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Team Rubicon - living outside the inbox for first responder disaster relief

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 11, 2014
Living outside the inbox means using viable alternatives to email as a way of running the business. Lua achieves that in real time for Team Rubicon which is seeing strong success metrics.

[sws_grey_box box_size="690"]SUMMARY: Living outside the inbox means using viable alternatives to email as a way of running the business. Lua achieves that in real time for Team Rubicon which is seeing strong success metrics. [/sws_grey_box]

Team Rubicon, a US based non-profit (NFP) that specializes in first responder disaster relief is living outside the inbox. It is finding that using alternatives to email are making on the ground decisions is much simpler and effective in getting things done. It's doing this using Lua, a collaborative, mobile first solution that has lightweight group messaging, file handling and conference calling.

The market is awash with similar tools but in my experience they either act as functional silos, are really 'features' rather than applications or are born out of a different age that doesn't hit the 'living outside the inbox' outcomes mark. Team Rubicon doesn't care about those consulting led views. It is using Lua because it helps them get the job done.

team rubicon
Team Rubicon overview 2012

As background, Team Rubicon is a relatively new NFP having grown out of the efforts of two retired US marines wanting to bring relief to Haiti in 2010. It has an unusual way of working that mixes the principles and values of service and comradeship instilled by the military. It provides a way for ex-servicemen and women to apply their skills as volunteers while adjusting to life outside the military. It offers a sense of purpose that is frequently absent once people leave the military. In this case, that purpose gets channeled into first responder disaster relief. Today, it is more than 16,000 strong.

Military personnel are well equipped to understand modern IT but Team Rubicon has chosen to tread a different path from that usually associated with NFPs. Team Rubicon makes use of technologies that 'do the job' in a mobile environment so for example, they are big GMail users. What was the problem?

I spoke with Jon Connors, communications manager for team rubicon region 2 to better understand their technology choices and where Lua fits in. He has 20 years experience of working with internet technologies. But first, how does Team Rubicon fit into the scale of things: 

After Super Storm Sandy hit, thousands of people were going to the Rockaway in New Jersey to offer help. But nobody knew how to organise and so it was all a bit chaotic. Our military background meant we could set up supply lines very quickly. We became the default organization to provide relief.

lua screen
People and Groups - Lua

What's missing?

Nice, so what was GMail not delivering that Lua improves?

There’s a million comms tools out there. Nobody uses Google Plus, it’s a ghost town. Comms is so important to us. We want to keep our region informed and within a couple of weeks of trialling Lua, our entire leadership switched. We use Gmail, we dumped Google Chat and we still use Dropbox.

Lua has brought us close together and more effective  in the field. It is so much more effective than endless email chains. The way Lua organises the information allows us to do conference calls instantly.  The group facility means everything is easy to find. You can see how many have read your message and the incentive is there to always check in. On the other hand, we can create groups as needed so we don't have the cc problem that many other organizations experience.

The cc problem is one of the most common issues in email usage. The idea is that everyone you can think of gets copied onto an email that may well only concern a handful of people. Soon, everyone is doing it. Net result? No-one reads email chains. Rather than being the tool for effectiveness it was originally meant to be, email becomes the place where things go to rot. Hence the need for tools that allow people to get living outside the inbox.

Living outside the inbox in practice

But what about in the field. Connors provides a recent example:

At the beginning of July there was a small tornado in upstate New York that killed four people. The following week we were scheduled to do a wilderness first aid training session in the same area. The instructor had been in a car accident and he had no way to get to training so it was cancelled. What can we do? We started talking on Lua and in less than an hour had found out about the tornado area. We were able to get all the information needed to help a family in need no more than an hour from our location. It made information flow seamlessly.

Lua is natively mobile but similar applications are notorious for draining resources and being near useless in areas where there are weak cell phone signals. Lua doesn't have either of those problems. According to Connors, they've always been able to maintain communications and get a full day's worth of use, even when the application is in near continuous use. Asked to name Lua's top benefits, Connors came up with:

  1. It allows us to quickly form discussion groups to create responsive, focused groups..
  2. If we need decision points, Lua keeps them organized.
  3. It’s auditable.
  4. Instant conference facilities. Don’t have to setup conference call events with all passwords etc. It's all done with the touch of a button and everyone’s there.

So where does fit in more generally, given that it is allowing user to live outside the inbox? The company said that Lua is primarily people and not computer centric and that it's really about getting things done in the moment rather than acting as a reference point as is the case with email. It also fits well with BYOD policies because it supports both iOS and Android. Other platforms may be supported in the future but those are the most prevalent in BYOD environments.

The future?

Even so, I wonder whether the solution can survive as a stand alone solution that does one thing very well. The answer was clear and on point:

If it’s coming from Lua it’s work and its priority.

Helper apps of this kind are often far more useful when they fulfill a single purpose extremely well. And when you get super excited fans like Team Rubicon, where urgency in what they do really can mean life or death, then it is easy to understand how Lua is a central part of their technology armory.

lua - metrics
But what of the future. Currently, Rubicon R&D is working on a series of visual reports that actively help with the onboarding and adoption process. These include stats around message volumes and read rates. Of themselves they may seem trivial but when used as part of a trial, they provide management with firm indicators of what's happening beyond the sign up process. These tools are not fully baked but from what I saw (see illustration above) they hold promise.

Endnote: Living outside the inbox is a term popularized by Luis Suarez during his time at IBM.

Image credits: application screenshots via Lua, Team Rubicon pictures taken from Team Rubicon website.

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