Interview with Devin Balkind, Sarapis & Occupy Sandy
Interview with Devin Balkind, Sarapis Non-profit, April 29, 2013.
Interiewer: Max Liboiron, Superstorm Research Lab
Q: So sorry. Could you start a little bit again and start with again your name and your affiliation.
A: Sure. So Devin Balkind, of Sarapis, which is a non-profit that advances the free libre open source.
Q: Free what and open source?
A: Libre. Free libre open source. I mean all, it all gets real political.
A: So, you know you want to cover all the bases. Technology solutions—technology in a broad sense. I first got involved in the Sandy effort actually through Occupy Sandy and because of my previous affiliations or work with Occupy Wall Street and the kind of the work that we had done there developed into the tech infrastructure that got utilized by the Occupy Sandy effort, you know, to a pretty significant extent. And that’s, and that was kind of, that’s what got me into it.
Q: Okay. What infrastructure was that?
A: The website, the constituent relationship management database, and you know, then like, all the kind of peripheral stuff, so lists—lists that Occupy.net—the whole Occupy.net set of stuff. And that kind of by nature gets used by the community. The website was up very fast, because it was an inter-Occupy network multi-site, a WordPress multisite, so you can just one click. One click, create a new one. And the CRM was the same.
Q: This CiviCRM?
A: CiviCRM. Yeah.
A: So we had a bunch of those in general lying around in various states of development over since, since OWS started. So that was the inter-Occupy one.
Q: So what was your experience of, of Sandy like from your perspective?
A: Well I mean in the early days it was the frenzy. The frenzy was cool. The frenzy was very much an effort in the earliest days to get people using the same spreadsheets. There was like a proliferation of Google Docs to manage information and like, bring those slowly together into fewer and fewer Google Docs—was critical [laughter]. And the social media work, which was not something I was involved in, was just kind of consistently bringing the frenzy—consistently like, bringing the frenzy around.
So in those early days it was like, the frenzy was then getting added into the CRM system. Because when people would come, they would fill out the volunteer, the online volunteer form when they got there, articulating their skills and their interests, and like what they have—like I have a car, I want to help out in Brooklyn, and Thursdays are good for me. So we got a really tremendous amount of highly valuable data into the database, that we then used kind of during that time, but during that time it wasn’t as necessary to kind of do these mailings, these targeted mailings to various segmentations of these lists.
And then, so then the kind of the middle phase was much more—those types of mailings; getting the website into improving the website and its capabilities to do the mapping right. And I mean, it was, it was all just—it was a shit show. [Laughter] It was a consistent shit show. And one of the amazing things was that, something in the middle phase, we started early. I started going more to these voluntary organizational and disaster group meetings, these VOADs. And they had a data committee, and so I got to kind of see the internals of how the voluntary organizations, which are very much not like the city, manage their information. And, and I thought we were disorganized and they were—they still are –just pretty pre-disorganized [laughter]. They haven’t hit the level of disorganized yet.
And it was pretty frightening, because a lot of—because a disaster takes place and an inevitable outcome is that a lot of organizations that don’t normally communicate with each other are going to communicate with each other, which is abide by the nature of a disaster. It’s not like “oh this disaster that happened and that disaster that doesn’t happen.” It’s like by nature disaster, it’s like how are you exchanging data, how are you exchanging information. And that, that conversation hadn’t really taken place within the—hasn’t really been taken place within the VOAD community.
The city is a whole other animal. The city is a—it’s hard to describe them as anything but nefarious in the way that they—not only hold their information, and make it inaccessible, but also lead people astray, lead groups astray. I’ve been pitching this article to journalists and I’ll send you my pitch. It’s actually kind of a long pitch about how the city in the early days was like, “Oh, we’re going to get up the system that you’ll all be able to use. It’s this collaborative—it’s this work order system so we can all see what houses were hit and what status they are in terms of their being repaired, their mold, etcetera. And just, the system never– Like, “Oh it’s coming. It’s coming soon. It’s coming soon. Like next week. In two weeks.” And never came. It never came. Meanwhile, the group that did that was supposed to put that together got like a half million dollars from the Robinhood Foundation. It’s like, why. Another part of that is that the National Guard did like a massive canvass of the Rockaways, and probably I was more interested in the Rockaways at that point and now I’m more interested in Staten Island, but they—all their data went through the same group, this Global Dirt Group.
Q: Oh, what group?
A: Group’s called Global Dirt.
Q: Global Dirt.
A: D—yeah. Global D-I-R-T. Have you heard of them?
Q: Yeah, I have. Yeah.
A: Yeah, so like no, no software support for the volunteer organization community now, so they also disappeared, this first level, this first round of a canvassing data. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t talked to anyone that’s seen it. Maybe you can find someone whose seen it.
Q: The people who—
A: And report back to me [laughs].
Q: So who, who collected it? The Global Dirt people?
A: Well, the National Guard collected it.
A: On tablets provided to them, is my understanding, provided to them by the National—provided by Global Dirt which, went into their global Dirt database, which could’ve been a CiviCRM [laughs]. Let’s be real. This stuff’s not that complicated. And then no one’s seen it; people in the city, city government hadn’t seen it and had been talking about how they hadn’t seen it. The Red Cross—the people in the Red Cross who are in the data committee and other people in the Red Cross hadn’t seen it. No one I’ve talked to have seen it—and I was in the data committee for a few months, so I don’t know where this information is. That was the most critical information for the voluntary organizations, disasters groups, and groups like community groups and groups like Occupy Sandy to be able to do the triage. And it just got taken and lifted. And then, once you canvass someone once, you know, it gets harder and increasingly harder to canvass—get good information out of them. So like the amount of damage that that canvass with the information that was disappearing had is, it was highly significant, but I try to explain this to journalists and they’re like, “When you say data, what does that mean?’ And it’s like, okay. It’s not going to happen. So yeah. So it’s all very frustrating. Other things that are frustrating, should I just start talking about them too? Are you even enjoying this?
