In Oklahoma's time of crisis, Sparkrelief is working to unify relief efforts

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on May 21, 2013

From The News Desk

Monday afternoon a tornado ripped through Oklahoma claiming at least 24 lives and displacing thousands. One very modest non-profit organization assisting in relief efforts is Sparkrelief, which provides a unified information portal that aggregates data such as availability of food, water, shelter and medical treatment on a map during times of crisis.

Sparkrelief’s founder Eli Hayes got the idea in 2010 when a Colorado wildfire displaced thousands. Living in a house with extra bedrooms and a living room, he wanted to host families seeking shelter. But there was no way to contact victims, and the closest shelter had a policy that forbid it to funnel evacuees to non-affiliated places. That's when Hayes and a team of volunteers launched Sparkrelief, unifying all the scattered information coming from blogs, Twitter, news sites, and government announcements and advisories. For those without computers, "they can easily call or text us from the number on our site," Hayes says, "which ends up being shared through traditional media."

Hayes has been at it since 2010, and during 2012's Hurricane Sandy was able to provide shelter information. Afterward, the program integrated more information including food and goods, as well as services and transportation. According to Hayes, Sparkrelief operates on a very small budget and is funded both by individuals, as well as private and corporate foundations.

The site has a simple layout: there is a left-hand bar where you can “select a disaster,” and a right-hand map of the world highlighting areas affected. Once you choose an event, the map zooms in showing all the relief efforts via drop pins. Each pin represents some person, agency, or place offering shelter and food, and provides information about what it is and the source.

Generally Sparkrelief works remotely because it’s about making sure the information is centralized and available, and not necessarily about providing new relief centers. Hayes told me he’s considering sending a Sparkrelief volunteer to Oklahoma.

Currently, the Oklahoma disaster section shows seven shelters. Hayes hopes the word gets out so people know to both contact Sparkrelief with information, as well as give the information to victims in need. In past crises Hayes has found that governmental agencies sometimes flood the region with information. He says it’s better if all of this information is in one place and hopes to create a space where community members can offer their services as well.

More than 1,000 people in Oklahoma have used the site to find information, "and a number are posting as well," he says. The Red Cross and local church shelters are included in the mix and integrated into the site.

Right now, Sparkrelief is working to get the word out to more community members, victims, and agencies. “We plan to partner with nonprofit and government agencies that want to better inform the public of relief resources,” Hayes says.

Because in a crisis like in Oklahoma, sometimes the most precious resource is information.