How We’re Giving Emergency Managers a New Way to Streamline Donations During Crisis

5 min readJan 21, 2020

This fall, NeedsList was fortunate to participate in Innovate Durham, a 12-week program designed to foster innovation in government by using city and county agencies as a laboratory for companies to test their ideas, services, and products. As opposed to some government innovation programs which attempt to force new ideas from the outside in, Innovate Durham uses an “inside-out” approach, where government agencies select the ideas and companies they want to test, ensuring buy-in from the very beginning of the program.

After a competitive process which included an application, pitch, and interview, we were happy to learn that we were one of six startups selected to work with the program. Our partner agency would be Durham Emergency Management, the department tasked with emergency response and recovery in the city and county.

The Innovate Durham cohort standing in front of the original Royal Ice Cream sign at Provident 1898! The Royal Ice Cream sit-in in Durham was one of the first sit-ins to protest segregation in the country.

The timing for NeedsList was perfect. After three years of iterating and deploying NeedsList in over 20 countries in various humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters, we’ve spent much of the fall redesigning our software from scratch. NeedsList 1.0 streamlined the process of aggregating needs from the ground, but our new software has an essential feature: the ability to aggregate and automatically match offers from companies and organizations of all sizes. The redesign has been a natural evolution driven both by the needs of our users and from a more nuanced understanding we’ve developed of the challenges of donations and volunteer management in any rapid onset or protracted emergency.

Given our experience coordinating needs and offers at the state level after Hurricanes Florence and Dorian, and at the international level after Dorian, we were intrigued by the potential of our redesigned software to assist local emergency managers. We came into the project with two key questions to explore over the course of the 12 weeks. The first was simply understanding the status quo — how do Durham’s Emergency Managers currently solve the challenge of donations management during and after crisis?

When real-life disasters disrupt simulated ones

Shortly after our initial meeting with Emergency Management, Hurricane Dorian hit the North Carolina coast, sending evacuees to Durham to seek shelter (and postponing our project launch). Emergency Management was charged with setting up and managing the temporary shelter for evacuees, giving staff a real-time refresher on donations management. This turned out to be extremely useful for giving feedback on our software.

Like many organizations responding after crisis, emergency managers lack real-time tools to connect needs and offers. Staff members field phone calls and emails constantly. In the absence of an aggregated, real-time database, manually connecting needs and offers is the only option available.

Emergency managers are not alone in this regard; most organizations and agencies struggle to get accurate assessments of needs, or know where to direct offers after the crisis hits.

The second question was understanding how our software might be able to help, but more importantly, to understand what was missing, and what we would need to build to create a usable product for a crisis context.

To answer this question, we brought a group of stakeholders (an emergency manager, the Fire Marshall, local Red Cross employees, and a library employee, since Durham library is one of the organizations charged with helping manage the entire donations process post-disaster)for a demo of our current software. With Hurricane Dorian fresh in their minds, they provided essential feedback and comments on the strengths and limitations of the software we’re developing, underscoring “the must-haves,” and brainstorming all the features that would be ideal to have down the road.

Getting feedback from stakeholders at American Underground in Durham

Since at this point we had around 10 weeks to integrate the feedback, the NeedsList team stripped down the requests into the absolute essentials, putting the feedback into three categories — “design and develop now,” “put into roadmap” and “out of scope.”

We took screenshots and added notes into a Google doc to keep everything straight.

We then set to work designing and developing the requests into our current software, with the goal of having a mostly functioning product to test with the team during a live disaster simulation, which took place the first week of December at the emergency management offices.

In a real disaster the giant wall of screens would be lit up.

We created a scenario for “Hurricane Sisa” (named after our UX designer, a true force of nature), a category 2 hurricane inundating Durham county with flooding and high winds. The team added needs and offers into a dev version of NeedsList branded as Durham Emergency Management, and ended up with a database of typical needs and offers that would be seen after a disaster.

A sneak peek of our new software!

Although some core features of the software weren’t ready to test yet (namely, the automated matching of needs and offers), we had enough to go through an entire scenario, which was invaluable for getting additional feedback on our product. Of course, in a real disaster, Emergency Management would not be the ones requesting items — they would be the coordinating agency through which the needs of community organizations would flow. By the end of the simulation, we had a new set of “must-haves” for the software. More importantly, we were able to catch a real glimpse of the promise of NeedsList in helping coordinate needs and offers at the local government level. For this alone, Innovate Durham was invaluable, providing an opportunity to work closely with a real potential user, and to see up close and personal what their pain points would be.

“”Managing donations after a large event is always a challenge. NeedsList definitely has the potential to fill a major need that most disaster and emergency response agencies experience after any large-scale event.” — Sandra Bridges, Emergency Management Planner

So what’s next? Innovate Durham is over, but our desire to continue working with local government agencies continues. Over the next couple of months, we’ll continue to work and test the NeedsList software in a variety of contexts. If your local emergency response agencies are interested in a demo or simulation, let us know! We’re scheduling demos and simulations for 2020 now.




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