Q: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
A: Other things that are frustrating are that there’s no—that the amount of support—so, during this mid-period, this middle period of time, the community groups, the non-profits that were acted in the disaster—most of them not VOADs but some of them are VOADs, organized locally, kind of facilitated by FEMA, loosely facilitated by FEMA into these long-term recovery organizations or long-term recovery groups LTROs, LTRGs, whatever. And then those groups kind of become their own non-profits, and the Lawyers’ Alliance has been good about how like helping these coalition groups kind of get their 5013-C status applications in, etcetera. So these LTRO groups are here—ya know I, I’m active in the Staten Island one. And there’s no, there’s no help for them. The millions and millions of dollars have been raised—billions of dollars have been allocated for Sandy relief, meanwhile you actually have community groups who know, who are actually doing the work of relief in their communities. And, and yeah, everyone’s somehow powerless to fund them. So what I do and my organization of a few people does, or we’re being to do more is just providing tech support to these groups, making sure that they’re using the right data management practices and they’re using databases and publishing, you know, and know how to use their WordPress websites and publish to the calendar and things like that. You know, because these groups need tech support.
So that’s kind of where we are—that’s kind of where we are now, and we’re also—one of the other things that we did in the beginning of the Sandy experience was we started talking to the Sahana Foundation, which produces these python based disaster management, open source disaster management solutions, which are really quite large and extensive and pretty amazing. And if I could do it all again, I would’ve—you know, knowing that these solutions exist to like these could be like extremely useful for everybody—any group that, or any large coalition, regional disaster group to have access to have people configured, have people trained, and because you can really l do just a lot of everything on it. Primarily though it’s good at logistics and good at mapping and it’s got built into the logistics you need to warehouse, to manage inventory, share that inventory, share that information about inventory, manage assets, share assets, log where assets are, etcetera. So this solution is now — we kind of—I was—I really tried to get it used by Occupy Sandy in the frenzy phase, and it was not—I mean it was used a bit, but it wasn’t, you know, we weren’t organized to be able to use a solution like that. And now—
Q: What, what do you mean not organized to use that?
A: Just because, you know the fields were different. The fields were not, you know for these organic grassrootsy things, you’ve got to just take what people have done and—and kind of support that. And bringing in some alternative solution that needs a bunch of training isn’t what I would recommend in general. But it would’ve been great. [Laughs] It would’ve been great if we had that turn key on day 1, it would’ve been—we would’ve—all of our data would’ve been very well managed right now and our data would be so much better managed than any of the other organizations. It would’ve been quite a coup. But now the need is still there, and it’s so frustrating to see how the warehouses that exist now that are still trafficking and that are still moving supplies from place to place don’t have inventory solutions. And so we have the Sahana system that we need to move into one more round of implement—one more round of customizations to make it stupid-easy for the, these warehousers that these LTROs, some of the LTROs manage, some other organizations manage, do connections and do the work for the stuff and like and meet the reporting requirements. Meanwhile, the group—where’s the money? What, what, I don’t understand what, what all this other stuff is that, is getting all this money, and how, how I can, and of the people I know, and the people with whom I work, and all of these people who do all of this Sandy relief work, how none of them, how are none of them, how does no one tapped into this funding mechanism? And it’s just a miracle. It’s just, it’s consistently, it’s consistently miraculous. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how things go, because everyone’s always saying, “Oh, the LTROs are going to get a million dollars from this large profit; a million dollars from that non-profit; five million from that large non-profit; until the checks in the, until the money’s in the bank account, I’m not going to believe it. It’s really, yeah, it’s quite remarkable.
There are—there’s a lot of good work funded, but it’s not support work. I haven’t seen any support work get funded. It’s all applique, you know, tearing down the house, like gutting the house—the muck outs. That stuff’s getting funded, which is good. So I’m thankful for that, but yeah, it’s quite remarkable. One of the other things is that people in the disaster industry will tell you that ya know, the best way to is—that you never ever want to get anyone affected by disaster money, you know. Because once you do they’ll go buy a television, you know, and take care of emotional needs.
Q: Meaning you never want to fund individuals affected by the storm.
A: You never want to give them money. You always want to give them money to their creditors or to the service provider for them on their behalf. You basically want to fund things on their behalf, but not actually give them the ability to make any decisions for themselves with the money.
Q: What do you think about that?
A: I think that it’s troubling. [Laughs] Super troubling. It’s a terrible idea. And—I mean if, I understand the psychology behind it, and like I think the psychology—if we were living in a more perfect world, where everyone had a case manager and you could call your case manager, and the case manager would, you know, is really involved in bringing you back to where you had been, you know, and getting your back, getting your life back together, then it would make, it would make a decent amount of sense to just let the case manager handle all of that and not give you know, not create all of the opportunities for fraud and not, you know, etcetera. I do think the personal, when people say, “Oh, they’re going to go buy themselves a TV, because ya know, they went through this disaster and now they want to like relax, you know.” It’s like, well if they want to relax, like they should probably be able to relax; maybe, maybe they need a TV, you know. [laughter] If they feel like they need a TV, maybe they should get a TV.
Q: Maybe, maybe they understand their own needs.
