In the face of a disaster, donations pour into a community. Yet as the rebuilding process goes on but media attention is lost; communities require sustained philanthropy in an organized way. Our team was really interested in developing a system to track wildfire donation. We decided to focus on tools that would help identify where funding was most effective and what gaps in funding existed? This is prompted by our desire to see more equitable support for communities hit by a disaster. Using the Camp Fire as a case study, we decided to investigate how money flowed into the community by reaching out to community stakeholders.
Our team’s initial research online produced findings that revealed that the recovery process after a fire was an immensely challenging space to navigate. We came across countless articles that depicted the fragmented reality of the recovery process. For example, 11,000 homes were reportedly burned down in the Camp Fire. However, an article published a year after the disaster reported that only 11 homes had been rebuilt.
We reached out to several organizations, and were able to interview four of them: the Rebuild North Bay Foundation, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Rebuild Paradise Foundation and the Camp Fire Long Term Recovery group. We are very grateful to all of them for taking the time to talk with us, as we learned a lot from all of these interviews.
After our set of interviews, we realized a larger issue - few people could capture rigorous donation data, let alone what those donations led to. At the same time, certain philanthropies highlighted the need to empower local organizations with the flexibility to utilize the grants for whatever need arises. We gleaned from interviews that grants that are too prescriptive may lead to projects pursued that do not match the needs of the community. This led to questions on how to balance between accountability and flexibility.
We also poured through recovery documents drawn up by different governments at the local city and county level. We noticed that there were a lot of efforts that were being replicated. Our team started to map out the existing inefficiencies and asked the question: How do we streamline this process for a hypothetical Recovery Task Force? We envisioned the Recovery Task Force to be made up of different stakeholders within a community with representatives from the local government, community organizations, and volunteers from the community. We also conducted an asset mapping exercise by delving into open-source datasets, checklists of action items for recovery, recovery toolkits, willing experts in the field; the plethora of relevant resources that we came across was exhilarating, and we then needed to figure out a solution to connect these seemingly disparate parts together.
What it does
Our dashboard is a design prototype that allows communities, specifically counties or public agencies, to manage the recovery process after a disaster. Communities begin by entering county information and choosing sectors they’d like data on. Our program would create a dashboard and draw from available public data to create a picture of the community before a disaster. Users could also upload any data the community itself had, from a list of businesses to a community evacuation plan. This dashboard could be created before a disaster or immediately after a disaster happens.
The community could also layer on other metrics that would only be measured in light of a disaster, such as the number of homes damaged or estimated amount of recovery to raise money. These could be compared to existing data from before a wildfire or standalone metrics themselves. The final step of the dashboard is inviting collaborators to contribute data. As nonprofits and other agencies gather donations, provide first aid, and participate in other forms of recovery, they could document any updates to community metrics through this dashboard. We would also include multilingual surveys and offline surveys to encompass all communities and account for potential network issues after a disaster. This dashboard exists as a one-stop summary pulling in all community efforts and comparing it to past data or community goals (inputted by the agencies) in order to continue the narrative of recovery and keep track of all progress being made.
How we built it
We used Figma to prototype and design the layout of the dashboard. We chose Lake County, which has ACS data for a pre and post-fire set of years, to explore and document for our dashboard. We also used screenshots of ACS "Narrative Data" for Lake County as placeholders for charts our platform would create. We also began an interactive data visualization platform, an eventual iteration of this design, in the form of a Dash app (see video above, and link to the web app below). The app pulls data from the 5-year average American Community Survey data and was built using Python Flask, Dash and Plotly, and leveraging the power of Mapbox. The design and Dash platform would eventually be part of a website that helps communities set up and manage the dashboard.
Challenges we ran into
Understanding the community recovery process was our biggest difficulty and is still the largest barrier in implementing a flexible dashboard. There are many academic disaster recovery frameworks, but they don’t always converge on metrics to measure and vary greatly depending on the context. Many recovery processes happen retroactively, given how difficult natural disasters are to plan for. Narrowing in on a few features and outlining how communities would use our tool was an iterative process. We also ran into many challenges integrating our datasets (beginning with ACS data), and we foresee challenges in automatically populating or layering existing and crowdsourced data sets. We also faced the question of who would utilize this tool and how we plan to communicate its existence.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
We spent a significant part of the hackathon listening to folks who had worked in communities recovering from wildfires or had done extensive research on them, which allowed us to pivot from a philanthropy-centric project to a larger need of documenting community recovery for all, especially funders, to see. We were committed to the design thinking process as well as researching Camp Fire in-depth (though we later pivoted). In the process, we each explored academic research tools, participated in interviews, and learnt about new APIs or data analysis tools.
What we learned
No one organization has a comprehensive approach to disaster recovery; the first action is to provide immediate support to a community, which involves leveraging lots of federal/state resources and local nonprofits, many of whom focus on a core aspect or sector of recovery. FEMA is in charge of large parts of the recovery process. Organizations like Recovers.org and Disaster Philanthropy help capture where funding goes, but granular data is often not available. Recovery takes on very different meanings and is further exacerbated by equities in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and access to technology, to name a few factors. Lack of sustained funding also halts projects. Disaster recovery is messy, but an organized, flexible approach that empowers communities to lead and manage its own recovery while welcoming the contributions of others is one pathway forward in building resilience.
What's next for Project Phoenix
Our next steps are to:
- complete our website/application design by refining the user journey
- refine the metrics we’ve chosen through more academic research, user interviews, and past evidence of disaster recovery benchmarks
- create sample surveys with both offline and online capabilities (and the means to upload and auto-populate this date)
- enable a place to document past wildfire history, data tracking, and future risk
We envision using a combination of data visualization tools, GIS, applications such as the one highlighting American Community Survey data, and spreadsheets to provide the data population capabilities. We want to simplify how communities can pool together and record their work to better understand the state of recovery and advocate for resources past the initial interest in post-disaster needs.
We would also like to talk to more public authorities and disaster recovery groups about their disaster management process, pain points in data collection, and our prototype tool. We would also like to highlight other projects and initiatives in the disaster recovery space while figuring out how to market and improve our tool.
Phoenix image credits: phoenixpwn.com