Disaster is a growth industry -- in a good way. Dire circumstances affecting lots of people can be a crucible for the kind of problem-solving and collaboration that can yield long-term entrepreneurial opportunities. That's because few things highlight unmet needs and important gaps more vividly than disaster.
Last month when sudden, severe floods struck Boulder, Colo. and the surrounding area, many local tech startups and professionals leapt into action and started volunteering. And they continue to lend their unique skills to the long-term recovery effort.
Here's what they're doing and how it might help their business as well as their community:
1. Volunteering with tech-focused relief efforts.
Evert Bopp, founder of Disaster Tech Lab, connected with several eager volunteers when he spoke recently at a biweekly gathering of Boulder's vibrant tech startup scene. Disaster Tech Lab quickly deploys wireless "mesh networks" to provide local communications, internet access, voice-over-internet (VOIP) phone service and more in disaster-stricken areas. This can help emergency responders and traditional relief organizations work more effectively, as well as help residents connect with their families, insurance companies, and resources for help.
In the first days of the Colorado floods, Bopp's team and equipment arrived in Lyons, Colo. -- a town just north of Boulder that was completely cut off when all surrounding roads were destroyed. And he needed more help in the form of volunteers.
How can tech professionals and companies benefit from volunteering during disasters? Besides the sheer good of helping people in need, the tech industry particularly thrives on collaboration, innovation, experimentation and strong personal ties.
"Tech-sector folks who volunteer for disaster relief gain a clear picture of acute systemic needs and gaps," Bopp says. "And they also see quickly which solutions really work -- not just locally, but also for major relief organizations, government agencies, utilities, and even the National Guard. Those contacts can lay the groundwork for very lucrative business relationships -- or for new products, services or even new companies or nonprofits."
Tech volunteering also can sharpen your business skills. "There are lots of similarities between disaster relief and launching a startup. Talk about instant bootstrapping," Bopp observed. "Sadly, we're only going to see more and more natural disasters. People are going to need a lot of help, so why not set up your career and business to do some real good in the world?"
2. Building tools and networks for fundraising, coordination and resource sharing.
When the Boulder floods hit, Tim O'Shea, a lead organizer for Boulder Startup Week, was slated to attend events for the nearby Denver Startup Week. Instead, he felt compelled to assist local flood relief efforts. He created Boulder Flood Relief, a hub to help people request help with cleaning and rebuilding, and make donations.
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"We pretty much had to create an instant startup to get this done, and I leveraged all my contacts in the tech community to make it happen and get the word out," he says.
Similarly, in 2010 when a devastating wildfire destroyed many homes in Fourmile Canyon just outside of Boulder, tech entrepreneur Eli Hayes teamed up with local developers to create SparkRelief, a set of mobile-friendly tools to enable resource-sharing for disaster relief. Since then, these tools have been deployed for disaster relief efforts around the world -- as well as during the recent Boulder flood.
Experience with helping people use technology to work together to survive crises can create a lasting focus on mission which can strengthen any entrepreneurial effort -- whether for-profit or nonprofit. And it can also make a strong, positive impression on your community and potential customers.
3. Gathering and sharing data to enhance disaster resilience.
Disasters can be stark "teachable moments" if people pay close attention to what went wrong, and why.
Boulder resident Jeff McWhirter has long been active in civic efforts to mitigate flooding and drainage problems in the southeast corner of Boulder. He's also a software developer with experience building geoscience applications. During the recent floods he used the open-source data framework he created, Ramadda, to gather and publish local flood-related data and context.
McWhirter is building a mobile application powered by Ramadda that will allow neighborhood volunteers to go door-to-door gathering specific information about basement flooding -- how much flooding occurred, the source of the water, damage estimates, and more.
Once compiled, this data can help residents lobby local governments for more effective stormwater management and flood mitigation measures, which might spare both the city and residents considerable expense and loss in the future.
"In our neighborhood of about 400 homes, roughly two thirds were damaged by this flood. That didn't come out of nowhere -- it's an extreme outcome of a known long-term problem," McWhirter says. "If we want to convince the city to finally take action, we need uniform, quality data -- not just spotty reports."
There's a real demand for flexible tools to collect structured data -- not just in emergencies, but for understanding all sorts of issues, McWhirter says. "So we'll pilot test this in Boulder, because there's nothing like eating your own dogfood when you're building a business."