The Informal Side of Sandy Response

So, apparently I was at the White House today – my first time, as I never went on any of those tours as a kid. In a series about the FEMA Think Tank, this was the first to happen there, and somehow they decided inviting me was a good idea. Sure, I know inviting the rest of the field time is a good move. But this satire-punk kid? Oof.

The whole thing was streamed as a phone call (that, and other notes, will be available at within a week or two. The chat was live-tweeted as well via the hashtag #femathinktank – some interesting stuff there.

img by Scotty! Thanks for indulging Galit and myself.

img by Scotty! Thanks for indulging Galit and myself.

After the mics were off, we did a round-table on connecting the formal to the informal – honest discussion about some tough ideas on moving forward. I was asked to be one of the four people to lead us out. Here’s a summation of what I was getting at:

We’re talking about connecting the formal and informal. Somewhat obviously, I’m from the informal

Individual voice (sometimes represented through social media) is important in response because it gives high resolution and granularity to our understanding of what is going on. Instead of dropping in one massive block of resources, we can figure out where tiny bits go. How communities can help themselves and help each other. In short, mutual aid. This is couple with wanting to respond at the pace our technology has made us accustomed to.

I look at this a bit like the record industry in the age of the internet. FEMA right now can become kickstarter or some other platform on which people can connect directly, and have a way of interacting and supporting each other. Through providing those connections, you can bring your institutional knowledge and directive of assistance to bear on interaction. Or you can be like the record industry and become not only obsolete but also unliked. (I like you all.)

How do we create space for innovation in tech and in policy while allowing paths for systematizing? The things that work can’t just be ad hoc all the time. Challenges are bigger than we can plan or train for – have to give people space and support to figure it out on their own.

The tools exist, as we’ve shown, and we can make more. What is needed is an assumption and platform for us working together.

Be transparent about what you do, how to be in touch. It’s already chaotic, help make it less so. The populations we aim to help can be included in that knowledge. We need your bigger abilities and institutional knowledge. We as individuals also have to learn to support you as our government. So many of these things happen out of directed conversations and open minds.

Ialsomaybetookapictureofatinyoccupytentwhileinthewhitehouse. And slid down the railings. ([x] World Bank [x] White House [ ] NASA). I wonder if they’ll ever let me back.

Hurricane Sandy: Response Overview

This blog entry was co-written by Galit Sorokin and Willow Brugh, and edited by Lindsay Oliver. Mad props to them and to all the fine folk we had the honor of working with. Special thanks to Tropo, who made it possible for me to deploy with the FEMA innovation team. And kittens and hearts to the Field Innovation Team.

Background of experimentation and collaborative innovation

Humanitarian and disaster response is a layered and multifaceted complex system of invested stakeholders, criss-crossing operational levels, and overlapping missions and goals. IE, there are all sorts of players in the field, and they have different motivations and modes of operations. Think about all the different components that go into an office job – operations, staff, developers, and the like. Then you get into the tech that supports them, how they interact and are influenced by the space they inhabit, and the like. All of this revolves around a shared purpose of output and expectation. Then remove all the intentionality and shared methods of communication, and make everything immediately pressing. You now have some idea of what disaster response is like: while there are needs that must be prioritized and protocols to be followed, every issue to solve feels like an emergency – because they are all emergencies.

There are many efforts around linking separate operational nodes and helping them to be more interoperable, reducing redundancy in response and furthering existing efforts. Two such efforts are Camp Roberts RELIEF and STAR-TIDES.

Camp Roberts RELIEF experiments have catalyzed the development of interoperable disaster management tools. It has brought together interagency partners and humanitarian responders with the institutions responsible for building situational awareness and informing key decision makers.

STAR-TIDES (Sharing To Accelerate Research-Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) is a research effort that promotes sustainable support to stressed populations – post-war, post-disaster, or impoverished, in foreign or domestic contexts, for short-term or long-term (multi-year) operations.  The project provides reach-back “knowledge on demand” to decision-makers and those working in the field. It uses public-private partnerships and “whole-of-government” (the philosophy that everyone in a community has responsibilities and roles in a disaster) approaches to encourage unity of action among diverse organizations where there is no unity of command, and facilitates both inter-agency and international engagement.

This sort of cross-agency and cross-organizational innovation is the background from which much of the following approach stems. The team brought experience from these events to respond to Sandy as a part of the FEMA Field Innovation Team. We chose to focus on the Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) as the interface between the affected population and responders. In this case, “responders” refers to response professionals, such as the Office of Emergency Management or EMTs. DRCs can be put in place by formalized groups such as FEMA and Red Cross, or can be community efforts by churches, schools, and ad-hoc groups. “DRC” in a standalone reference  refers to an official one, “Community DRC” refers to a non-official one.

