The following post is written by Sarapis founder Devin Balkind about his work with Mutual Aid NYC during the COVID crisis.
In the middle of March 2020, as the spread of COVID-19 was accelerating throughout New York City, I got a message from a friend asking me to help set up information management systems for an emerging grassroots effort based on mutual aid principles to organize people locally to help each other during the crisis.
After a few quick emails and a Zoom, I was given access to a set of forms. One was collecting information from people who wanted to volunteer to help others during the crisis. Another was from people who were requesting help. Another was from people who were self-organizing mutual aid groups in their neighborhoods.
These forms, and the community of people organizing around them, started Mutual Aid NYC, popularly known as MANYC. As of the publishing of this post, MANYC’s website has gotten around 250,000 views and probably helped many hundreds, maybe thousands, of people find one of the over 100 neighborhood mutual aid groups it lists that are serving their communities in New York City.
MANYC has gone through many iterations since it began in March 2020. Most, but not all, of the initial participants have left the group at this point. My own involvement was deepest at the start in March and April, but I still lurk on its Slack, helping the current crop of MANYC organizers where I can.
First, it’s probably worth explaining why I was contacted to help with this effort in the first place.
In 2011, I got involved with technologists organizing in support of Occupy Wall Street. Because of that experience, in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, I was still deeply connected to a dozen volunteer technologists who cared wanted to help their fellow New Yorkers in this time of massive need. Our group quickly and efficiently put up websites, databases and even an enterprise-grade warehouse management system for Occupy Sandy, enabling that effort to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers, distribute over two million dollars in aid and attract lots of positive attention from the media (and even some from the federal government.)
Since then, I’ve been involved in a number of “digital” disaster responses and spoken at a bunch of conferences about how open source and consumer technologies enable the public to self-organize mutual aid efforts more efficiently than ever before — and often faster, better and cheaper than the nonprofit and government institutions.
And so, my old friend from Occupy Sandy contacted me about helping her friend who was an NYC-based community organizer that had put up the (kinda) viral forms that served as the basis for Mutual Aid NYC. The main question was: what do you do when the forms you built are getting nearly a thousand entries a day from people who need help, want to give help and are organizing their own efforts to help?
My first step was to establish the person who created these forms as the “client.” Until a governing structure emerges that she felt was responsible enough to mange the data, she was the decider on who had access and what could be done with the data. This change in thinking required no effort from her, but it allowed me to tell anyone who wanted to access the data to ask her first. That took a lot of pressure off me so I could go and make useful systems instead of worry about internal politics.
My second step was to determine the goal. She was very clear about this: to build a self-sufficient information sharing network where people could find their local groups and volunteer for them, as well as sustaining and growing the core network with a steady stream of volunteers.
So how do we get there?
We need a brand, website, space to collaborate, and a data management system. So I set up the following:
- We picked a domain: mutualaid.nyc. Simple, memorable and to the point. And probably most important: selected before there were lots of people who needed to be consulted about the decision! Thus, the initiative became known as MutualAidNYC or MANYC for short.
- We launched a WordPress website at mutualaid.nyc. Sometime technologists like to build “simpler” sites using database-less systems like Github Pages, Jekyll, etc. Those tools can be great for software projects but not for organizing initiatives where volunteers come and go. For these projects, you want the tool most widely understood: and that’s WordPress.
- We set up a Slack. We need an online collaboration space and Slack has been the online community tool of choice for a few years now. It’s the worst one except for all the others. We set up a free tier and then got a free nonprofit upgrade. It’s been the heart of the operation ever since.
- Finally: the data. This used to be the hardest challenge — involving lots of spreadsheets or, maybe, custom databases built using old-school technology like CiviCRM, Microsoft Access or Filemaker Pro. We don’t need that anymore because now we have Airtable! It’s as easy to use as Google Sheets, as powerful as Microsoft Access, and auto-generates an API, which we can use to build apps. Love it!
Putting these tools together was easy – it took a few hours. It’s also a very common toolset. If you ask local mutual aid groups about their toolsets: many use the same ones. And that’s the beauty of where we’re with open source and consumter technology. You can put together everything you need for a robust neighborhood-based mutual aid group, or a city wide mutual aid network, if a few hours. Wow.
Our initial WordPress site had the most basic information possible: a very short, very non-controversial description of the project, an invitation for people to join our Slack, embedded Airtable forms so people could volunteer and/or register neighborhood groups and embedded display of the registered neighborhood groups. With that: we were good to go!
People streamed into our Slack and a few joined our tech development channel. In that channel we were discussing how we could create a map of our neighborhood groups.
When I first built the Airtable version of the Neighborhood Group registration form, I made it possible for groups to select the Neighborhood Tabulation Areas (NTAs) they were serving. NTAs are an official geography maintained by NYC. Unlike the myriad other official geographies like Community Districts, Council Districts, Assembly Districts etc, NTAs primary goal is to be recognizable to the average New Yorker. These geographies are used by real estate apps to help people find apartments in the neighborhood of their choice. So why not use them to help people find mutual aid groups in their neighborhood?
One of the channel’s members volunteered to develop it. They went to work fulling the group information and NTA codes from the Airtable API, matching that to the NTA geographies in the city’s open data portal, and using Mapbox to make a pretty and useful map. The app went up on a tiny AWS instance and is an iframe embed on the website. I’ve also embedded it below.
That map on mutualaid.nyc has been viewed approximately 100,000 times and many people who I’ve personally met found their local mutual aid group using it!
Now that we had a functioning system for registering and mapping mutual aid groups, I wanted to explore how these local groups were operating. I found some exceptional uses of technology within them. I wrote a case study of one, Astoria Mutual Aid, who was using Airtable, Slack and some other systems to deliver aid to their communities with remarkable efficiency.
My desire for MANYC was to focus on helping these local groups share their best practices. Other people wanted to do other things, so I began to drift away from MANYC. At this point my normal paid work was picking up again so… that was that.
I still advise MANYC participants every now and then, and am passionate about supporting the growth of mutual aid groups throughout NYC. Let me know if you want to chat!