Información Como Ayuda

Justin Auciello is nurturing the citizen correspondent movement across Puerto Rico

Justin Auciello, center, with his team of citizen reporters

As a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore, Justin Auciello knows all too well the devastating effects a hurricane can have on a community. In 2011, in response to the threat of Hurricane Irene, Auciello founded Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) to keep folks in his community informed during the storm. Once Irene passed, Auciello continued to report with JSHN and built a network of contributors and followers. His sustained presence in the community paid off. “When Sandy came along the next year, we really grew to be a primary source for other news sources and a trusted source among the community that we’d built,” says Auciello.

In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, JSHN focused on connecting residents to dire information as the community recovered. Since Sandy, Auciello and his team have built a thriving community of nearly 250,000 across social platforms. JSHN has become a hub for “news you can use” produced by citizen reporters. Auciello says, “the whole intention was to create this network to not just inform, but connect a community so that they have agency in the news gathering and reporting process.”

Auciello’s experience on the Jersey Shore came in handy a year ago when Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. Auciello was living with his wife in San Juan at the time and, once she and her family were taken care of, he got to work. Using skills and strategies honed in New Jersey, Auciello partnered with Internews to conduct an Information Needs Assessment of the island in the weeks following the hurricane. He found that people were in desperate need of accessible recovery information and channels to share their needs and questions.

The findings from the assessment led to the creation of Informacion Como Ayuda (Information As Aid), a partnership between Nethope and Internews managed by Auciello. Nethope worked to get residents back online after the storm and Internews made sure that once back online folks had access to trusted, relevant information about storm recovery. In the first few months of the project the Information As Aid Facebook page averaged a reach of up to one million people a week.

Now, a year later, the project is moving into a second phase. Just as he did in New Jersey, Auciello is determined to continue to build on the community and networks that have formed as part of Information As Aid. While phase one was focused primarily on connecting folks to life saving information, phase two is about building resiliency and highlighting recovery efforts. Internews is now partnering with Mercy Corps and Global Giving to provide much needed emergency preparedness information and daily community news. Auciello leads a team of five citizen reporters who are spread out across the island. The work of phase one was predominately online but in the coming months Auciello plans to increase offline engagement to reach folks in more remote areas or who still lack internet access.

“[The citizen reporters] are doing a lot of community work, going into gathering places, listening to people’s needs. Trying to close the loop by going to leaders and officials and saying can we have your ear. We want you to know what’s going on in your community. We’re trying to be a voice for the voiceless,” says Auciello. While the situation is still dire in Puerto Rico a year after Maria, Auciello says it’s crucial that he and his team shine a light on moments of success. “We’ve been trying to cover the inspiring stories too. There’s been a real movement in self sufficiency. Teaching people how to plant a garden and cook sustainable foods. Teaching simple maintenance. Giving people skills. There’s a real sentiment that ‘we’re on our own’ if we don’t know how to help ourselves no one will.”

Mercy Corps is developing “resilience hubs” across the island to support this self sufficiency. These community centers are providing skills and resources that will aid in preparedness for future storms. They are also developing community farms and supporting fishermen as they get their lives back on track. Information As Aid is working alongside Mercy Corps at these resilience hubs to meet with people weekly to collect their questions and listen to their needs. Auciello says that these hubs provide an opportunity to dig in to their offline engagement in this next phase of the project. He plans to begin printing copies of the successful weekly email newsletter they’ve been producing to distribute at the hubs. To further expand their audience, Information As Aid will partner with local radio stations that have reach in remote and rural areas.

Auciello and his team are focused on broadening their reach, but they’re also fostering a “bottom up” reporting culture. Auciello says, “Our goal in Puerto Rico is to continually plant seeds and nurture the early growth of the citizen correspondent movement across the island. Through their community reporting, our correspondents are inspiring other regular citizens to take action, listen to the needs of their neighbors, and speak out to spur change.”

You can keep up with the work of Information As Aid on their Facebook page here.

The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.