ConnectRelief creates storm-struck-Puerto Rico database to relay needs
SAN JUAN – Among those with the desire and ability to help the victims of Hurricane María, some pressing questions keep coming up: Which communities have the most need of help? What do they actually need? How can we get supplies and services to them?
ConnectRelief can provide the answers to some of these questions. Its online platform offers continuously updated information about the specific needs of all the municipalities and many communities of Puerto Rico. Its mission is to effectively mobilize private sector and individual relief efforts, especially the diaspora’s, to the places where they are most needed.
The database includes such information as the number of families that need help, divided by town and community. Many are asking for furniture, construction materials, personal hygiene items, medications, among other supplies. The platform also has a registry of collection centers, operating hospitals, Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) centers, a section for volunteers to register and links for people looking to make monetary donations.
The organization has more than 150 volunteers who have gone out to the island’s hard-hit inland to register the data because many areas outside of the metro area still lack telecommunications. The website’s users also send information via social media (@ConnectRelief), email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or WhatsApp (787-234-0680). As help reaches these communities, that information is also updated to avoid, as much as possible, relief overlap.
“The more information we can collect and the more organizations and people use [the platform], the more effective this tool is,” ConnectRelief co-founder Joaquín Alonso pointed out. He is a biologist who also works with the nonprofit Rayo de Luna, part of Harimau Conservation, an organization that empowers communities through energy independence, education and conservation efforts.
The idea behind ConnectRelief came from co-founder Michael Fernández’s experiences in Nicaragua and Guatemala when these countries were struck by hurricanes and after the earthquake in Haiti. Fernández realized that during the crisis that follows these natural disasters, there is a need for a centralized database that can be used to channel requests for aid in order for others to facilitate that help reaching the right people. Fernández has his own organization, Caras con Causa, which promotes community development in vulnerable areas of Cataño and Guaynabo.
Rayo de Luna, Caras con Causa and Propel Business Intelligence, a startup that designs digital platforms and other products, were all part of the Collaboration and Social Innovation Community of the Banco Popular Foundation. Each spent some two years in the shared workspace designed to create “an environment of collaboration between organizations.”
And it seems to have worked. After Hurricane Irma wrought destruction over the Lesser Antilles, the three companies joined forces to begin creating ConnectRelief to help Puerto Rico’s Caribbean neighbors. When news broke that Hurricane María was on its way to Puerto Rico, in five days they created the platform thanks to seed money from the Banco Popular Foundation and donations from organizations like ComPRmetidos, T-Mobile and other private entities.
Since launching the site they have been modifying and improving the platform based on user feedback, Alonso told Caribbean Business.
What he has observed is “help arrives little by little, so even if people go twice or three times to a municipality, it’s not enough; [the aid] lasts very little.”
Among the places with the most urgent needs, he mentioned Corozal, Coamo, the municipality of Florida, Arecibo and Utuado, but knows there are people in need all over the island because many areas are isolated.
Alonso explained that part of the problem is that the flow of supplies is “too controlled,”particularly those that are being administrated by municipal and central government.
“Private efforts are limited because they have limited access to resources, like transportation. They have to open the floodgates and let those supplies flow. They have created a bottleneck effect trying to control everything,” he criticized.
“The government should allow community organizations and social entrepreneurs to move, and they aren’t giving them that possibility. The government can’t do everything, they should count on civil society as well,” he added.