Interview with Devin Balkind: Sahana and Occupy Sandy Relief Efforts

If you’ve been following the Sahana blog, you’ve seen a number of posts recently on how Sahana has been used to help victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York, United States and beyond.  In an effort to learn more about Sahana’s impact in the field, we asked Devin Balkind from the Occupy Sandy Team to answer a few interview questions via email. (You may recall Devin from his recent post on Occupy Sandy’s FLO Databases.) This interview was conducted by Esteve Giraud, Sahana Communications Intern.

Ms. Esteve Giraud: Where was the main focus of your operations for Occupy Sandy?

Mr. Devin Balkind: The Sahana deployment team were located mostly at 520 Clinton, which was our primary dispatch and communications hub with team members active in most areas where Occupy Sandy was active. The Rockaways, Staten Island and Coney Island, as well as the two main hubs in Clinton Hill (520) and Sunset Park (Jacobi)

New York

EG: Just after the hurricane, how did you start helping? What were your first actions?

DB: OWS (Open Wall Street) organizers were discussing the storm on social media for nearly a week before it hit.  Occupy Sandy started immediately after the storm with people putting up social media pages/profiles.  Within a day or so after the storm OWS organizers were in the Rockaways helping out at churches and sleeping back at a church in Sunset Park (Jacobi).  People started going to Jacobi immediately.  I first got there  in day three and the place was packed with volunteers moving things in and out of the space.  As an OWS tech veteran, I found the communications and dispatch people and started helping out, which for me mostly meant figuring out who was doing what with spreadsheets, combining those sheets together, and doing it again.  To say there was a proliferation of Google Docs during those first few days was a massive understatement.

EG: What has been/is your role in Occupy Sandy?

DB: I help people in the field, write requirements for the Sahana system and encourage people to implement those specifications.  I also deal with all types of logistical challenges, from money distribution to car insurance, volunteer intake work-flows to web copy.

EG: What has been the biggest difficulty?

DB: The system is very awkward out of the box so it’s hard for people to figure out how to use it immediately.  I hope our use will result in a solution that’s much more refined and simpler to deploy for grassroots response efforts around the country and world.

EG: We are excited to seeing you contribute back both your software changes and your knowledge about how Sahana is used in a live deployment. How do you use Sahana software? Can you name one thing which proved to be very useful to improve people’s lives after the event?

DB: We used Sahana for communications and dispatch to log requests [for assistance], print out waybills [for shipments] and track the fulfilment of those requests.  Then we used it to track work orders for houses that needed to be mucked-out, have mold remediated, etc.  Now that things have slowed down a bit we can look at the system and really spec out a solution that meets the needs for long term organizing.  That means tracking projects, building a useful directory of contacts, documenting interactions with organizations, tracking inventory in our (NEW!) warehouse, tracking our vehicles, etc.  We’re definitely looking long term at how Sahana can be useful for us over the long term (3 month – 3 years) because Sandy was a BIG deal in NYC and relief and response work will go on for a long time.

EG:  Anything else you would like our readers to know?

DB: I think Sahana will become extremely popular software because it’s a simplified, human focused, ERP-style system and as technology becomes more accessible to people, they’ll recognize the value of systems like this.  I fully expect Sahana to become a very significant organizing tool that goes way beyond conventional disaster relief.

We would like to thank Devin again for his time and responses to our interview, and our thanks also to each member of the Occupy Sandy Team for their work to help their neighbors and the wider world through their improvements to Sahana. Stay tuned to this blog, as the relief efforts of the Occupy Sandy Team are still quite active today, and we look forward to bringing you more news about this work and Sahana’s role in aiding these efforts.



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