In Times of Crisis, Call the Technologists

During many kinds of emergencies, tech know-how is critical.

Maura Salguero, sitting, center, processes her daughter Jennifer Garcia Salguero, 12, left, at the International Student Counseling Office at the Judy Hoyer Learning Center of Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi, MD on Jan. 13, 2016.
Maura Salguero, center, processes her daughter Jennifer Garcia Salguero, 12, left, at the Judy Hoyer Learning Center of Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi, Maryland, on Jan. 13, 2016.
Astrid Riecken for Washington Post/Getty Images

In late June, we sat in the respite center of the Catholic Charities Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas, staring at the television we had just installed on the wall. A bus schedule, which we had just automated so it was no longer a painstaking hand-done process, appeared on the screen and transformed the television into a departure board for the volunteers and 9,800 migrants in the system. Mounting a television on one nonprofit’s wall during the family separation crisis at the border seemed like a small act, but it made a difference.

As news of family separations at the border began to spread throughout the country in early May 2018, the crisis brought a flood of people looking to help. RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas, received more than $20 million in donations through the largest Facebook fundraiser in history. Calls went out on Twitter for translators who spoke Spanish and the Mayan languages of Mam, Q’eqchi’, and K’iche’, and attorneys who could provide legal aid to migrants. Volunteers descended upon border cities at the request of nonprofits. Even now, as hundreds of children remain separated, volunteers are still arriving.

It became clear very early on that the government had no process in place for reuniting families and did not have the tools to capture data for tracking down separated parents and children. Companies like 23andMe and MyHeritage offered outlandish solutions—like sending genetic testing kits in order to help with logistics. The government wasn’t alone in needing tech support. Many nonprofits were also overwhelmed with their increased caseloads and didn’t have the time, resources, or skills to manage data at the scale they needed to. This crisis, beyond its legal and ethical challenges, was also a crisis of data. And to deal with crises of data, you need technologists.

In times of crisis, we turn to first responders, traditionally defined as medical staff, rescue workers, firefighters—people who do the physical acts of assistance. Lawyers and translators have been added to this response in recent years, too, largely because of the growing number of refugee and migrant crises around the world. But the border crisis showed that there’s another vital category of worker often forgotten when a disaster begins unfolding: technologists. Systems experts. Designers. Data engineers. Project managers.

Whenever a crisis requires communications staff, lawyers, and subject-matter experts, technologists should be there, too. They aren’t necessary for small disasters—in a local fire, it’s unlikely that people are separated or that services need to be mapped, because the community knowledge is already there and the communications structures already in place. But whenever services are solicited from outside the community to deal with crises at scale, there will most likely be a data issue at hand that technologists can grapple with.

When Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in 2017, techies rushed to help create apps and maps to aid survivors in finding food and locating loved ones. In this case, the work for technologists was clear cut: Esri, a geographic information systems company, gathered data from traffic cameras to chart safe areas, Waze built a map of viable evacuation routes, and Google created a list of open shelters. In the case of the family separation crisis, however, the ways for people with tech backgrounds to help were a bit murkier. The nonprofits at the border needed tech support, but weren’t sure how or what to ask for—and with no call for technologists, very few were present at the border when they were most needed.

Most nonprofits have very few technical staffers to begin with: If you fix the printer once, you may soon find yourself the designated tech expert. So when confronted with tougher tech problems like system design during times of crisis, there isn’t necessarily someone who can manage their normal services at scale. Beyond that, many of the organizations at the border don’t know what they don’t know. Digitizing paper processes for greater efficiency can seem like an impossible feat when they are accustomed to a certain way of doing things. Then add in the need to coordinate with the government and between several organizations—some local, some national, some highly specialized, some broad in scope, some well-funded, some straining their resources—and the crisis gets exponentially more difficult without technology.

Technology itself can’t solve these issues, but as part of the wider support structure, it can make difficult challenges—like finding housing, contacting relatives, and organizing travel for thousands of people—much more manageable tasks. By having technologists on hand in crises, they can field questions like “What’s the best way to collect data on the families that need to be reunited?” and “How do we share this data securely with other nonprofits once we’ve collected it?” They can introduce simple tools—not custom Elon Musk–engineered submarines, but off-the-shelf options like Google Forms and Sheets, Airtable, and other cloud-based platforms for sharing information across distance. People with tech backgrounds can bring in fresh perspectives for collaborative processes, offer digitization options for tasks that require a lot of valuable time and labor, show secure ways to store, share, analyze, and aggregate data, introduce new internal workflow tools, and create broader support platforms that allow for targeted donations of needed supplies. Technologists aren’t there to replace other first responders or the organizations that manage services in times of crises, but they can empower them to do their work more efficiently, and for greater numbers of people.

The simplicity in this is key because at its best, technology makes solutions easier to find and scale. At its worst, tech solutions get too complicated for the problem at hand and can potentially make situations exponentially worse by supplanting the subject matter knowledge of those on the ground with bleeding edge technology. In the case of the border separation, there were a plethora of offers from companies and individuals to build out facial recognition tools and DNA testing systems, even though advocates strongly warned that this might cause human rights violations in the future. In order for tech to be most effective in times of crisis, it has to be embedded within the organizations already working there.

When we were volunteering at the border, our work was focused on helping serve everyone who was in front of them while not forsaking options that would make things easier in the long run. Hence the mounted TV: At one nonprofit, the daily bus schedules that recorded departure times, traveler names, countries of origin, travel destinations, and arrival times for the thousands of migrants meeting other family members in the U.S. were all assembled by hand, before the information was manually entered into a spreadsheet for tracking purposes. This latter method of data entry was several months behind schedule due to the sheer number of migrants they were assisting. We set up a Google Form to collect the information previously taken down on paper, coordinated a donation of laptops and a television, added shortcuts in the browsers to the Greyhound status page, and, by manipulating some data in Google sheets, were able to auto-generate a bus schedule that mimicked the one painstakingly done by hand each morning.

While we did work on some larger projects, like creating the Immigration Connection Project to serve as a central database where migrants could find legal representation to reunite with their children, most of the projects we were tasked with at the border were simple, non-flashy, time-saving organization tools meant to make the work of other first responders a whole lot easier.

So how can we make technologists part of the standard response? Nonprofits and service agencies that often serve as first responders have to place a higher value on technical skills within their organizations at all times, not just when a crisis strikes—and accordingly, technologists have to come ready to work with the resources they have on hand. When the travel ban went into effect, lawyers descended upon airports to help. Technologists should be on the lookout for such crises, too. At the very least, first responding organizations have to make clear what skills they have in-house and where they may fall short, in order to provide a clear call to action for volunteers. Getting the right help requires first responding organizations to make clear asks, and requires technologists to ignore flashy solutions, roll up their sleeves, and mount a television, if that’s what needs to be done.