FloodAid: Bringing relief through design thinking
8th February, 2011 by Simon Mundy
In October last year the audience for ‘Optimism' - the Icograda Design Week forum - listened intently to a presentation from Mimmo Cozzolino, one of the founders of AGDA. Of particular note was his advice to young designers looking to begin their career. Self-started projects are fundamental to the way our professional lives can be shaped. "Just do something, start a project, get people involved. There's plenty of things you can do". His delivery that particular day left a deep impression on me. Things can happen, you just need to give them your energy.
Three months later some of the worst flooding Brisbane has experienced partially submerged the same venue that hosted Optimism. A catastrophe that threw the entire state of Queensland into disaster mode, displaced tens of thousands and has left a huge economic impact. Under the weight of the crisis, Queenslanders responded quickly, pragmatically and in earnest and looked to assist in whatever capacity they could.
As an observer from another state, it was hard to believe. Timely updates from friends and colleagues affected by the proceedings were best retrieved from social media like Facebook and Twitter. Because to me, in times like this - and in spite of the horrific nature of the situation - it's comforting to see the capability of communities working together to cope and to offer support. Personally or professionally, stuck behind a computer in Victoria, there was little I could physically do to help. Donating to the flood appeal was expected and given. But given the severity and speed of these floods and seeing the devastation, it naturally left a feeling of wishing to contribute more.
Checking Facebook updates on Wednesday 12th January at 1pm, I noticed I had an entry from a colleague I'd met back during Optimism. It read simply "Have a read and offer your help. This is big". It linked to a PDF brief calling on designers and developers to offer their services to create a social networking website to assist flood victims. I think you need to outline here the nature of the site you were being asked to build. Ordinarily, I could assist with web work, however I was due on a trip and wouldn't be able to give it my full attention. So at the very least I thought I could send this brief on just to get it in front of as many eyes as possible. Even this simple act of re-tweeting and watching the reaction was surprising and gratifying. The design community responded. Not just here, but all over the world. Visible evidence of empathy and pledges of action to give and to share to those in need.
FloodAid's objective was concise: to develop a digital tool connecting people with resources with the people in need of resources. The structure was designed to split the site into distinct "I can help" and "I need help" sections. Some simple, effective info-graphics, flowcharts and an unfussy, clear and direct logo. It looked sound, and as if it had already been through a revision process. In reality, it was barely 6-8 hours old.
Graeme Caplen, co-founder of FloodAid, is a 22 year old social media strategist from Brisbane, based in Fortitude Valley. During the uncertainty of Tuesday 11th, Graeme described the city as "...Eerie. People knew the floods were coming but weren't sure how big it was going to be". This feeling of unease led to a discussion with his partner Adam Penberthy for the idea of an app named FloodWatch, to help monitor water levels, road closures and similar information - however the minimum 5 day process for approval, upload and distribution of an app was going to be untimely. The discussions turned quickly to a website, during which the team were evacuated from their office and forced to set up back at home.
"We put the brief together, put it out and it went viral. That's when the rollercoaster started". By 1pm AEST Wednesday, over 200 offers for help from all over the world were received, this was filtered into a team of 15 who were then briefed and ready to go. Nearly all virtually, and some from different continents - and busily building the framework of the site.
"We had about five or six offices within a matter of days as we had to move. The beauty of Wi-Fi and laptops is that you can do that. That's been the coolest part of the whole project - the fact that in the middle of the biggest disaster the state has ever had, we could still always be connected, with a team based across the globe." By 5.32pm AEST there were 30 from 9 countries in five continents.
Over 10 days, armed with Skype and Dropbox, the team spoke 77,000 words, exchanged thousands of emails - including hundreds more offers for help - and worked in parallel to complete the tasks. The website itself was scoped, designed and built between late Wednesday evening and Friday evening, when it went live.
The immediate effect of FloodAid has been gratifying. Within four days, there was over 1,000 registered users and 500 people had been connected. Up to 25,000 unique views in seven days. Nearly 150,000 unique views via the Facebook page. The ways in which those connections were made have been small but powerful. Drift Restaurant, completely submerged, was one of the first to register. The volunteers who responded to that offer had salvaged and cleaned the entire place and the call for help had to be withdrawn due to the overwhelming number of people happy to assist. One family, whose house was completely submerged, had found temporary 6 month accommodation within a day.
