Team Rubicon UK gets a helping hack from developers to boost disaster relief work

Profile picture for user jtwentyman By Jessica Twentyman July 21, 2016
A recent hackathon, staged by Docusign, has given the charity new ideas about how it can deliver vital work with maximum efficiency and a minimum of soggy paper.

John Leach

It’s no secret that the transition from military to civilian life can be a struggle for many veterans. A survey released this week by armed forced charity SSAFA sheds a grim light on the problems reported by the working-age veterans who seek its help: poverty, family breakdown, ill health (both mental and physical), a lack of confidence that stems from the perception that their previous service to their country is undervalued.

The SSAFA says it’s important to remember that most veterans do successfully make the transition, but even these ones sometimes feel that life after the military lacks the same sense of purpose, as John Leach, CEO of Team Rubicon UK, attests. A former Royal Marines commando, Leach spent some years working for Royal Mail as an operations manager, before deciding that disaster relief work represented a better way to channel his energies:

I felt, as many other veterans do, that loss of a sense of purpose when you leave the military. You take a job, and it may be interesting and rewarding and challenging, but there’s still that lingering question of, ‘What can I do to help? How can I make a difference?’.

Leach’s answer lay in working for disaster relief charity Shelterbox for six years before he was headhunted to lead Team Rubicon UK, the recently established UK offshoot of Team Rubicon USA. The two organizations share the same ‘twin mission’: to utilize the skills and experience of military veterans in the delivery of vital disaster relief.

Team Rubicon UK has only been up and running for about a year, but has already coordinated responses at home and abroad, following the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, the December 2015 typhoon in the Philippines, UK winter flooding in Tadcaster and York and this year’s wildfires in Canada. It’s now looking to see how it might help out in the refugee camps in Greece, currently home to tens of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East.

From his own experiences, Leach knows that disaster relief work can be pretty paper-intensive - but also that paper gets lost and damaged pretty easily in difficult environments:

One of the things that people often forget is that a disaster relief organization has administrative processes and procedures, just like any other organization. The more efficiently we run those, the more effort and money we can spend helping out people caught up in disasters. Technology can have a hugely positive impact for people in their hour of need - they need volunteers who can come in and help them, but they also need ones who can help them efficiently and effectively. Paper gets damaged, it gets soggy, it doesn’t stay intact.

Hacking for good

With that in mind, it’s fortunate that one of the partnerships that Team Rubicon UK has inherited from its older US sister is with e-document management company Docusign. This year, at the company’s Momentum London 2016 conference in June, Docusign organized a ‘Hack for Good’ competition, in which teams of attendees assembled to devise and develop apps that could help Team Rubicon UK in its work in the field. Five teams of developers spent just over 24 hours behind closed doors at the event, working on solutions to two sets of pre-defined challenges, based on real-world scenarios regularly faced by Team Rubicon UK.

The first focused on disclaimers, getting sign-off from volunteers arriving at a disaster scene and homeowners agreeing to work on their houses. The second focused on volunteer administration processes - tracking the availability and mobilization of volunteers, for example, and transitioning project leadership in the field.

First prize went to Christy Quinn and Neil Satra of Team Mango. They’d never met before the competition: Quinn works at digital design company Lighthouse London and Satra is working on his own venture, Escalade, a platform to help companies identify the innovative start-ups they should be working with.

They came up with an app that makes it possible for a homeowner to electronically provide the authorization that Team Rubicon UK needs to start assisting with damage inspection, for example, or even the demolition of dangerous premises. The solution included a mapping element for mobile devices that indicated the location of a specific property and color-coded its current status. Says Christy:

My time at Lighthouse is spent harping on about minimal viable products, which it turns out comes in pretty useful for a hack! We both found it surprisingly stress-free. Normally in the last 12 hours of a hack, you find yourself writing some code you never want to look at again and cutting some seriously large corners. But by the morning of the second day, we already had a working prototype and just needed to polish it off and prepare the presentation. Me and Neil obviously made a good team.

Adds Satra:

We were confident in our work, since we had put a lot of effort in, but so had everyone else. Docusign didn’t tell us the result until the final keynote, so the suspense was building all day. We were, of course, elated to have our work recognized - and being on stage after Professor Brian Cox was pretty awesome, too.

As one of the judges, Leach of Team Rubicon says getting his head around some of the technology involved was tricky, but that wasn’t the point:

What was key for me was to see how developers could understand our needs, develop a solution, and then articulate and demonstrate their proposed solution’s function clearly to a generalist like me. My role is leadership, so I need to understand a concept quickly and see straight away how it could be implemented for use by other people who aren’t technology specialists, either, but who must use the solution in the field when they have 57,000 other priorities, they haven’t eaten, it’s 40 degrees and it’s getting dark.

He and Team Rubicon are now exploring how to put the winning solution into production, along with other ideas generated in the hackathon:

Technology can go a long way into making sure that volunteers have a positive experience of working in even the toughest situations. It’s what will allow them to focus on doing a great job and absolutely minimize the number of admin steps they need to go through.