Interview with Jessica Lawrence, Executive Director of New York Tech Meetup
Interviewee: Jessica Lawrence, Executive Director of New York Tech Meetup
Interviewer: Max Liboiron
Interviewer: Okay. So can you start by telling me your name and affiliation as it pertains to the hurricane?
Jessica: I’m Jessica Lawrence, and I’m the Executive Director of New York Tech Meetup. And New York Tech Meetup helped organize about nine hundred volunteers with a variety of technology skills for the hurricane.
Interviewer: And what sort of work did the techs do for the hurricane?
Jessica: So it really depended–and we weren’t able to actually kind of engage everyone who we had have raise their hands. So there were–you know, we put out a call for volunteers. We had about nine hundred people kind of fill out a short form and respond back with some of their different skill sets and contact information, etc. And I would say in the end we probably ended up actually having less than a hundred of those people do volunteer projects. And they did everything from–we had a couple of volunteers help the Department of Education with some Excel spreadsheet and database management and manipulating some data in terms of trying to match up multiple different data sets in relation to schools that had needs and lists of items that people had offered to donate, and trying to figure out how to get the items that people would offer to donate to the right places. We had people build a crowd map of all of the co-working spaces in the city. We had some people work on a crowd map for the attorney general around price-gouging and actually create a text message-based report system for reporting price-gouging at gas stations. Some volunteers worked directly with–we connected them with another organization that was working with FEMA to help get all of the computer resource centers set up for residents to be able to enter their claims to FEMA.
Interviewer: Like hardware setups.
Jessica: Like hardware setups. And then, you know, we had some other people do, like, individual, one-on-one placement. So we had a form for small businesses and non-profits to fill out if they needed assistance with anything, especially related to getting back online, making sure that they didn’t lose business. And so we had some one-on-one volunteers who reached out to someone who had no website prior to the hurricane and only had a land-line phone and basically was completely out of communication with any customers because their information about their store was nowhere. And so we had a volunteer help them get, you know, a simple website set up so that if people were trying to figure out what’s going on with the store, are they open, what are the hours, they had a place that they could go because they couldn’t call on the phone. So projects like that.
Interviewer: Okay. What–as in your role, what was your sort of experience of the storm like with all these other projects going on?
Jessica: Yeah, so you know, my experience–the storm happened. I live in Williamsburg. I was kind of out of any harm’s way. We lost internet for a few hours that evening of the storm. But other than that, when I woke up the next morning, everything was back on. We had full power. And so I turned on the TV and was kind of watching what was happening. And so my initial reaction was, well, we have a lot of volunteers that can probably help with some of the things that seem to be going wrong, because obviously people were sharing that they were without power, they were without internet. They couldn’t figure out what people’s needs were. They were trying to figure out who needed what where. And it just seemed like there were probably some technical solutions to things. And so I started reaching out to a few members of our community who I knew had been engaged a bit more in sort of civic-related technology work. And that was not something that I was familiar with. I had never done emergency response, never really done any kind of like civic technology work. And so we built pretty quickly a small group of, I would say, five or six people who just started kind of talking about, okay, well what can we do? And this is mostly through Skype and through phone conversations, kind of figuring this out. And we pretty quickly put up a website and put up forms and called for volunteers, and also put up a form for people to submit their requests for assistance. And so I was really acting as kind of like command central for that. So dealing with incoming requests.
And once we then started communicating to the city, in particular, reaching out to the city’s chief digital officer, Rachel Haot–letting her know that we were collecting all these names of volunteers that we already had pretty quickly as soon as we sent out the request for volunteers. We had a lot of people raising their hands. And so I, you know, reached out to Rachel and said if there are any projects that you need help with, let us know because we have these volunteers that are willing to help and are in a position to help. And so, you know, there was a bit of a challenge at that stage in the sense that we had all these people that had skill sets that would have been helpful, but the way that the city was set up, there was no way to vet any of those volunteers quickly enough to actually engage them in any of the volunteer support that the city was really looking for, because one of the first problems that kind of came to surface was the fact that the city had set up a single email address to receive both requests for assistance and people offering donated goods and services. And pretty quickly, when I talked to Rachel, she said they had received nine thousand emails to that one email address. And nothing was sorted in any way. There was–it wasn’t submitted via a form. It was just sitting in an email. And I kind of said, well we have a lot of people that are really good at parsing data and could help you figure that out. And the city basically said, like you know–she said let me check on that and I’ll come back to you. And she came back to me and said, you know how much I would like to use your volunteers? But we just can’t. Like we would have to have vetted them a while ago. We can’t give them access to data. We can’t give them access to our systems. So we just can’t accept your help on that. And so that was–you know, that was a challenge in the sense that it basically, like, shut that door from the very beginning. And so then we just really started trying to focus on either doing projects that we could initiate and things that could be immediately helpful to the community, or things that didn’t require access any personalized data. So you know, the person that was working on the spreadsheet project for the Department of Education, that was more around the functionality of her figuring out some formulas and other things to merge some data versus her necessarily needing to see any particular identifying data of the individuals who had submitted different information, so. And then the hand’s on projects with FEMA that also, again, didn’t really require people having access to anybody’s data. So they were able to go in and get some of these computer systems set up. And they did go through a very quick vetting process with an organization called ITDRC, the Information Technology Disaster Response–I don’t remember if it’s “coalition” or–but they’re actually based out of Texas. And they’re a non-profit. They have this massive bus, truck, that kind of comes that has lots of equipment on it. And they’re really focused on helping FEMA with some of those hardware installations, like connectivity, especially internet connectivity and that type of thing. And they actually have a process that FEMA has accepted that’s set up to vet volunteers very, very quickly.
