Emergency/Disaster Information Relief Is On The Way

Mt. San Miguel on fire.  San Diego wildfire as seen looking south from my backyard in Santee.

Image by slworking2 via Flickr

Tis the season for disasters and emergencies.  There always seems to be something going on in the world where people need help. We’ve got a team of people trying to help solve the information drought that comes with localized emergencies.

The backstory

About a year ago many of you know I played a small role in helping people get information about the 2007 wildfires here in San Diego. The response was positive, to say the least. But while I talked about what happened, one question still plagued me (from a BarCamp I spoke at): “What’s the next step?”

The thing is, even though the role I played was comparatively small – 1000 or so people in the midst of 3 million – we recognized the need. Citizen journalism was playing a roll that traditional media couldn’t.  Now, with the popularity of Twitter and other very fast broadcasting/publishing mediums, we have an opportunity to impact the world for good, one person at a time, one post at a time.

Tropical Storm Gustav is hovering off the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas in this true-color Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image from September 9, 2002. The image was acquired by the MODIS instrument on the Aqua satellite. Gustav kicked up heavy surf along the North Carolina coast and brought heavy rains to the region, but did not make landfall. Instead, the storm began to track northeast on September 10 and 11. With maximum sustained winds up to 70 miles per hour, it was still possible that Gustav might reach Category 1 hurricane status before moving northward into cooler waters that will cause the storm to weaken. Strike trajectories from Wednesday morning, September 11, indicate the storm could make landfall near Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia in about 24 hours.

Image via Wikipedia

I thought about this issue, advocated “the next step” to other organizations who had funding, manpower and drive.  So far, few have stepped up to the plate.  I even gave a prototype example of what small steps could be taken to prepare for the next emergency with little staff, leveraging the massive amount of information being put out by citizens, traditional media and governments.  I’ve seen few takers. Only a handful of potential services being started that will do this kind of thing.

So, I thought… I’ll build it myself.  I have one month before HeroCamp in Houston. I’ll build it and show it off there.

Enter Refresh SD.

Refresh San Diego is a group of people who are “working to refresh the creative, technical, and professional culture of Internet in the San Diego area.” Phelan Riessen, a local entrepreneur and the organizer of Refresh SD, wanted to solidify the group around a goal. Something that would be fun and potentially bring in extra money for everyone involved.

I attended the brainstorm meeting to figure out which idea we would work on as a team.  I pitched the idea of an aggregated emergency informational system/site and I was surprised to see every person in the meeting raise their hand in agreement that this was the project to work on, even without money being the first objective.

Flood blocking the road in Jerusalem

Image via Wikipedia

In the next month a team of 15 volunteers will be working together to produce one of the most comprehensive emergency information aggregation, categorization, and broadcasting systems on the planet.

This team is doing so without funding, in everyone’s spare time, and for the good of humanity as a whole.


Now, I’m telling you this story for a few reasons.  (1) I believe this team is doing some of the most important work of our lives and I want you to know about it.  (2) I believe this team should be credited with thanks and admiration from you, the ones who will profit from it.

There are a few other things you can do to be a part of this adventure, too.

  1. You can vote up, comment, and give advice about this idea at IdeaBlob. (the team will win $10k, which would be a HUGE “thank you” as well as offset some costs)
  2. Comment on this blog with ideas and advice.
  3. Help us get the word out about what we’re doing to local and national media.

Please, feel free to share this story.  I’ll be posting more about the project as we go along as well as the link to it when it’s ready for testing.


Nate Ritter lives in Austin, Texas (U.S.), popularized the #hashtag and creates web applications for a living. He also does miles and point hacking to enable cheap travel for his family. More here →

6 Comments on "Emergency/Disaster Information Relief Is On The Way"

  1. Thanks Nate,

    For the note, I want to share credit and thanks to all the RefreshSD organizers involved: Andrew Kou, Steve Eisenberg, B.J. Schone and Melanie Moore Bermudez.

    I can’t wait to see the beta version!


  2. nate says:

    Perfect! Sharing credit is what it’s all about.

  3. Nate, this is a terrific idea and a very positive way to utilize social software for the common good. You got my vote on IdeaBlob, and I gave you a shoutout on my blog, too. Good luck!

  4. nate says:

    Awesome, thanks so much Robert! I appreciate it. Keep spreading the word.

  5. Joe says:

    Three cheers to bringing together the smart, passionate people!

    I’m serious when I say we should partner up so ya’ll can piggyback our infrastructure and we can conglomerate our efforts. We’re talking about the same exact stuff over here. As public broadcasters we are uniquely positioned to harness collaborative web (‘2.0’) initiatives for the common good.

    A year’s gone by since the 2007 fires and since then we’ve had a lot of debriefs with higher ed people and government agencies about how to, among other things, best deputize locals during the next emergency and aggregate/organize user-generated content.

    We’re also at the outset of a major 2009 site redesign. This is an outstanding opportunity to help truly redefine public media by bringing voices together via intelligent web development to build a real, localized community hub. To bring order when there is chaos and isolated reporting.

    Anyway, let’s chat. I love what you’re trying to do and we should join forces. I’m meeting SDSU professors this week to talk about mapping possibilities. Maybe a Refresh rep can join?

  6. nate says:

    I’m in. Let me know when and where and I’ll be happy to be there. I would absolutely love to partner with you guys (KPBS) on this project. We’ll talk specifics soon, but let’s definitely synergize®.

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