A Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
The lockdown measures in place to manage COVID-19 have left many vulnerable and older people more isolated than ever before. Over 3000 Mutual Aid groups nationally are responding by coordinating volunteers and matching them to requests for support.
However, they are often reliant on WhatsApp groups or spreadsheets which is laborious and increasingly difficult to manage at scale. We have designed and built a database system for linking support requests and volunteers. It has both central dispatch and self-service functionality, geolocation integration (so volunteers can respond to requests using a map view) and staff management tools.
Furthermore, it handles complex considerations like privacy, volunteer vetting and auto-assigning, which are beyond the capability of spreadsheets. It has both public and private reporting capabilities which will allow the activities of the organization to be monitored and reported on during and after the current crisis. Our tools can either assist staff with manually assigning volunteers or allow automatic assigning of appropriate volunteers, through leveraging our experience with automation in the rail industry.
In June of 2019, I co-founded OrganizingTogether to help support organizations scale projects and programs that promote more resilient communities. Spatial analysis is one of our main areas of focus and research methods. When COVID-19 pandemic began, our team went on a journey to find ways in which we could strengthen organizational capacity. While searching for tools, we stumbled upon Mutual Aid Assist, a drupal build, developed FreelyGive, a CRM development company in the UK.
OT-Consultancy Group and FreelyGive partnered to redesign the platform in April 2020 while it was being used in several cities in the UK. The goal was to enhance the user interface and better utilize spatial data to visually show community need and help communities find resources quickly and effectively. The result is Mutual Aid Connect, an open-source package aimed at helping organizations match volunteers to support requests.
Mutual Aid Connect-How We Connect our Communities
The software uses a web-based system which allows individuals and organizations to post their support requests and/or volunteer to help others. We have designed online tools allowing volunteers to filter requests based on mapping (for travel distance) and type of help required. Behind the scenes, it is built on a database that allows moderators or members of staff to manage this process, for example using advanced automatic matching tools to assign volunteers to tasks or setting permissions and vetting criteria.
Mutual Aid Connect has been designed from the ground up to be used by smaller social media Mutual Aid groups although it will be helpful for any organization managing volunteers and processing requests during this crisis and beyond. Mutual Aid groups can use this system as a back-office tool to manage the requests they receive from social media, email and phone or allow people to submit replies to requests themselves.The platform is a mobile friendly, web-based database system aimed at both helping Mutual Aid groups to match volunteers to support requests and allowing individuals to post their support requests and/or volunteer to help others.
The focus of my Ph.D. dissertation is on decision support tools that help communities take power over the allocation of strategic services and material resources in an effort to reduce societal conflicts and promote sustainable development. By empowering local groups, charities, religious organizations etc, with their own tools, we are more likely to be able to help individuals who would otherwise slip through the cracks.
Whilst many systems exist that can assist with volunteer management, our approach is unique and important in two ways. Existing government systems can scale upwards towards many users, but our open-source system is able to quickly and cheaply provide tools to smaller local organizations such as Facebook groups, therefore having a wider and greater reach, especially to the digitally excluded. The second is through its use of participatory mapping and research that is being conducted alongside service providers.
As information is collected through the request and offer forms, the spatial data is built with Leaflet using an Esri basemap API. Organizations and individuals are matched with local requests and dispersed evenly among offers. Our goal is to incorporate Census and the American Community Survey (ACS) data to prioritize requests that come from the lowest socio-economic neighborhoods in the city. This way, need is assessed and prioritized in a way that’s equitable, not just equal.
The data can be used to analyze flows of resources and identify areas of need so local and state governmental agencies and foundations can redistribute funds in those neighborhoods by collecting spatially relevant data. The OrganizingTogether Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity focused on, has agreed to manage Mutual Aid Connect and work to secure funding to support a research team to conduct spatial analysis and provide community reporting on resource allocation.
Some of the features we plan to build in this project are:
- Enhanced Volunteer vetting for childcare facilities, including background checks.
- Scheduling Enhancements, so that it is easier to schedule deliveries on days where there are already deliveries in a particular area.
- Flexibility in level of detail of data shown, so that a volunteer / deliverer only has access to the personal details necessary to perform their task.
- Multilingual capabilities and, by the end of this project, an example of one extra language (likely Spanish). This will enable us to scale it to many languages when reaching out to minority groups.
- Enhanced scalability towards 3000 Mutual Aid Groups.
- Improved features to allow for anonymizing vulnerable clients whilst also providing the useful information to potential volunteers.
- Enhanced reporting and metrics, including creation of dashboards.
You can check out our demo site at: https://michigan.demo.mutualassist.dev/. The platform will be made public and open to requests in Lansing, Michigan in early July after enough organizations have been on-boarded.
About the Author: Charla M. Burnett is co-founder of ISPM in 2017 and Executive Committee Secretary. She’s also the founder of OrganizingTogether (OT), an organizational development and research consultancy that specializes in decision support tools for building community capacity. The OT Foundation raises money for community-based projects locally and internationally.