A: Yeah, maybe they understand their own needs. But the more problematic part of all of that is that I think that psychology is what, is, gets extrapolated upon one iteration or more, and then it’s like “well these long-term recovery organizations, these local groups, that are in the thick of it—how are they — They’re all emotional! They all know people who were affected. They don’t know—we can’t give them the money.” We need to make sure that they treat these long term recovery groups, which are coalitions of like sixty organizations—in Staten Island there’s like eighty organizations, a hundred organizations, it’s insane. Like large and really well managed from my perspective. And it’s like, no these folks could like, could really do quite a bit with some funding. So they’re—so yeah, it’s the same story everywhere, right: the powers that be, the powers that have access to money don’t want to make the money locally available. One of the reasons why is one of the things that we were planning to do, and we still kind of are planning to do, but it’s something needs to shake out a bit more. It’s like, basically implement a participatory budgeting program within these communities, you know. Use, use what the innovations have been made in that field to a, you know to introduce people to participatory budgeting. Let the community spend their own—spend money. Billions of dollars have been allocated; millions raised. How about this community gets to determine how like five million dollars is going to get allocated in their community? So you know, if we got five million dollars like that shit would happen. It would probably be the largest participatory budgeting, you know—
A: Ever. Yeah. [Laughter]
A: So, you know. There’s a reason why the powers that be don’t want us to—they don’t want to see things like that happen. One of the reasons disasters are such an amazing opportunity is because large checks get written and large resources get allocated differently for a while, and if we can tap into—we can fund a lot of innovation, try out a lot of new models if that money were freely flowing. And these LTRO groups would love it. And we did in one of our Staten Island surveys, one of our canvasses, we—you know we asked people would you be interested in basic participatory budgeting? I think it was phrased “would you be interested in attending meetings to determine how recovery money are being…”
A: Allocated in the community.
A: And it’s like, seventy, sixty percent, seventy percent, eighty percent—I can’t remember the exact numbers, it’s in the file. But, yeah. People are interested in it. But the powers that be aren’t interested in that type of thing taking place, because that screws up a lot of business models. And before you know it, every time there’s a disaster, you’re going to see a massive leap in democratic participation among people, like “uh oh.” [laughs] So you know, I think any one of the, one of the concepts I’m really interested in now, after this–I’ve heard a lot about disaster capitalism, but… Disaster can be organizing when it’s just like—is like the way to go. It really is just a very powerful opportunity to make huge, huge strides. I mean the amount of strides that my community, the community, the Occupy-based, New York Occupy-based community has made since Sandy, is insane.
Q: Do, do you think that putting like a question or a therefore field once it gets put into a database about participatory budgeting, using—do you think that does work?
A: In terms of?
Q: In terms of, you knock on someone’s door and they’re expecting like, do you have food? Do you have water? Questions. And then the additional question is would you be interested in deciding this yourself with a bunch of people in your community that you might not know yet? Do you think just asking someone that does something?
A: Oh yeah. Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. And one of the things in Jersey Operations, the Jersey Occupy folks, is that they put three questions in all of their canvasses from the beginning about, like, are you—“before this storm, were you working? Are you familiar with what a worker-owned cooperative is? Would you be interested in having a meeting with other people who have a similar set of skills as you do, that are about worker cooperatives? What are your skills?” That type of thing.
Q: And I hear that they’re actually forming worker cooperatives over there.
A: They—yeah. Well they form their own for their organizers. Yeah. I think they are. I mean it’s easier said than done and—what a surprise. Not a lot of money. Not a lot of resources available for that type of activity. But they had a fundamentally—I know those guys. I know a lot of those people from Occupy work before, and they’re very, they’re very focused and—but they’re also kind of a smaller core. They have a smaller core group that does all the stuff. You know, that does the organization. Like we, have a function core group of tech people who process requests and make outcomes happen, but we don’t—they basically, they pay themselves salaries. They really did it what I’d consider responsibly. They really kind of organized up and—
Q: This is the Occupy Jersey?
A: This is the Occupy Sandy Jersey folks.
Q: Yeah, okay.
A: So they really kind of, they enlarged the core, you know, used the funding to make themselves sustainable, got strategically aligned with each other, etcetera. Occupy Sandy New York City, no. No. [laughter] No one got paid. No salaries was an earlier rule, which was really how tough for the tech side of things, because, I mean, it’s one thing if you can make like sixty or eighty or a hundred dollars an hour doing tech work. It’s hard; it’s hard to get that person to do it for free.
Q: It’s hard to get them to do it for free.
A: It’s not impossible, but it’s pretty impossible, it’s very difficult to get consistently reliable support and all that type of stuff. So that’s a real, that’s a real problem. And if we had been, if my organization had been a little further along–like we got our fiscal sponsorship like a few months into the storm– if we had been further along I would’ve much rather tried to develop an alternative revenue stream and get that type of work done. But so it goes.
Q: Yeah. As we pay ourselves at Superstorm Research Lab to deal with burnout and so that you make time to do the good work. Even though it’s per hour less than you’d make at other jobs, it’s still potentially sustainable.
A: Yeah. And you know the tech group doesn’t—the tech group I feel like has a lot less burnout, you know, because we—most of us are freelancers. So we have the ability to turn the dials up and down on the amount of income that we’re generating, you know, over a month or two period. And there’s always demand for the work. The work doesn’t—rarely takes you out of your own home or coffee shop or whatever. So it’s a different—it’s a bit different, but people get worked up, and then they yeah. Techies burn; the tech crew burns out too, which happens, yeah. It happens. But there are all types of difficulties with that. Anyway, yeah the—I think the questions—canvassing—things that should exist that don’t exist, that were pretty simple, “oh wow a disaster’s happening in a community. Where’s a good generic canvas for it?”
Q: Or what do you have to consider in the canvass farm, right. You should probably put a time stamp in there or something.
