resources in an area, so that structure falls to the people in the areas who have no training and tools,” O’Neill told me.

When a disaster strikes — or even before, if it’s the semi-predictable kind, like a hurricane — offers a turn-key local site at The site creates a giant database to help identify victims, organize volunteers, and filter appropriate aid. directs people with three simple choices: “I was affected,” “I want to volunteer,” and “I want to give.” That last part is very important, O’Neill said, because it provides another avenue for people looking to provide goods or money. And for people who’ve seen a disaster on the news and are feeling generous, having another place to donate can make a big difference, O’Neill said.

Using a web-based organizing tool could prove problematic for an area with limited electricity or no working Internet. But O’Neill said can be a way to deliver attention and donations from the outside world as police, fire, and government services do the immediate repair and recovery work. When that phase ends is when the damage is assessed and needs start being reported, O’Neill said.

“There’s a spike and interest comes globally and comes quickly,” she said. “But needs are reported slowly.”

It was Caitria and Morgan’s personal experience that led to the creation of Last summer, a tornado hit their hometown, Monson, Mass., leaving a trail of damage throughout the region. While volunteering at a relief center, the sisters began using Facebook to help coordinate the response on a neighbor-to-neighbor level. So whether it was someone needing work gloves to clear out a house, or a guy with a chainsaw looking to donate his time, it all went on the Facebook page. As a communications tool, Facebook worked, but the sisters also quickly realized the value of building a database of volunteers, projects, needs, and donations. The information was not only valuable in coordinating the recovery, but also providing the town with data to pass on to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “There is an incredible sinking feeling when you’ve just sent out 2,000 volunteers and you can’t prove it,” she said.

The pair had no previous disaster relief experience (though Morgan is a trained EMT), but both have worked as community organizers. O’Neill said the underlying principle is the same: build systems to structure data to better direct people and resources. “We’re trying to give tools and give voice to that community network and allow them to publish hyperlocal information,” she said.

Since was officially launched, they’ve signed up several municipalities, including two hit by tornadoes in Texas. Cities and towns that launch a site after a disaster are done pro bono, but O’Neill said their business model is licensing the site software to communities. The News Challenge funding comes amid other good news for the team, having won a $10,000 award at the MIT Ideas Global Challenge and being named a finalist in the MassChallenge.

Image of Monson tornado damage from the Massachusetts National Guard used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 20, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2012
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