San Francisco Is Building A Social Network For Emergencies Only

Online relief efforts such as #BostonHelps are inspiring, but haphazard and confusing. How San Francisco is building a social network — for disasters.

When a disaster strikes, the first thing people want to know is what happened. The second? How can I help?

Efforts to offer help online are often scattered and confusing. Within minutes after news of the explosions in Boston spread, people began tweeting offers of help with the hashtag #BostonHelp. Not long after, Google created a people finder doc. The Boston Globe created another Google doc where people could offer up housing to those in need. Both circulated the internet, largely through Twitter. Lots of people signed up to help, but few were connected with people in need.

"I got at least 20 emails, DMs, [and] calls, but in the end no one needed our extra beds," says Benjamin Maron, who repeatedly tweeted about his home and other services available. However well-intentioned, it was an admittedly odd fit — a Sandy-style relief effort for a human act of violence.

What's become clear over the last year is that there's is a need for disaster and crisis coordination online, beyond hashtags. And San Francisco, the earthquake capital of the country, might have the solution.

In collaboration with the design firm IDEO, the city is creating a social networking website and app to connect people who want to help with those who need it. Through the SF72 platform, you will be able to preregister your home, supplies you have — say, an emergency generator — and relevant skills, such as emergency first aid. Instead of scanning hashtags, people will be able to simply log in to a preexisting community, knowing there will be specific offers for help organized by neighborhood.

"We looked at everything from CB radio protocols to earthquake apps, as well as emerging and established social platforms," says Kate Lydon, who led the project for IDEO. "The central insight that SF72 is built upon is this: in the event of an emergency, human relationships and a community network are more important than a backpack filled with supplies— that people might not know how to use and are often out of date."

Most government emergency response departments, including FEMA, use social media to communicate with the public. But they aren't enabling conversations between other people looking to coordinate. As we saw during hurricane Katrina (and to a lesser extent Sandy), FEMA's immediately ability to help can pale in comparison to what regular people offer each other on the ground, almost immediately. Coordinating that help is essential.

"We want to make it simple and take fear out of it," says Francis Zamora, spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (SFDEM). "It appeals to people's values. We live here for a reason and this is our home and we want to be a part of it and make simple connections with our neighbors."

The city did a soft launch in January, collecting user feedback, but the service is still in beta. "We are dreaming big right now," says Zamora. "As we go into the second phase of the build out, we want to see what will work for people. SF72 can be anything." The next build-out phase occurs in mid-May.

They want to integrate with existing social networks, so people don't have to go to a completely new site. One of the next steps is reaching out to tech companies based in the Bay Area, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which, in its early stages, was touted as a possible tool for communicating during disasters. Their app, however, will focus solely on emergencies and not other city news or information.

IDEO and the SFDEM are tapping the city's pre-existing community via BayShare, a San Francisco umbrella organization for "sharing economy" organizations. "There is mutual interest and everyone wants to get involved and know how to pitch in," says Zamora. Task Rabbit, a sort of high-grade Craigslist for hiring people to do odd jobs, has also expressed interest in collaborating. They're uniquely situated to connect people with particular skills.

AirBnB is in conversation but has not made any commitments. "We have been sharing the lessons we learned from Sandy with SF72, and advising them on how to make use of existing community resources in the aftermath of a disaster," says a representative for AirBnB, which waived fees for housing during Hurricane Sandy and after the Boston explosions.

Other locales in the Bay Area, including Oakland and San Jose, have signed onto the plan as well. It isn't decided whether each city will have their own version, or all will be a part of San Francisco's. "SF72 is open source so we are sharing this model throughout the country, encouraging them to figure out what works for them," says Zamora. "The hackers of the world can help us build it." According to SFDEM, other cities nationwide, including New York, have contacted them, expressing interest in copying the model.

Trust and privacy are major issues in any emergency response effort. "Someone pointed to the Walking Dead," says Zamora. "In a disaster you might not want to let someone know you have a bunch of food at your house." The SFDEM is exploring an option for sharing of certain information with a limited circle, much like you might Facebook sharing.

The social networking platform is just one aspect of the site. It will also feature regular how-to videos about things like properly boiling water to make it potable, and testimonies from people who survived other disasters. It will have live feeds of emergency information from the official sources, as a reliable alternative to the chaos of Twitter and cable news. And it will provide information about available city resources. It will be a one-stop disaster shop, in other words.

"We want to provide another tool and platform," says Zamora. "There will be both the old school and new school ways to prepare and get help."

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