Crowdsourcing website is helping volunteers save lives in hurricane-hit Houston

By Monday morning, the 27-year-old developer, sitting in his leaky office, had slapped together an online mapping tool to track stranded residents. A day later, nearly 5,000 people had registered to be rescued, and 2,700 of them were safe.

If there’s a silver lining to Harvey, it’s the flood of civilian volunteers such as Marchetti who have joined the rescue effort. It became pretty clear shortly after the storm started pounding Houston that the city would need their help. The heavy rains quickly outstripped authorities’ ability to respond. People watched water levels rise around them while they waited on hold to get connected to a 911 dispatcher. Desperate local officials asked owners of high-water vehicles and boats to help collect their fellow citizens trapped on second-stories and roofs.

In the past, disaster volunteers have relied on social media and Zello, an app that turns your phone into a walkie-talkie, to organize. … Harvey’s magnitude, both in terms of damage and the number of people anxious to pitch in, also overwhelmed those grassroots organizing methods, says Marchetti, who spent the spent the first days after the storm hit monitoring Facebook and Zello to figure out what was needed where.

“The channels were just getting overloaded with people asking ‘Where do I go?’” he says. “We’ve tried to cut down on the level of noise.”

The idea behind his project,, is simple. The map lets people in need register their location. They are asked to include details—for example, if they’re sick or have small children—and their cell phone numbers.

The army of rescuers, who can also register on the site, can then easily spot the neediest cases. A team of 100 phone dispatchers follows up with those wanting to be rescued, and can send mass text messages with important information. An algorithm weeds out any repeats.

It might be one of the first open-sourced rescue missions in the US, and could be a valuable blueprint for future disaster volunteers. (For a similar civilian-led effort outside the US, look at Tijuana’s Strategic Committee for Humanitarian Aid, a Facebook group that sprouted last year when the Mexican border city was overwhelmed by a wave of Haitian immigrants.)…(More)”.