Last year, Morgan O'Neill was tinkering with a tornado display at the Museum of Science at MIT when she got a phone call informing her that a living, breathing tornado was ripping through her hometown in Western Massachusetts.
The effects were devastating, "splitting the town in half," O'Neill said. When she went back to survey the damage and help coordinate a relief effort, she and her sister Caitria found major needs in the community, which weren't being served by the larger government organizations.
"It was clearly much more complicated than FEMA or the Red Cross and National Guard coming in and telling us exactly what to do," said Morgan O'Neill, who is currently a Ph.D. student in atmospheric physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We were suddenly flooded with hundreds of volunteers showing up at 8 in the morning, saying, 'I have a chainsaw and I want to help,' or 'I have a truckload of eggs,' or juice boxes. All of these donations weren't managed by anyone."
At the time, there wasn't an easy way to coordinate those kinds of efforts, to make it easy for people to help out with smaller, in-kind donations. The O'Neill sisters did what they could in the tornado's wake, using "all the data in Google Docs and Google Voice" to set up makeshift online portals where everyone involved in the relief effort could see each other's work.
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The site is funded in part by the communities themselves, who pay Recovers an annual fee, depending on their size. A community of 50,000, for example, pays $2,500 a year to use the servers. But it was initially funded by grants from the Knight Foundation, which chose to sponsor Recovers.org's initial proposal out of almost 1,000 applications received in an innovation contest.
John Bracken, director of media innovation for Knight, said Recovers' potential was obvious from the outset, but it is not going to be some "deus ex machine that's going to solve everyone's problems from a white horse." Its goal is to bring people together for relief in a way we've never seen before.
"I think one thing we're learning is that disaster recovery is something we're going see more and more," he said. "And the DIY nature of what Recovers brings to the floor, we're hopefully going see more of that."
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.