Sandy, Sahana and Sarapis

THE FOLLOWING POST FROM JANUARY 2013 IS REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE SARAPIS FOUNDATION.

flosolutionsfront2When “Superstorm Sandy” hit New York City on October 30th, dozens of relief organizations, hundreds of grassroots groups and thousands of people mobilized to provide aid to those most affected. The challenge of coordinating such a relief effort was felt by everyone involved.

How do you keep track of who has what resources, who is requesting those resources, where the resources are now—and where they’ll need to be tomorrow? How can you see whose needs have been fulfilled and who still needs help? The list of information challenges is extensive.

Sarapis saw the information management challenge coming. Within days of the hurricane we were on-location, helping grassroots-organized disaster relief hubs collect data more efficiently and feed it to folks who could turn it into actionable information for relief providers. We embedded ourselves in grassroots efforts and turned paper forms into spreadsheets and spreadsheets into database tables—and now we’re integrating the data in those tables together through a free/libre/open-source (FLO) disaster management solution provided by the Sahana Software Foundation.

The Sahana Software Foundation shepherds a number of FLO disaster management solutions.  Sahana was created after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. Its first iteration was developed through a series of code sprints organized by local information and telecommunications companies in Sri Lanka, who wanted to develop a FLO resource management system that would enable a wide range of relief efforts to coordinate supplies, staff and volunteers over a massive area.

Within a week of Hurricane Sandy, the Sarapis team was touring Mark Prutsalis, CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation, around a half dozen community-organized relief hubs and sites, introducing him to key stakeholders and decision-makers who would ultimately determine whether the Sahana system would be implemented at their locations. Less than a month after Sandy hit New York, Sarapis is proud to announce that the Sahana system at http://sandyrelief.sahanafoundation.org is operational, has dozens of active users, and is being used at the largest “Occupy Sandy” communications hubs. It has been demonstrated for folks at a wide variety of voluntary organizations active in disasters (VOADs) including the American Red Cross, New York Cares, United Way and government agencies such as FEMA. It’s also likely that Sahana will be used on a permanent basis by grassroots and community organizations to provide various forms of relief to individuals and groups in the greater New York City area. Our work has both facilitated the use of an amazing FLO resource management platform by grassroots organizing efforts and raised the profile of the Sahana Eden system in the eyes of large institutions who will hopefully, at some point in the future, abandon the proprietary systems that grassroots organizers can’t easily access in favor of FLO systems that everyone can use.

The Sahana Software Foundation’s commitment to supporting grassroots, community-led organizing endeavors has been astounding. Mark Prutsalis, the CEO/President of the Sahana Software Foundation is a resident of Brooklyn and has gotten deeply involved in the relief efforts, touring sites, organizing trainings and providing less-experienced disaster responders with a sense of confidence that only 20 years of disaster relief work can provide. He also flew in Sahana’s core team of developers to New York so they could work with the grassroots efforts in the Occupy Sandy network. Michael Howden of New Zealand and Fran Boon of England jumped right in, visiting sites, surveying users and making everyone feel closer to the technologies they were using for their work. They worked with everyone from user experience designers to warehouse floor managers and comms/dispatch teams to troubleshoot issues, build new features, and generally increase the usefulness of the software. They spent weeks in New York and Mark documented their experience better than I ever could on the Sahana Foundation blog here and here.

Why did the Sahana Foundation dedicate over $40,000 worth of their time to the Occupy Sandy effort? Because they recognized it as something familiar: a physical manifestation of the free/libre/open movement. Unlike decades-old institutions that structure themselves around an industrial-age information technology ecology—fax machines, memos, bosses’s bosses’ bosses, and people who resist change in order to preserve their jobs—Occupy Sandy is a temporal network that organizes itself around its technological capabilities. For example, for a shipment of supplies to go out to a relief location, someone needs to create a waybill that has a list of item to be included in the shipment and a destination. If a technology (such as Sahana) comes along that automatically generates printable waybills, the person who used to perform that task isn’t going to lobby to keep their job—they’re going to go do something else.

Occupy works because everyone is trying to make useful contributions to the network, older institutions work because everyone is trying to keep their jobs. As a blank slate that molds itself to the technologies it can access, Occupy can be a technologist’s dream, but it can also be a nightmare. In traditional institutions where bosses tell their underlings what technologies to use, it’s easy to get people to use nifty new technologies: you just have to convince the boss that it’s a good idea. In the Occupy network, each user has to be personally convinced that a tool is worth his or her time. This is a complicated task that more closely resembles bringing a product to market than it does training folks to use software in an organization. And that is the unique work we do at Sarapis: getting people who perform the core functions of a healthy and effective civil society to use FLO solutions.

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