FloodAid

Usually when one has a great idea, it’s a ‘light bulb moment’ the metaphorical light bulb switches on above one’s head. This case study looks at one brilliant paradigm-changing idea that coincided with the lights going off, not on.

A typical afternoon in early 2011 at a Brisbane-based marketing and advertising firm saw a group of workmates brainstorming ideas for an upcoming client proposal when the power went out. The now-infamous Brisbane floodwaters had hit and the office had to be temporarily relocated to the Creative Director’s house. After beating a hasty retreat to higher ground, the colleagues hit on the idea of creating an iPhone application to allow people to report high water and enabling users to map their way home navigating around areas that were flooded. The iPhone app had great potential and anyone who had to drive through flood-affected Brisbane at the time would attest to the usefulness of such a tool; however time was of the essence. The group realised the time required to develop the app would be too great to make it useful immediately and turned their minds to something more instant. The greatest need, after peoples’ safety, was the rebuilding effort. So much need, so many offers of help, how to connect the two? And so FloodAid was born.

The innovative FloodAid concept was simple on the surface, yet transformative and creative: use a social media platform to connect people in need directly with people who could help. A volunteer wanting to help could search for people who needed help in a particular area and then offer to help via the website. The volunteer’s contact information was then sent directly to the person requiring help to make contact and organise details. A concept ethical in its principles (focusing on community and social benefits) and fresh and unique in its approach.

What would usually take weeks, if not months, to pull together happened within almost 48 hours. What started out as idea of like-minded friends Adam Penberthy (Co-Founder), Graeme Caplen (Co-founder) and Adrian Larsen (Operations Manager), Mario Rogic (Head Developer) and Monib Mahdavi (designer) was floated on key social media channels to gauge interest.

Adam Penberthy explains, “Within hours we were retweeted (through Twitter) and liked (via Facebook), across the internet. Within hours we had over 500 offers to help – from some big names too. The national director for Yammer, Saatchi and Saatchi Sydney creative director, the creative director from Leo Burnett in Sydney, web developers literally all over the world, and mobile development agencies in the U.S all wanted to be a part of it.”

The 500 offers of help were then narrowed down to a workable group of 30 people across nine cities and five continents who all worked together to pull off the big job of building a complex interactive website from scratch.

“As a designer in Australia went to sleep, another designer was being briefed via Skype in South Africa picking up where the Australian designer left off, “ says Mr Penberthy. “We went live pretty well 48 hours after we hatched the idea. Then it was about managing the site and growing it.”

At its busiest, offers of help through FloodAid were being answered in under a minute. In total the website helped out over 1600 people affected by the floods. Mr Penberthy’s mother, based in Toowoomba, was one of the beneficiaries of her son’s great idea with her request for help answered promptly by an electrician who tested all her electrical points and circuits and a young couple who helped pull all the water-damaged furniture out of her house.

All involved with FloodAid are quick to point out that it was a collaborative effort and that the project’s greatest success was the people involved.

For Mr Penberthy the FloodAid project was a truly humbling experience. “We had the opportunity to speak with some of the most amazing people all around the world offering their skills and teams to help Queensland,” he reflects.

Within the month of the floods over 200 000 people visited the FloodAid site to either offer or request help or just to leave feedback and comments. There are countless heart-warming stories as a result of the website such as the couple who drove up from Sydney to help out and found people to help through FloodAid.

For many, however, another positive to come from FloodAid is the potential for using social media for the greater good. Frequently the subject of negative press, social media’s potential to bring communities together was highlighted through this unique idea and other similar projects during the Queensland floods and Cyclone Yasi.

“The power to harness diverse skills, link people with needs with those with relevant expertise, and to be able to communicate in such a timely manner, has never been easier,” Mr Penberthy says.

“The line between people’s online and offline life is really becoming more and more blurred. Social media is becoming just another tool in a person’s communication toolbox, like SMS. We’re seeing it become more and more ingrained in the way we life day in day out.”

Co-founder Graeme Caplen adds that it’s not about social media, it’s about people.

“The true power of ‘social media’ is simply the ability to connect and mobilise vast amounts of people quickly and easily around a movement or cause,” he says.

“It is an exciting time, a lot of things are changing and people power is definitely getting stronger. As long as this new ability to make changes to things ‘we’ don’t like is managed correctly, I think we’ll see more and more positive news coming from social media.”

So now the floodwaters have receded and Queensland continues with the rebuild, what lies ahead for FloodAid?

“The website itself will eventually die, however the concept that created it (connecting those in need with those who can help) will live on, not only within the FloodAid team, but in the minds of people affected by FloodAid in a positive way,” reflects Mr Caplen.

An enduring design idea that has paved the way for even more socially beneficial and responsible new media projects. Visit the site.

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