If there is any doubt to the power of social media, social networking and social software, then nonbelievers may need to Think New Orleans.
In a powerful presentation on the marriage of software tools and crowds of people in desperate need of organisation around a cause, Alan Gutierrez of the non-profit group Think New Orleans
detailed an inspiring post-Hurricane Katrina story of how a crash course in social networking helped people emerge from the rubble; find their voice; fight the government; solicit help; and save their neighborhoods, schools and each other.
At the annual Burton Group conference, Gutierrez, a self-described underemployed programmer looking to lend his considerable talent to non-profit causes, told a story he entitled "Innovating Your Way Out of Total System Failure" to highlight how citizens in a handful of the hardest-hit neighborhoods used ingenuity, creativity, digital cameras, Flickr, WordPress, Google Maps and Yahoo Groups to bend rebuilding efforts to the will of the people and away from the wrecking balls swung by city government.
"We had to find a way to divide and conquer," says Gutierrez. "Citizens became our knowledge workers. We were able to collect experts and to use their viewpoint as a home owner to help do the job that the government was supposed to do. People reached out to these tools because they were compelled to."
Using blogs with names like Fix the Pumps and Squandered Heritage, citizens took up "beats," lending their professional expertise, ingenuity and gumshoe efforts to create a citizens' voice to counter city government rhetoric.
Gutierrez's beat was an effort called Internet Workshops, where classes with titles such as Web Publishing 101 showed citizens how they could blog, upload files, work with photos and images, create mashups, and most importantly tap the power of organisation using the Internet as a hub.
Of note was Matt McBride, a civil engineer who began blogging about and photographing US Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to repair drainage pumps and install new floodgate pumps in New Orleans. His Fix the Pumps blogs became a watchdog uncovering shoddy work and other issues.
There was also Karen Gadbois, who collected addresses and used Google Maps on her Squandered Heritage beat to plot undamaged houses that had been slated for demolition to show how they mysteriously were in a neat row along a single street. The city had deemed the houses, some that had been repaired by owners then stealthily torn down by the city, as "eminent health risks." Gadbois detailed how FEMA had given the city money to demolish thousands of homes and used the maps to raise questions about city motives. The result was a federal class action lawsuit.
"All this allowed us to do something," says Gutierrez. "Like the notion of next action, for us it was the next question. Now that we had the questions, any one of us could go to the city meetings and ask about this."
Of course, the answers weren't always forthright, and that spurned even more social networking.
Gadbois used her community blog focused on her NorthWest Carrolton neighbourhood to highlight a plan to put in a Walgreen's pharmacy where a supermarket had been before the flooding. The neighbourhood wanted the supermarket back but developers told Gadbois during contentious meetings that the deal was done and everyone had sold out their property.
Shortly thereafter, Gadbois stopped at a garage sale of her neighbor Miss Verthalot and bought an ugly dress. She asked the woman, who lived within the boundaries of the Walgreen's project, if she had sold out. Miss Verthalot said she had not. Gadbois posted a short story of her purchase and a picture under the heading "Miss Verthalot's Dress" on her blog where Walgreen's attorneys had been snooping and where they soon discovered that Gadbois had inside information proving that the developers were lying. The tone of subsequent meetings with the Walgreen's developers changed and the project was not done.
"The government reads our blogs now," Gutierrez says. "[Citizens] created a voice."
He says the social consciousness was sparked to action by a wave of murders at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007 that led New Orleans citizens to march to City Hall and demand a safer city.
That consciousness helped ignite the social networking wave, which swept up McBride, Gadbois and Gutierrez, after the introduction of the "map that launched a thousand ships."
The map showed neighbourhoods that had been under water and would need to prove their viability before the city would work with the federal government to bring rebuilding aid.
It started with a neighbourhood called Broadmoor; its recruitment drive; and its use of mailing lists, bulletin boards and online marketing to solicit the help of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and corporations like Motorola to draft a rebuilding plan.
The Mid-City neighbourhood used the New Orleans wiki to draw up a rebuilding plan outline, which was collaboratively written and edited by residents. They used Yahoo Groups as an information repository.
The Beacon of Hope project used the Web to create a community that has logged 33,000 volunteer hours and has 100 volunteers working every day.
The group is now headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to help create a Beacon of Hope in neighborhoods there ravaged by flooding.
"Hopefully we will find a new core competency in New Orleans in terms of civic participation," says Gutierrez.
But he also says corporations should find a knowledge that social networking can bring about dramatic change if given a chance to grow.
He says if it can happen in New Orleans where people treat the computer as a business tool to be turned off at 5 p.m. then it can happen anywhere.
"The work by Karen Gadbois gave us a competitive advantage because she had better information. That is the kind of advantage you can have inside your organisation," Gutierrez says.
He acknowledges that social networking in New Orleans didn't have the security and access control IT needs, but he said, "instead of access control we had accountability."
"What we wanted was to have the city government create the recovery plan, have housing and urban development create the homes for people, to have the school districts clean the schools and reopen them, but we had to do it ourselves."
And, he says, without social networking tools it would never have been accomplished.