Interviewer: So volunteers specific that are going to be looking at personal or private data?
Jessica: And I don’t know if it’s…if it’s data-related vetting, but it’s like a–because I didn’t go through the vetting process myself. But we had about–actually, it was about two hundred of our volunteers at the ITDRC said, through our referral to them, went through the process of being–of filling out the application through ITDRC and going through that process. So I’m not sure what the questions kind of looked like, what that…that vetting consists of. But it’s vetting that’s, you know, sort of good enough to be, like, FEMA-approved in terms of then having these volunteers coming out and specifically helping on some of these projects for FEMA.
Interviewer: So what did…what did the projects that those few who went through the vetting–what kind of projects were they working on?
Jessica: I think they were almost solely focused on that hardware setup and, like, actually providing on-site assistance in some cases for people that would actually come to the centers, that they would help them get online if they were people that did not have significant technology and kind of internet navigation skills.
Interviewer: Okay. So on that side of things in particular, although possibly in other areas too, did you–coming back up the line, a lot of information about the tension between digital infrastructure being like the basis for this kind of work slash no electricity problems with infrastructure.
Jessica: Yeah. I mean so the thing that then started–where we started getting lots of, like, cycles of information and getting a lot of feedback. And it was, you know, in a way a really fascinating experience and a huge learning experience for me, because I’d never been that close to any type of disaster relief before. And I felt like we were in a position where we’re kind of in the middle, because we were talking to a lot of people at the federal and local kind of government level, but then we were also talking to a lot of people that were working with Occupy Sandy and doing a lot of just kind of grassroots on the ground work. And I think, you know, the biggest thing was that people needed equipment. So we kept getting requests for cell phones and–but we’d reach out to, like, contacts at, like, AT&T and some of the actual service providers. And we were actually–I was just talking to someone from AT&T yesterday. And she was saying that the problem is, like, AT&T actually does not, like, sit on supplies of cell phones because they’re not a cell phone manufacturer. They’re a reseller. And so, like, they aren’t really capable. They’re not really in a position to do that like Nokia or Samsung would have to be like here’s a bunch of cell phones. And definitely, you know, connectivity being an issue and even there’s one woman who was working in the Rockaways who was actually an employee of Mozilla, but like working on the ground–just like happened to kind of show up and, like, start leading a recovery center and trying to organize everything. And the challenge was she and I oftentimes, like, couldn’t connect because she had to find places that, you know, she could get cell phone reception or that, like, had a little bit of power for a certain amount of time or, you know, wherever she could get Wi-fi. And so that definitely impeded some of those communications.
And from talking to folks from, like, Occupy Sandy and some of the people that were trying to organize things like food donations and clothing donations, you know, one of the challenges was the data that was kind of coming out of that was that the people that had power and had full access to communication were trying to communicate to the world, like oh Rockaways needs clothing donations. But the challenge was, like, it wasn’t necessarily the people in Rockaways at that moment who were observing things, saying Rockaways needs clothing. It was like this game of Telephone where somehow somebody started saying Rockaways needed clothing, and that got passed along, so people kept repeating that on Facebook and on Twitter. And then all of a sudden, you end up with piles and piles of, like, unused clothes and random things like Halloween costumes and other stuff that people just sent to Rockaways that didn’t end up getting used. And so that was, I think, one of the sort of biggest challenges that I heard and sort of pieces of feedback that we got from the ground was just–the real-time communication was not there and just not very accurate because the people that were in the real-time situation didn’t necessarily have the level of connectivity they needed to get that information out. And that there was also no way to necessarily kind of stop the flow. So like once it got into the social space that Rockaways needs clothes, like that game of Telephone can keep happening even if someone had then subsequently sent another message saying, guys, guys, guys, we don’t need clothes. It would take a really long time for, like, everyone in that chain of communication to understand that, like, Rockaways didn’t need any clothing donations anymore.
Interviewer: Do you think that social media played a major role in that telephone-tag?
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. And I think, you know, it was one of the things too where it was like interesting because lots of people started setting up, you know, different Facebook pages and websites and all of this stuff. And it was interesting in the sense that this was probably one of the first times in the last few years that people have had such each access to being able to–because building a website used to be something that, like, you would pay someone to do, and it would take a long time. And now, you know, with things like WordPress and that type of thing, you can have something up–we had something up, like, in minutes, practically. And so I think a lot of people were taking it upon themselves to put up sites and buy URLs and, like, go through that whole process. They weren’t necessarily paying attention to what someone might have just put up five minutes ago. Maybe they couldn’t even see it yet. But like, everyone was building these separate sites and kind of trying to organize each in their own individual way. And I think some of that dispersement and having all these different places where people were supposed to look to get information, no like centralized source, made it difficult for us sometimes too in even trying to coordinate, like, who needs what and like what’s actually going on and– But we were able to step in in a couple of cases where, like, I had someone from the tech community try to get Tumblr involved and saying I think we should set up a Tumblr for, you know, every affected neighborhood and like–and I just said, guys, there’s already like five websites for every affected neighborhood. Like we don’t need to have another website for the affected neighborhoods.
