I am what some would call a non-technical founder. I spoke Russian, not Ruby. I studied government, not the software that supported it. Sure, I knew my way around a computer, but I did not build the tools I used.
And then in June 1, 2011 everything changed. An EF3 tornado ripped a path through my town, Monson, Mass. I was that idiot standing in the front yard watching (until the lamppost flew by me and windows began exploding). Houses were heavily damaged, buildings reduced to piles of matchsticks, and to further compound the nightmare…aid arrived.
Now, aid in the immediate aftermath post-disaster does not mean a quiet consultation and orderly troops of workers. It means thousands of people with chainsaws, toiletries, and lasagna descending upon an area that is not yet ready to accept help. These people have the right instinct and the best intentions, but an untrained work crew this large requires management. Sensing chaos and seeing help turned away, my sister Morgan and I stepped in to provide infrastructure.
We used the Internet – tethering a cell phone to my tiny netbook computer and working off of generator power in a church downtown. We used free internet tools to database, create a hotline, inform the public what was needed and create a rough case management system. We built a recovery engine and trained a crew of locals to staff it.
I’ll be frank, the experience was miserable. I didn’t know the first thing about disaster recovery, but as the most “technical” person involved, it was somehow my job to leverage he power of the internet and make things like ice and batteries appear out of thin air. We were efficient, we got things done. But throughout the experience I had a nagging thought: surely this cannot be the first time a town has been hit by a tornado. Why weren’t the tools I needed already built? Why did no one bother to equip the community with technology?
I code for America, because America needs code. The problems we are solving are widespread, and the solution is elegant. Give tools that work to a community that needs them, and they’ll do the rest. Simple, really.
As a part of the Code for America Accelerator, we’re being helped in our journey upwards from grassroots common sense to new standards in disaster recovery. We’re on the edge of a movement here, as more and more local governments and residents step up to challenges and find solutions that fit locally. We don’t call it “social innovation” or “civic activism.” We call it “getting shit done,” and we do it every day. My company builds tools to help cities to both prepare for disaster and to put themselves back together.
The Accelerator marks a new chapter for Code for America – a commitment to spreading well built solutions across the country. The tools my company makes, along with those developed by our accelerator mates and the city fellows, are local solutions to national problems. We are proud to be a member of the Accelerator’s inaugural class.
Questions? Comments? Hit us up @codeforamerica.