Techie Volunteers Get New Yorkers Online After Sandy

Techies get together in donated space at the Brooklyn Brainery school to organize relief efforts. (Image credit: Tony Bacigalupo)

NEW YORK — The days of techies hiding in their basements or thinking only about stock options and foosball tables are long gone in New York City. Instead, they are organizing en masse to help small businesses, schools and nonprofit organizations get up and running after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. And they are spreading beyond the Big Apple to offer assistance in Long Island, New Jersey, Upstate New York and Connecticut.

The efforts could also be the beginning of a regular commitment of technology pros to serve the New York community, as well as a model for the whole country, say organizers.

Much of the effort is coming from the New York Tech Meetup (NYTM), which has more than 28,000 members, including major tech entrepreneurs, investors and coders.

The campaign started taking volunteers the day after the storm (Tuesday, Oct. 30.) and had more than 350 by Friday morning. Most requests have been for getting organizations back online. But the meetup is also offering help with data recovery, backup power systems and temporary Web sites.

[SEE ALSO: New Yorkers Trek to Keep Gadgets Powered in Sandy’s Wake]

In addition, co-working centers, where freelancers or small companies rent office space, have volunteered to take people in. One of them, New Work City, is in the blackout zone. But the company's co-founder, Tony Bacigalupo, secured a donated space at the Brooklyn Brainery, a continuing education school. There he has provided a space for about 15 people to do their own work and also to organize the volunteer effort.

Others can go to a Web site, called Sandy Coworking, featuring a "crowdsourced" map where people report places that provide free or paid office space, as well as power outlets and Internet access. People can also get help at a Hurricane Recovery Web page or by texting a request to 646-392-7353.

Techies are envisioning ongoing programs long after the Hurricane Sandy aftermath. "We are…already starting to build the framework for NY Tech Corps that can be in place to support recovery in future disasters and emergencies, and do other ongoing volunteer work," Jessica Lawrence, managing director of NYTM, told TechNewsDaily in an email.

At the site Sandy Coworking, volunteers submit information on where people can find workspace, power, Net access or other resources. (Image credit: Sandy Coworking)

That would be a continuation of efforts begun a decade ago after the 9/11 attacks. Back then, Andrew Rasiej, chairman of the NYTM and Founder of Personal Democracy Media, organized a similar effort. But he took it a step further, working with Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon on a bill creating a national technology corps called Netguard, the program made its way into the Homeland Security Act of 2002. But neither President Bush nor President Obama has made use of the program, said Rasiej.

While Internet access may seem like a minor concern next to flooding, lack of water and medical needs, Rasiej said that technology is key to fulfilling those needs. "The support mechanisms that are critical to keep those things running are technology based," he said.

Other ways to help

Rasiej named other things that technology can do, such as creating a database of residents requesting help. Bacigalupo agreed. "Just making people aware of what's going on has been a big help for folks," he said.

In the near future, the technologists also plan to include relief projects in "hackathons," which bring programmers together for a day or two with the challenge of building a new product, app or Web service. Several that were already scheduled, beginning next week, may now include challenges to create relief tools along the lines of that crowdsourced map of workspaces.

"In a hyper-connected world where the economy and our livelihoods are so reliant on technology, the need for emergency tech support should not be a fantasy," said Andrew Rasiej. "It should be a fact of life."

Sean Captain
TechNewsDaily Managing Editor
A technology journalist since 2000, Seán has followed the tech world from the heady days of the consumer tech explosion and dotcom boom to the iPad, Facebook and beyond. Once an ueber-geek, Seán now focuses on making tech accessible to a broader audience than the nerdy fanbois. A former editor at PC World, Wired and Popular Science, he has also written for a wide array of publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Fast Company, Real Simple and Gizmodo. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Seán on Google+.