The goodwill for this site has been built around offers of help as donations, not money. In a time where aid agencies have had to defend themselves vigorously for their expenditure and distribution of aid, FloodAid indirectly addresses this by not ‘diluting' the aid into abstract funds or even the target ‘thermometer'. Help is offered as-is and gives tangible results - bricks, mortar, food, shelter and services. By day 10, there were 50 pages of help offered as compared with 15 pages of help needed.
Government agencies have responded well to the assistance FloodAid has given, it filled a need that more official sites - which were already at capacity - couldn't offer. Through the assistance of hosting companies, FloodAid were taking 200 page requests per minute and only at 1% of capacity. In this kind of situation, it's obvious that the delivery of information can be easily re-routed and directed to avoid network meltdowns and frustration.
It is interesting to think about the usefulness of a website during the extreme conditions of a flood. Whilst power was cut to the Brisbane CBD and connectivity to inland Queensland would have been low or non-existent, desktop and laptop PCs would have been useless. However connection via phones or apps would have been good - or even bearably slow - allowing the possibility to access information from shelters, friend's homes or even en-route. Graeme mentioned that, "Facebook updates were still possible, even when you couldn't make a call".
Design of the FloodAid identity was carried out in Melbourne, by Monib Mahdavi. "I got the email and immediately offered to assist with the brand identity and interface design. We exchanged a few messages about the objectives and I started working on it. Interestingly this call for help came in the middle of project deadlines. I simply told some clients I'd be tied up for a couple of days to help with a project for the floods. Obviously they understood and in a way it was an indirect show of their support. I mention this because the obstacle of being too busy can sometimes be an illusion.The process was very rapid and organic. We were right in the middle of the floods, and I think we realised that we needed to get this up and out there quickly if it's to be of use to people. We couldn't be too precious about it. That afternoon I developed the identity. Literally in a couple of hours. I set the brief - make it simple, strong, easily reproduced, and communicate a sense of sensitive optimism. Obviously it also needed to have an idea. I chose a simple typographic expression and a strong colour palette.I also created some sample applications to show how it might be used on posters, online, and in media. The same afternoon I worked on some interface designs that had been passed onto me and by the evening we had a system ready to go for development. It wasn't perfect, but we knew it would work.
Because of the highly graphic and uncluttered nature of the logo, it could be applied not only by hanging signs or distributing flyers. It was also applied on muddy tanks, which stayed when dry. It could be spray-painted or traced on any bare surface. It was immediate enough to be recognisable, and used the trademark bold sans-serif face that is associated with official aid. It had to be - if it were to be useful - it needed to be trusted and recognised pretty quickly by people under duress."
The mechanics of this operation are as important to its success as its intent. The team, who are predominantly under 30 years old, have been able to respond in a manner not suited to larger organisations or government agencies. Graeme has expressed a desire to create teams of skilled professionals who can operate more rapidly and with fewer constraints than a full-service agency. There are mobile platform developers in South Africa, USA, China, Holland and United Kingdom, PR consultants from Scotland and Designers and Art Directors from some of Australia's more prestigious agencies.
"I love collaborating. Collaboration, for me, is where the future is. I like community. Everyone is sitting around in their offices saying "I wish that I could help". Well, you can! Because we've got a Skype connection, and a common interest and a very clear brief that tells you exactly what the project is about."
"I don't know if the people we dealt with knew I was 22, if they realized, they may have had a different vibe to me (laughs)..." Youth aside, the team has attracted the attention of local and national government departments, global advertising agencies and has been in the media spotlight, exploring ways in which the FloodAid site can keep connecting long after the event.
The total outlay for the project was $400, and that was for the domain names. Everything else was made possible through donations and time contributions - over 1000 hours in the first week - the total of which Graeme estimates to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite this, Graeme believes that the success of the site was underpinned by refusing to accept money. "We have over 45 people working on it, but no-one owns Floodaid. It's built on an open source platform. If we introduce money to it, you complicate the organisation".
