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Crowd-Sourcing Fuel Availability During Hurricane Sandy: The Story of GasBuddy

Jul 17, 2014
Tim Borgares
Lead Developer
GB Internet Solutions (GasBuddy)

Would you believe me if I told you that from 2000 miles away a group of software developers in Regina, SK, could play an important role in disaster recovery in New York?  That is exactly what happened in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy caused widespread destruction in parts of New York and New Jersey. GB Internet Solutions, a Regina-based company perhaps better known by the name of our popular mobile app “GasBuddy” (or “GB”), put together a team to rapidly develop an application to aid in the recovery efforts.

In the wake of the storm, finding fuel for vehicles and homes became a nearly impossible task. With a great deal of critical power and road infrastructure damaged, many gas stations were left without power and unable to pump fuel out of the ground. Those that did have power were running out of fuel much faster than they could be resupplied.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, GasBuddy was positioned to identify the fuel shortage as it developed. Like a social network for gas prices, we paid attention to trends and anomalies, not only in our own data, but also in social media and news sources. First, we saw Sandy’s impact on retail gas on October 29th, when GasBuddy price reporting activity dropped between 25% and 50% in states along the east coast. Then, on October 30th, GasBuddy users in New York and New Jersey areas started posting comments about which stations were shut down and which ones still had fuel available.

Both the content and amount of comments were immediate red flags for GasBuddy. Watching this problem emerge from our own user base, we recognized an immediate opportunity to help.  If we could leverage social media and community reporting to help people find cheap gas, surely we could build something similar to help them find stations that were still operational.  Wanting to make a difference, we put together a team of 4 people with a specific goal in mind: to provide a means of locating fuel for those impacted by Sandy.

GasBuddy developed a web-based tool that provided people on the street a way to find and report gas stations that had fuel available – we called it the Fuel Shortage Tracker. As we built the tool we focused on usability in both web and mobile formats so that people could use their smart phones to interact on the go. We used our existing websites as well as social and news media to spread the word about the tool and encourage people to use it – and use it they did. At the height of its usage, the Fuel Shortage Tracker was receiving several million page views a day and many thousands of station status updates.

As in any emergency situation, the ability to provide quick and focused assistance was important, and our capacity for fast development and deployment of the Fuel Shortage Tracker contributed a great deal to its adoption.  We released the first version of our solution, only 4 hours after we decided to form a team.  We were able to move so quickly because creating a crowd-sourced solution (especially in the realm of gas stations) was something familiar to us.  We had enough expertise in the area to be able to identify what needed to be done first and what could wait. This allowed us to define a minimum viable product – one with just enough features to see if it worked – and put it together with little distraction from other large scale wants or needs.

As soon as the tool was released, it quickly gained traction, and we continued to add to it by including features that were set aside in the initial release.  Our work on the Fuel Shortage Tracker gained attention not only from those looking for fuel, but also from those looking to aid in the relief effort.  GasBuddy was soon in conversations with New York and New Jersey State officials, the White House, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and other groups working in recovery efforts.  Our simple tool was quickly becoming more helpful than we had ever imagined it would be.

Communication and information sharing allowed our tool to play a significant role.  By sharing information, we were able to help identify those areas that were most affected by the fuel shortage. Moreover, sharing information from the crowd with those involved the in recovery efforts allowed for more informed decision-making by public officials. We were able to help meet important needs identified by the FEMA and the EIA and add new features to the shortage tracker tool to collect critical data such as which stations had fuel but no power to pump it.

Although GasBuddy was able to make a substantial contribution from far away, it is important to remember that the Fuel Shortage Tracker only helped people create their own solutions. People on the street were already using comments in the GasBuddy network and the Fuel Shortage Tracker tool was a viable solution because people were already trying to help each other, looking for a way to share their own successes and failures in locating fuel.

GasBuddy was successful in developing the Fuel Shortage Tracker because we were equipped and motivated, we communicated, and we set and focused on clear goals.  More than that, we built valuable and positive relationships with people in New York and New Jersey, and with agencies aiding in the relief effort. As a group of software developers from Saskatchewan, we have certainly learned that in emergency management, good help can come from unexpected places.

About the Author

Tim Borgares is a Lead Developer with GB Internet Solutions (GasBuddy) responsible for heading up development on a variety of projects in crowd-based and software as a service spaces. After Hurricane Sandy, Tim is one of a specialist team that rapidly built and deployed an innovative, community-based platform for those affected to help themselves and each other find fuel. Tim has experience working with big-data analytics and fast-paced, innovation-focused development environments. Some of his work includes high-performance data cleaning, location data processing, and responsive and predictive gas price analysis systems.

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