Look for the (Tech) Helpers in Houston

Jennifer Pahlka
Sep 1, 2017 · 4 min read
Sketch City co-organizer Dr. Neeraj Tandon mapping out the plan, and houstonsheltermap.com, built by Sketch City, in action, helping rescue Houstonians

Our eyes have been on Houston this week, and our hearts have been particularly with Sketch City, the Code for America Brigade there. This group of technology advocates and civic hackers usually meets Tuesdays to work on projects like a Twitter bot that tweets out air quality warnings or an API to help you retrieve all government entities for an address. But this week, with their city under water and their neighbors in need of help, these amazing volunteers have swung into action.

As the flood waters rose, Jeff Reichman, one of the captains of Sketch City, tweeted out the link to a google spreadsheet, inviting anyone who knew of someone who needed rescuing in the midst of the flooding in Houston to add their location to the map. That spreadsheet was used to create a crowdsourced google map. People started using it.

From there, Sketch City volunteers encouraged people from all around the country to start populating another spreadsheet, this one listing reported hurricane shelters. They encouraged others to call the shelters and confirm if they had space and any needs they might have — like water or diapers.

The spreadsheet then became the data source for a real-time response bot that lets residents of Houston and Harris County text in their zip code and get back the location of the nearest open shelter, verified by the intrepid volunteer community. An entire suite of tools is now available at harveyneeds.org, courtesy of the power of Meredith Maines, Neeraj Tandon, Bruce Haupt, Andrew Douglass (a 2014 Code for America fellow!), Jeff Reichman, and the dozens of others who built a community and then the tools it needed in a time of crisis.

What’s not on Harveyneeds.org (yet at least) is a new way to get help clearing soggy carpet and other materials from your flooded homes or to volunteer to be one of those helpers. The page includes a handy reference on Mucking Tools and Procedures, very literally explaining how to roll up your sleeves and help fix a home that’s been damaged.

Much of this would not have been possible if Sketch City had not had years of experience with the data from the city and county, a vibrant community who already knew how to work together, and, critically, a strong relationship with government. As our friends at Sunlight said yesterday:

The collaborative relationship between the city and these volunteer developers has helped put open data to immediate use, creating useful tools for residents displaced by the flood.

Government works best for all people when the people show up. The team in Houston has proven that every week for the past several years, and the community they’ve built was there when they needed it.

What can you do? First and foremost, let’s show up for Houston. Let’s make sure Sketch City, our Houston affiliate, has what they need to help Houstonians at scale using tech, design, and open data.

Donate directly to them here.

Second, and most critical for the long term: Let’s learn from this. What if every community had an active community that brought together government and civic minded tech and design people? Code for America Brigades are networked with each other around the country, weaving a fabric of 21st century civic infrastructure. We need this in times normal times (if there is such a thing), and we especially need them in the extraordinary times we live in today. Whatever the disaster or crisis, it’s not just Houston, or New Orleans… it’s our country. And we keep learning this lesson; no one is going to fix it for us. It is up to us.

Help by getting involved in Code for America nationally or joining or starting your local Code for America Brigade.

My daughter’s school planner. Even the teens know. Maybe they know more than the adults.:)

Code for America Blog

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