A: Yeah. I mean the amount of, the amount of forensics, forensic data that we have about like, if looking back at our old Google Docs, what types of documents are important, you know what I mean? How or how are they formatted and extrapolating spec specifications and templates and recommendations is, it’s all secondary. I can show you, it’s all on the large Google file.
Q: I would love to see.
A: It’s huge. It’d be great to, to….
Q: Push that into the world?
Q: That’s what we’re here for.
A: Yeah, that’d be really good.
Q: Yeah. Yeah.
A: Yeah and we can share—I mean we also have the database stuff, which is, which is cool. I mean right now we have—to give you a sense of scale, this is my understanding and I’m not always the best when it comes to numbers so excuse, pardon me, if I’m wrong. The Red Cross, the New York Red Cross is the largest Red Cross in the country. And they kind of pride themselves in their ability to mobilize people to go out during the disaster. I think, I think they have information about—yeah see, I’m going to screw up these numbers. But basically they, they have information about maybe twelve to fifteen thousand volunteers. It could be five thousand—it’s either twelve to fifteen thousand or five thousand volunteers in the New York area. And then they brought out either—they brought out either five hundred during Sandy or four thousand—I can’t remember which, which one it is. Occupy Sandy has really detailed information about well over twelve thousand now, probably fourteen thousand now.
Q: I heard seventy, when you combine all of the different sheets together.
A: I’m not—
Q: In the first weeks.
A: Well we have, we have that many people signed, gave an e-mail address, but I’m talking about “where do you want to work? What are your skills? What are your days?” Ya know, really segmentable data, which is—it’s great stuff for, I think it’s probably fourteen thousand people. And you know, once you de-dupe that sort of stuff it’s probably more like eight—I think we have phone numbers for like nine thousand, but, and, ya know it’s—that is so valuable, I can’t even… I mean we have to figure out what to do, what to do with it, and how to keep it updated. But that, that’s you know, within one disaster event we basically—we got out well over ten thousand people in terms of just like who flew the Occupy Sandy banner in the first weeks. So, in one event we outperformed the Red Cross’s volunteer management operation by, you know, depending on how my memory works, two to eight times or something. And that’s really significant. And like people—and the FEMA people, because they’re not, they’re differently involved; they’re not involved in the same way as the VOADs. This isn’t kind of, it’s not their job in the same way, because they’re—
Q: FEMA, it’s not FEMA’s job in the same way?
A: Yeah, ya know FEMA does funding. They do finance work and they do, you know, they’re liaisons. They’re people who are here and then they’re in Ohio, they’re just hired for this one event. You know what I mean? The VOADs are more professional, professional organizations who do great work, don’t get me wrong, they just don’t have the data part figured out. The FEMA people just think we’re like the coolest people in the world.
Q: Why’s that?
A: Just because they have a non-politicized perspective on the Occupy Sandy effort. So they recognize what gaps we filled and continue to fill and just, yeah. This guy named Seth who is the New York, the main New York FEMA vow coordinator, he’s good. He says really nice things. I went to the National VOAD Convention and no one was talking about Occupy Sandy, you know, up at the podium, but he went up and was just like, “Hey guys. I think we all know [laughs] that like those people right there from Occupy Sandy, from the Occupy Sandy crew, like really just were the outstanding participants.” His quote was like, “If you don’t like Occupy Sandy, it’s because you’ve never worked with Occupy Sandy.” Which, I don’t think is true, because I know a lot of people in Occupy Sandy who I can’t, I can’t work with. [Laughs] You know? But it’s still a great—it’s nice, it’s nice to see that type of thing happen. And I think it’s also nice to see the grassroots and mutual aid style of organizing can be extremely effective in a disaster, which, if you’re afraid of Fascism, you know, the general narrative of the conspiracy theorists is like as disaster happens, martial law’s implemented blah, blah blah. You know it’s like, disaster just equals bad. Disaster capitalism — all the opportunities get seized by the, by the….
Q: The ones who are already in power?
A: The authoritarian structures you know, and it’s nice to see that that doesn’t—not only does it not have to be the case, but that it can really go the other way — a bit. If we can tap into that money it can probably go much further. We’ll see.
Q: Cool. I’m going to back out through some of the things, some of the things you’ve said to draw out if you—
A: Oh you just texted me.
Q: Oh. [Laughs]
A: My phone was just—
Q: Little bit of a delay.
Q: So you’re talking—you were talking about the frenzy state and then the middle state, and then I assume there’s a state after the middle state.
A; Well ya know there’s the four stages of disaster: there’s the mitigation—gosh, what’s it again? I haven’t done that test in a while. Mitigation, response, recovery…?
Q: Is it—So you’re referring to the sociological, like, 1975 stages.
A: Yeah. Right. There’re four, right?
A: There’s the mitigation—what are they? Do you remember?
Q: I don’t remember. Mostly I don’t know them, because in a lot of grassroots things, they’re generally discredited. To be like no, this is not the correct—like because it’s mapped on to a curve, right? Or how much time, how many days, and you know that sort of stuff and a lot of people are saying “no, that actually doesn’t hold. It didn’t hold for Katrina, it doesn’t hold for other sorts of things.”
Q: But if you could, if you could periodize Occupy Sandy, as far as the frenziness, as how long did that last? The middle stage, what characterizes the middle stage? How long do you think it’s going to last?
