Tech volunteers quick to help in quake aftermath

Core software of website to help recovery effort in Christchurch also used in Haiti

Technically skilled people and other volunteers looking to help recovery after the Christchurch earthquake got together in short order after the quake struck and set up a website and communications channels to help those affected by the disaster find and request information.

The site, www.eq.org.nz has “no official organisation” behind it, says one of the prime movers, Nat Torkington; “it’s just a bunch of tech-literate people who wanted to help.” It’s not the team’s intention to overlap on or conflict with the work of official bodies, he says, “but we sensed the lack of a single place to go online for information.”

The core software is based on Ushahidi, an open-source platform for crowdsourcing information in crises. It was developed in Kenya in 2008 to map reports of post-election violence. It has since been used in many scenarios; its “finest hour” so far being in coordinating response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Torkington says.

A Christchurch sub-domain of crowdmap.com, which is a software-as-a-service version of Ushahidi, was set up initially, but this was overwhelmed with traffic, “so we spun up something on [cloud service] EC2 to take over,” he says.

“The leaders are Wellingtonian Tim McNamara who kicked it off, Rob Coup from Koordinates who has managed the tech aspect, and Josh Forde from Enspiral who has helped coordinate the volunteers,” says Torkington in an email on the InternetNZ members’ forum.

“The support from the business community has been brilliant. Among many notable supporters: Telecom, Vodafone, and 2degrees for zero-rating an SMS shortcode - 5627 - so people can report problems, making the shortcode happen in super-fast time, and giving prepay topups to volunteers.”

Software company Catalyst IT offered space for the volunteers clearing reports and their staff volunteered to work on the project. Victoria University and Optimal Usability, as well as Catalyst, have let volunteers run shifts in their workspace. Boost NewMedia paid for hours of McNamara’s time setting up the site.

Christchurch people are using the site and its associated communications channels to ask for or offer help and give and obtain information about the current state of facilities in the city and suburbs - to find out, for example, where to buy food and get building supplies, medical supplies and petrol as a clean-up gets under way in the suburbs.

“We’re asking people to tell us where they are and what they see – if roads are blocked, which dairy is open, which Mitre 10 is open, which medical centre, where there are phones working and internet access,” says McNamara. In addition to the SMS code, contributors can enter information on a website form, email eqnzfeb@gmail.com or tweet on Twitter with hashtags #eqnz or #helpme for emergency requests.

With so much information coming in, there is bound to be duplication and errors “so we have an international team of volunteers filtering stuff,” says Torkington.

The site team is in direct contact with the Student Volunteer Army and other volunteer organisations. The technical team has helped at least one such organisation sort out problems with its own website, when it began to seize up under the load of traffic.

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Tags enspiralUshahidikoordinatesstudent volunteer armyrob coupnat torkingtonjosh ford

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