Nine months ago, I attended the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters Convening in Elizabeth, NJ. It was a fantastic event in which people from over 50 nonprofit, mostly religious, organizations came together to network, troubleshoot the ways they were providing Sandy disaster relief, and discuss how they might better tackle disaster relief challenges in the future.
The event was put together by National VOAD (NVOAD), an organization consisting of volunteers and staff from its 108 member organizations. There is a VOAD in every state (ex. New York State VOAD) and often in large cities as well (ex. NYCVOAD) — each of which is member-run and organized using a structure similar to that of the National VOAD. The VOAD meetings that I’ve attended have consisted of representatives of member organizations engaging in a facilitated conversation about how to overcome disaster-related issues, and then breaking out into working groups or committees to tackle specific challenges. While it was clear that the larger, better-funded organizations within the VOADs such as the Red Cross have more influence than the other organizations, there was — at least to me — a sense of horizontality and a genuine desire among participants to coordinate and collaborate with each other. Indeed, the VOAD structures remind me more of “spokes councils” than they do traditional nonprofit organizations — which is pretty cool.
VOAD organizations help groups “active in disasters” coordinate better. Discussions center around a range of topics, from food distribution or rebuilding homes to performing case management or analyzing policy issues. Somehow, though, they all seem to end in the same place: with a discussion about how member organizations can better share information.
In general, VOAD conversations are open, inclusive and generative: people recognize the expertise that they and others have gained from on-the-ground relief work, and eagerly share knowledge and information derived from those experiences. However, when the topic turns to software and data, the tone changes. People seem to imagine software and data to be obscure, complicated topics best left to experts — and they don’t imagine those experts to be the people in their network or the room.
Many of the VOAD members I spoke with didn’t know what software they use, told me they don’t feel empowered to make changes to their websites or software systems, and don’t think they can have a software system that meets their needs without someone spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
VOADs Should Go with the FLO!
The VOAD community takes pride in its “do it yourself” character. Rebuilding a house? No problem! Feeding ten thousand people a day? We’re on it! But when it comes to websites, databases and information management systems, people become overwhelmed. Yes, databases were extremely difficult and expensive to set up 10 years ago — but things have changed. There has been rapid and sustained progress in software technology, making most common technical challenges easy to overcome with relatively simple FLO (free/libre/open-source) software.
For folks who don’t know what FLO is, a brief explanation is in order. FLO software is free (no-cost), libre (without restriction), and open (you can use, edit, modify and share its source code). Linux, Firefox, WordPress and Wikipedia are just a few of the tens of thousands of extremely popular FLO software packages being used by people everyday. FLO software, like VOADs, are developed by communities of people who work together to build systems that help people help each other. To learn more about FLO software, read this brief explanation and the free and open source software page on Wikipedia.
Many people in the VOAD community will be surprised to learn that there are FLO solutions for many of the common challenges faced by disaster relief and community resilience groups. This document will describe a few FLO solutions that are particularly useful to VOADs and provide recommendations for how they can be effectively utilized them to meet common needs.
You can learn more about FLO solutions and their usefulness for disaster relief and community resilience challenges at knowledge.nycprepared.org/tools.
Websites are the backbone of any modern communications strategy because of their flexibility, customizability and accessibility. Modern “content management systems” (CMS) make it possible for people who only have basic computer skills to manage and maintain even seemingly complicated websites. Many of CMS systems have plugin architectures that allow users to install additional functionality, making it possible for an organization’s website to be a platform upon which other software runs – such as form builders, intra-nets, mapping applications and contact management systems.
The top three most popular FLO CMS systems power approximately 30% of the websites on the internet. All of these systems produce RSS feeds, which makes it very easy for people to syndicate and share news and event information produced using these systems.
The most popular by far is WordPress, which is used by about 20% of the world’s websites. While this system was originally built to be a blogging platform, it has matured into a fully featured CMS that can perform a wide range of functions commonly needed by nonprofit and community organizations such as creating web pages, blog/news posts, photo galleries, videos, events calendars, custom forms you can use to collect email addresses, contact info, surveys, process donations, and more.
Hosting a WordPress website costs between $5-$50/month depending on how much traffic the website receives.
Even if your organization isn’t interested in upgrading its website, building a WordPress site is cheap and easy enough that it might be worth creating one for your own team or for a specific disaster.
Learn more about websites in our knowledge base.
Contact and Case Management
Organizing information about people is one of the most challenging parts of disaster-related information management. Fortunately, constituent relationship management systems (CRMs) were invented to do just that. CRMs are databases that collect and organize information about people who want to interact with and/or receive more information about a group’s activities. When this information is entered into a database, it can be “queried” (i.e. searched) in useful ways that make communication much easier. Most CRMs are focused on providing solutions to businesses, but a few are oriented towards nonprofit and community groups. They provide a wide range of relationship management and engagement solutions that help a large and physically dispersed group of people collect information about individuals and groups, record interactions and document outcomes.
This type of system is very useful for disaster relief groups because it helps them manage relationships with four types of people:
- volunteers who want to give their time
- donors who want to give their money
- survivors who need assistance
- human service providers who can help people in need
A few VOAD member groups that I spoke with used CRMs for their Sandy operations — but, by and large, the VOAD community isn’t using them. Instead, most VOAD members I spoke with were either using spreadsheets or desktop-based database systems to track and manage their relationships. The few organizations that were using the CAN system for disaster case management and human services directory functionality lacked a solution for the CRM functions CAN doesn’t provide, such as volunteer and donor management.
CiviCRM is a fantastic FLO case management solution, and also happens to be the world’s most popular FLO CRM system for nonprofits. A standard CiviCRM installation package can do donor, volunteer and case management, send out e-newsletters, process donations, generate event pages and maintain a directory of service providers to the public. Since CiviCRM is FLO, organizations can run it on their own servers or they can pay around $300/year for a CiviCRM specialist to install and host the software for them.
CiviCRM makes it extremely easy to build a content-based website around it since it is a component of the three most popular FLO content management systems (WordPress, Drupal and Joomla). Indeed, if your organization is already using one of these CMSs, adding CiviCRM can be extremely simple. CiviCRM can be useful for any nonprofit organization that needs to send out email newsletters, process online donations and collect contact information — so even if your organization is happy with CAN’s case management functionality, you might nevertheless want to consider CiviCRM for other common nonprofit functions.
What about CAN?
The one piece of technology the VOADs do “share” is the Coordinated Assistance Network system (aka CAN). CAN is a disaster case management system owned and operated by the Red Cross and developed by VisionLink, a for-profit corporation that has also built the National VOAD website and the database systems that powers many of the nation’s 211 “human service” directories. While many organizations in the VOAD community have some access to CAN, that access is often difficult to obtain and limited in scope. More problematic is the question many people have about how long CAN will be accessible to the community of case managers working with Sandy survivors and whether it will adapt into a tool for long term case management of Sandy survivors. As will most proprietary software, there are no readily-apparent opportunities for the community of CAN users to contribute to the system’s development.
The general sentiment about CAN at the NVOAD event was that it’s an outdated piece of software, but it’s the best thing the community’s got. Even still, few organizations use it voluntarily and many people considered CAN accessibility and training one of the largest bottlenecks in the disaster case management process, especially during the first months of the disaster when people who were doing case management work couldn’t access the system.
Some of the problems with CAN articulated during the NVOAD event include:
- It takes days, sometimes weeks, to be granted access to CAN; and many grassroots relief groups and some VOAD member groups simply don’t qualify for access. Many groups waste time and energy trying to access CAN when they could be using those resources to develop and deploy CRM systems that meet their own unique set of needs.
- All data that goes into CAN becomes the property of the Red Cross under terms that are difficult to question or change.
- Only CAN employees and CAN partners can perform import and export functions.
- No one but VisionLink can modify the CAN software.
With a small investment, the VOAD community could turn CiviCRM into a fantastic disaster contact and case management solution that any VOAD could use for itself and in partnership with others.
When a disaster strikes, VOAD could immediately deploy one or more pre-configured CiviCRM solution to capture and manage data in the initial phases of the disaster. Compliance with Federal requirements and standards could be built into a CiviCRM component, as could a basic reporting mechanism that would enable each disaster case management deployments to share basic identity information about clients to ensure that people aren’t enrolled in more than one case management system to get “double benefits”. All data could also imported into the CAN system.
The following activities could make that happen:
Code a case management template (in XML) that could be imported into any CiviCRM to turn it into a disaster case management system. Estimated cost: under $10,000.
Develop capacity within the NVOAD network for managing CiviCRM hosting, either by hiring a CiviCRM expert or contracting with one of the many CiviCRM providers.
Run database management trainings so VOADs learn how databases can be used to solve a wide range of challenges they encounter.
Learn more about how to manage contacts in our knowledge base.