A: Well, so I mean, we went though—you know we also went through serious space changes. So you know we have Jacobi, and then we had 520 and Jacobi. Yeah so it’s hard, I mean, I think there are—there’s definitely obviously periods that are pretty clearly defined. But because of the space dynamics you know, which were at the mercy of– that, that adds an extra variable to any serious periodization. But I’d say in the beginning it’s, from my— it’s kind of the first few days is a real ramp up, then, then there’s like a pretty significant frenzy period, where it’s basically people coming to central hub and dropping stuff off and that stuff going and all kind of within the same day or two. I thought as a newbie, I thought like, “oh we should be—we need an inventory system for this stuff.” Like ya, no, not, not really.
Q: Right. Word of mouth and getting out there was sort of—
A: Inventory and stuff like that, you know, you just learn a lot of stuff. Like okay—a nightly check of quantities would be super perfect in that type of– you know what I mean? But, I don’t know. I don’t know. So yeah. So there’s kind of a frenzied phase where everyone is coming and going, and then within, you know, that ends within a month, in terms of like the real, the money coming in, the people, the donations, things become a lot more, need a lot more discipline then. And there’s just kind of from the hub perspective—from the distribution type perspective, not from the kind of peripheral hubs, although that’s the case too. But it’s different because the peripheral hubs, there are a lot of religious groups, a lot of high schools, colleges, like affinity groups, groups like that who will, who want to be able to schedule weekends or days out doing work in the field. So they kind of, there’s a different type of—there’s different types of access to labor that you get from there.
Basically you know, after, after, from after kind of the frenzy first portion, which you know, maybe, maybe it extended like to two months, even. You know, the media goes away, people think everything’s gotten solved, and you’re left with a core group of people, some of who are highly, highly, highly productive, others of whom are or were—don’t know how to reactivate themselves within the changing landscape of things. And then I think you get into a period of confusion, because the long-term recovery organizations weren’t formed and there’s confusion around who’s—or what meetings were turning into long-term recovery groups and all that stuff. And I think that there’s a significant period of confusion. I feel like we’re re-emerging out with the long-term recovery groups and these various, these various areas and more regular meetings. People know each other now. It’s—information is flowing informally easier, but now’s also the great time to make it, to introduce more sophisticated information data sharing tools that would make information flow super easy. It might be highly, highly useful. But then that—it doesn’t have to be so relationship based, which is what it is now. You know, like “I know the guy. I heard this guy say he had 80 mattresses in his warehouse, and so oh you need a mattress? You should call that guy” It’s not a way to run an operation. So yeah. So I think we’re in that. I guess we’re in that third phase of longer term rebuilding—the playing field is becoming more visible to everybody, and the capacity for us to organize, you know, to facilitate these long-term recovery groups or self-organizing and getting them access to the tools that they need to be really effective and then bringing those groups all together into a coalition to kind of be the alternative to the state-backed development plans that everyone knows are coming. It’s kind of the game plan, and more and more people are really recognizing that as the game plan. And now after this, another disaster came like, really understand the game plan a lot better from the beginning and make life a lot easier. So that might be my periodization.
Q: So, one of the questions they’re asking everyone is when they think recovery will happen or has happened? And whether recovery is a useful term even.
A: I mean recovery is the last stage, right? Like what does that mean, recovery? I don’t know if it’s a useful term.
Q: Part of what some people are saying is that a lot of the places that got hit weren’t hit before the storms, so if recovery means returning it to as it was before, that’s fundamentally not desirable.
Q: And if the problems that plague these places are systemic, then what would recovery look like?
A: Okay, within that context, I’d reframe some of the stuff I was saying earlier about like the participatory budgeting and say, you know, the, the structure doesn’t want to fund authentic recovery. Yeah. They have the institutionalization that exists, you know, requires the status quo to kind of continue and develop slowly. You actually—I’d say that because of a disaster, unlike most anything else, you actually have an opportunity to try to recover, because if America is screwed— [laughs] if America is in this thirty year decline, forty year decline, that I think a lot of people think it’s in, then you know, authentic recovery really means some serious innovation about how communities work and how they derive their power and their resources and etcetera.
So, that brings me more into having more opportunities for really innovative organizing—that type of recovery than, it is getting people’s houses fixed. Because that’s really different depending where you are. In Staten Island, I think it’s the communities that were active and seventy or eighty percent homeowners versus NYCHA housing or the first few days of the Rockaways, where you just have—even work in the Rockaways was just this massive spectrum of homeowners into NYCHA residents, and you know that creates—and recovery means very different things for these groups. So, what does, what does that ultimately mean? I don’t know. I mean I think that—for me, what motivates me in all of this, in a lot of ways, is recovery and the whole Zuccotti Park experience to me was one big disaster site that we were providing recovery to. You know, we were providing recovery to Lower Manhattan basically, and it turns out people need a lot of therapy [laughs], a lot of therapy and a lot of things that we’ve now gotten better at doing because of Sandy work—like “what is case management?” People weren’t talking about case management back in Occupy Wall Street days, even though there were a lot of people there who needed you know housing support, they needed health, they needed the type of support that case management provides. So, disaster gives out the opportunity to re-envision how people are going to help each other, so yeah. That to me is recovery. What recovery would look like, dozens of organizations in a single open source logistics platform, so they can move goods and services from point A to point B, and you know, you have that in the city, you bring that out to the country, the region or you know do more outreach more regionally, share that with the people who work with the food markets, you know. Then you begin to approach kind of this ad hoc open source… The ad hoc community –open source community– that people provide the type of information management that a supermarket chain has, you know, or any type of chain has. So what are these businesses? Really, at the end of the day, what’s Walmart? It’s, it’s a—it doesn’t exist without its information management systems, you know. And if you can bring the information management systems without the corporate governing, without the hierarchy, the questionable values—you can get really far, very fast I think. So that’s kind of—that’s a part of my agenda and I’m quite open about it. When I was in Zuccotti I was quite open about it, too. That we have an opportunity to use these open-source technologies to model a more effective service provision. More effective mutual aid sort of a way, a way to perform more mutually efficiently than the state does, because the state, the larger organizations, don’t do it, don’t do it that well. If we outperform them, then we get, then we–then we win. Then we get to be the deciders, you know. Then we get to, we get to make decisions that we see fit, and we don’t have to ask.