Interviewer: Yeah, it also shows there’s an interesting tension between centralized and decentralized, whatever systems they may be, because centralized systems are slow and sluggish, especially–and disasters require, like, nimble, fast, immediate. And so this balance between those things and the tensions between those is an ongoing sort of–
Interviewer: Insanity, especially.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah, we saw the same thing with, you know, with Occupy Sandy kind of like reaching out to us, asking a lot of questions about, like, inventory management and, like, inventory, like, flow, and how–you know, looking for people to help them figure out how to catalogue what they had received, what had gone out where, who needed what. And they really had no real supply chain management. It was just all like spreadsheets and individual people writing things down. And so that was definitely a challenge. The other connectivity issue that comes to mind was just that in talking to a number of people in our community who were part of the tech community but ended up doing a lot of, like, on the ground volunteering, not necessarily tech-related–they were doing some of the door-to-door canvassing in some of the public housing. And just like basically they would show up at the volunteer kind of like gathering place and be given a sheet up paper that had like, you know, questions outlined or some little spreadsheet thing that had been made up. And they were supposed to go door to door and ask these questions and fill it out as they went. Then the problem was they came back and, like, they just had to turn the paper in, and someone else had to enter the sheet of paper into a database. And so they were sort of like this is, you know, totally inefficient. And actually one of the members of our community at the hackathon that we then hosted–she had been going through that process. And they ended up creating an app that could be used offline so you didn’t have to have internet connectivity while you were filling it out. And as long as you then eventually got back to a place that had wi-fi or had some way to connect, had some cell signal, it could then download all of the information that you had entered into a database so that you weren’t having that, like you know, slow process of people hand marking down things and then, like, having to hand enter everything into a computer.
Interviewer: Do you know who that canvassing work was with?
Jessica: I’m not sure.
Jessica: It may have been Occupy Sandy. Yeah.
Interviewer: Okay. So when…when–I’m just going to follow up on a couple of things you said. When Occupy Sandy came to about inventory flow, did you guys or members of Meetup–?
Jessica: I think there were some members that did something sort of, you know, that connected with them and kind of went out there. We got to the point where we had so much stuff going on that if we had people that kind of just said, yeah, I think I can help with that, we didn’t–you know, one of the things that I sort of wish we did that we didn’t do is we didn’t track, like, anything in terms of, you know, if this person signed up to do this and help this person, like we don’t know what ended up happening with that. So I know that there were a bunch of people at the time that said, like yeah, we’re going to go out to this Occupy Sandy headquarters and work with them on something. What actually came out of that I’m not a hundred percent sure. But there were people that I know were, like, engaged with them in trying to figure that out.
Interviewer: Okay. It also sounds like you guys were in a really unique position to be in contact with a lot of different stakeholders that most people are not in sort of multiple contact with, like from the city to Sandy, to you know, people all over the place, like that sort of stuff.
Interviewer: So how was that experience?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean I think that was like–that was one of the things that I really sort of highlighted, I guess, the value that I feel like we have in the community in a lot of ways in that we’re seen as being non-partisan, as not having kind of skin in the game in any one way. And so you know, it’s not like we’re loyal to the city but not to the rest of the community, or we’re loyal just to industry but not to the people outside of industry. And so I think that that aspect of our existence in terms of being able to have those connections–and they were connections that I think, you know, I knew existed before obviously but were really highlighted in that situation. And you know, it was in some ways sort of above our capacity because at the time, I was the only employee. So–and we just have Andy now. So like, literally for the first week after the hurricane, it was just me sitting on the couch at home, like, with TV on in the background, like trying to figure out what’s going on, like, sixteen hours a day just like basically sitting at the computer going from, like, Skype conversation to Skype conversation, sending emails, working on the website, like working to try to match up volunteers. And so, you know, I think it’s great that we were able to be in contact with so many different people. And maybe in some ways it was actually helpful that I was the only person doing that because, like–
Interviewer: You were centralized.
Jessica: –I was the single point of contact for, like, everything. But it’s definitely like, obviously not scalable.
Interviewer: Or sustainable.
Jessica: Or sustainable. Exactly. Yeah.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Interviewer: So when you were talking about the forms that you had people input–
Interviewer: –information, you mentioned small business and non-profits–
Interviewer: –which sound like a sort of slicing of stakeholders into a particular group that you wanted to help the most.
Interviewer: Can you explain that position?
Jessica: Yeah, so we–I think it was small business, non-profit, and obviously like government entities. But we figured the government entities, we were kind of getting the information that they needed help directly and not so much through the form. That was mostly based on the fact that, first of all, we had had not as really an organization, but the tech community had had a little bit of experience doing that after September 11th. And so the board chair of our organization, Andrew, has been involved in the tech community for a long time, helped start another non-profit called “MOUSE,” that teaches high school kids how to do computer repairs and set up networks. And after September 11th, he had organized some members of the tech community to specifically help schools and small businesses get back online after September 11th where there were schools that, you know, had lost all their equipment, all that kind of stuff. And so–and some of it came a little bit from conversations with him around the idea of focusing on things that have more of a, like, trickle-down effect, where it’s like you touch one small business, and that impacts a lot more people than trying to go individual by individual. And so I think for us too, we just felt like with what our capacity would be, if we started getting requests from individual about whether it was recovering their data from a computer that was flooded or, like, trying to get them hooked back up to the internet, it’d just we’d be overwhelmed with requests and we wouldn’t be able to help everyone with them. And part of it too was we actually did start getting, like, some requests from individuals even though we had specifically said small business and non-profit. And the majority of requests from individuals were, like, well I can’t get my internet back on. And it was like, well it’s probably–you know, it’s probably because the internet’s down, like that–
Jessica: Like it’s a network problem. And it was very clear that some of the people that were reaching out–because there were a couple of news stories about it, like New York One did a story. And it was pretty clear that some of the people that were reaching out were less technically fluent and savvy and had just heard that there was this organization helping people get connected after Hurricane Sandy, and that, like, they were in that boat of, like, not understanding that it was a network problem and, like, that they really needed to reach out to their providers to find out more about, like, when they might get back online. Then–it wasn’t something that, like, we could send someone out.
