Occupy Sandy’s FLO Databases

Have you ever been working on a spreadsheet and found that you just couldn’t get all the information you wanted into it?  Have you ever looked at the horizontal and vertical cells and wished there were—somehow—a third dimension that gave you the ability to define more stuff?  Well, that’s what databases do: they provide you with a third dimension of information, making it possible for web applications to make data so useful.

Occupy Sandy is fortunate to have access to a number of incredible database software “solutions.” The three on which I’d like to focus in this post are:

  • Sahana EDEN (located at http://sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org): a “humanitarian” platform designed to help NGOs and government agencies manage disaster responses.
  • CiviCRM (located at http://crm.interoccupy.net): a system used for sending email newsletters and collecting information about volunteers; and
  • ShareTribe (located at http://occupysandy.permabank.net): a sharing platform that enables folks to post, find and fulfill offers and requests for products, services and spaces.

All three of these software solutions are free/libre/open-source (FLO), meaning they’re free to use, they have no licensing restrictions, and their source code is accessible to anyone who wants to view, use and modify it. Sahana and CiviCRM are both supported by nonprofit organizations, and all three pieces of software are developed by horizontal, non-coercive FLO communities motivated by the desire to make great software—not the desire to make a lot of money.

Sahana, deployed at http://sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org

Our Sahana system can help us manage a wide variety of tasks common to disaster relief, but we only use it for a few.

requestssandyreliefCurrently, people doing comms and dispatch use the system to record requests for supplies from sites. These requests usually come in via a phone call or email. Once a request is made, people check to see if the request can be fulfilled. If so, the system generates a “waybill,” which is a PDF that has the item names, their quantity, the intended destination and the driver on it. The PDF is printed out, taken to the inventory room where someone collects the items to be shipped, places them in their car and gives the driver the waybill to show him/her where to go. When the shipment is delivered, the hope is that the site that made the request will confirm their requests fulfillment with comms, but in practical use that rarely happens. Over 400 requests have gone through the system to date, with an average of six requests being registered per day since 2013 began.

sandyreliefmapRespond and Rebuild is using Sahana to track and map their work orders. When they assess a house, they record their findings in Sahana. Using the system, they’re currently tracking over 180 work orders, each with nearly 50 variables of information. Sahana also enables them to map each work order, letting them see on a map all the jobs they’re working on, the status of those jobs, and other useful information. The system could easily be configured to provide similar functionality for all the canvassing data that’s been collected by the Occupy Sandy relief effort, but so far that information hasn’t been made available to the Sahana team. If you’d like to connect with them, please email tech@nycga.net.

There are many more ways we could use Sahana to keep Occupy Sandy organized. Some of these ideas are currently underway, while others are just suggestions at this point:

  • Organization and location information: We can use Sahana to keep records of organizations that Occupy Sandy members encounter. In these records we could map out all the places where organizations maintain facilities, add the names and contact information for people at those organizations and facilities, write notes about our interactions with them and more. This could be useful for folks involved in the NYDIS organization information update project.
  • Warehouse inventory: One of Sahana’s main features is its ability to track inventory items through time and space. We can list all the inventory in a warehouse and make it accessible to everyone with access to the system. Then people can use the Sahana system to search for items they’re looking for. This could be useful for the Coney-Childs space.
  • Asset tracking: We share a lot of high value items in the Occupy Sandy network, such as vehicles and expensive tools. We can use Sahana to create a directory of the “assets” we share in the Occupy Sandy network and indicate whether those assets are available or in use, log who is using them (including when, where and for how long), and more. This could be useful for managing vehicles and tools.
  • Canvassing Information: People have been collecting a tremendous amount of information by canvassing neighborhoods to identify needs, gaps, potential health issues and more. Sahana could make all of this data searchable, mappable and (more) actionable. If someone needs help with mold, their record can be assigned a mold workflow in which their status would move from “needs assessment” to “pending work order” to “project underway” to “project completed”. If someone lacks heat, a workflow could be created that goes from “needs heat” to “complaint filed” to “heat fixed.”  Workflows can be created and modified as needed.