Q: So it seems pretty clear that one of the ways you’re thinking about how data and tech can be used in activism in this sort of large-scale social change is to grease the wheels of mutual aid by documenting and then facilitating need and aid, to meet in the middle, right? Is there another way—or, is that the main way or are there other ways that data and tech can perform activism and social change and structural change?
A: Well I think—yeah. There are lots of other ways, but that’s accurate. I think that also, what gets neglected often is that a vast majority of people don’t know how to publish on the internet. Or they don’t think they know how to publish on the Internet. They know how to publish on Facebook, you know? They know how to publish on Twitter, but they don’t recognize that they can be—they don’t see the benefits of—they don’t know how to publish on WordPress or their own platforms. They don’t see the benefits of publishing on those platforms, and they don’t recognize—they don’t see those platforms as the first step towards enterprise grade—be able to participate in the economy as a producer and an enterprise level, as opposed to just a consumer. So to me that’s a really significant onboarding–that’s a really significant revolution and onboarding mechanism. In the future I would want to live in, on one hand, have mutual aid based service provision. On the other hand though, is the agorist, you know, enterprise, where people are just compelled out of their own passion to exchange with each other. You know, not out of the straight definition of mutual aid, but out of you know, personal self-interest. Like I want to make crafts, it’s just, I want to make something. How do I do that, you know? I’m not going to — some people will make a whole table and be like “I just want to make—oh I did this for the person who needs it the most.” Other people are going to be like “Oh, I don’t want to make this table because I want a chair.” You know? And both of those two elements are kind of, the red and the yellow that make the less coercive future really, really possible. And I think that they can share the same platforms. [Laughs] They need the same tools in a lot of ways. So, you know, it doesn’t—what I find on, on the the right side of the anarchist, you know the self-identified anarchist-capitalist community, is singularly focused on the agorist—how do we do exchange, you know? How do we officially exchange outside of the states, the states matrix or whatever? And on the left, it’s like how do—when the left is doing it right–it’s like, how do we provide mutual aid to one another to create a culture of mutual aid? But put the two together, shake a bit, and I think we’re just in the future and everything’s great. So that to me is the really compelling—that to me is a super compelling vision. There’s no reason for them not to both be wed and happy and working together, and I find that the cultural differences on both sides—both communities have really self identified with one or the other –just need to get along. You don’t have to, you don’t have to be everyone’s best friend, you know what I mean? You just need to—
Q: Okay. So, so if I’m paraphrasing—just to paraphrase to make sure— The internet—Wordpress or any other sort of publishing platforms can help individuals scale up into a new mode of production that is fundamentally not the status quo in capitalist and these other sorts of internal government structures.
A: Well it’s not—it could be really capitalist.
Q: Oh okay.
A: It could be super capitalist, but it’s not…
A: It’s not corporist.
Q: Oh okay.
A: It’s not dependent on—it’s not dependent. And, and, and there’s a level of freedom that’s made possible through this type of activity. Just you know, in the same way non-profit organizations or businesses–I mean a lot of the people I work with get really excited just about getting people onto open-source platforms. A) because the policies of open-source are just cool and great, but B) because once you’re publishing on WordPress, if you’re—once you start publishing, maybe, you’ll pick up the invoice plug-in, and then you can start invoicing people and you don’t have to—you can just manage your own invoice, manage your own account. Maybe you’ll pick up the you know, the shopping cart or the donation plug-in, you know then you’re starting to collect money outside of– without being dependent on some third-party. Maybe you think about e-mail signup form and you start getting people into a CRM or some type of mailing list and you can start doing your own engagement. So there’s a lot of, it can just really extend out. You can really hook people—we’re getting to a point now. Like CiviCRM—databases are at that level, databases aren’t that complicated: you’re defining fields, you’re grouping them, you’re running reports, you know? And then you can do just not massively complex technology, and everyone should know how to use this stuff, right? Now that CiviCRM can be, can live in WordPress, I find Drupal to be more complicated and off putting. But WordPress is so friendly—if we can get more people to learn just simply how to manage WordPress and how to manage a database, how the management system in a database system, that’s—that technology, people couldn’t access five years ago and ten years ago. So it’s a really significant step. It is databases becoming accessible to the public. And that’s game changing. I mean how many businesses exist, how many non-profits exist, like these big massive legacy organizations or government agencies exist simply because they were there with the first database, the first data management structure that everything just got fed into and got uploaded. If we have more people understanding how these systems work or how they could be working more efficiently, it makes it a lot easier to tell them a story about you a future where systems work better, where there’s less coercion necessary. There’s more people empowered with the means of production, more people have the ability to—if the means of production is increasingly information, why are we talking more about—
Q: Data literacy and—?
A: Yeah, data literacy and some things like that.
Q: Yeah. Cool.
A: So. And there’s a lot to do. Like once you’re into ERP, the enterprise resource planning, like the Sahana Inventory Management, you’re beginning—it really begins to—the ecosystem that’s available, the open source software system that’s available, really begins to feel more complete. And it’s not like we just constantly need to be developing these bigger solutions for more significant challenges. There’s this horizon which is always receiving—but instead we’re basically, we’re getting really close. We’re really getting there. We’re getting databases and WordPress systems. We’re getting accessible inventory and logistics management for network systems. This is what we need for a bioregional economy. This is what you need for real alternative institutions or organizations or groups to have the same type of enterprise-grade information management systems that these huge bureaucracies have and better.
