Occupy Sandy

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Adam Greenfield:

"Organised by veterans of Occupy Wall Street, the citizen relief group known as Occupy Sandy emerged in response to the unprecedented damage done to New York City by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its lineage, OS was organised along strong principles of leaderlessness, horizontality and consensus. What may be more surprising is that this group of amateurs – unequipped with budgetary resources or any significant prior experience of logistics management, and assembled at a few hours’ notice – is universally acknowledged as having outstripped traditional, hierarchical and abundantly resourced groups like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross in delivering relief to the hardest-hit communities.

Occupy Sandy’s volunteers were unquestionably able to do this because they used networked technology to coordinate and maintain real-time situational awareness over their activities. Crucially, though, the systems they used were neither particularly elaborate, nor the ones many theorists of networked urbanism might have envisioned. They certainly didn’t have anything to do with the high-spec, high-margin instrumentation that IT multinationals would have municipal governments invest in.

In a stroke of inspired creativity, Occupy activists repurposed Amazon’s existing e-commerce and fulfillment infrastructure, in the form of a wedding registry, to funnel donated goods to the distribution centre they had set up in a Brooklyn church. If this audacious act of jugaad underwrote the entire recovery effort, its day-to-day operations relied upon another, as the movements of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donations, hot meals and pieces of construction material were tracked in a single, gigantic Google Docs spreadsheet never intended for any such purpose. Asynchronous, robust, distributed technologies like mailing lists and text messaging completed the picture, allowing coordinators to maintain links between this nexus of activity and the growing community of donors, potential volunteers and activists that sprawled across the entire north-east region.

If supple, network-mediated coordination of this type could help people manage the highly dynamic circumstances that followed Sandy’s landfall, might it perhaps also prove useful under less volatile conditions? After all, the greatest disasters that ever befall most urban communities move more slowly than a hurricane. They are the ones that are economic in nature." (http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/dec/22/the-smartest-cities-rely-on-citizen-cunning-and-unglamorous-technology)