A parking lot on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, on the New York coastline ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, serves as the base of operations for Team Rubicon, a volunteer organization staffed by military veterans who show up when disaster strikes. There’s equipment common to any recovery site: stacks of hand tools, portable toilets, pallets of food and water. And then there’s the matte-green school bus, parked in the back.
The bus is a command post from which dispatchers direct volunteers to assess damage, provide assistance, or call for supplies. Team Rubicon members are using software usually found on battlefields. Workers rely on it as they move from damaged house to house.
The software comes from Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company co-founded by former PayPal chief executive officer and original Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Palantir’s clients include the U.S. military, CIA, FBI, and New York City Police Department. The software, which runs on the laptops in the bus and on smartphones, allows dispatchers to see volunteers’ locations and annotate a map of damaged houses. Aid workers can call up notes associated with a particular property and add their own. They also can upload geo-tagged photos, in case address information is faulty and a visual confirmation is more reliable. Team Rubicon has used the software to manage more than 10,000 volunteers in the Rockaways, according to the group’s website. “When other relief groups have arrived, government agencies have been sending them to us, based on our effectiveness,” says Ford Sypher, a regional director of Team Rubicon and former Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Members of Team Rubicon first met with executives from Palantir in August at the Classy Awards, a philanthropic awards ceremony in San Diego. “The initial intent was to use Palantir to better understand their volunteer base,” says Jason Payne, who heads what the company calls its philanthropy engineering team. The plan was to use the software to match volunteers’ skills to required tasks. But when Sandy hit, Team Rubicon instead used the technology for the more immediate concerns of recovery management. “It became an alpha or beta run to see how the platform could be applied to their activities on the ground,” Payne says.
Palantir’s software is designed to deal with large, disparate data sets. If relief workers want to determine where to send aid, Payne explains, it’s helpful to combine several layers of information: the statuses of neighborhood pharmacies and gas stations, demographic and census data, and poverty rates. In the future, Payne says, Palantir’s system could be used to more effectively determine how to use resources.
Team Rubicon began working in the Rockaways on Oct. 29 and plans to remain until Dec. 3, at which point the group will hand over operations to longer-term recovery organizations. Payne says Team Rubicon will use Palantir software in future campaigns, and the group’s success means other aid organizations will likely use the software as well. Groups including AmeriCorps, AmeriCares, and Points of Light have expressed interest, he says.
“The Palantir software acts as a force multiplier,” says Sypher. The software addresses a common problem in dispatching crews for disaster relief: lack of real-time communication. “You’d send people out to check a house, and you had no idea where they were or what they needed until they came back,” says Brendan Kraft, a volunteer who was an Army public health technician. “Now, we can all share information as it comes in. Before we had this,” Kraft adds, gesturing to the satellite map imagery overlaid with data points, “we had a pad and a pen.”