Interviewer: Make the internet go.
Interviewer: So what about things like Occupy Sandy, things that aren’t entities in the sense of small business or an NGO or government, right, things that just–? Well I guess Occupy Sandy was new. But like there’s-or new for the storm. But there are some organizations that ended up being quite tight and quite efficient that were–had no status because they formed that day, right?
Interviewer: Did you guys deal with those sorts of folks?
Jessica: I think–I mean we did in the sense like the woman I was talking about from Mozilla. Like she was–they weren’t part of Occupy Sandy. They were kind of just a community group in the Far Rockaways that had pulled together to do recovery work. And so we were–touched base with those types of people. But like she was one of the people that was, like, asking for cell phones, asking for hardware. And we were able to find a few, like, Windows phones. But that was one of the hardest things to do, was just getting people to donate hardware that they needed.
Interviewer: Okay. So things went along social networks as well as through, like, the formal form or the formal–
Jessica: Yeah. And yeah, that’s what–there was like sort of like three methods of getting information. There was the formal form, which I would say actually was like the smallest things in terms of the way that people got in touch with us. And that was more of the small businesses that had heard about us on the news or, you know, heard about us through the community type of thing. And then there was a lot of, like, social kind of referral in terms of, like, people seeing us say something on Twitter or Facebook, or like us seeing somebody talking about something on Twitter and Facebook, and actually reaching out to those people and saying what could we help you with? And then the third way was just like that direct community of me reaching out to someone and, you know, starting the conversation with Rachel, the Chief Digital Officer, or someone from our board of directors running across someone while they were out doing volunteer work like helping to clean up, running across someone who was running a volunteer center who needed cell phones, and like referring them back to me. So there was like a lot of…a lot of different sort feedback loops happening.
Interviewer: Right. Besides what you’ve already talked about how social media and mass media sort of helped you guys–
Interviewer: –do your job, were there other ways that they were involved or that influenced your experience of the storm you hadn’t mentioned yet?
Jessica: In terms of media, I don’t think so. Not that I hadn’t mentioned yet.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright. So your community is a tech community, right? How do you think that techies, tech people, people with tech skills, besides their obvious skill set, might provide a different type of aid or genre aid or structure of aid than people who show up–
Jessica: In general?
Interviewer: –you know, with their hands and hearts and minds?
Jessica: I mean I think that, you know, the thing that’s interesting about the tech community is, like, there’s definitely people in our community that sort of–that wanted to do both. They wanted to show up and, like, do things with their hands. And they wanted to help with things that were online. But there’s also…there’s also a subset of the community who’s, like, just very used to solving problems in a very specific way. And so I think–and that specific way being through technology, through the internet. And so I think that in general, like, when our community wants to help with something, that’s the way that they want to help. They want to help by building something. And so I think, you know, that’s the way that I saw people kind of want to get the most engaged and want to help.
Interviewer: Okay. Do you think that the form of the tech community or your particular organization impacted their ability to help as well?
Jessica: In terms of us being, like, structured kind of as a community?
Jessica: Yeah, definitely. I mean I think that, you know, that’s–it’s something that I think is somewhat unique. I don’t know if it’s unique to New York. But it just–it feels relatively unique to us. So that may be partially because we are, you know–we’re big. We have thirty-three thousand members now. But think some of it was also just, even when we were small, it was this idea. And I think some of it came from the fact that New York tech–the New York tech community was kind of always the underdog tech community, like second to Silicon Valley, and you know, so people have this–even though everyone’s competing in a way for some of the same resources and the same press and the same employees, they all also have this sense of we’re in this together and we’re kind of fighting for the same things together. And so there’s this general sense of kind of comradery and community that exists. And I think that does drive people to step forward and help with things and get engaged with things in a way that if it was a very segmented–yes, technically all these people belong to the same sector or industry, but they’re not connected in a community. Like I think that–
Interviewer: Or they’re really competitive.
Interviewer: The other model.
Jessica: Yes. Right. Yeah.
Interviewer: Yeah. Okay. Did you guys work with Google or other tech efforts?
Jessica: So we worked with Google a bit. Not actually sort of–in a way I guess more like after…after the first initial response in the sense that I attended–there was, like, a Google pull-together, a kind of conference session to talk about some of the different challenges around getting volunteers engaged and different data points and all of that kind of stuff. And so they were actually–there were a couple of projects I think that, you know, we ended up–we had volunteers that were people were potentially going to build something. And then it turned out, like, Google already had that aspect on their maps. And so, you know, Google was doing a lot around some of the mapping technology. And so, yeah, but it’s interesting because I think, you know, that was one thing where, like, they were so engaged in doing their own thing at the time in terms of it just seemed like they were very focused on their team working on things and communicating directly with the city, for instance, or directly with the different relief agencies that we didn’t have a lot of, like, back and forth kind of conversations with them while we were in the midst of kind of working on things.
Interviewer: And how long did the midst, like, go for?
