Extending our principles outside BlaBlaCar: the RedAlert project

On May 31st, we organized our fifth Coding Night at BlaBlaCar, which is the perfect occasion to work on various topics. Some of them are about making our daily work easier by developing specific tools, others are about learning a new technology we may have heard about but never had time to fiddle with and yet others are just about having fun. But this edition also brought the opportunity to work on a project that would allow us to channel our principles into something with a meaningful social impact. Let’s dig into the story of a project called the RedAlert, how it started and was carried out and how it fits within BlaBlaCar’s mission as a company.

Volunteers of the Red Cross

Everybody knows about the Red Cross, one of the oldest and largest humanitarian organization in the world. Their mission is to protect and bring assistance to victims of armed conflicts or in any situation of violence and to care for people in need. If their actions on the field are well-known (dispatching qualified volunteers to conflicted areas, collecting funds and supplies, promoting humanitarian values…), the way they work internally and organize these actions is most of the time unknown of the general public.

Last winter, Perrine gave some time and energy to the French committee of the Red Cross (la Croix-Rouge Française), more specifically to the delegation of the 1st and 2nd districts of Paris. She joined a few people in a social round (what we call a maraude in French), which goal is to check on people living in the streets and bring them food and supplies, such as emergency blankets in winter. The round was a great opportunity for her to better understand how people of the Red Cross work together, keeping in mind that the vast majority of them are volunteers. Eager to know more about the internal processes and tools that are used in the many different missions and actions they carry out, she asked around and covered several topics.

She was astonished to find out the Red Cross volunteers were handling manually their social round reports. They had no specific tool to collect them, and instead, after each round:

  • The team leader had to scan the pages written during the round.
  • They had then to send the scans by e-mail to the person in charge of synchronizing the different teams on the field.
  • That person had to aggregate the many different reports and store them in Google Drive, so they were accessible by the other team leaders before the beginning of their respective round.

Fortunately, a few months ago, the Red Cross was equipped with an online platform specifically made to keep track of what’s going on during the rounds. They save a huge amount of time using it, time they can use to focus on some other matters that require their attention such as bringing their help to people in need. But that specific process is far from being the only thing that could be drastically improved.

Reacting in emergency situations

One of the Red Cross’ missions is to intervene when there is an emergency, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. When such an event occurs, the process is essentially a top-down communication: public authorities warn the central entities of every registered organisation such as the Red Cross, which in turn communicates the alert to local entities such as the delegation of the 1st and 2nd districts of Paris. The local Red Cross entities then activate their internal processes to call for volunteers and dispatch them on-site. To do so, there’s a dedicated person in the delegation whose responsibility is to coordinate all the volunteers who are part of it and may be able to help. Volunteers may have a variety of different skills (doctors, psychologists, paramedical staff…), and depending on the event, it might be relevant to ask some profiles for their help but not some others. Pursuing her investigation, Perrine asked a few questions about how things get done when such an event occurs and got an overview of that process.

Amira — the local coordinator — maintains a list of all the volunteers registered in her delegation, which is around 120 people:

  • She keeps all the phone numbers of these volunteers in her personal phone, grouping them by expertise in order to easily send a group SMS to them depending on the event.
  • When an event requires immediate intervention, she needs to know who is able to come right away, and therefore sends an SMS containing a description of the situation and asks the volunteers if they’re able to go on-site in no time.
  • She then gathers all the answers and consolidate them in a spreadsheet, and sends individual messages to the people who answered positively to give them as much information as she can (indeed, there is most of the time very little information available when an emergency happens).
  • Once volunteers have been informed, it is also part of Amira’s mission to keep track of everybody on-site, people joining the effort at different moments in time or leaving site once their support is no longer required.

Every part of this process is done manually, with the help of just a few basic tools to consolidate the information. Once Perrine got over the initial surprise of finding out they basically have no tools at their disposal, requiring them to spend a lot of time at synchronizing people, she started thinking that she should be able to help somehow. When the Coding Night #5 was later scheduled at BlaBlaCar, she remembered everything she had learned that day and asked for contributors to build an application that could be used by the delegation of the 1st and 2nd districts. And so a team was formed, made of four software engineers (Alain, Erwann, Milio and I), an engineering manager (Nicolas) and one UX designer (Dawid), with Perrine acting as the product owner. Now was the time to start thinking about what would be the best way to formalize the needs that Perrine relayed to the team. We all came up with a bunch of great ideas, but we also needed to make sure that these ideas would fit the way the final users — the coordinators — work with the volunteers, and so we invited people from the delegation to join us during the Coding Night.

Taking a few steps back

When working in a tech company, where people are used to identify problems, designing complex solutions and implementing them in their daily work, it is sometimes easy to forget that not everybody has the time and skills to do the same. We discussed a lot with Amira, and with other people from the Red Cross we invited that night, about their dedication and the values they live by, about the stories they had to share on things they struggle with when their action is needed. And it allowed us to understand how our technical skills can be used for something that has inherently a social impact and goes beyond our daily work.

Building a simple application with a bunch of features is not rocket science, there are plenty of tools out there that will help a software engineer to have something running in production in no time, allowing them to focus more on what the application does instead of how. So after we made sure we understood how Amira works with the volunteers, and built a backlog of user stories, we were ready to build our application one step at a time, gathering feedbacks from Amira whenever we had something to show her. After twenty-four hours, we had built a web application that covered the basic features we discussed together:

  • Sending text messages to a list of volunteers containing a list of possible answers.
  • Receiving and sorting the answers sent by the volunteers.
  • Allowing them to check in when they get to the event site and check out when they leave.

Obviously, there is still work to be done before the application is ready to be used by the Red Cross, but the work we did that night gave us an impulse to go further and multiply the opportunities to work on such projects. We also have some dedicated time to continue working on the RedAlert and we stay in touch with the Red Cross team to let them know of our progress and gather their feedbacks.

Bringing the company’s principles to life

Ultimately, this experience was made possible because the project echoes the values we all work with at BlaBlaCar. One of our core principlesBe the member — is a constant reminder of the importance of empathy in what we do. It invites us to truly understand the needs of our community and to build things that make sense to people using our service. It also encourages us not to rely on what we take for granted and to ask ourselves how we can improve things. Working with the Red Cross during the Coding Night #5 allowed us to extend that principle to a new scope and to reinforce its meaning.

The RedAlert project was a great opportunity for us to remember about our place as tech profiles in a society driven by information systems. No matter our jobs — software engineers, UX designers, ops, product managers — , what we do can greatly impact the work of others around us. Another good example that illustrates this is what we do internally at BlaBlaCar once in a while, when a software engineer works with our Community Relations Team for a day to build them useful tools that can drastically ease their daily work. Extending this initiative outside the company boundaries was a formidable way to apply our principles at a different level, and we are now looking forward to working on the next project.