#NYTechResponds: Hacking disaster relief after Hurricane Sandy

By Nathaniel Mott , written on November 21, 2012

From The News Desk

Many of the New York-based entrepreneurs I speak with say that the tech ecosystem formerly known as Silicon Alley has really come into its own over the last two years. As companies like Kickstarter, Tumblr, and Fab continue to grow and early-stage funding starts flowing more freely, New York's startups represent an increasingly important aspect of the insomniac city.

Unfortunately, another common refrain is that many players in this ecosystem are so intent on proving that they can make it here (and, as the inestimable Jay-Z says, if you can make it here you can make it anywhere) that the community often seems loose at best. A number of startup founders and executives have said that they don't go to tech-related events in their spare time – what little spare time they have – because there are so many other things to do in New York. Instead of bouncing from event to event, as many startups in San Francisco are wont to do, these founders prefer to go to a concert, visit a museum, or, often, keep their heads down and burn the midnight oil.

Rob Underwood, a Brooklyn-based consultant who previously worked at Deloitte Consulting and is currently "pursuing several startup opportunities" in New York, says that the New York tech ecosystem is tighter than most realize. Now Underwood, in conjunction with New York Tech Meetup's Jessica Lawrence, New Work City's Tony Bacigalupo, and more than 900 volunteers, is looking to raise $25,000 for Hurricane Sandy relief aid via an Indiegogo campaign and a hackathon under the #NYTechResponds banner.

The hackathon, hosted alternately by the NYU Stern's Paulson Auditorium and New York coworking spaces like General Assembly and the NYU Poly Incubator, will be a mix of disaster relief conference and typical "build something" coding sessions. Underwood says that the American Red Cross, FEMA, United Way, and various city and state agencies will discuss disaster relief and the role that technology can play in relief efforts.

"A big theme of the hackathon is going to be reusability, refactoring, and interoperability," says Underwood. A "huge problem" that came up during a call with United Way was the fact that various agencies were unable to effectively communicate with one another, he says. Increased communication would allow these myriad organizations to better focus their efforts – I said that one example might be one agency deciding not to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and maybe giving out blankets instead. Underwood's example was the Red Cross, FEMA, and other organizations all responding to the same house in Staten Island but not responding to others in need.

As someone who has been keeping a close eye on tech's role in Sandy's aftermath, from the reliance and repurposing of a commoditized technology to donating funds and resources to those in need, #NYTechResponds is particularly fascinating. Though the effort's goal – $25,000 – may not seem like much in comparison to other campaigns, every dollar and bead of sweat devoted to helping those devastated by Sandy is almost unimaginably important. #NYTechResponds is bringing the New York tech ecosystem together in an attempt to donate both, and it's doing so in a way that could have an impact outside of the Lower East Side and SoHo.

If the hackathon reaches a critical mass and enough of New York's hackers throw their weight behind solving some of the problems described above, other disasters might not be quite so difficult to handle. A platform or tool that would allow FEMA and the Red Cross to communicate more effectively is valuable no matter what  zip code you call home. As macabre as it may seem, Sandy's greatest impact may be giving entrepreneurs a damned good reason to try and solve problems that they may not have known existed.

Underwood was careful to point out that he doesn't believe Sandy is somehow growing or bolstering New York tech's bonds. "I think there's been a lot of unity in the ecosystem all along [and that] the ecosystem has had a lot of visionaries and good stewards," he says, citing Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson as one of the people who helped guide the New York tech ecosystem when people didn't think that the city could pull it off. "I think this is more bringing to light the strength and unity of the ecosystem than growing the ecosystem."

He has the inbox to prove it. Underwood says that he has been "flooded" with emails, and he expects that things will only continue to expand when New York Tech Meetup, General Assembly, and other companies or organizations spread the word.

"I think that [Sandy] has been the impetus for the self-realiziation of the New York tech ecosystem for its accountability. It's not a bit-player anymore; it's a significant player in the city," Underwood says. As tech continues to increase its influence, it has a responsibility and obligation to the city to act as a leading force.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]