Human Services and Referral Directories
After a disaster, relief providers need good information about where to refer victims for “human services” assistance such as homeless shelters, mental health counselling and food pantries. Unlike local business information, which has been made readily available via the internet over a decade ago, “human service” information is not. Directories of human service providers are usually managed by state government contractors who use proprietary database systems that not even most VOADs — let alone disaster survivors — can access.
To access this information, people have to call directory assistance like they did in the 1990s to talk with their local 211 call center operator. This leads to confusion and wasted time for survivors, and creates a problem for relief providers who want to track that their clients are receiving up to date information and following up on referrals.
UPDATE – 4/29/14: Check out our Data Standards Initiative to learn more about how we’re solving this problem in NYC. The information below is still relevant but out of date.
Recommendations: Drupal and CiviCRM or Sahana EDEN
Directory software isn’t particularly complicated. Indeed, there are a number of FLO software packages that could be used to organize and display 211 information to the public, as well as provide additional functionality like granular “agency-by-agency” permissions, calendaring, volunteer management, document management and other solutions touted by VisionLink as “what makes CommunityOS different.” Drupal and CiviCRM could both power 211 directories, as could Sahana EDEN and the Knight Foundation-funded Open211 software development project.
Of course, software is just one part of the challenge. The other critical piece is a taxonomy for organizing 211 information. Fortunately, the Open Eligibility Project has produced a FLO taxonomy for 211 information that anyone can use to organize 211 data.
With FLO software and data taxonomies available, the time is right for a group of organizations to come together to set up open 211 systems around the country. Such an effort presents an amazing opportunity for the VOADs — not only to increase information accessible to disaster relief providers, but to make “human services” information easier for everyone to access.
National VOAD should ensure that 211 information is accessible during a disaster. This means having an easy-to-deploy FLO 211 directory software solution ready for when disaster strikes. This solution could be offered to state and city based VOADs immediately. A FLO 211 directory software solution could be built with CiviCRM and Drupal or with Sahana..
Learn more about Human Services data management in our knowledge base.
Managing Data and Knowledge
After a disaster, different groups and individuals have access to different important pieces of information that need to be shared broadly with the wider network. Other pieces of information need to be shared with select individuals and remain otherwise private. While people might disagree about what, when, where and how to share disaster related information, it’s hard to imagine anyone arguing against better tools for data and information sharing.
A data repository system allows users to upload both (i) private data that they can manage without anyone else seeing it, and (ii) public data that can be shared with everyone. To prevent confidential information from being made public, all public data uploads can be moderated such that only approved datasets are made public. If users find incorrect data—or data that shouldn’t be shared on the system—they could flag the dataset as inappropriate and it can be taken offline Of course, with more data tools available, it is incumbent upon the system’s implementers to train their community to use data and data tools in responsible ways to improve their operations.
Recommendation: OwnCloud and/or CKAN
At the most basic level, groups engaged in disaster relief and community resilience work should have access to a Dropbox-like file sharing system which can host both public and private files and folder systems. OwnCloud is an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-use system that could meet this need.
If a group or network wants to make it easy for its member organizations to benefit from the open data revolution, they can set up a CKAN “data repository”, which provides groups with the ability to upload, describe, preview, download, host and stream a wide variety of data formats. It can be used to host and organize PDFs, turn CSVs (spreadsheets) into interactive maps and serve dynamic data streams in real time to other software applications. For the more technically ambitious, it can also wrap data in an API with which software developers can use to create applications, produce visualizations and build semantic information resources.
Disaster relief groups could use a data repository to share a wide variety of data and knowledge information, including:
- information about affected areas, such as demographics, geography/geology, environmental reports, important places, and mapping layers
- canvassing data related to individual and neighbourhood needs for things like food, shelter, and health care
- raw data about who is providing disaster relief and which populations they are serving
- templates for managing inventory, work sites, damage assessment surveys, volunteer registration forms and other tools for disaster relief groups
- how-to’s and trainings guides about everything from killing mold to anonymizing and responsibly sharing data
Data repositories allow users to upload both public data that can be shared with everyone, and private data that can be managed by particular users without anyone else seeing it. To prevent confidential information from being made public, the system can be configured such that all public data uploads are moderated, and only approved data sets are made public. In such a configuration, when users find incorrect data or data that shouldn’t be shared on the system, they can flag it as inappropriate so it can be taken offline. Of course, with more data tools available, it would be incumbent on the relief community to learn more about how to use data and data tools to improve their operations.
The VOAD community needs a place to share files. The first step is to set up an OwnCloud system (which would cost well under $1,000/year) and start giving VOAD members accounts and providing trainings that show people how to use widely-accessible online tools to collect, use, analyze, permission and share data. As people become more comfortable using this file sharing system, it might make sense to set up a CKAN data repository for the VOAD community. This is the same software used by data.gov and enables much deeper data utilization functionality.