Q: Okay. So how, how do you think that sort of ideal and those sorts of systems shake out or deal with two of the big issues that come out of Sandy—one being climate change the second being inequity in terms of race, class, and gender? Do you think they can deal with that or they have to deal with that or things have floated up through those systems or—?
A: That’s tough. Climate change is a big old can of worms. Because, you know, I’m of the belief that I’m not interested in climate change from the perspective of global warming, CO2 rising, because to me it feels like a red herring. If instead we built up people’s sense of injustice around their local environment then collectively, problems will get solved. And there’s not this ideal, this CO2 number that needs to come down or go up—to me feels like an easy way to lose arguments with a lot of people or not convince a lot of people of things. And it’s a battlefield that doesn’t need to be engaged with—that I think that the not in my backyard community is never going to get climate change, so let’s all get more into not in my backyard, you know? And if I’m not into my backyard and you’re not in my backyard— [laughs] if no one’s interested in each other’s yards it won’t go anywhere. So from a political perspective, that’s where I’m interested in things. I think that the impacts of climate change on New York—I think climate change is happening. What are the impacts on New York? [slaps the table] We’re in a lot of trouble. I can’t—last month I was at a meeting where people who were designing the big barriers or whatever, talking about the sand, building these things, it’s like the New York side—people on the New York side are not talking to New Jersey. The people in New York doing this work aren’t talking to the people in New Jersey doing this work. In Staten Island, this stuff is, –if that’s the case, what are we, what am I supposed to do with this? [laughs] It’s just really, it’s really problematic. And I find it amazing to talk to these people in city government and government and feel like completely un-empowered to do any change. I talk to people in the federal government, and they’re completely anti-federal government. They’re like, “if you’re looking to the federal government to solve these problems, don’t do it. Don’t look to us to do it. We’re not going to do it. We can’t do this, you think we can do that? Come on!” It’s like wow.
Q: So if I make a connection with something you said earlier, do you think that say—
A: I’m surprised—I, I would love to know the tackle the race and the culture and that whole thing.
Q: Okay. Sure.
A: Right now in Staten Island, kind of the biggest gossip, the biggest news is that the Midland Beach Association, community association, which is like a middle class community association that is trying to develop beef with the Sandy relief people, because they say like, “Oh we fought against this homeless shelter twenty years ago and now they’re going to try and get this homeless shelter in here.” There’s a serious sense in a lot of middle class communities that like, “we don’t want poor people around. We don’t want people who are you know, immigrants around. We don’t want this segment of the population here. Now that this disaster’s happened, there’s more of them. And now there’s the opportunity where there’s political will to actually provide services to people in need, so we have to resist that.” So this is taking place now –I’m sure this happens in a lot of places. This is taking place now in Staten Island. And in the media, in the local media, the local media tries to play it kind of both sides. They look like fools! So I think there’s a lot of recognition, I think, culturally within the disaster relief community that’s like “hey we’re all here together. We’re all people. If I have bad luck, if I suffer; if I have bad luck, you suffer. Maybe you suffer more, because of the types of institutionalized discrimination, racism, stuff like that.” But I think there’s another, a huge, massive opportunity to come in with more of a social justice message and be like, “Hey, remember that time when your basement got flooded and how bad that was? Imagine if your basement was always flooded—or you don’t even have a basement” [laughs] People get softer, you know, they can. So there’s a lot of opportunity there. When it comes to the technology and the data stuff, I mean for me—two years ago you couldn’t put CiviCRM in a WordPress. And CiviCRM plus WordPress equals effective non-profit tech solution. Now that you can do it and it’s getting better and better—and a disaster like this, to me, looks like I’m looking at eighty non-profit organizations, long-term recovery groups, and this is a great opportunity for me to get eighty organizations, eighty WordPresses and Civi, and they all get trained—all of a sudden I guarantee you you’re going to see new opportunities arise for all of these organizations who can actually track constituents, who can do online donation processing. If you look at–I’ve done surveys of non-profit websites in Brooklyn—less than twenty percent are using a content management system that is reasonable—reasonable modern content system, you know? How many of them are actually processing donations even properly on their own websites? Very small percentages.
These technologies are here, they’re abundant, they’re freely available, they’re fun—someone’s got to come out and raise the capacity of the sector. If everyone’s working on these WordPresses, more of these organizations were using WordPress, there’d be more opportunities for them to come together and say like, “Hey, I want that feature. I want that feature too.” Like a coalition of ten organizations who are all using the WordPress platform could come together, throw 1,000 dollars each at something, develop a really awesome plug in that could be used in Vancouver and at [inaudible 56:26] and all that stuff. So there’s—and that’s kind of the work that I do—I want to be doing. I’m trying to orient myself and a few of my compatriots to get into. How do we get all of the nonprofits that we, as many non-profits as we can, onto a few open-source technology platforms, get them into conversations about the features that they want, and help them pre-support networks themselves, so they can solve their own technical problems, so they don’t have to go to consultants or out of network to do it. And can collaborate with each other and actually get some, get some victories and be in conversations with each other around “how do we get this feature, how do we solve that problem?” Because the tech platforms are there to facilitate that type of interaction. So disaster stuff makes the need for that very clear, makes the opportunities for that very obvious.
As that improves, people don’t need to wait around for some big fund, some big grant to come down and give them a decent database solution. If they want to help out undocumented workers or whatever, they can just do it themselves and they don’t have to ask. So the self-sufficiency opportunities, the increase in self-sufficiency opportunities, is just massive. And I think that is what ultimately solves most of these problems around, you know, inequality. Asking people to be nicer just historically doesn’t work that much. It’s like arming people with the ability to tell people they need to be nicer works better. Or not caring if people are nicer and letting them just grow out of it or not—see historically it does work I think.
