Site Recap

The creation and operation of this site gave me a unique viewpoint into the Fort McMurray wildfires and while the initial launch took off with no time to process everything that was happening, the erosion of need as things have progressed has been slow, steady, and without any punctuation at all; Just a slow fade to today where it's easy to see that it's time to ensure that people are directed to long-term support managed by teams of people with official support instead of a one-man band. This recap serves to share my perspective as one of thousands, share data that may be interesting at an analytical level, and help me process the experience mentally.

Timeline

Tuesday May 3, 2016

  • I first heard about the fire on Twitter sometime around the lunch hour. By about 15:30/16:00 it started to become clear that things were bad and very close to town (I was really busy with work and so not paying much attention).
  • Went to pick up my wife from work shortly after 17:00 to take her for a cocktail for her birthday and discuss dinner plans and heard on the radio that things were indeed bad. The 18:00 news was turned on in the hotel pub and it was the first time seeing the wildfire and hearing of evacuations. I thought about what evacuees would need almost immediately, but didn't know how/if there was anything I could do yet.
  • About 18:40 while having dinner and now knowing that thousands were headed for Edmonton, I mentioned the idea of accommodation matching to my wife. She thought it was a good idea. I asked if she would mind if I spent the evening building something and she was supportive of the idea.
  • 19:15 we arrived at my in-laws to pick up our kid and have some birthday cake (also my father-in-law's birthday). Used their laptop while having cake to create a server account on my VPS, purchase the domain, and install the CMS.
  • Arrived home around 20:00 and built out a home page, about page, and the forms for evacuees and people offering space to stay.
  • 20:43 I sent a tweet:
  • I connected analytics which take a while to start collecting data and kept making revisions to the site. Real-time analytics showed steady traffic growth, settling at a constant of just over 600 steady visitors after about 90 minutes. There were over 350 offers for places to stay in the first 90 minutes it was launched. It was at this point I realized that this would not be a short-lived endeavor to help a dozen people.
  • Somewhere in here, I got my first email with someone offering to help. Sarah ended up compiling the first resources for evacuees based on a quick brainstorming session (where to stay, who to call, find pets, left without prescriptions, etc). Had another couple of emails by the end of the night and many more over the next 10 days.
  • 23:00 things start getting shaky and my server crashed taking YMMfire.ca and over 50 client sites offline. Tried a reboot and opened a ticket with my vendor. Started setting up Cloudflare to handle load.
  • 03:00 - After a lot of effort and with the VPS still down, I went to bed.

Wednesday May 4, 2016

  • 06:30 - Woke up to see that there was a trickle of traffic to the site but I was not able to load it. This was likely an issue on my end and things smoothed out shortly thereafter.
  • 08:00- Made the boy's lunch and took him to school. Came back and started trying to find matches. Paired about 25 families throughout the day. Realized that if things stayed this busy, manually matching would not be a feasible long-term solution.
  • Tried contacting the Red Cross with no luck.
  • Was contacted by a group in Calgary that helped with the floods. A bit of telephone tag and discussed the situation. They were building their own site (ymmhelp.com) and had contact with government agencies. Was told they send a contact email and never received it so I marched onward.
  • At 09:48 , I posted on Reddit that there were over 900 offers for space.
  • By this point, the site was becoming a source of information so I worked on volunteering and how to help type info. Also started compiling information for evacuees. With a responsive site, I figured that most evacuees would be on smartphones and so tried to tailor information to be consumed in that fashion.
  • Decided to split the forms on the home page into separate paths to be more mobile friendly and more clear. Had to dump the data into a spreadsheet and start fresh. Found a bug with copying the forms to new pages and just about broke things.
  • 12:41 shows 1500 offers of places to stay.
  • Spent the rest of the day making matches, collecting info, and making updates. I think I had some dinner and went to bed at about 02:00.