Learn more about how to make data more accessible in our knowledge base.
Inventory and Logistics Tools
Before, during and after a disaster, many relief groups have to perform a wide range of logistical tasks, create a specific set of needs that FLO software solutions can meet:
- requesting and receiving inventory items
- tracking inventory at multiple facilities
- sending inventory to people in need
- generating reports about activities
- sharing up-to-date inventory information with stakeholders such as government agencies such as FEMA, nonprofit and community groups, donors and the general public
- developing an awareness of the other relief providers in the area
Without a software tool set to help organizations meet these needs, groups are often left using spreadsheets and personal relationships to make sense of the disaster logistics environment. Many people suffer and many resources are wasted because a coordinated disaster logistics network doesn’t exist — and it very well could.
Recommendation: Sahana EDEN
Sahana EDEN is a FLO “disaster management system” with robust logistics functionality that can be used by participating organizations to manage their own inventory, ship and receive inventory items, track assets (like vehicles and generators), build reports for various groups, and create maps. EDEN has robust directory functionality, for individuals, organizations, facilities, victims, volunteers, projects and more, making it a great tool for organizing information within a geographic area before disaster strikes. When disaster does strike, people can find the information they need in order to be effective in the aftermath.
The National VOAD could work with Sahana EDEN developers to create a generic configuration that could be deployed by its chapter organizations, and/or in response to specific disasters. Sarapis has begun this work by helping to create an EDEN system for Long-Term Recovery Organizations in NYC. We will need assistance from the VOAD community, financial and otherwise, in order to see this project through.
Learn more about inventory and asset management solutions in our knowledge base.
Collaborative Work Order System
When disaster creates damage over a wide area, one of the biggest challenges is coordinating the (often volunteer) work crews to clean things up. This task requires a massive amount of information sharing: from the canvassing that results in comprehensive neighborhood damage assessments, to the assignment (or self-assignment) of work teams and the tracking of work statuses so the entire network knows what has been done and where.
A new tool called CrisisCleanup distinguished itself during Superstorm Sandy relief work as an amazing solution to this challenge. It was developed by Aaron Titus, a volunteer within the Mormon disaster response community. As a part-time software developer, he saw a need for a tool that “implements a ‘Craigslist’ philosophy to recovery efforts—organizations that are aware of work orders enter them into the system, and organizations with capacity to help can claim and perform the work.” The tool’s success during Sandy was stunning: CWOS was used by over 100 organizations to coordinate nearly 30,000 volunteers fixing over 5,000 homes. What began as one person’s passion project has grown into an effort involving nearly a half dozen volunteer software developers and designers — and it is already changing the way disasters cleanup is managed.
CrisisCleanup wasn’t developed by a software group inspired by building intellectual property for themselves or a high end consulting firm: it was made by passionate people who want to help people help each other. By embracing FLO solutions, the VOAD community can encourage more of this type of innovation from a global community of do-gooders.
The team behind CrisisCleanup is enthusiastic to work with VOAD. NVOAD should encourage its members to take CrisisCleanup trainings before a disaster strikes and, when it does, push member organizations to sign up for that disaster’s CrisisCleanup instance.
Learn more about shared rebuild platforms in… our knowledge base!
Our Next Steps
Over the last year, NYCPrepared has built out a knowledge resource to organize information about these FLO solutions. We have also helped individual organizations and long-term recovery groups in the New York City area effectively utilize many of the FLO solutions described above. Now, thanks to the generosity of the local disaster relief community and global networks of software developers, we’re coordinating a technology development effort that is bringing FLO software communities together to create a suite of FLO solutions for the NYC relief and resilience community. This suite of tools will provide a platform upon which other solutions can plugin, creating a FLO “superbot” that anyone can deploy themselves free of restriction or charge.
To compliment the development of these tools, we’re building a curriculum to teach people how to use them as well as other useful and accessible software solutions such as Google Apps and social media services. We have also identified a signficiant need for education in basic data management and sharing techniques. These techniques would be much easier to develop and spread if the VOAD community could agree upon a set of standard templates for common relief tasks such as canvassing, volunteer intake, work order management, human services resources and the sharing of other types of data among organizations.
We look forward to collaborating with local, state, national and international disaster relief communities to bring these tools together to make them more accessible to member organizations, benefiting the entire disaster relief community and the survivors of future disaster for whom we all serve.
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