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Don't Panic - Organize!

A major storm is bearing down on your neighborhood. You have 10 minutes to prepare. What do you do? Do you grab your things and run or check in on elderly neighbors? Lock your doors or throw them open to all? Stockpile resources or distribute them? You and your neighbors have a choice: do you panic or do you organize?

At the Allied Media Conference on June 18th, New America’s Resilient Communities team led a workshop on community-led resilience planning. Participants in the hands-on session played out the scenario above, figuring out how to work together to plan for isolated and vulnerable residents to stay safe and share limited food, medical supplies, and other goods.

Participant teams -- representing neighborhood anchors like a community center, a library, and a hardware store -- had one important central organizing asset: a local wireless network running over a Raspberry Pi device. Using an open-source collaborative Etherpad document on the local network, they communicated with each other to discuss their needs and resources.

This situation mirrored what happened in several New York City neighborhoods during Superstorm Sandy, when cellphone and other communications systems failed in some neighborhoods, in a few cases for two weeks or more. Brooklyn’s Red Hook Neighborhood was unique though -- it had Red Hook WiFi, a local network similar to the one in the workshop, which kept running even after electricity, phone, and internet service was knocked out across most of the neighborhood. Katherine Ortiz, Program Associate with Resilient Communities who was a volunteer with RHI at the time, says “It was a tough time for everyone in the community. Not knowing when the power was going to come back on, or when and how we were going to eat. The network made it easier for people who couldn’t leave their homes, who were in need of supplies. All they had to do was write in the portal on the network, get a response, then someone was on their way with whatever supplies they needed. ”

Towards the end of the resilience workshop, participants were free to implement the plan they developed in the preceding steps. However, as each group moved about to obtain the resources they needed, New America team members acting as outsiders began to intervene: there was the “bossy volunteer”, demanding a leadership role in local organizations; there was the TV reporter, interjecting in recovery efforts to capture sound bites; and there was the outside aid agency, imposing various conditions for assistance.

After the activity, workshop participants discussed the opportunities and challenges they faced while planning, and questions that arose around using technology to organize in disaster settings. Most agreed that communities should do human face-to-face organizing, even when they have technology-based tools.

Some participants reflected that in some cases, having smartphones and being able to collaborate over the network made them feel more secure; others felt that trying to forge human connections over a technological platform made them nervous, and that they preferred face-to-face communication.

Generally participants agreed that they key to using a tech resource like a local network -- or any other preparedness tool -- is planning and organizing before disaster hits, so that enough people in the community know how to use the tools and to combine them for the best outcomes.

New America’s Resilient Communities Program is currently co-designing and building resilient local wireless networks in six Sandy-impacted communities through the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s RISE : NYC program.

Screenshots of the Etherpad: