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For Hurricane Sandy Relief, a Text-Messaging Solution

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, November 15 2012

In Hurricane Sandy's wake, many developers have come up with websites or applications created to help. But when volunteers are on the ground in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways section of New York City, they are often unable to access the Internet or use their mobile phones. A group of volunteers have responded to this challenge by developing Occupy SMS, a text-messaging tool for aid communication.

"It started with our actual experience in the Rockaways. We had brought a generator and a pump," said Stephanie Shih, founder of Occupy SMS, "but unfortunately none of the volunteers had a database of who needed to be pumped. We had to go door to door [with the heavy and expensive equipment] to see if people needed to be pumped, which was really inefficient."

The application, developed with Mobile Commons technology, allows those in need to send a text message with information to be entered into a database. When a volunteer sends in a own location and the aid they are offering, it sends back the earliest request for that neighborhood, Shih explained. While the application was originally developed to respond to the need to pump out water, the range of needs has now expanded to include cleaning support, house repairs and food delivery. Since the application was launched Saturday, about 1,700 messages have been sent back and forth, Shih said. Mobile Commons donated the shortcode and the cost of all outgoing text message fees, which can "can cost thousands of dollars and take a lot of time to set up otherwise," according to Shih.

The project was initially launched independently of the greater Occupy Sandy effort, she said, but was given the name referring to the movement "to increase the pick-up." Shih added that she and her co-organizers agree with Occupy principles and that Occupy Sandy plans to feature the tool on its website. Occupy Sandy volunteers have also been working on distributing 4,000 flyers in affected areas, she said.

Most of the organizations involved in the project have connections in technology and activism, Shih said. Shih is currently working for a start-up, but has previously worked with farm and food activism non-profits, as well as with DoSomething.org, where she used Mobile Commons for a project involving teenagers. Two developers on the project also have Mobile Commons experience, and a woman from Foursquare is also involved with the project.

The tool doesn't use cell phone geolocation, in part because that service uses up a lot of battery. Instead, the tool can match submitted locations with an existing database of neighborhoods, even when the submissions may include typos.

"We also found that volunteers were sticking to the main distribution hubs or places near the main strip where they had been as a beach tourist," Shih said. "Further away the poorer areas weren't getting as much attention and those were really the people who needed the help. We wanted to use this app to encourage people to travel from the blocks that they are used to out to Far Rockaway and Breezy Point."

There is also a way for needs to be submitted online, and for organizations to see all the the submitted data from the administrative side. The Stephen Siller Foundation, which has been doing work on Staten Island, she said, has been using the tool online to access a database of all submitted needs in order to then print out addresses and hand them out to volunteers on the ground.

Shih said she hoped that Occupy SMS and other Sandy recovery applications that prove effective can follow the example of Recovers.org, which originally launched in response to a tornado in Massachusetts and was deployed in several New York neighborhoods after Hurricane Sandy.

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