A conversation with Aaron Titus on using open source coordination to transform disaster recovery

Catalyst Conversations showcase the work, experience, and insights of inspiring professionals working to advance the security industry and those we serve

How would you coordinate 30,000 volunteers in 5,000 locations across an arc 500 miles long in just eight weeks?

The result is Crisis Cleanup (crisiscleanup.org).

Crisis Cleanup is a free, open source disaster relief mapping and work order management tool that helps relief organizations coordinate cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Crisis Cleanup implements a "Craigslist" philosophy to recovery efforts–organizations that are aware of needs enter them into the system, and organizations with capacity claim the work orders and perform the work.

What stands out to me is the open and transparent nature of the system. No centralized organization is "in charge." And that means less duplication, better communication, coordination, and efficiency. It leads to a better volunteer experience and more focus on helping victims when they need it the most. 

No stranger to standing up for others and tackling huge challenges, I asked Aaron to share his experience and insights with us. The success of Crisis Cleanup models actions we can take in our own organizations to improve disaster recovery and continuity operations.

It's also a chance to learn more about a tool we may need to rely on one day in our communities in the wake of a disaster.

Humble about his effort, Aaron explains, "I didn't think that my collaborative work order system was terribly innovative—it was just necessary." Astonished that nothing existed, the obvious answer was to create it.

Superstorm Sandy drove an immediate need. That meant rapid development and a focus on the "minimum viable product." Due to the system's success after Sandy, it was named an "Industry Best Practice" by FedEx, and has been used in every major natural disaster since.

Many people struggle to measure success in normal operations. In disasters, all bets are off. When I asked Aaron if he was able to measure and demonstrate the power of the program, he explained "for every hour I donated to the project, I facilitated more than 100 volunteer-hours in additional field work."

Because crisis cleanup reduces administrative overhead, travel time, and optimizes available volunteers, victims of disasters get the help they need, sooner. Everyone is empowered, and each person is accountable.

Setting out to solve a single challenge is leading to a transformation in the disaster recovery industry.

When asked about the challenges, Aaron is quick to point out that volunteer efforts to aid victims is not profitable and hard to fund. They recently won an award from the American Red Cross to advance two full months of programming. While they have more work to do, Aaron is optimistic this is just the beginning.

"I'm a volunteer who is preaching a non-hierarchical, community-driven, open-data approach to disaster recovery. And I'm doing it because it works and helps people."

Aaron's success proves the power of focusing efforts on the minimum viable solution, adapt based on real-life needs, and then grow.

The real take-away for me is the creation of a system that places power back into the hands of capable people to work toward the right outcomes in their area. Fully accountable, it reduces waste, encourages smarter actions, and allows people in need to get the right help, right away.

The Catalyst Questions

I ask these questions during each conversation. The responses are as shared with me. 

1. What is your why? What drives you?

One afternoon as I was feverishly working against deadlines to launch National ID Watch, my wife hugged me. "Aaron, you're amazing. You can do anything," she said, "except make money." Although I am now blessed with a comfortable living, I realize why her words were so true: I love helping victims and survivors—victims of identity theft, victims of legal injustice, disadvantaged youth, or survivors of natural disasters. And helping survivors in a liberty-preserving capitalist society is simply a losing business proposition.

I have at least six passions in my life: My Wife, My Family, My Faith, Privacy, Public Policy, and Disaster Recovery.  Perhaps the unifying thread among my interests and activities is my passion for helping victims and survivors.

2. What still requires translation to be successful?

I have found that people tend to have a difficult time understanding multi-dimensional problems and solutions.  With my computer training, I understand the concept of multi-faceted data objects, but in the real world, complexity is difficult. Humans must approach multi-faceted problems using algorithmic problem-solving techniques.

Privacy, Identity, and Emergency Preparedness are a few examples of complex, contextual, non-binary concepts that people have a really difficult time modeling in their minds.

I have spent a lot of time trying to model these concepts in a way that is approachable. Developing the proper algorithms can be challenging.  I'm succeeding with emergency preparedness. Identity is manageable. Privacy is a much more difficult nut to crack.

3. What was your biggest failure? How did you recover? What did you learn from it?

I was serving as a relatively inexperienced missionary for my church in Sydney, Australia.  One early morning, my senior missionary companion and I were waiting for a crosswalk signal on an empty two-lane street.

As we waited, we heard a commotion down the street. I looked down the hill and saw a woman, the only other person on the street as far as we knew, who was yelling and waving her arms about a hundred yards away. I scanned the street and quickly saw the source of her distress. A young man on a bike was carrying a woman's purse and riding, laboriously, up the hill in our direction.

I instantly knew what to do. I saw that I could easily knock the thief off his bike and retrieve the purse with little risk to myself. I looked to my senior companion, waiting for his permission to act.  Unfortunately, he panicked and froze.  From just yards away, across the traffic-free street we watched the thief slowly ride by for several long seconds, until he was out of reach.  I looked back down the hill at the woman.  For a moment our eyes locked. She turned, dejected, and walked away.

The image of her countenance is seared into my mind, and my failure to act has caused me deep regret ever since.  This episode, though rather insignificant—nobody was hurt, and only a purse was stolen—has shaped nearly every decision of my life since.  At worst, a rebuke from my senior companion and a bump from scuffling with the thief would have healed in a few days. But the pain of regret has lasted far longer.

From then on, I vowed I would never again wait for permission to do the right thing. And I don't.

4. How do you prioritize and justify your efforts?

Whenever I am presented with competing interests on my time, and I find myself saying "I don't have time to do ____, I replace "I don't have time" with "It's not a priority." If the sentence still makes sense and matches my priorities, then it's OK to skip that thing.  But it gives me pause if my kids ask me to play and in my mind I rephrase my knee-jerk response to, "It's not a priority to play with my kids."

For big decisions, I'll always talk with my wife. We make all of our decisions unanimously together. It takes much more effort, but is essential. There is no "Me" and "Her." There is only "Us."

5. Best piece of advice you ever got… and offer to others

Never go to bed angry with your spouse.

What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? Find a way to do that for a living.

Connecting with Aaron Titus

Who are you, how do you describe what you do?crisiscleanup.org), an open source crisis mapping and collaborative work order system for disaster recovery organizations. Created and subsidized by and for volunteers, Crisis Cleanup has been adopted by more than 100 organizations to connect more than 30,000 volunteers to more than 7,500 families in 3 countries, 8 states and 8 disasters, most recently in the Colorado Floods and Tropical Cyclone Phailin in India.

I am the volunteer Project Manager for Crisis Cleanup (

I am a proud husband, and father to three girls and three boys, ages 8, 7, 5, 4 2, and 3 weeks. I support my family as a full-time attorney for Identity Finder, a privacy-enhancing software company. I am a privacy and civil liberties advocate and the Privacy Director for the Liberty Coalition in Washington, DC. I am also a founding Board member of the Identity Ecosystem Steering Group for privacy and civil liberties.

In some circles, I am remembered most for a robocall I once sent to the local school board, described here in the Washington Post: http://wapo.st/eZDHuZ, and a resulting business venture and political statement, reverserobocall.com.

Where and how do you work?

I work full-time as an attorney for Identity Finder, LLC. I work from home two days per week. I've found that 2-3 days from home and 2-3 days in the office gives the right balance of face time and productive time.

Although, I never really stop working except when it's family time. I typically have 4 or 5 projects going on at once.

Where can we connect with you?@aarontitus | @crisiscleanupaarontitus.net/blog | crisiscleanup.org

Aaron [at] crisiscleanup.org

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