In Emergencies, Aid Agencies Turn to a College-Created Software Program

Trinity College

The American Red Cross in Greater New York used Collabbit during a disaster drill. Its college-based developers help nonprofit groups customize it for certain emergencies.
August 01, 2010

When temperatures rose to stifling levels in New York City in the middle of July, emergency aid groups opened up "cooling centers" for city dwellers seeking refuge from the heat. And they had a cool new piece of software, created by a group of college students, to help. The local branch of the Salvation Army monitored 19 cooling centers throughout the city with Collabbit, an emergency-management program that told the staff how many people came in and out and how much water remained at each site.

Using Collabbit on a desktop computer or a smart phone, or any device with a Web browser, workers could post a call for backup or list a supply truck's estimated arrival time and share that information in real-time with other centers. They could also send such updates by e-mail or as a text message, delivering the information to staff members in the field.

An added bonus for cash-strapped nonprofits: The software was free, and its college-based developers helped the Salvation Army customize it for the situation, said John A. Berglund, who directs emergency services for the organization's greater New York division. There are other programs, but they are costly and hard to customize.

Collabbit is a continuing effort involving undergraduates and some professors of computer science from Trinity College and Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Students began working on the software last summer through internships run by the Humanitarian FOSS (which stands for Free and Open Source Software) Project, a collaboration between nine colleges and universities that works on creating digital tools for humanitarian ends. The group, known as H-FOSS, was founded in 2006 by Ralph A. Morelli, a professor of computer science at Trinity, and two colleagues at Connecticut College and Wesleyan, with the goal of strengthening undergraduate education in computer science in a way that benefits society.

No Fees, No Frills

Collabbit's creators and clients say they both benefit. Students get real-world experience in software development, a chance to put their technical savvy to use. More importantly, they learn how to work with clients, said Samuel D. DeFabbia-Kane, a rising senior at Wesleyan who has been working on the project since last summer. Employees from the organizations that use the tool said it was easy to use for coordinating the large numbers of people and supplies involved in responding to disasters like blackouts and flooding.

The list of communication and coordination alternatives for agencies like the Salvation Army is short and not so sweet. Representatives from New York City agencies and nonprofits that coordinate emergency-preparedness and disaster-relief efforts said they used to hold conference calls for employees to update each other instead. The calls were difficult to schedule and often a waste of time—an inconvenient information dump, instead of an efficient means of communicating to each person what they needed to know, said William V. Anderson, a product manager at Case Commons, a New York-based nonprofit group that develops software for social workers to manage their cases. Mr. Anderson first approached the humanitarian software project about developing Collabbit last summer, while he worked in New York City's Office of Emergency Management.

Agencies' other options include expensive proprietary software, such as WebEOC, according to Seth B. Golbey, director of disaster planning and response for the greater New York chapter of the American Red Cross. Employees often struggle to learn how to use such programs because they are complicated, festooned with features for any organization in any situation.

"Those programs have to be everything for everybody," Mr. Golbey said.

Mr. Berglund said he knew of nonprofit organizations that hired software companies to develop emergency-management systems for them. But the projects required millions of dollars, and the nonprofits were constantly conscious of trying to keep costs as low as possible. As a consequence, they were hesitant to try tweaks in the software.

"Every time we went in to do modifications or change the software, there was a fee," he said.

Collabbit's developers, on the other hand, were paid over the summer by the open-source computing project, through a National Science Foundation grant, allowing them to improve the software without worrying about per-change fees, Mr. Berglund said.

Another free and open-source alternative is Sahana, an "all-in-one system" for managing disaster-relief efforts, said Trishan R. De Lanerolle, H-FOSS's project director .. Sahana is the inspiration for his group's work. But Sahana is more complicated than Collabbit, and may be more than some organizations need.

Planning for the Unknown

Collabbit has been used twice before the New York heat wave. Once was in June during a Red Cross drill that set up 34 emergency shelters in the region, and the other time was last Thanksgiving, when the Salvation Army used it to coordinate meal service for about 10,000 people.

So far, the feedback has been positive. Collabbit's users emphasize how intuitive the software is, a trait that was a main priority of its developers. Mr. Golbey said people found it easy to pick up without any training. The common comment from first-time users, he said, was "five minutes, and I had taught myself how to use it."

Both Mr. Berglund and Mr. Golbey said their agencies plan to use Collabbit in future disasters. Collabbit has received inquiries from several other organizations interested in setting up accounts, according to Mr. Anderson. Collabbit's creators are not sure what else lies in store for the project, they said. It may remain a part of the university-based software project, and it may split off if there is so much demand that the consortium can no longer support it.

Either way, the students driving the software's development are dedicated to seeing its growth. "This is by far the largest project of any kind that I've worked on," Mr. DeFabbia-Kane said. The developers are seeking to add new features, like the ability to generate a summary of relief efforts after an event, or to allow users to post updates from ordinary cellphones—not just smartphones—by sending a text message.

Mr. DeFabbia-Kane may continue to work on the program after he graduates from Wesleyan next year. And even if he doesn't, he said, "Having that kind of experience will be really valuable when I'm looking for a job."