Jessica: I would say that was like at least the first two weeks after the storm. And–but it bled into–so we had–we hosted a hackathon the first weekend in December. And I would say that was kind of like the culmination where, like, after that, there were still people working on things a bit, but like we had kind of–we had scaled down a lot our initial response. And I think it was personally in those first two weeks there were still a lot of people that were offline and, like, still trying to get things kind of back up and running. So it was really in that time that we were getting the most requests for assistance. It was also in that time that we had the most volunteers available because pretty much, like, after those first two weeks, most people were kind of like, yeah, like I have to go back to work now. Like the power’s back on in the office and I can’t volunteer anymore. So can you take me off of the list for, you know, any opportunities or just know that I’m not going to be available because I have to go back to work.
Interviewer: So what was the hackathon about or for?
Jessica: So the hackathon–you know, it’s interesting because there was…there was one hackathon pretty soon after the hurricane, three weeks after, that was not something we organized but I participated in. It was a hackathon that was already scheduled called “Hack and Jill.” And they…they focused on doing gender balanced hackathons. And they had already planned to do one that was focused on giving back because it was right around Thanksgiving. And so they just shifted the focus a bit to be more focused on Sandy recovery and relief. And I think what was interesting about that was that in talking to developers that came to that hackathon, there wasn’t really any presentation at the beginning of the hackathon that outlined from people on the ground or people who were working for relief agencies, like, what their real problems were. So a lot of the developers were kind of shooting in the dark in terms of what problems they were solving. And so I kind of came and was there to help provide some insight into different things related to hurricane recovery. And so while people were kind of going through that ideation and thinking about what they might want to work on, I was there so that they could ask questions. And remember one guy came up to me and said something about building an app that, you know, people are getting all this food donated to them like canned goods and other food that they may not be used to cooking with, and so I was thinking of making an app with all, like, recipes for all of this, like, sort of food. And I said, like, that’s great, but most of the people that are getting food donations, a lot of times food that you don’t have to cook because, like, people don’t have stoves. They don’t have microwaves. Like they–
Interviewer: Or they’re already prepared. Like someone’s dropping off some–
Jessica: Right. Right. So I was like, you know, honestly like I don’t think a recipe app for–like it’s not going to help because, like, they’re not making food and, like, cooking things on the stove. And he was just like, oh, well I didn’t think about that, you know. And it’s like so that really opened my eyes. Okay, if we do a hackathon, like we want to have people sort of focused on this, we really need to make sure that all the developers that are planning on building something actually get to hear from all of the agencies and sort of unofficial groups that have been working on the ground, and like what they’re challenges have been. And so when we hosted the hackathon, it was–we spent the first, like, three hours in that morning basically doing kind of a mini-conference. And we had everyone from people from FEMA, Red Cross, Occupy Sandy, a group called “Team Rubicon” from Palantir, United Way, a few other like different sort of random groups, people from the City. Like basically, everyone got to get up and give a short presentation of what their experience had been during hurricane recovery and, you know, what they wished that they had. Like they could list up to five things that were challenges or things that they wished they had. And then we did Q&A with the audience. It was really helpful for the developers to be like–because they could ask the Red Cross, like, what’s the most basic information that you need to collect? Like what data fields do you need to collect on, you know, when you’re trying to gather this type of data? And so…so what we saw was that, you know–and we specifically set up the hackathon so it wasn’t just about, like, writing original code, which, you know, some hackathons are very focused on like you can’t come in with any code written. We kind of said that doesn’t help because there are some things that are actually pretty good that are already developed, and they’d be better if they were worked on a little bit more. And they’d be more useful. And they’d actually be more helpful than starting something from scratch. So we had some people that already had pretty established platforms like a company called “Spark Relief” that just needed some extra, like, depth time and design work. And…and then we had some people that, like, really actually just kind of wanted to talk more through things. Like they didn’t necessarily end up developing products, but I remember walking into a group of people that were sort of brainstorming. And it was like it was the Red Cross, United Way, and Occupy Sandy folks. Like and that was–it was a really cool thing to see people that had been sort of painted as enemies in the press, like, really working together because what they really wanted was solutions to the challenges that they saw on the ground. And they kind of didn’t care, like, how that ended up happening between the different agencies. They just wanted to see it happen. And it’s through that hackathon that things like that app that I was referring to during–the canvassing app. There were a couple of apps developed around volunteering, like a whole just very simple text message-based, like, getting information about volunteer opportunities, checking into those volunteer opportunities so that the volunteer coordinators could track how many people had showed up, like all of that type of stuff. There were, you know, a couple–there was an app or a website that was developed around rebuilding using more, like, clean and green processes, and like basically trying to focus on the sort of human health side of, like, dealing with mold and, like, all of that type of stuff. So some really cool stuff came out of it, and I think projects that people have, like, continued to work on to a certain extent. And I think the sort of downside of anything like that is that, you know, there are always like–there are always hackathons after disasters. There were, you know, the hurricane hackers working on stuff out of MIT. There were like people kind of all over the place working on different things. And one of the roles that we actually played, like, kind of thinking about it more too, was actually accessing networks of people outside of the city like Crisis Commons and Hurricane Hackers and people from [Inaudible 34:01] and like other groups that had built tools and had done disasters before, whether it was in Japan or in Haiti, and just kind of trying to figure out if there were already tools in existence that did what it was that someone was thinking that they needed to do. And you know, there was a lot of–and I don’t know, like you know, if this is something that’s really avoidable at all but there was a lot of duplication of effort around a lot of different things. And what was in some ways a little bit frustrating and fascinating to me was that a lot of it was, like, really ego-based in the sense that I can just remember this one company in particular that they were developing an app for–or a website that would help people sort of post what the different needs were in different communities. And I looked at it, and it was like basically exactly the same as lots of other stuff that had already been developed. And there were a ton of tools out there. And–but they were insistent that, like, somehow theirs was better. And they must have had, like, a really good PR and marketing arm because somehow they got a New York Times story, and this, and that. And I was just like–then I looked at their site, and they had almost no entries on it. Like it was totally not useful in any way. But part of it was that the technology they were using that powered that was what they used for their for-profit company. And I think a lot of it was just like they saw it as, I think in their hearts they wanted to be helpful, but behind that a bit, they also saw it as a way to get press for themselves, like, as a bigger company around the products that they use on a day-to-day basis, not the product that they kind of threw together for disaster relief.
