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Beyond the Infinite

Beyond the Infinite, Fall 2012
Volume 7, Issue 2

Helping communities prepare and repair

Caitria and Morgan O'Neill pitch at the IDEAS Global Challenge poster and judging session in May 2012. Photo: Greg Kuperman

Hurricanes and tornados aside, has still had a busy year. is an online platform for communities to organize volunteers, donations and information in the aftermath of natural disaster. Sisters Caitria and Morgan O'Neill established the site after their hometown of Monson, Mass., was devastated by a tornado in June 2011. A PKG Center grant helped the sisters pilot their concept, and, after a few months of developing the web platform and visiting communities in need, won $10,000 in funding from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge in May 2012.

That was just the beginning.

Since May, has won $340,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation's News Challenge on Networks and $50,000 from the MassChallenge accelerator. Furthermore, the O'Neill sisters were selected to speak at TEDxBoston in June, giving a talk that now has well over 200,000 views online.

"The TEDxBoston talk has driven at least a hundred emails from all over the world from people asking for collaboration with their organizations, concerned neighbors asking for pricing and information for their communities, emergency managers...and FEMA representatives from regions all over the country," says Morgan, a PhD student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Aside from Morgan, chief scientist, and Caitria, CEO, the core team includes Alvin Liang '05, SM '08, chief technical officer, and Chris Kuryak SM '12, chief operating officer.

Kuryak admits that he did not know much about disaster relief prior to joining the team, but after sitting in on a meeting last fall he hasn't looked back. Earlier this year, he traveled to Clay, Ala., with Caitria after a tornado ravaged the city on Jan. 23. He recalls standing in a Clay parking lot where a mass of people were looking to volunteer and donate to the recovery efforts, seeing firsthand that there was no system in place to leverage this outpouring of support.

"I had never seen a disaster site before," says Kuryak. "I saw a complete lack of organization with disaster relief. It was a real turning point for me." is ready and able to launch a set of online tools at a moment's notice for a community stricken by disaster, but it hopes to have more communities sign up in advance so the platform is in place ahead of time and ready to go if needed. The team traveled to Florida in June to assist in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby, but without any type of centralized community effort in place, it was difficult to implement a web system days after the storm hit. Though frustrating, the experience reaffirmed the team's belief that the platform is most effective if communities implement it as part of a disaster preparation strategy.

"Our model is to get the platform to a community in advance so they can use it and be familiar with it, and that it's completely ready to go and well-trusted as soon as something happens," says Morgan. "Every line of code has been written with a disaster in mind. The website is simple. The buttons are big. You can be exhausted and tired, and you can still understand how to use it. There's no learning curve, which is important."

Most recently, has established websites for New York City communities severely affected by Hurricane Sandy — including Astoria, the Lower East Side, Red Hook, and Staten Island.

As long as has the infrastructure to support communities that have a need, it will continue its growth.

"Our long-term goal is to have a presence in every community in the U.S.," says Morgan. "As long as we can cover our costs, keep the lights on and keep the servers going, there is no reason for such a cheap, efficient service that can do such extraordinary good not to be available to people in the worst disaster of their lives."

Though the team has had a busy and incredibly successful few months since the IDEAS Global Challenge awards, it still applies the lessons that it learned from the competition.

"It made us disciplined," says Morgan. "We had to learn how to sell ourselves...that is a huge deal when you only have two minutes on the phone with someone who is really important and runs an emergency department in another state, and you have to get them to understand you."

Kuryak adds that the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT helped lend a hand to's success.

"MIT is noticeably different in the way that it actively pursues new ideas within its student body and supports the startup culture," he says. "MIT is like a petri dish for the bacteria of ideas. These competitions and support from MIT have helped transform from an idea to a reality."

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