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Team Rubicon revolutionizes disaster response. Microsoft wants to help

In 2018, natural disasters ran amok.

Deadly tsunamis battered Indonesia. Destructive hurricanes walloped the south. Wildfires, once seasonal in California, engulfed the state, leaving more than 1,650,000 acres of scorched earth in their wake and resulting in a cool $16.5 billion worth of damage.

This year hasn’t proved much better. Heavy rains and tornadoes have battered the midwest and Hurricane Dorian, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, pummeled the United States after having totally leveled portions of the Bahamas a week prior.

The numbers may seem bleak, but the response to such catastrophic events has been anything but — just ask any volunteer serving with Team Rubicon, a disaster relief non-profit that recently partnered with Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact initiative to make disaster response more efficient.

From small to seismic

In January 2010, a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, injuring hundreds of thousands and rendering 2.3 million people homeless. In the aftermath, two marines — including Team Rubicon CEO and co-founder Jake Wood — gathered a small crew of veterans, medical professionals, and first responders to provide aid, focusing primarily on at-risk populations and those most vulnerable; the same primary demographic the Los Angeles-based organization serves today.

Team Rubicon

A name was adopted. A loose mission statement was crafted.

In the decade since, Team Rubicon has gone from a team of eight volunteers to one of 100,000. Operations ballooned following Port-au-Prince, Hurricane Harvey, and the 400-odd other natural disasters the team has responded to since its inception. But the infrastructure and technology necessary to properly maintain, train, and oversee volunteers — 70% of which are military veterans — couldn’t keep pace with the non-profit’s explosive growth. The team managed donor initiatives and volunteers using a series of platforms, often free and cobbled together, but it lacked efficiency, and the data didn’t transfer between systems.

We got by, but it certainly wasn’t working the way it should have.

As Team Rubicon’s Chief Information Officer, Raj Kamachee would know. While the team was assembling volunteers during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, he witnessed the pitfalls of such as a system first-hand as the team worked to sift through a database of nearly 75,000 volunteers.

“We were struggling to pump through as many volunteers as we could,” Kamachee told Digital Trends. “It took three or four volunteers sitting behind a desk manning a Google Sheet to send a single volunteer into the field.”

With Harvey, Team Rubicon still managed to place more than 1,500 volunteers on the ground in Texas and Louisiana, each with their own unique set of skills and qualifications catered toward various rescue operations. Other operations followed the initial batch of volunteers, but the time-consuming nature of the work highlighted a growing need for change. Rescue operations were the beginning, after all. Damage assessment, debris management, and rebuilding would come later.

“We had issues with our volunteer management system and what qualifications our volunteers had,” added Art delaCruz, Team Rubicon President and Chief Operating Officer. “We got by, but it certainly wasn’t working the way it should have.”

An (in)efficient system at work

On the surface, Team Rubicon’s volunteer management seems rather straightforward. When a military veteran, first responder, or civilian signs up to volunteer with the organization, they undergo a vetting process before becoming deployable, which includes submitting themselves to a background check. They must also take an introductory course that establishes the history of the non-profit, as well as two FEMA courses outlining the Incident Command System, a standardized hierarchy that details how various government and non-government agencies should interact with one another when responding to a disaster.

Onboarding volunteers is part of the process. Getting them into the field is a different kind of beast.

With each incident, there are multiple facets to consider, each of which impacts the eligibility of a given volunteer. Factors such as proximity to the event and how recently an individual has deployed come into play, as do current and future availability. Skillset is an even bigger component, especially given that each scenario requires a different set of qualifications. If Team Rubicon is deploying volunteers for search and rescue efforts at the onset of a disaster, for instance, they might need those with a medical background, whereas other callouts may require heavy equipment operators or volunteers who can work in a senior leadership capacity.

It took three or four volunteers sitting behind a desk manning a Google Sheet to send a single volunteer into the field.

“When you have 105,000 volunteers and as many as 66 operations in a given year, you have to understand where the volunteers are at, as well as the disaster,” said delaCruz. “We also have to think about what capabilities or skills are inherent to the personnel responding and what kind of capacity is available. We need to find all those things and this was literally done through manual work.”

Enter the Microsoft accelerator

Earlier this year, Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact initiative debuted version 3 of its Dynamics Nonprofit Accelerator, a suite of tools designed to provide non-profits with the kind of insight necessary to achieve their goals. In many ways, Team Rubicon was an obvious candidate for the program. The organization was consistently hitting new milestones and increasing outreach, yet also being hamstrung by consistent software limitations.

“We saw a team with the organization and courage — maybe even the audacity — to try and reinvent themselves,” said Justin Spelhaug, Tech for Social Impact General Manager. “The team wanted to reach a new level of scalability where they were deploying a much wider range of disaster response.”

The interface of the Dynamics 365 Nonprofit Accelerator, a suite of apps designed to collate data from a wealth of sources and streamline operations in the nonprofit sector. Image used with permission by copyright holder

For Team Rubicon, that meant a software suite that provided both out-of-the-box functionality and a range of custom solutions. With Dynamics 365, data is no longer aggregated via four or five different sources, allowing for great transparency overall and streamlining disjointed processes that hindered the previous system.

The Nonprofit Accelerator also makes use of artificial intelligence to sort volunteer qualifications, availability, and other metrics vital to deployment. The non-profit is currently only implementing it in select cases (Team Rubicon can have as many as 10 ongoing operations at once, including ongoing efforts in the Bahamas) but the future ramifications could be profound. The burgeoning technology may allow the team to easily mobilize three times as many volunteers as it did during Harvey, freeing up additional resources in the process.

With that also comes greater ease of use, something Wood believes will help with retention, particularly among younger volunteers and those who’ve grown accustomed to the expediency modern technology often provides.

Before we ever had a conversation with them, we made a choice to try and leverage technology to help us scale as we push the limits of what’s possible.

“We have to eliminate the friction in the volunteer experience,” explained Wood. “You can apply for a mortgage at a stoplight with your thumb. You can order a pizza from Dominoes and track its progress as it makes its way through the oven and to your door. Our volunteers, a lot of them are millennials or digital natives. You only get one maybe two shots with a volunteer because their time is too precious to be wasted.”

If all goes well, both delaCruz and Spelhaug hope the technology can be introduced to other disaster relief organizations and other nonprofits, including that fall under Microsoft’s Tech for Social Impact initiative. Organizations like the Salvation Army and UNICEF may not leverage machine learning or artificial intelligence to the same degree as Team Rubicon, but they can surely benefit from a software ecosystem that plays to their strengths and pursuits as an organization, many of which Spelhaug believes are centered on the most important issues of our times.

“We really believe that, with the people we have and our approach to innovation, a byproduct has to be that other non-profits can use the tools we build,” added delaCruz. “In the end, it’s for everyone.”

Interested in learning more? Check out the Team Rubicon’s website, where you can donate, become a fundraising partner, or sign up to volunteer in one of several ways.

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Brandon Widder
Brandon Widder is a multimedia journalist and a staff writer for Digital Trends where he covers technology news, how-to…
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