SI site offers one stop for victim housing
A unique Web site created by faculty, students and alumni at the School of Information (SI), which aggregates housing offers from around the country for Hurricane Katrina victims, logged more than 170,000 visits by Sept. 14, organizers say.
"It was really surprising to me that there isn't an infrastructure making more use of spontaneous offers of generosity. America is very willing to help," says Paul Resnick, professor of information studies and one of the project organizers.
The KatrinaHousing.net site fills a unique niche, as it offers a gateway for victims to view housing offers from around the United States. The site was born Sept. 1, after Bob Frost, associate professor of information studies, began to search the Internet for housing offers to those displaced by Katrina, which made landfall Aug. 29.
"He sent a message to the entire School of Information (SI) saying, 'Hey, a whole lot of people need shelter.' He just posed a question: Would a site dedicated to relocation help?" Resnick recalls.
Frost began communicating with faculty and students over the Internet, and Resnick had an idea. "I said I bet there are going to be a lot of offers. Maybe an interesting role would be to aggregate those and combine the things that are out there."
Resnick says SI faculty and students trained in Internet searching determined they could put their search skills to work to provide a needed servicea one-stop place for Katrina victims to find housing.
"There were about 55 people from the School of Information involved in this effort of varying backgrounds and technical skills," says Adrienne Janney, a recent SI graduate and project manager. "At the School of Information, particularly in the Community Information Corps, we talk a lot about how information communication technology can foster communityand we try to put that into action. A disaster is a heightened state of community need. We wanted to create a resource that made use of a School of Information skill set to help with hurricane relief."
Janney and Resnick say they've yet to hear any testimonials from grateful Katrina victims about finding housing. "We know that people are using it," Janney says. "We're hearing stories about that. But it's too early to hear about resolutions."
Hurricane victims who go to the Web site can open a U.S. map and click on any state to get an expanded map of that state with virtual red push pins showing where the most offers have been made.
"From the beginning, this project has been dependent upon emergent leadership," Janney says. "Sometimes this meant that it was unclear what was to be done next, but people continued to step up, and figure out what needed to be done, and do it."
For a few days, much of the activity to get the site going was performed in a second-floor conference room in the SI North building. "We had a lot of students who were not yet back for the semester who saw the e-mail seeking their participation in the site," Resnick says. "We set up a speaker phone and conducted frequent conference calls where people could call and ask questions about how they could help."
There were a couple of major turning points, Resnick says. "First was that two of the biggest sites collecting offers of housing, HurricaneHousing.org and KatrinaHousing.org (not the same as U-M's KatrinHousing.net) agreed to provide us with direct data feeds so that we could display their housing offers through a combined search," he says. Some software developers also volunteered their services.
"On Thursday Sept. 7a week from its original inceptionwe went live with our combined map search, which is the meat of the site," Janney says. "We are continuing to tweak the functionality, and look and feel, of the site."
U-M volunteers continue to talk with groups who offer relief other than housing about listing their Web links on KatrinaHousing.net.
Janney says the activity also has sparked the creation of a new SI class on disaster response information presentation, which Resnick will teach on Thursday evenings.