The tragic events playing in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan serve as a stark reminder of the importance of disaster preparedness and response. In this podcast, we speak with Morgan O'Neill, co-founder of Recovers.org, an emergency response tool that emerged from the ruins of a devastating tornado in her hometown.
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Brian Kenny: What happens to a town in the aftermath of disaster? When the news trucks are gone and donations dry up? Morgan O'Neill is co-founder of Recovers.org, an online tool that enables communities to coordinate post-disaster recovery efforts. She and her sister Caitria realized the need for Recovers.org in 2011 after a tornado hit their hometown.
Morgan O’Neill: My sister and I had never individually planned to have anything to do with entrepreneurship in our lives, I think. It had just never crossed our minds. And then on June 1st, 2011, an EF3 tornado cut my hometown in half, in western Massachusetts, so this was a surprise to everyone, including myself, and I know a little bit about these things.
BK: Morgan is currently pursuing her PhD in Atmospheric Science at MIT. Dutch Leonard is a professor at HBS and the Harvard Kennedy School, where he is faculty co-director of the Program on Crisis Leadership. Morgan and Dutch, welcome.
MO: Thank you.
Dutch Leonard: Good morning.
BK: Tell us about the immediate response.
MO: The night I showed up, Wednesday night, when you could still smell the trees and the sap and the burning from the wires, I stood outside of my house, and maybe at around 11:00 p.m., a caravan began, down—like, into the town and down Main Street, into the valley, and it must have been composed of maybe 30 different towns’ ambulance and fire trucks, and I just saw town name after town name, places that I knew were three hours away.
MO: And it was just this slow, steady caravan of rescue, and it was beautiful, and I felt safe and it was great. I mean, there was plenty more chaos to come, but there was lots of first responder type help immediately. This country I think has figured that out. It’s the second disaster, if you will, of donations and organization and data and meeting everyone’s needs that is really bananas.
MO: So for a couple of days, my sister and I just helped our family out, tried to figure out where we were going to sleep the next night, and then we realized that the town actually was really struggling to form any kind of cohesive response at all because of the particular challenges. No one was coordinating the refrigerators and the bags and bags and bags of clothes that were just being dropped off on the main church’s front lawn. No one was in charge. So we started arranging and organizing things. We took all of the data of volunteers coming in with different skills and we put it online. We opened up a Google account. We used Google Docs to make everything searchable and saved. A friend drove in and helped us set up a Google Voice account, which became the town’s hotline, because there was no other phone number to call to get any information, whether you wanted help or you wanted to help, and so that Google Voice number actually piggybacked on my cell phone for 10 days, which was horrible. I was so impressed by how much people were willing to give. But I think the missing piece was organizing them in a way that honored all of the data we could get.
BK: Alright, Dutch, you've looked at crisis from an analytical perspective. Where does Recovers.org fit into the larger disaster relief picture?
DL: Well, that’s a great question, Brian, and I think what Morgan and Caitria have been discovering is something has been a gap in our national emergency response for a long time. As Morgan just observed, we’ve got a pretty good first responder ability, so the National Guard shows up quickly, the police establish command over the roads and we get that sort of response, and the life safety response. When someone is trapped in a house, the rescue converges on that. And so those issues I think are pretty well addressed. The problem is that once you’ve stabilized the immediate life safety issues, there is no one organization who is sort of now in charge of organizing the rest of what has to happen, and an enormous amount of work remains at that point. A lot of people want to help, and they have skills and commodities and things that might be useful, although they often don’t know exactly what is needed. And then there is a bunch of people who are—try to figure out what their needs are, and there is no way to match those. It’s a very sort of haphazard process. And what they’ve done is to invent a social technology, a platform, in effect, that is very general and that allows for that matching to take place.
BK: How does the tool work? What does the user see when they log on?
MO: you’ll see three main buttons: I want to give, I want to volunteer, and I need help. Once you click on one of those buttons through our form goes into a database that can be cross referenced against all of the other answers in that same database. So if I have a family of six and we need a child’s bed for the home that we’re staying in for a month, I could type in, you know, child’s bed, and perhaps someone has donated just that, or offered one of those days before, or weeks before. We’re also trying to fix the time lag problem, where all of the interest happens early and then all of the needs come later.
BK: Is the data available to anyone, or is it protected?
MO: As soon as we started working in Monson, we saw infrequent but extraordinarily bold fraud, and one of the things that we’ve kept in mind as we’ve built this tool is protecting vulnerable people who are tired and desperate. So there is a lot of information that really shouldn’t be seen by the wider Internet, which is why we only allow access to trusted local administrators, who then can say, “Oh, I see this family has this great need and this generous family is able to offer so much. Let’s match them together.” The world can’t see that someone just donated a car, you know? So I think that’s in the best interest of those who need the most help and we protect them first. Even though it would seem very convenient and obvious to open up the database to the world, in our experience, that’s a pretty terrible idea for those who were just hurt by a disaster.
BK: Dutch, you do a lot of work with people in terms of planning for disasters. Talk a little bit about that.
DL: Well, this is one of the great challenges, Brian. One of the things that we know about the psychology of disasters is that sitting there and watching trauma repeatedly played to you on TV and not being able to do anything about it is not therapeutic. Being involved actually helps the people who are helping, in addition to the people who are being helped. So it’s a huge social service to be able to allow these things to happen. In the aftermath, everybody is interested and everybody is involved. Before a disaster, everybody kind of understands that they should be doing more, but they have a lot of other current priorities and they’re often too busy or too distracted by other things and they think they can get to this tomorrow, because they think they still have time before whatever the disaster is. And then all of a sudden, the disaster is upon them. So one of the things that Morgan and Caitria have been working on is trying to get towns to sign up in advance, and I think you’ve had a mixed success with that. Some are able to get their act together and do this, and others just can’t quite, you know, find the time and attention to put into it.
MO: We generally pitch to municipalities and say, “Hey, local government. This is a really great tool. You should consider paying a very small subscription annually so that it’s ready and familiar and full of your local info once something happens. That’s a good pitch, but part of what we’re selling is the fact that other organizations will help out if you allow them a tool that helps collaboration. So we’re saying, if you get this tool, we’ll also sign up all of the churches and the United Way and the local Red Cross and the Girl Scouts and the schools. You know, let’s get everyone who is going to respond anyways using the same tools, so that your burden of response is reduced.
BK: Morgan O’Neill of Recovers.org, Dutch Leonard of Harvard Business School, thank you both for joining us today.
DL: Thanks so much, Brian.
MO: Thank you very much.
BK: Thanks for listening to The Business. I'm Brian Kenny. You can find us on SoundClound and iTunes, as well as on our website at www.hbs.edu/news.