CiviCRM, deployed at http://crm.interoccupy.net

Occupy Wall Street has been using CiviCRM for over a year to send out big email blasts (such as Your Inbox:Occupied). When Sandy hit, the folks at InterOccupy quickly created volunteer intake forms using their CiviCRM. These forms collected a bunch of information about over 10,000 volunteers for Occupy Sandy NY and thousands more for Occupy Sandy NJ.

civicrmosnjEmail newsletters and alerts are sent out to different groups of volunteers depending on how they answered questions on their intake form. This has enabled us to mobilize a tremendous amount of volunteers via email. Now, a group has emerged within Occupy Sandy called “Volunteer Infrastructure,” which is organizing to call the over-8,000 volunteers who gave us their phone numbers in order to update their info and invite them to contribute more time to the cause. It’s a promising endeavour that could bring a tremendous number of people back into the Occupy Sandy fold.

Occupy Sandy NJ has gone one step further than Occupy Sandy NY in their use of CiviCRM. OSNJ fills out a Civi form every time they get a request for assistance from someone in NJ. That information then goes into a queue monitored by OSNJ volunteers who then commit to fulfilling the request. The volunteer reports back when the request is fulfilled and can then commit to fulfilling another one. The kind folks at OSNJ have served thousands using this system and have documented how they do it with this not-very-short video.

There are many more ways we could use CiviCRM in the relief effort: for case management, event pages and RSVPs, fundraising, membership management and more. I encourage folks to check out civicrm.org to see all the ways the system can be used. If you’d like to get involved with CiviCRM use in the Occupy Sandy operation, email tech@nycga.net.

ShareTribe, deployed at http://occupysandy.permabank.net

In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, a group of technology-oriented activists hatched a plan to create a web application that facilitates sharing among its users. During the first months of Occupy Sandy, we finally deployed a FLO software package with the appropriate features called ShareTribe. It’s built by a community of developers centered in Finland and their intention is to create “Wordpress for Sharing”—which I think is the right idea.

permabankosdbPermaBank provides users with the ability to post offers and request items, services, rides and spaces from each other; and provides a workflow that makes it easy to do real world exchanges with messaging, commenting, and a transaction workflow that enables folks to commit to fulfilling a request and certifying that their request was indeed fulfilled. Folks who find Sahana’s administrator-oriented request fulfillment system too heavy and “industrial” might find the PermaBank system more to their liking.

Conclusion

It goes without saying that all the technology in the world is worthless without the folks in affected areas doing relief work and practicing mutual aid. A database isn’t going to muck-out a house, deliver diapers or give people the experience of personal connection. But what it will do is organize information critical for all those tasks taking place.

Some people feel weird using systems like Sahana or CiviCRM to work with data. The systems can feel awkward, impersonal and clunky, especially when you compare them to the slick applications from Facebook, Twitter and Google. But don’t be fooled by polished web apps from massive corporations—they’re providing you with the digital equivalent of a McDonald’s hamburger or Starbucks Frappuccino.

Corporations provide you with “free” web applications because they make tons of money off of your data. They absolutely, positively do not want you to run free/libre/open-source (FLO) software such as Sahana and CiviCRM because FLO software empowers people to be producers instead of consumers.

More people using WordPress (ex. occupysandy.net) means more people producing grassroots media and consuming less mainstream media.

More people using CiviCRM means more people producing online fundraising and advocacy campaigns and consuming less corporate sponsored “clicktivism”.

More people using Sahana means more people producing effective resource and supply chain management systems and consuming fewer corporate products and services.

More people using PermaBank mean more people producing money-less exchanges and consuming fewer resources.

If you’re interested in getting more involved with the FLO technologies used by Occupy Sandy, email tech@nycga.net. We need as much help as we can get.

 

[Note: This article also appears in Vitamin DWB and occupywallstreet.net.  The author, Devin Balkind, has been a tireless advocate for the use of free and open source software generally, and Sahana in particular, during the Hurricane Sandy response.]

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