September 7, 2017

Hurricane Irma may still be days away from striking the mainland United States, but its impact is already being felt in Miami, where supplies like gas and water are hard to find. That's why a Miami-based news startup teamed up with the local NPR station to help residents find shelter and supplies.

The New Tropic, a local journalism and events brand co-founded in 2015 by Rebekah Monson, Bruce Pinchbeck and Christopher Sopher, launched an interactive map with NPR station WLRN with the aim of helping their audiences weather the monster storm.

I talked with Rebekah Monson, co-founder and vice president of product of WhereBy.Us, the parent company of The New Tropic, about why her team built the map and how other news organizations could do the same.

I appreciate all the work you guys are doing at The New Tropic and WLRN to help the people of South Florida. I wanted to learn a little bit more about this map you put together. Can you tell me a little bit about it? How's it work?

It's built on Ushahidi. The tool was basically built for crisis mapping. We're using it right now to show where to get supplies and how to get prepared for the storm. After the storm, we'll switch all that into where to get supplies, distribution points for ice water, first aid, any of that stuff. We already have the shelter locations and things like that on there. We can also take reports of damage or flooding or dangerous power lines or whatever.

I wanted to get a map up that could take crowdsourced reports. I wanted a tool that could be flexible for whatever comes because we don't know right now where the storm's gonna make landfall, and we're not exactly sure if we're going to get more water or more wind. We don't know exactly what the outcome is going to be. The tool is super flexible and it allows us to make those decisions as we get more info.

Right now it shows shelters, where to buy gas, water, other supplies. You're saying that pretty quickly after this thing hits, you're going to be able to flip it to show things like damage?

Yeah! We'll add a new layer that will allow people to submit damage reports or dangerous situations and let their neighbors know that there's a power line down or there's flooding somewhere, or just share what's happening in their own neighborhood. Then we'll try to go back and also add, as we get information from official sources, any distribution points for the Red Cross or local emergency response for recovery efforts.

The other thing we've been talking to folks about is putting volunteer meet-up points on there. We're talking to a bunch of community organizers right now in places like Liberty City and Little Haiti and down in Homestead and all over the county who are doing informal checks on people's houses after the storm. We'll probably add a layer for them as well.

It sounds really useful for people who are not only in South Florida, but outside of it, too.

Yeah, I hope so. I'm a big civic tech nerd so I have done in the past a lot of work in the Code for America brigade space. The Houston Sketch City brigade made a great site called Harvey Needs after Harvey hit that detailed all the needs of the different shelters and centers that were housing people. That Houston group has been helping out the Florida brigades to set up the same kind of site. We're going to be trying to support that as well, but we won't host that on our site.

But we're thinking about how we can gather stuff from our community and share it back out as much as possible to people who are doing this kind of work in other communities. It's really all hands on deck. You know. You've been in a storm before. We're just trying to do as much community connection stuff as we can right now.

Can you tell me a little bit more about how this map came together? I see that you're working on it with WLRN. How'd that work?

Basically, I said, “You know what? We should just do this because it'll be a good tool.”

We're friends with the WLRN reporting team and Teresa Frontado over there running their digital stuff, so we just reached out to them and said, "Hey, we're planning to do this. We'd love to do it with y'all. If y'all could help us get the word out, that would be great." They were eager to do that and to get some crowdsourcing stuff together.

As the storm comes through we'll probably be in closer contact with them about what will be useful to help with their reporting efforts. One of the good things about having a tool like this is that as people submit reports we're asking them for their contact information and we know what neighborhoods they're in. We can call them and check and see what's happening, which is useful when we have a small staff.

Right. That's smart.

WLRN has a small news team, but they're all over four counties right now. We have a team of two full-time people and a fellow who's part-time. He's working like a full-time person right now.

When you have a small team you have to really leverage the relationships you have in the community, maybe even more than big teams do. We can't spread bodies around as much.

That hits on the next question I was going to ask you. Do you think that other news organizations can put something like this together pretty easily? It sounds like you're doing it without a huge staff, so it doesn't seem like it's a very time intensive tool.

No, the tool is awesome. We could have coded something up and made it feel more branded and all of that crap, but I didn't want to spend the time on that when there's informational needs and there's a good solution out there.

This tool has been used in all kinds of crises all over the world. You can configure it to take SMS reports as well. I'm going to be working on setting that up today in case we lose high-bandwidth cell coverage. People can just SMS in a report of stuff. So I'll be trying to configure some of that today. It can take in reports from all kinds of social media. It's a great tool.

It costs money, unless you do a single report on it. Otherwise, it's like 99 bucks a month. In an instance like this, when there's an emergency, it's worth that because of the value we can give back and take in for reporting and sourcing and stuff like that.

It's really not a complicated process to put one together. It's just a matter of putting it high on your priority list.

The other thing is that we're looking for places where we can add value. The Miami Herald is all over the place. They're killing it right now. WLRN has been spread out and doing really great reporting. We're a small and really community-focused journalism organization and this is aligned with our mission. If we can do it in partnership with great media partners who already exist in Miami, all the better.

Absolutely. Is there anything else that someone who's interested in setting up a map like this should know?

They should check out the site. It's really simple to do. The other thing is just thinking about the application for a tool like this. When does using it make sense? There are a lot of persistent uses for something like this.

This is a really great test case for us to see, OK we can deploy it an emergency. Can we drive some engagement on it? Can it be useful? Then we can use that information to build our next experiment on something like this again. There's all kinds of uses for mapping and crowdsourced mapping. Really understanding how to use a tool, and especially understanding how to use it in a fast timeframe, is really useful and we hope it adds a lot of value.

Agreed one hundred percent. You don't want to be learning how to use this thing when you really need to be using it.

Right. Exactly. I had messed around with it a couple years ago so I knew it was out there and I knew basically how to use it. It's been upgraded a lot since then with some nice features. But you want to have that in your toolbelt to deploy it when you can.

How about The New Tropic? What are your plans for working during and after the hurricane?

Right now we have Ariel Zirulnick, our executive editor, is in North Carolina. She was on a panel yesterday and is flying back tonight. She's been working from over there. We have our producer and our fellow in full swing. They've been doing a lot of informational stuff the past couple days. We put together a Hurricane Irma guide that has some basics.

We've been trying to keep the newsletters up-to-date with a bunch of aggregated information. Over the weekend we're going to do some aggregation-only newsletters on Saturday and Sunday.

The storm should be making landfall on Sunday morning it looks like now. I'm just writing the plan for that now but I think it will probably be finalized this afternoon as far as what we think we're going to do. Of course, all of that goes up in the air with something like this because you don't know where people can get to and all of that.

So we're planning to be out in the community as much as possible after the storm kind of seeing what's going on and working with people whom we already have relationships with. We're talking with organizers of low-income communities. Obviously we're in touch with all the official sources. But we're trying to figure out where the best place is for us to be. And we'll keep doing a lot of this crowdsourced aggregation and help amplify all the work people are doing already.

Well, you're a great asset to South Florida. Thank you for everything you're doing and thanks for spending a few minutes chatting to help get the word out. I appreciate it.

Thanks! I hope more people will start messing around with this stuff. It's pretty interesting and we'll see how well it works as we get into recovery stuff. I think there's actually more use for it after a storm than before.

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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