Crowdsourcing Campaigns Turn Citizens into Hurricane Harvey Volunteer Heroes


Crowdsourcing Campaigns Turn Citizens into Hurricane Harvey Volunteer Heroes

By Adam Karides

Hurricane Harvey is the most severe natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, accounting for a record-breaking rainfall of over 4 feet, howling winds of up to 130mph, tens of billions of dollars in damaged communities, and a 30-person death toll that is still climbing. Despite these heartbreaking figures, there is a silver lining: the brave men and women who risk their lives to help save others. And since Katrina, there are new digital technologies that have equipped these heroes to better perform their rescue efforts. Namely, three crowdsourcing campaigns have been launched to aid these volunteers. Not to be confused with the numerous crowdfunding campaigns that are helping provide monetary relief for Harvey’s victims, these are coordinated efforts to create digital platforms that enable citizens to become first-responders in real time.  

1. Houston Harvey Rescue

A 27-year-old named Matthew Marchetti could not bear to passively watch the storm ravage his community. Instead, the software developer constructed a portal for victims to digitally identify, locate, and track themselves and other stranded residents of the Houston area. It’s called the Houston Harvey Rescue, and it also allows volunteers to register to help save these self-identified victims. Marchetti launched this website on Monday, August 28th, and by the next day, 5,000 victims had registered. This grassroots rescue project is not only important for saving the lives of Hurricane Harvey victims, but it might have just established the precedent for open-sourced disaster relief programs for future natural disasters. And given the immense success of this platform, an open-sourced approach to disaster relief will likely be more widely adopted when future storms hit.  

2. Esri’s Direct Response Program (DRP)

Crowdsourced disaster rescue efforts are not just appearing on the grassroots level. Esri, a prominent GIS mapping software and analytics service, launched its own Hurricane Harvey relief project known as the Disaster Relief Program (DRP). This platform is built on Esri’s supreme mapping systems, but these maps provide little value without real-time context to particular extreme conditions that various victims are battling. For example, despite its impressive GIS technologies, the platform is unable to register rapidly developing hazards such as victims being stranded due to a collapsed road or difficulties reaching them because displaced snakes and alligators have invaded their homes. To combat this issue, DRP includes a feature that allows victims to submit geo-located photos of their surroundings to provide insight for volunteers. It’s called the Crowdsource Story Map, and it informs citizen first-responders of what to expect upon performing a rescue. Without this crowdsourced tool, these heroes are blind to treacherous conditions that even the industry’s most accurate mapping technologies cannot capture.   

3. US Coast Guard’s Collect Search and Rescue (SAR) Data Program

The private sector is not unique in embracing crowdsourcing to bolster rescue efforts. The United States Coast Guard, arguably the most capable government organization for providing hurricane relief, launched its own crowdsourcing initiative. To assist voluntary relief endeavors, the USCG is joining forces with the Standby Task Force organization to host its Collect Search and Rescue (SAR) Data program. It’s a platform that pairs user-generated geographic data and levels of distress, and sends this information to the Coast Guard. The USCG then takes these insights to triage the storm’s victims and orchestrate rescue efforts accordingly with its associated response agencies. By endorsing the Standby Task Force to accommodate its data collection program, the USCG’s crowdsourcing project represents an example of effective co-creation between the private and public sectors. If the government is willing to lend its resources to support crowdsourcing, organizations can conduct such campaigns at optimal performance. As undisputed evidence of the power of public and private sector co-creation disaster relief, the Coast Guard has already saved over 4,000 lives since Harvey’s landfall.      

These initiatives showcase the goodness and fortitude of mankind through the harnessing of crowdsourcing in two meaningful ways. The first is the democratization of these courageous relief efforts – the rise of citizen first-responders. It is truly awe-inspiring how these platforms cultivate hometown heroes who might otherwise be sidelined. The second is manifested in the overall attitude toward crowdsourcing. Now a mainstream tactic for problem solving, crowdsourcing campaigns are no longer just good fun; they are saving lives. Hurricane Harvey is yet another example where crowdsourcing has risen to the occasion, and similar strategies will likely headline future disaster relief.

If you would like support the various relief efforts and campaigns associated with Hurricane Harvey, please do so. It is not too late to make an impact.