Interviewer: Did any of the apps or solutions bring in things like climate change?
Jessica: Uh uh.
Interviewer: Did that come up in other conversations?
Jessica: You know, I mean I think it came up some in the sense that people saying–especially after the fact, with people saying, like, we can’t treat this as a one-time thing. This is going to happen more frequently. And that’s where climate change would come into the conversation.
Interviewer: My app will definitely be used again.
Jessica: Yes. Right, yeah.
Interviewer: Okay. And then I’m also wondering about, okay, a couple of things. First is, when you’re talking about how the first three hours of the seminar about, like, most salient needs, what…what were some of those needs as they relate to tech or not?
Jessica: You know, a lot of them did have to do with that kind of, like, that ability to have more automated communication, like that whole canvassing app, that idea of being able to enter data into a single platform and have it dumped somewhere without having to duplicate all of that effort. And I think what came up a lot too was just the idea that–and it wasn’t necessarily about assisting the people who were doing the disaster recovery work but more about thinking about some of the citizens that were, like, challenged with different things. And so people talked a lot about, you know, coming across the elderly woman who was, like, stuck in her apartment because the elevator didn’t work. Like she was running out of medication. She was running out of food. She didn’t have a phone. Like she didn’t have the internet. And TV wasn’t working. So she had just literally been sitting there for days having no clue what was happening and wondering when someone might come by to see if she was okay kind of thing. And so I think what was brought up a lot was just the idea that most of the time a lot of the conversation around disaster preparedness is really skewed towards people who are of a certain income level and above because they’re the ones that have the easiest time preparing for a disaster. And so, like, I started noticing that there were, you know, a lot of things around, the fact that, like, if the mayor tells everybody to, like, get out of a certain area, that like if you don’t have transportation–like you don’t own a car. If you don’t have money for extra transportation outside of your typical budget–you know, they tell you to stack up on water and flashlights and all this stuff. If you live paycheck by paycheck or less, that you can’t go buy cases of water and buy flashlights and all that kind of stuff. You know, if you don’t have a cell phone already, you’re not going to, like, run out and go buy one just because a big storm is coming. And so I think that frequently what the people on the ground were finding was just that huge disparity in preparedness. And yes, there were people at higher socioeconomic levels that were negatively impacted by the storm. But the people that had the most negative impacts were the people that, because of their financial situations, couldn’t necessarily prepare. And so I think, you know, one of the things people talked about too was, like, technology solutions that are, like, relatively low tech but still a technology in terms of, you know, people having, like, land lines, like old fashioned land line phones that are much less likely to lose service in case of a disaster where you can, you know, get those phones for almost nothing and the cost to operate them can be almost nothing. And especially in something like a public housing building, like you know, why can’t they have those spread throughout the building in some way or some type of emergency contact system.
Interviewer: So the tech community was advocating for a sort of low-tech resiliency?
Jessica: Yeah. I mean I think that’s what, like–because the more that–and I would say like not at first because that’s like where the guy with the, you know, idea for the recipe app comes in. Like he hasn’t thought about the fact that some of the tools that were necessary for doing what he was contemplating were not there. And so I think for the tech community, oftentimes when you’re thinking about a tech solution, you think of, like, the best situation and the best things that are available. Like of course they’re going to have high speed internet access. And–
Interviewer: And electricity.
Jessica: And electricity. And smartphones that have a signal. And–but I think that as more and more people in our community started talking to the people that had been on the ground or did things on the ground themselves, they started realizing that the reality of the situation was that yes, in some cases like the high tech stuff will work, but in other cases, apps needed to be developed for people that, like, didn’t have a smartphone that would work, that had a basic cell phone, that could get a basic signal. They could send regular SMS messages, but they couldn’t send email or they couldn’t get online to look at a webpage. And so they started thinking about developing solutions more in that mindset. And I think, you know, the other thing that came up too was just the idea of like, well then what bigger solutions can we have to increase how fast we can get people connected again. So you know, what can we do to get wi-fi to neighborhoods that have completely, like, lost everything so that at least people have some type of signal or, you know, how can we have people get access to power and charging their phones when they’ve lost that. And so, you know, one of the things that came out of that–and actually it’s a company that just demoed–I don’t even know if they would call themselves a company yet–at New York Tech Meetup not that long ago called “Power Clip,” that they’re a group of students that had been at ITP. And they basically came up with this clip that fits over the two nodes on a car battery. And it’s safe because you’re, like, clipping this plastic thing down over the nodes. And it has USB ports in it. And so you could pop open the hood of any car without turning the car on, put it on the battery, and then charge phones and other devices off of the car battery.
Interviewer: It’s good because it’s New York and there’s no gas anyway.
Jessica: Right. Right. Exactly. So you know, I think there are people, like, thinking more in that mindset now that they’ve realized that, you know, you can’t–after a disaster, you’re not dealing with the best case scenario in terms of the technology tools that are typically available.
Interviewer: Okay, so the next question has to do, again, with the sort of canvassing area point of view. There’s a–when people talk about data activism, they usually talk about how data is used to activism. But I’m really interested in the idea that collecting and storing data, so like collecting and cleaning, or collecting and database, whatever, data setting can also constitute as a form of activism, like can make material change in the world because of what and how things are collected.
Interviewer: Can you talk about that idea if it strikes you at all?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean I think, like, one of the things that the woman who developed the app around the canvassing issue, you know, that she talks a lot about the specific data points that would be helpful in terms of collection for long-term understanding who’s living in what building. And so one of the things that she brought up, especially with some of the elderly people who have medications, who have disabilities, was you know, like why don’t we know who these people are in advance? And could we use some of these canvassing tools to actually have this data in advance so that we know that, you know, this particular building has, you know, three amputees and, like, this many people that are on some type of daily medication that if they don’t get it, you know, within this many days, they’re going to have significant health issues. And you know, I think it’s like–but that led into another question that kept coming up, which is like whose responsibility are these people? And the answer that kept coming back was, like, unless they’re under the care of the state or the city for some reason, meaning they’re enrolled in some kind of like assistance program, that like they’re individual adults who are responsible for their own well being. And so it’s nobody’s responsibility to know who they are and what they need and where they are in advance. And so–but I think, like, some people pushed back and then say, well, there should be. This should be part of what we do as a community, is that we understand who’s in our communities so we can provide support. And so you know, I think–I don’t know. I think that was one of the things that kept coming up, is like maybe we should have more data so that we can take better action. But who’s responsibility is it to collect that data? And should we even be collecting it anyway because each individual person is responsible for themselves? So like why is it up to us to go out and kind of collect that data and make sure that we know who all of these individual people are?
Interviewer: Hmm. Did you guys talk about social resiliency or community resiliency? Did that idea come up at all?
Jessica: A little bit.
Interviewer: Because that’s basically what that is.
Jessica: Yeah, yeah. And I think, you know, one of the things that we talked about a bit too is just the idea of, you know, that New York, because of it being such a huge city–and I grew up in a really small town in New Hampshire. My parents a couple of years ago–the town had an awful ice storm in the middle of the winter. And you know, temperature was like way below freezing. Power out for most of the town. But it’s a population of thirteen hundred. And so, like, they just turned the community church into the gathering center. They had a generator there. So they were making at least one hot meal a day for anybody who needed it. Like people pooled resources in terms of, like, one person had a generator and hot water. Like they would let everybody come over and take showers. And it was like everybody knew each other already. And everybody knew what resources were there. And everybody pretty much knew, like, this house has somebody living in it who’s really old and will probably need support. And it was just a function of, like, that sort of small town feel. And so one of the things that we did talk about was the idea, you know, can you take this huge city and through neighborhoods and through some of the existing kind of structures of how people interact with each other, create more of that sense of like, like, neighbors taking care of neighbors and like knowing who’s around and understanding it without it feeling like it’s, you know, the Big Brother government kind of gathering data on everybody, but is more of that community side of connectedness and using some of the existing trusted structures in the community to help be more resilient after a storm.
Interviewer: Was there any discussion about what does and doesn’t–well I think you sort of talked about this–what does and doesn’t get included in fields for surveys or what is and isn’t collected, specifically like in the–?
Jessica: Yeah, yeah. I think the thing that kept coming up was like stuff around, like, specifically around medica–like the things they would notice when they walked around was that, like, this person would have been fine except for the fact that, like–
Interviewer: They’re on dialysis.
Jessica: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
Interviewer: Yeah. Okay. Okay. Do you have…have–has Tech Meetup changed its mission at all because of what’s happened with Sandy?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean it’s actually, you know, something. So our status is 501-C6, which means we’re technically a trade organization. We can’t–like if you give us personal donation, we can’t take a tax write-off. So we’re not a traditional non-profit.
Interviewer: Like plumbers.
Jessica: Exactly. So–but that’s the interesting part, is that when I started, we had already become that type of non-profit before I started. When I started, I kind of looked at what we did. And at the time it was relatively trade-oriented. But I kind of said, like why are we a trade organization, because we do a lot of stuff that’s of public benefit? And it’s not like plumbers. It’s not like the only things we do are advancing the careers of plumbers. And so we actually are looking at getting 501-C3 status now, partially in large part because of what happened after Sandy, which is that we know that the network that we built, as much as it’s been sort of trade-focused in the sense of people in the tech industry joining as members, the work that those people do and a lot of the work that we do in organizing them and other projects and events that we do are very public-focused and public-facing and have a public benefit. So it makes sense for us to kind of keep building the side that is that sort of trade side, but then having another side of the organization that is that public benefit side that’s doing programs. And we’ve actually been having some initial conversations. So Andrew Rasiej is our board chair. He had also after September 11th, worked with Senator Wyden to push a bill forward that would institute a program called NET Guard, which would basically be a national guard for technology professionals and kind of set up in the same way so that if there were a natural disaster or some other type of national disaster, that people that had been kind of already engaged, already vetted, already enrolled in this program, who had a variety of different technology skills could be deployed to different areas in the country to specifically help with whatever projects needed assistance very much like the National Guard does on kind of general…general things. And so that legislation was actually passed and included in a bill. But then it was never funded. So it’s basically been sort of on the books for ten years or more but has never actually kind of seen the light of day in terms of being implementable. So we’ve been talking to a few different people at the federal level now about things we can resurrect that, and actually using New York as kind of a pilot program for testing that, and using our experience from Hurricane Sandy and just the community that we have in seeing how much the community does want to be engaged, and having them sort of pilot and work on building out this sort of NET Guard program here in New York as a pilot.
Interviewer: So how would NET Guard scale in a way that what happened after Sandy didn’t maybe scale?
Jessica: So I think that, you know, the key element is having the people at the ready who are already vetted to work on different projects at different levels. And so knowing, for instance, that you know, we’ve had X number of people that have filled out the application and have done whatever, you know, we have to do to make sure that they pass both city, state, and potentially different sort of federal levels of access to different things so that, you know, the next time something happens and I call the city and say, hey, we have all these volunteers, we don’t have to have this back and forth of like well they’re not vetted, we can’t use them. Like if they’re in this program, they’re automatically basically kind of approved to work on those types of projects. And a lot of it too is also the sort of employer side. So you know, at National Guard, if someone gets deployed through the National Guard, there are laws around their employer needed to, you know, hold their job for them and that type of thing. And so some of this would also be around trying to increase the amount of time that technology volunteers would potentially be available because, you know, we saw that huge drop-off of people able to volunteer after just like two weeks after the disaster because people had to get back to work. And so this would enable a bit more of a workforce of technology skilled people to continue to work on things even if it’s a little bit longer than that kind of first initial period after a disaster.
Interviewer: How long do you think Sandy, but maybe disasters in general, but Sandy specifically–how long do you think that crisis was or is or will be?
Jessica: You know, I mean I think that it’s one of those weird things that it’s like, I think for a lot of people, it’s only as long as it took them to get back to whatever is their normal daily life was. So you know, and it was only as long as it was the first thing that came on in the news to a certain extent. And so for a lot of people I feel like they felt like it was over even by Christmas. Like it was kind of done, or even before that. And then obviously there were people that were impacted significantly by it and are still dealing with it. And they still feel like it’s a crisis, that it’s not over. And I think it does still come up in conversation. I mean it’s something that, like, even relatively recently, I guess maybe two months ago or something, I did a panel discussion at a fast company conference with Rachel Haot from the city and Emily, the woman that did FDNY’s Twitter account. And so, you know, that was like–it was still seen as a relevant conversation topic as part of this conference. And so I think there are still people talking about it. And so obviously like included when there’s like kind of something new happening or not happening because people haven’t been helped yet or whatever it is. But I feel like for most people, it’s kind of that was the thing that happened awhile ago.
Interviewer: Okay. Alright, so I’ve asked you most on the tech-centered questions. So I’m going to ask some more general questions I ask everybody.
Interviewer: And one of them is how–you talked about how class and economic status plays into the crisis.
Interviewer: Did you see how gender or race might have also played in your experience?
Jessica: Not so much anything specifically around gender. I mean I think the race issue ties into a little bit into class and socioeconomic issue obviously. And I think, you know, one of the things that just from having conversations with people that were working on the ground was just that like in certain neighborhoods where they were–tended to be of a certain race/ethnic background, like in an old Irish neighborhood, that some of the groups of on the ground volunteers were trying to do canvassing. Like you couldn’t send a group of African American volunteers into that old Irish neighborhood, that like having an African American stranger knock on the door of an old Irish family, like, just didn’t work. And so that was like–that was the–other than the sort of socioeconomic connection, that was really the only sort of like race issue that I heard relatively frequently, was just that issue of people of different races that may have been sort of foreign to a certain neighborhood or not seen very frequently in a certain neighborhood, it being difficult for them to get out and help even though that’s what they were there to do, without people kind of questioning what their motives were.
Interviewer: Right. Right. Do you think that as a tech person sitting on your couch being sort of the central hub for awhile, do you think, besides those very particulars, do you think your experience of the storm is different than other people’s experience of the storm either in the tech world or other places in New York?
Jessica: I mean I think that–I think it was different in the sense that I don’t know that a lot of people would have had that same experience of, like, seeing so many different sides and talking with so many different people who are working on a lot of different things. I feel like that part of it was pretty unique.
Interviewer: Okay. Anything else?
Jessica: I mean I think, yeah. I mean I think that aspect of, like, being able to basically virtually–because there were obviously a lot of people doing things on the ground. But you know, I think that aspect of, like, basically kind of like virtually organizing everything–because we did pretty much everything virtually. We had a few in-person meetings that I went out to, like, Occupy Sandy, one of their headquarters and, like, did some stuff on the ground. But especially because transportation was so horrible, for the most part, it was all done via Google Docs and via email and via Skype.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah, I talked to someone the other day who was like in the thick of the intensity via her inbox in the Bronx. She was looking at the Occupy Sandy inbox in twenty-four hour shifts basically, right? And you can’t get any more in the thick of it anymore than that, but like she was nowhere near anything.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah.
Interviewer: By herself.
Interviewer: Very interesting sort of geography of disaster…disaster relief.
Jessica: Yeah, that whole like so close and yet, like, so disconnected, like connected but disconnected.
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah. She was the one, like, when people were like, I’m on my roof, like she was the one sending out the boat, right? She was, yeah. Is there anything or any insights you had from your experience that we haven’t touched on?
Jessica: We covered a lot of it.
Interviewer: Okay. Do you have any questions for me?
Jessica: No, I don’t think so.
End of recording.
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