Q: So what are some of these groups that you’re talking about, that you’re working with?
A: Like in Staten Island? Like in Staten Island there’s a long-term recovery organization—a bunch of groups in there. For right now, I’m just helping them get there. I mean they have a website, they have a Civi, that training, they’ve got a training. Every week basically I go there and offer trainings to people. The group that’s most interested in trainings is a group that’s kind of been cultivating the LTRO, which is an organization called Project Hospitality, which is—it might be the biggest non-profit in Staten Island. And, it is a unique place. It’s a unique place. I mean, it’s really the power of a really sharp, really –just unbelievably smart –lady who’s the Executive Director, who’s just really smart and just crazy and who just has boxes of papers. Just every wall just has boxes and boxes of papers. You know what I mean? It’s a real, it’s a really unique place. So there—to me, it has one of the largest service providers for homeless shelters, HIV treatment, case management. Their tech infrastructure’s a complete mess, like the boxes are. There’s a big opportunity there to work with them and actually kind of build out a document how to do a full-scale social services group, and open source tools. So there’s a big opportunity to do that. And there’s just you know, “oh you need a website? Here’s a WordPress. You figured out the WordPress? Maybe you guys want a Civi?” You know? That happens, but groups—people generally don’t believe you when you say that, “Oh I’ll show you how to do X or Y.” So we’ve gotten a few bites. We’ve produced a few websites for them. But it’s a lot of strategy. Do I spend my time– I work with two other people very closely, so do we spend our time doing the LTRO and then doing…?—we did the LTRO. Now do we spend our time on training on that LTRO website? Do we go into helping Project Hospitality more? Do we help more of the organizations in the LTRO—do we go to the Brooklyn LTRO, the Queens LTRO, and get them set up instead? So you know.
A: My instinct is to set them up. But very quickly, there’s a one-day a week Staten Island thing, which I can justify for myself. It becomes –what is this going to become? Two days a week? I’ve also got to do Queens and the Rockaways and then three days a week? And then five days a week? [laughter] And all of a sudden my disaster relief hobby is becoming a profession. Meanwhile, the VOAD community, the national VOAD and the state VOAD and all these different groups, they’re all in the same boat as everybody else. I showed them Civi. They’re like, “What!? Like the people we pay to do this stuff say these things cost a billion dollars!” [Laughter] And then they all get real sad and they feel like they’ve been taken advantage of and then often times they go sulk for a while and they don’t know what to do. So then there’s all those guys. Like do we set up the national VOAD or the state level VOAD so they actually know how to use their website right now? They can’t even, they can’t add content to their website, because the guy who was doing it left, it’s a Google site and now one knows. And so this need is just massive. So now we’re trying to figure out, find grants for you know, to pay us and other people to do these basic trainings—very quickly though, talk to people who build WordPress site, free lance WordPress site developers who do this for a living about doing training. They’re like “Like why do you want to tell everybody how easy it is to make a good WordPress site?”
A: It really requires—we need more people, you know? We need donors who understand these dynamics. Apparently you and I are real savvy people [laughs]. Other people just don’t get, they don’t get this train of thought. And especially people who consider themselves savvy who are kind of conditioned into thinking about technology from a proprietary perspective like the venture capital community have such a small of an understanding of open source. You can talk to them and talk to them and talk to them about it, and they’ll be like, “okay, okay, okay.” But, but for them it ends in Pinterest. Or it ends in a—they don’t understand why this is.
Q: Alright. I need to leave in about ten minutes.
A: Yeah, me too.
Q: Yeah, okay. So, is there anything I haven’t asked that I should’ve asked? Any insights that you have from working Sandy stuff that we didn’t touch on?
A: I mean, I think [laughs]—one of the things that I’m really interested in–I’ll just tell you things I want to see. Things I want to see. I want to see someone; I want to see a power map. I want to see a map of who makes decisions about money and where these resources flow. Who makes decisions about—what these decision making structures are like, because from my perspective, we have no idea who any of these people are, and it’s like anytime, “oh the city’s going to come to the meeting to talk about it,” they send someone who has no idea what’s going on, and by the end of the meeting you could yell at the guy, make him cry, you can feel bad for the guy—whatever you want to do, you’re just not going to get any information out of these people. So I have no idea who, like, what’s going on when it comes to the, this, these types of decision making structures. I think there’s a lot of potential in finding that first round of Global Dirt data. And I don’t know my freedom of information request stuff—I don’t really know how that shit works, but if I figure that out, if you want to figure that out, someone wants to figure that out, I think that would be a treasure trove, because what’s going to show is that the city is how, how bad things were those first two weeks. And they’re, I think they were just really, really, really terrible.
Q: You don’t think that’s reflected in the Occupy data at all?
A: Not close. Because our—that’s the thing, you could also dig through that Occupy data, you’ll find quite a bit of info. But, but I mean nothing was done to that level of comprehensiveness. I think that—I guess the question that I think you should ask is where the good resources for—where are the resources? Where do you go to get your news and information about this stuff? I’ll tell you. I can go anywhere [laughs]. I just live basically completely within a network of people who try, try to keep each other informed I guess. But — The news sources are crappy. The media has no idea how to tell a story about data or logistics or how backend, how the backend of things works. It’s all comes down to “and this is why you should donate to these people. There was this puppy there and it was just so sad and these people just made everything so happy.” Ya know, it’s, I don’t know.
Q: Okay. Well thank you so much for taking the time—
End of Recording.
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