Thursday May 5, 2016

  • Started the day with trying to get in touch with someone that might be able to work with the offers for accommodation collected. As expected, I didn't expect the Alberta Government to outright accept the data, but it took about seven phone calls to get through to someone. They worried it was duplication of effort, couldn't accept the liability of taking the data and didn't have manpower to process it. In the second large reconfiguration of the site, I downloaded the data and removed the forms from the site and changed the messaging to redirect people to evacuation centres.
  • I then called, or attempted to call, the 60+ evacuees that had posted looking for somewhere to stay that were in my queue. I explained the evacuation centers to them, provided addresses and directions, steps to ensure their intake went as smoothly as possible, etc. This was a tough day in hearing so many stories of loss and being able to do so little to help. I did arrange a few more places to stay for some families that were in especially tough.
  • Around 18:00, I added a conversation mechanism to the site so evacuees could ask questions and I could track down answers. With nothing in the first hour despite steady traffic, I almost removed it. Then someone posted an offer of a place to stay. Five minutes later another one. By the end of the night, there were about 50 responses with places to stay.
  • First opportunist start-up makes contact wanting to post so they could get traffic.

Friday May 6, 2016

  • Offer on the site continued to come in. I made a few manual matches and continued on collecting and sharing resources

Saturday May 7, 2016

  • With over 500 offers of space on the community chat, it was a nightmare to find anything for users. Another major overhaul of the site was made to break the chat into regions while turning off the ability to post to the original. The original was left so people could search there still.
  • By end of day, there were over 6000 offers of places to stay in total through the site.
  • I managed to contact someone at the Red Cross and they told me to email the original list to them. I emailed, but not with the list as it was a call centre address. I requested that I be directed to a named account with a managerial title at least as I had to provide due care to the data as I had promised upon collection. They forwarded to someone with the Alberta team. After 48 hours I emailed again with a request for follow-up and I have still not heard back.
  • I started an email list for evacuees so I could send urgent info when required saving them from checking in at the site. Have used it to send information on relief payments, school enrolment, and other key actions and supports throughout the week. List currently at 170 people.
  • Second opportunist posts on all regional pages trying to build traffic to their site under the guise of offering assistance.

May 8-16, 2016

  • Most of this time was spent collecting and relaying information as it came in. I did manage to get back to some client work as the week progressed.

May 17, 2016

  • Closed down the regional chat posting but have left in place so they can be utilized for at least a little longer.
  • Started directing people to the http://www.rentcafe.com/canada/fortmcmurraywildfir... site for rental accommodation
  • Started writing this recap - will likely flesh out some more details over the next few days.
  • 21:00 - Someone pointed out that rentcafe is only for 6 or more units so community boards were re-opened. Re-thinking handling of rental spaces now and will adjust tomorrow.

July 28, 2016

Received a disappointing form letter from the Red Cross. Not sure my request was even read:

On May 3rd wildfires devastated the community of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas which triggered a mandatory evacuation of thousands of people. However this has led to an unprecedented showing of compassion and generosity throughout Canada. Well wishes and offers of support have been shared by many across the country.

I am writing you today because your organization submitted a generous gift-in-kind offer to the Canadian Red Cross in order to aid the evacuated residents of the region of Fort McMurray, Alberta. After careful consideration and review by our logistics and response teams, I wanted to follow-up and inform you that your kind and thoughtful offer will not be required to support the Alberta Fires response.

On behalf of the Canadian Red Cross, I am incredibly grateful and appreciative for your offer of support and wanted to share my sincere thanks. We have received many generous offers of goods or services like yours, from caring organizations across the country and want to ensure they are all properly acknowledged and thanked.

When the Red Cross responds to emergencies like the Alberta Fires, financial support is the best way to support relief and recovery operations as it provides maximum flexibility to meet the needs of those impacted. Red Cross has already spent or committed $165M to support the immediate emergency needs of evacuees, the transportation and return home of evacuees and other services including cash cards, shelter support, family registration & reunification and outreach services to support unique needs of evacuees across the country.

In the weeks, months and years to come, the Red Cross will continue to offer assistance to impacted individuals and communities, to help them to recover and rebuild their lives. For more information about our work in Fort McMurray, please click here fore more detail.