Tthe reward for its contributors was felt more through the ability to offer their skills without constraint. "I think it's the fact that everyone felt ownership, they owned their part of the site. A lot of the comments that were made [by the team], was that it was like The Social Network , the feeling that something was growing that quickly. To be a part of that was amazing. I have experienced something go viral and managed a team of 30 during some very difficult times and a very complicated process."
Looking ahead, Graeme is happy to step back from his role as manager/co-founder in order to turn back to the task of running his own agency again. "I can't drop the ball. In reality, I've stepped right off... I don't do anything day-to-day. I still have a sense of ownership and if there were to be some board, I would be a part of that. The initial massive rise [of media coverage] is down, but we're looking at the site becoming more and more about connecting people with smaller issues. Like a house in North Queensland that has plaster damage, and a local supplier or volunteer sees and helps out. That's where I hope it goes."
There is a strong sense of social justice and of community spirit running through the project, and, by association, its contributors. Despite freely admitting that the site is really a work in progress, the potential for it to evolve is promising.
"We live in Australia and generally we don't struggle. This has been a hard time for everyone, but it's a rich country. There have been Australians that have been devastated - people have died - but in the broader scheme, we've also seen Brazil with flooding, South Africa, Philippines all affected with hundreds, thousands more casualties. I think the model we've created for FloodAid is something that's important. It's our duty as designers to help effect social change. Designers think differently to everyone else and I think we have the power to create these projects like FloodAid. I think this is the beginning of what's to come. For now, it's the flood, perhaps it could be for earthquakes." enthused Graeme.
"I believe that designers and developers are the two most powerful professions in the world at the moment. I always say that with good ideas and those kinds of people, you can do anything. I think that the web is the most powerful tool we have available, and I don't think even yet we've discovered how powerful it can be. In terms of connecting people that need help with people that can give help, this is just the start and it's proof of how fast it can happen."
Monib's experience was similar. "Designers are well positioned to lead on the forefront of social action. Interestingly, if you think about it, our mandate as professionals is to engage and inspire people to act. That action might be to believe something, purchase something, or do something. In that sense, we are already primed to go when events such as these occur. It's a case of having a vision, defining roles, getting commitments and working hard on it while keeping the lines of communication flowing. Most importantly, it's about approaching it with a humble and detached attitude.
I think what made it work was the spirit in which it was done. It's an important observation. Ironically, there is something about adversity that slices right through all the layers (geographic, race, religion, socio-economic) and reminds us that we are very interconnected. It's as though it's an innately human response to be of service to one another."
The Queensland and Victorian floods of 2011 mark not only a tragic outcome for a number of Australians, but also for a cultural shift in our ability to respond to disaster. It would be fair to say that these will have been the most documented National disaster in Australia's history, the sheer volume of photographs, blogs, videos and social media updates provides a more detailed account of the personal impact of the floods than the traditional media outlets could hope to.
It was unsurprising, yet still interesting, to see how much the major news networks, and even our National broadcaster, were able to use video submitted from viewers as part of the reports. Very few who watch the news or follow social media outlets would have missed the compelling footage of cars being swept along like leaves down the swollen river. Filmed with a handheld camera and uploaded in a matter of hours, it made a far greater impact than a news story because it was emotional, immediate and unprocessed. Importantly, its creators knew that the footage could be shared quickly and easily, despite the conditions and geography.
These floods may also mark the arrival of a new shift in balance of the ability of community-driven organisations to match or even surpass our Government's power in allocating aid in times of need.
The agile teams brought together to create FloodAid are not dissimilar to those already created on a regular basis around the world for more commercial enterprises. The power of social media to connect many quickly has already been well and truly explored. But the potential for bringing these elements together for the purpose of rapid community benefit during times of crisis is still new ground.
That the younger designers and developers of today are exploring this new ground with such rigor and passion, it gives me great cause for optimism.
With thanks to: Graeme Caplen, Monib Mahdavi
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