Harvey Reflections: A Tech Community Comes of Age

Reichman helped develop the City of Houston’s Harvey By The Numbers data tool.

Jeff Reichman is part of the duo behind January Advisors, a technology design, development and consulting firm. Having lived in Houston for nearly a decade, he’s also become one of the faces of its technology community, organizing regular hack nights as the founder of Sketch City. When Harvey hit, that community leapt into action. And when other storms threatened Florida, Puerto Rico and other areas, he helped relay information to community members there about what they’d learned in Houston.

Now, Reichman is working with the City of Houston to continue to document and analyze Harvey’s impact, including helping put together the city’s Harvey By The Numbers website.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Jeff Reichman is an entrepreneur, project manager, writer, coder, designer, board member, and community organizer.

The story of Harvey can’t be told without including the technology component. When during the storm did you realize how you and others could help? How did it come together?

When everybody poked their head up, all of the sudden there was a bunch of people who wanted to help out. People started pouring into our Slack. [Slack] is like a chatroom on steroids. You have all these channels where you can break off into different conversations, if you’re managing projects you can integrate with project management tools. The Sketch City community and the Houston tech community and everybody who orbits our world of policy, technology, startups, we’re all used to jumping on Slack and communicating, especially for our hack nights. That was just a natural place.

Was this sort of a coming of age for the tech community then?

We started the community group back in 2013 with the first hackathon. Sketch City was incorporated as a [nonprofit] at the end of 2015. Our community just continues to grow; [there’s] over 2,500 people. Harvey was a moment where we were prepared. We were ready to work for 48 hours. It was a chance for people to flex their tech muscles and help.

I think we had an influx of about 700 people in the Slack and of that, we probably had about 100 to 200 actively working on projects and volunteers calling shelters and being liasions between different groups. I don’t even know the full scope of everything we did.

The crowdsourced maps were some of the first examples I saw of organized responses. How did those come about?

Part of my role at Sketch City is just convening people and providing good information and being a conduit. I was motivated by the people in the community and what they wanted to do. My friend, Amanda Shih, she volunteered all night in a shelter and she assessed the needs of the shelter and built a map. From there, we built out an [Action programming interface] to manage that data. That evolved into a muckmap that we used over Labor Day weekend. These projects kind of a took on a life of their own.

I started going to the George R. Brown [Convention Center] to volunteer. By nature of just being there, ideas were just thrown at me left and right and I was able to communicate them out to our community.

That muck map was a great example of temporary technology. The City has a preferred platform called Crisis Cleanup but it wasn’t necessarily ready when people were out there with shovels ready to help so we built this peer to peer map where people could say I need help or I want to help. Then we worked with Crisis Cleanup to migrate that data so there was nobody lost in the transition. There were so many volunteers. Houston really rose to this challenge.

Did Harvey make you feel differently about your adopted home and its future?

It does make you feel different about Houston, the good and the bad. The good is that the people here are incredible. People want to help and generally Houstonians are good-natured. But it does give me some grave fears about the future of the city and the future of what the world looks like as climate change gets more aggressive. I’m hopeful, I’m an optimist by nature, that this will be a place where great innovations come about, from the micro to the macro. Hopefully we’ll have some of the most innovative flood planning in the future and some of the most innovative systems for dealing with natural disasters but that takes a lot.

I think over the next year we’re going to see what this commitment really looks like.

Do you have any lessons learned from those experiences?

There’s a lot I would’ve done differently. When things are moving so fast, coordinating that is a challenge. Our Slack became very chaotic. There were a lot of people showing up and wanting to do things and had I been more prepared to direct people and kind of help play traffic cop, I think we could’ve gotten more done. But you live and learn. I think it showed me the potential. There’s so many talented people right here in Houston.

If there’s one thing we can all do it’s to write down our experiences and do an honest debrief of what we did right and wrong because it is going to happen again. Houston is going to flood and people will be displaced and we have to figure out how all of this works.

And did you encounter any concerns about equity and technology and maybe that gap for some under-resourced communities in connecting to those tools?

This tech is great but it’s not reaching all people. There’s a real concern for equity. From our perspective, we want to build the tech tools and then put it in the hands of people going door to door to make it easier.

Some folks are going to be more prone to use tech than others. Our focus was how do we get this in the hands of the nonprofits going door to door. If you can get it in [their] hands, then you can really reach epoeple. It’s kind of a fool’s errand to get someone who is not technology-focused and put a piece of tech in their hand.

 

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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