Moving forward, if you would like more information on how your organization can partner with the Red Cross or how to best support future disaster relief efforts, please let me know and we can review together in more detail.

Sincerely,
Tom Scinto
Development Officer
National Fund Development
Canadian Red Cross
National Office

The most interesting was the email thread included the prior conversation at the Red Cross discussing the draft of the form letter they would send out.

Key Stats

From May 3 to May 17 at 16:00

Sessions

98,088

Users

81,826

Pageviews

167,893

Pages / Session

1.71

Avg. Session Duration

00:01:29

Emails: Thousands. My server sends notice of every contact form, community post, and form completion. Add the tweet notifications and discussions and YMM emails equate to a small mountain.

Keep in mind the first evening missed some of tracking as analytics were not hooked up right away and they take a little time to start recording when they are. I'll think about writing up something on the analytics in more detail, but time is not something I've got a lot of right now.

What I've Learned From The Experience

I'm extremely humbled, proud, and thankful of my province and my country for the overwhelming response to our neighbours in need. The outpouring of support was staggering and I'm glad I was able to help in whatever way I could with this site. I've never done anything like this before and it was very much of case of putting myself in the shoes of evacuees and trying to figure out what they needed most at that time and what they would be needing next and then trying to get that info for them. I'll never know most of the people that used this site in their time of need, but I can only hope that I could make things a little better or a little easier during a time filled with chaos, emotion, and loss.

  1. Early matters - Deploying on Tuesday evening allowed the site to be a resource before most evacuees were looking for information. For the most part, they were still on the road and not searching the internet. The early start ensured that offers for places to stay were well stockpiled when they did start looking.
  2. Don't be a Bottleneck - I think things would have been more effective with some means of listing publicly and openly from the start. Because my expectation was small, I ended up having to reconfigure several times and that made things go more slowly. Also, because I felt I had to protect that data, I couldn't get help on that front, because it put that privacy at risk.
  3. Make Connections Before the Event - Not much I could do when swamped with managing things, but I'm hoping to follow-up with provincial and federal governments, and the Red Cross so that if something like this is ever needed again, that the deployment can remain as fast as this was, but the data can transfer seamlessly to an agency when they are ready for it.
  4. If you build it, opportunists will come - I was amazed by a few start-ups that aimed to use this event as a means of growing their user base. While I can give benefit of the doubt that they really wanted to do some good, it felt very greasy in both cases. One was especially slimy and the whole business model was presented as "exactly their target". Cripes.
  5. People are pretty awesome - I'm a pretty jaded guy. This was a pretty good way to see I need to be way less jaded. The generosity shown since May 3 has been staggering.

I'm hoping that as evacuees settle into temporary homes and then start to move home to rebuild over the coming weeks, months, and years, that I can take this site and what I have learned to look at creating something open source that can be deployed as needed very quickly and help to manage natural disasters and the evacuation of large groups with little lead time. If there is a corporation that would like to sponsor such an effort, please get in touch via the contact form, otherwise, I'll push on when I get caught back up with client work and some bills. In the meantime, I'll continue to update the evacuee resources and email list mailouts as long as they are needed and then look at a deployable package in a few months time.

I honestly hope that there is never a need for me to create and launch a site like this again in my lifetime, but I do know that I won't hesitate for a second to do so if it's needed and I believe it can help others.

Brian MacKay
Tooq Inc.
brian(at)mytooq.com


[September 29, 2016 Update]

I had a little bit of time over the summer and took what I learned with the Wood Buffalo wildfires and this site, and I built https://opendoors.site as a readily deployable site for use in situations where a large number of people are to be evacuated or are unable to return to an area due to unforeseen circumstances. I can easily tweet the site URL and things are ready to go immediately allowing for peer-based emergency accommodation as an instant response. There is plenty more I'd like to do with the site and will work on when I have time and resources.

For now, YMMfire.ca stays as it was in late May 2016 as a record of the generosity and coming together of Albertans, Canadians, and those around the world that joined in to help.