As Sandy crept up the East Coast, the Field Innovation Team rallied around the following directive goals:

Pre-purpose Deployment

Mobilizing the whole community requires an interfacing contact at the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) level whose sole focus is connecting FEMA to the social network and resources of the DRC’s local context. This proposal outlines the potential deployment of a tiger team, experts that solve systemic or technical problems, whose mission would be to:

  1. Identify needs in the region and specific community where a DRC is operating; (building check points along the way).
  2. Communicate those needs to the DRC along with potential whole of community approaches that could be mobilized against those needs;
  3. Design innovative approaches to meeting the identified needs using participatory (multi-stakeholder) processes, mobilizing whole of community to pursue a community-designed solution (akin to CAP at Camp Roberts). Down-select and/or fuse to one that most closely matches the needs, opportunities, and constraints of the in-need populace.
  4. Implement solution and track effectiveness. In parallel, track these needs and chosen solutions as indicators of capability gaps that could be explored through exercises and field experiments (such as through RELIEF) and turned into lessons learned/issues identified.
  5.  Take capability gaps identified during deployment to subsequent field exploration at RELIEF/Camp Roberts, where the NPS/NDU team can convene multiple stakeholders to further develop and explore innovative, scalable solutions that can be deployed in the next disaster.

Tangible Example
With communications failures in the residential and commercial sectors, DRCs require a means to connect disabled citizens with their loved ones and provide disability services. FEMA has acquired iPads and software that can facilitate communications, but requires a team that can deploy with these devices and devise a CONOPs in real time (and problem-solve in real time). The tiger team would work with stakeholders to design methods for deploying the services via iPad, implement one or more of these methods at DRCs, track the success, and take any gaps into subsequent field explorations.

With all of this in mind, we deployed with the following mission:

To strengthen whole of community by amplifying the connection between the formal and informal sectors.

Questions we use to frame our work

  • What can we do in these areas which is not already being done?
  • Would what we propose to do provide innovative, systemic changes?
  • How much time will it take? Is it accessible?
  • When identifying needs in the field, we assess if needs are being met.
    • If no, then why not?
    • If yes, then how?
    • Are needs met traditionally? If not, then what ad hoc solution was made possible and implemented?
    • Note: While this is may not have been how we framed our work or responded, it’s how we assessed what was going on and can be used in future scenarios.

Initial problem set assessment


  • Was unscalable, and behind too high of walls to access.
  • Power was too big an infrastructural problem to tackle due to lack of access to data and red tape.
  • This is now a project for Camp Roberts.


  • Was outside our connections and capabilities, but was a missed connection. Could be an attainable goal in later efforts with appropriate communication channels open.
  • Too broad an issue to tackle in such short a time. Also, we were discouraged and bumped off from spending energy on the problem.
  • Connections were available but uncommunicated across teams.
  • Housing is too big an issue to resolve with quick technology based solutions and therefore did not recieve as much attention


  • Came back online much more quickly than anticipated. Was not as much of an issue during triage and initial recovery, and was locally resolved relatively quickly.


  • We helped install vsats and signage (not just communications to the rest of the world but also on the ground and between groups).
  • While a well planned-out approach, there was a lack of opportunity to properly and fully implement.
  • Signage was tested and successfully installed. It is important to note that this location’s communication came online faster than most.

What we ended up working on:

How FEMA gets to enter an area

Currently deployed with FEMA’s innovation team (iknowright?) for #Sandy, so I’ll be brief. Lots of stuff being worked on, lots of approvals have to be gotten before it sees the light of day. But here’s a brief overview of how FEMA is able to deploy anywhere, to address some rumors and assumptions going around.


People in state and city have to even know that they can, and must, request from state. Then they have to know how. Same goes for state.

This process happens every. single. time. Want to put in a DRC? State has to request it.

Arrows are one way.

Why groups like Occupy and other localized efforts are important – these rules don’t apply to you. The info you create and the knowledge you have can be acted on.
Groups like FEMA also have historical knowledge. Some policy DOES exist for a reason, which is difficult to understand outside of context.

Last mile is the problem. Resources pushed to state, up to them where it goes.

A lot of people are saying FEMA isn’t around. Think about this – they have 900 community relations people are currently working New York and New Jersey. Out of 3500 total FEMA staff. Think about that – 900 of those are community relations, deployed, right now. They are there. But they need your help.