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October 07th, 2013

#kindawesome Mobile Disaster Relief App: interview with Scott Kurttila

By Tyler Breuer

It was the week after Superstorm Sandy had battered the New York City and New Jersey coastlines. I had been on the front line of disaster relief in the Rockaways and Long Beach. One of the biggest obstacles we faced was getting the right help to the people who needed it the most. I had been trying to coordinate large groups of volunteers to cover areas and help those in need. We did not realize how difficult that would be. Some of the neighborhoods were not getting the help and volunteers that they needed while other neighborhoods had too many volunteers—organizations were overlapping coverage in these areas. The coordinated efforts were becoming inefficient.

It was at one of the first Waves for Water volunteer meetings in Brooklyn where I met Scott Kurttila, a former Amazon employee turned consultant who now creates apps with his consulting agency, Sirqul. Many of us at that meeting were exchanging ideas for how to be more efficient with our outreach in neighborhoods when Scott spoke up and brought our attention to the Mobile Disaster Relief App (MDRA) which Sirqul created and had passed through the iTunes App store within days of the storm. The app allows users to see on a map which homes need help and more specifically, what sort of help and items they need. It was an incredible breakthrough and using the app helped our volunteer teams become more efficient and effective.

Scott is as humble as they come. In his late 40’s, his youthful enthusiasm projects a man much younger than his years. His MDRA app could have a major impact on disaster relief throughout the world. It could cut inefficiencies and save non-profits and disaster relief groups money. Scott and his team are changing the way disaster relief is deployed and their work will undoubtedly save countless lives in the future.

Tyler Breuer: How did you get into making apps?
Scott Kurttila: I started my own marketing consulting agency with a partner about four years ago. Along the way, we were getting requests for mobile apps from clients and so we found various programmers that could build them for us. Eventually, I learned how to create very simple apps on my own. About two years ago my entire business transitioned into nothing but apps.

What is the Mobile Disaster Relief App (MDRA)? How does it work?
The Mobile Disaster Relief App is basically a simple, user-generated “have/need,” map-based model. Anyone can enter a location on a map, add a photo, select a “have help” or a “need help” status, and then enter details. From there, volunteers giving relief after a disaster can use it to better know where to go, and what is needed where.

Where did the idea come from?
After Sandy, local surfers came together to help the hard-hit communities where we spend time surfing. We spent hours wandering around, not knowing where we could do the most good. Then Josh Rosen of Saturdays Surf shop said, “You gotta build an app that let’s people say what they need and where.” That’s where it all started. Fifteen minutes later I was on the phone with programmers and four-and-half days later, we launched.

How many people are involved in making an app like MDRA?
From a programming perspective, I’d say about two to four. The Sirqul platform is really powerful because it’s made up of various modules that really help speed development time because the programmers don’t need to reinvent the wheel. On the other side of the app, there are about another four or five people who have been helping me tremendously with so many non-programming aspects. It takes a lot of work to get the word out to various relief organizations to try and take it from where it is now—an idea—to reach its full potential.

What sort of future scenarios do you see the MDRA app being useful in?
I think that MDRA is most useful for what I’d call the “long-term” recovery efforts where an area needs to be rebuilt such as post-Sandy or the Oklahoma tornadoes. It helps keep the need for recovery and the story alive long after the mainstream media moves onto other stories. I don’t think MDRA is meant to be any kind of a replacement for the type of relief needed in the first hours of an emergency—that is better handled by things already in place. Recovery can take a year or more in many of these places so having “need aid” red pins on the map can help everyone from volunteers, contractors to electricians to see where they could potentially help.

How do you see MDRA affecting non-profits and disaster relief agencies? How exactly will they benefit from it?
It costs quite a bit of money and time for these groups to go out and help communities recover. I’ve heard that there can be as much as 80% inefficiency in disaster relief due to replication or repeated efforts. If these groups were able to just get 10% to 20% more efficient by being able to see who is going where and when, more people can be helped faster, saving everyone time and money in the recovery process. We noticed after Sandy that some people said they had been visited as many as 15-20 times per day by various groups coming by to see what they needed. Meanwhile, some friends of friends desperately needed digging out, no one had stopped by and this was four months after Sandy. By creating a map to enable relief groups to work together, I think it can help an area get better street-by-street coverage. It can keep people from slipping through the cracks by using a “divide and conquer” method where relief groups can more easily work together.

What about the people without smartphones? It seems like there might be a limit to the app. How do you get around that?
We’re still working on that part. As you know, we literally thought of it, started building 15 minutes after, and then launched four days later. Now we’re looking at making quite a few improvements—one of those will be to include a web and an Android version in addition to the current iPhone version. Down the road, we may add the ability to populate the map by sending a simple text message. I don’t know that any system is going to be 100% perfect, that’s why they call them “disasters” right? So we’re just trying to do the best we can to just make some improvements to how things are currently done, learn from there and make some more improvements over time.

What would you like to see happen with MDRA?
I’d love to get this next round of improvements out the door soon and then it would be nice to see some of the various relief organizations use it in a bigger way. We had some great feedback from the Waves for Water folks after Sandy, but the more usage and feedback we get, the more we can improve it. I’d also love to try and get some corporate sponsors on board to help us hire a couple of full-time people with our outreach to relief organizations. Right now, the entire app has been bootstrapped and pushed along while we’re doing our day jobs and that’s not a sustainable model for the long term, nor does it let MDRA reach its full potential.

I want to be able to create the best tool possible for the world to use after natural disasters to help speed up recovery. I think we also have to work with various groups and companies in order to get the most adoption or integration into existing systems possible. The goal is collaboration to help people in need in the best way possible. I think MDRA is just one piece of the overall picture.

Before we built the app, when our group of surfers showed up randomly at a home and dug out an entire basement in about 6 hours with 25 people, the homeowners were so gracious and thankful because they literally didn’t even know what they were going to do. If MDRA and other apps like it can help create more stories like that easier and faster, I think that’s a great thing to be striving toward.

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