Apps, Textbots, & Web Maps: Tech Ecosystem Aids Harvey Relief Effort

[Updated 9/1/17 3:10 pm] Houston—A Slack channel called #harvey has become a virtual command center for the city’s tech community during one of the most destructive natural disasters to hit Texas.

A group of software programmers, website developers, and others meet around-the-clock on the online messaging system, exchanging code and advice to build a nearly real-time map with the location of shelters and whether they are still accepting evacuees and what supplies are needed at each location.

“We set up a loose infrastructure to edit a Google sheet and put resources on top of that,” says Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City, a civic tech organization in Houston. “We have a couple of people who have built maps of textbots or apps on top of it.”

I spoke to Reichman Wednesday morning as the floodwaters of Tropical Storm Harvey began to slowly recede in Houston. The storm had moved on from Houston Tuesday night, causing flooding in the East Texas communities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Efforts here are now starting to focus on aiding people in recovery efforts and an ad hoc volunteer army has formed to staff shelters, sort donations, and soothe distressed evacuees.

Using social media and web tools, members of the city’s tech community are deploying their skills to help make all of those processes more efficient. “We’re just looking for ways to help the way we know how,” says Kuan Zhao, who runs an e-food company, Lotus-Box.com, in Houston.

Zhao and his friend, IT consultant Jing Nghik, created a “Disaster Helper” Wiki-style page aimed at aggregating information from FEMA and other government agencies, as well as legal and insurance advice.

On Monday, I spoke to Shailendra Sinhasane, owner of a Houston software firm, who created an interactive map designed to help connect those who needed to be rescued from flooded homes. Groups like the Cajun Navy, a civilian group of boaters, were on the scene looking to help.

It’s not just local techies getting involved. The group has been contacted by NY Tech Responds, MIT Media Lab, Twilio, and others whose members have offered to pitch in, Reichman says. “It’s been chaotic and amazing; we’ve had an outpouring of support from around the world,” he adds.

One out-of-towner who used his company’s expertise to help is Ravi Parikh, founder and CEO of RoverPass, an Austin-based startup that helps connect owners of recreational vehicles with spots at campsites. As he watched television footage of the then-hurricane’s destruction, he says he received a text from a friend asking about available RVs that could provide shelter for other friends who lost their home in the storm. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. We have a giant database of e-mails for people who owns RVs in Texas and Louisiana,’ ” he says.

[Updated with more on RoverPass’s efforts.] Parikh has developed a Hurricane Harvey page on RoverPass’s website where RV owners can register their vehicles to aid those who have lost their homes. He’s also been in contact with someone with the Red Cross in Central Texas in order to see how he might be able to help them provide temporary shelter for displaced people, a sort of free or discounted Airbnb-style service for evacuees, he says.

“They’re in shelters and probably uncomfortable,” he says, “maybe there’s something we can do here.”

Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer at Rice University and founder of a product design firm called Data Design Co, says the Slack group coalesced as they each wondered what to do with all the phone calls and text messages they received asking how they could help in Houston.

“A lot of us were here for Katrina and volunteered at shelters, including the Astrodome,” he says. “We’re building this off of that experience and what we perceive the immediate needs are.”

The knowledge gained in this crash course will continue to pay off, says Reichman of Sketch City.

“We learned a lot on the fly,” he says. “Next time—and there’s gonna be a next time—we’ll have all the tools at the ready to deploy.”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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