What I learned from building a COVID-19 support site
Last weekend, I did a really stupid thing. Like, the kind of thing that people actually pay good money for me to tell them not to do.
It didn’t seem like a stupid thing at the time, of course. On Friday night, I simply noticed that some people had started a “Vancouver Mutual Aid” spreadsheet in order to share offers of help and support within the community, and I was totally inspired by their vision of people just doing whatever they could to help out during the COVID-19 crisis. What could I do to help, I wondered, so that I could add my name to that spreadsheet, and be one of those generous, helpful people.
By Saturday it occurred to me that one small thing I could do to be helpful was to upgrade the spreadsheet itself. A spreadsheet is an awesome way to get something going quickly, but it exposes an awful lot of personal data, and it’s hard to find or match offers once you have a hundred or five hundred rows instead of fifty. So I offered to convert the Google sheet to a simple website built in Coda — my tech obsession of 2019 — which I knew would make it a little easier to sort through all the offers and requests that were starting to pour in. You can see the initial prototype at http://VancouverSupport.ca
But gosh, did I ever underestimate the scale of that effort…and the scale of the need. It turns out that what’s needed is more like a spreadsheet with tens of thousands of rows (the Vancouver Facebook group that has emerged as the main hub of COVID offers/requests now has 20,000 members) and also there are other communities asking to use our site setup for their cities and towns. It’s a much, much bigger project than what I can run off the side of my desk (or more accurately, off the edge of my sofa.)
So I asked for help… and wow, are people showing up, in a way that is just humbling and beautiful.
First, it was the Coda.io team: The people behind the platform I built the prototype on. One of their product managers, Angad Singh, spent all day Saturday working with me on the site; he told me he’d wanted to spend the day doing something helpful on the COVID-19 front, so when I asked for help, that seemed like a good place to lend a hand. By Monday, the company had assigned someone to take on the project of cleaning up my prototype site, building a mechanism to keep people’s contact information private, and turning it into a re-usable template that other communities will be able to use for their own help/request boards. They’re now hard at work on that development project.
Next, it was the nonprofit tech community: All the people I know and love from our years running Social Signal, when building save-the-world-flavored online communities was my actual work. One of the most important things I learned in those years was, don’t go and build something until you figure out whether someone else has already got a solution for the problem you’re trying to solve. But when I reached out to my various networks to say, whoops, I built without looking first, does anyone want to help this thing find a home, a world of brilliant social techies and change-makers showed up to lend a hand. People introduced me to other groups working on similar problems, they offered to look at whether their organizations could house the project, they offered infrastructure, they forwarded my request for help to other communities that might lend a hand.
And then Vancouver showed up: All kinds of people I don’t know, or know anyone in common with, who just started using the site, or tweeting about the site, or logging bugs on the site. Most of all — and most extraordinarily — I have heard from all sorts of people, with all sorts of expertise, who are offering to just dive in and help make this site work…or who want to take on the job of setting up a site in their own communities.
At first, all these people showing up actually scared the shit out of me. Like, OMG, other people are putting their resources into this, now I have to to work around the clock so I don’t let anyone down.
Then I stopped to notice what people were actually saying — and none of them were saying, “you’d better get this fixed RIGHT AWAY” or “you messed up THIS issue”. What everyone has actually said is: Let me help. Let me take on this part of the load. Let me help make this better.
All this help is incredibly moving, so it feels like I tear up on every call where someone is offering to lend a hand or help move this project forward. The thing is, making these connections at this moment, on this issue, means there is never any embarrassment about the fullness of our emotions: We’re all right there on the knife’s edge, balancing our desire to be constructive with the reality of our shared fear and uncertainty.
Our ability to be together, and to work together, in the midst of this intensity — well, it’s just extraordinary. And it makes me feel incredibly hopeful that this crisis is going to help us rediscover our community connections, our capacity for mutual support and our generosity, all in ways we can’t yet begin to imagine.