Mutual Aid Connect

Project Title: Mutual Aid Connect

Project Coordinator: Charla M. Burnett, MA, Ph.D., OT-Consultancy Group

Partner Organizations: FreelyGive

Project Proposal: Mutual Aid Connect

Goal: to connect people as quickly and equitably as possible to resources in every community.

PROBLEM

The lockdown measures in place to manage COVID-19 have left many vulnerable and older people more isolated than ever before. Over 3000 Mutual Aid groups nationally are responding by coordinating volunteers and matching them to requests for support.

However, they are often reliant on WhatsApp groups or spreadsheets which is laborious and increasingly difficult to manage at scale. We have designed and built a database system for linking support requests and volunteers. It has both central dispatch and self-service functionality, geolocation integration (so volunteers can respond to requests using a map view) and staff management tools.

Whilst many systems exist that can assist with volunteer management, our approach is unique and important in two ways. Existing government systems can scale upwards towards many users, but our open-source system is able to quickly and cheaply provide tools to smaller local organizations such as Facebook groups, therefore having a wider and greater reach, especially to the digitally excluded.

By empowering local groups, charities, religious organizations etc, with their own tools, we are more likely to be able to help individuals who would otherwise slip through the cracks.

The second important aspect of the software is that it is open-source and strongly web-based. Many CRM systems and databases that councils use are proprietary and built primarily to be used by internal staff. This makes data-sharing a complicated and manual process. Our system is designed to be open where appropriate whilst taking into account the necessary security requirements. Smaller organizations can register to use their own siloed section of the site and manage the data themselves whilst staff at the parent organization (such as a council) have oversight.

This will become key as volunteer fatigue sets in and larger organizations may need to assist those on the front-lines.

FreelyGive and OT-Consultancy Group noticed in mid-March that many Facebook groups were being created to help support community residents during self-isolation. Hundreds of groups have popped up around the United States and the UK are doing fantastic community outreach and resource distribution but struggle to scale quickly to meet needs. 

For example, it was difficult to keep track of the volume of support requests. OrganizingTogether helped build a workflow using Google Forms and Sheets to receive requests in Lansing, Michigan.

Mutual Aid Connect is an open-source package aimed at helping Mutual Aid groups match volunteers to support requests. The software uses a web-based system which allows individuals and organizations to post their support requests and/or volunteer to help others. We have designed online tools allowing volunteers to filter requests based on mapping (for travel distance) and type of help required.

Behind the scenes, it is built on a database that allows moderators or members of staff to manage this process, for example using advanced automatic matching tools to assign volunteers to tasks or setting permissions and vetting criteria.

The data can be used to analyze flows of resources and identify areas of need so local and state governmental agencies and foundations can redistribute funds in those neighborhoods.

Within several weeks, the Lansing Area Mutual Aid initiative received hundreds of offers and requests. OrganizingTogether began searching for a software platform that connected offers with requests that could be used by both individuals and groups supporting organizations that already exist.

While searching for tech alternatives, we found an open source build by FreelyGive. With a focus on design and usability, OrganizingTogether has partnered with FreelyGive to redesign the platform to fit mutual aid work flows in the United States. The goal of this partnership is to build a platform that is simple to use and is analytically powerful.

What is Mutual Aid Connect ?

Mutual Aid Connect is an open-source package aimed at helping Mutual Aid groups match volunteers to support requests.

The software uses a web-based system which allows individuals and organizations to post their support requests and/or volunteer to help others. We have designed online tools allowing volunteers to filter requests based on mapping (for travel distance) and type of help required.

Behind the scenes, it is built on a database that allows moderators or members of staff to manage this process, for example using advanced automatic matching tools to assign volunteers to tasks or setting permissions and vetting criteria.

The data can be used to analyze flows of resources and identify areas of need so local and state governmental agencies and foundations can redistribute funds in those neighborhoods.

Mutual Aid Connect is built on the popular content management system Drupal, which has been used to build many sites including historically data.gov and whitehouse.gov. FreelyGive has adapted the software to function as a contacts management system.

We have created both the initial software and a hosting platform in order to scale the deployment of this software for a range of smaller groups, such as the Facebook Mutual Aid groups.

However, due to its open-source nature, organizations can also download and self-host the software without us if they wish; our development is conducted entirely in public on GitLab. The platform is currently being used by over 3,000 individuals. 

With $70,000, we would be able to scale the platform for general use of all organizations, agencies, and individuals in communities across Michigan or the country through outreach and on-boarding, implement usability testing, and conduct geospatial research on community needs in each city/town.

A New Way of Managing Resources

Mutual Aid Connect has been designed from the ground up to be used by smaller social media. Mutual Aid groups although it will be helpful for any organization managing volunteers and processing requests during this crisis and beyond.

Mutual Aid groups can use this system as a back-office tool to manage the requests they receive from social media, email and phone or allow people to submit replies to requests themselves.

Mutual Aid Connect is a mobile friendly, web-based database system aimed at both helping Mutual Aid groups to match volunteers to support requests and allowing individuals to post their support requests and/or volunteer to help others.

Mutual Aid Connect provides online tools for organizations and volunteers to filter requests based on mapping (for travel distance) and type of help required. It is built on a database that allows administrators or members of staff to manage this process, for example using advanced automatic matching tools to assign volunteers to tasks or setting permissions and vetting criteria.

Whilst our goal is to support the community rather than profit, we are a consulting firm with five employees. We are currently balancing the time that our employees spend building the system, and the Directors liaising with a number of community leaders, on a pro bono basis alongside our normal workload. However, the company cannot sustain this indefinitely.

We are asking for $70,000 to scale the platform so we can make it sustainable through data collection, analyses, and reporting for local and state agencies.

Some of the features we plan to build in this project are:

  • Enhanced Volunteer vetting for childcare facilities, including background checks.
  • Scheduling Enhancements, so that it is easier to schedule deliveries on days where there are already deliveries in a particular area.
  • Flexibility in level of detail of data shown, so that a volunteer / deliverer only has access to the personal details necessary to perform their task.
  • Multilingual capabilities and, by the end of this project, an example of one extra language (likely Spanish). This will enable us to scale it to many languages when reaching out to minority groups.
  • Enhanced scalability towards 3000 Mutual Aid Groups.
  • Improved features to allow for anonymizing vulnerable clients whilst also providing the useful information to potential volunteers.
  • Enhanced reporting and metrics, including creation of dashboards.

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