Church Member Cleans Up with New Work-Order System

  By Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News staff writer

  • 17 January 2014

Aaron Titus, developer of Crisis Cleanup, demonstrates a collaborative work-order system for disasters from his office in New York City.  Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver.

Article Highlights

  • Aaron Titus created Crisis Cleanup, a system that connects volunteers with people needing assistance following a disaster.
  • Crisis Cleanup has been used by 175 organizations during 11 disasters—in 11 states and three countries—to assist more than 10,000 families affected by disasters.
  • Aaron Titus recently received the 2013 New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award in the faith-based service category.

“Crisis Cleanup is free to recovery organizations and deployable in minutes. It’s a labor of love for me.” —Aaron Titus, system creator

In the days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the coastlines of New York and New Jersey in late October 2012, Aaron Titus was frantically working to develop a collaborative work-order system that could track and coordinate disaster relief.

“I felt as though I was building an airplane in free fall and giving hourly status updates as to why it was not done,” said Brother Titus, the Church’s New Jersey representative to VOAD, which stands for Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster.

The outcome was a system, which is now called Crisis Cleanup, that has been used by 175 organizations during 11 disasters—in 11 states and three countries—to assist more than 10,000 families affected by disasters.

Brother Titus, an attorney, also serves as the executive secretary to Elder Jeffery E. Olson, the Area Seventy in the North America Northeast Area who coordinated the Church’s response to Hurricane Sandy. In the days after the hurricane, as thousands of Church members and missionaries stepped forward to contribute to local cleanup efforts, Elder Olson asked Brother Titus to match work orders with Latter-day Saint volunteers.

This work was not new to him. He had helped organize thousands of Mormon Helping Hands volunteers to clean up after Tropical Storm Irene hit the area in the fall of 2011. A year later he developed the first version of Crisis Cleanup to coordinate 700 volunteers from five organizations to assist 300 elderly residents in the aftermath of thunderstorms in southern New Jersey.

But damage left by Hurricane Sandy was larger than the damages caused by the disasters that predated it.

One of the largest storms to ever hit the United States, Hurricane Sandy affected more than 60 million people and caused billions of dollars in damage. In response to the storm, the Church provided 11 truckloads, or 400,000 pounds, of relief supplies.

More important, however, were the 30,000 Latter-day Saint volunteers—including the local missionaries—who provided 300,000 hours of service.

Missionaries in the New York New York South Mission help clean up after Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. Photo courtesy of New York New York South Mission.

Elder Olson said it was “absolutely amazing to watch” the Church and its members in action after the storm. “People really worked full-time for weeks,” he said of the Church’s response to the disaster.

Yet Church leaders knew that “the need was far greater than what we could do alone,” said Brother Titus.

With the added load of dozens of organizations, the collaborative work-order system had to be rebuilt—and fast.

Jeremy Pack, a Church member and Google engineer, went to work with several other developers to revise the system.

In a very short time they “rebuilt a more robust and user-friendly version,” explained Brother Titus.

As the people using the system began experiencing issues, Brother Pack and Brother Titus fixed them. “The majority of the original system was written in about 10 days,” Brother Pack said.

After a disaster, it is important for each aid organization to be able to send people to where they can do the most good, Brother Pack said. “By sharing details of each person who needs assistance and allowing each organization to select the people they are able to help well, we can make recovery efforts more efficient.”

Crisis Cleanup is a free work-order system to aid in disaster cleanup. Photo by Sarah Jane Weaver.

He said many of the complex pieces of the system were built to protect the personal information of the people being assisted. “People in disaster areas are at high risk from scammers and fraud. Through a combination of careful vetting of volunteer organizations and the software safeguards built in, we try to make sure that a person’s personal information is safe with us.”

The system stores information about property, rather than people, and prohibits users from saving sensitive personal information.

The Church is unique in the disaster response arena, Brother Titus said, because of its ability to organize thousands of volunteers in a short time. “It is exceedingly rare to see an organization with more than a few dozen people,” he said, noting that more than 30,000 Latter-day Saints volunteered after Hurricane Sandy.

The idea of the system is simple. “If you know of a need, you put it in. If you have capacity to help, you claim it,” said Brother Titus.

And while there is no guarantee volunteer groups will follow up and complete the work, there “is a guarantee [those in need] will be seen and not forgotten.”

From the beginning, Brother Titus hoped to get the system “to the point where I can turn it over to the community and it carries under its own momentum.”

Just months after Hurricane Sandy, other VOAD organizations began using the system, which has been gifted to the community.

In early 2013, Mississippi VOAD requested to use the system to coordinate recovery efforts after the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, tornado. The following week, Georgia VOAD requested to use the system to assist with tornado recovery in Gordon and Bartow Counties. Most recently Crisis Cleanup has been used to coordinate relief efforts after the Washington, Illinois, tornado; Colorado flooding; and the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado.

For his work on the project, Brother Titus recently received the 2013 New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award in the faith-based service category.

“Crisis Cleanup is free to recovery organizations and deployable in minutes,” said Brother Titus. “It’s a labor of love for me.”

In the future, developers “want to create smartphone app interfaces, a touchtone phone damage reporting system, a Facebook app, and many other tools to make it easier to connect survivors with people relief agencies,” he said.

For more information about Crisis Cleanup, go to http://demo.crisiscleanup.org.

Map from the work-order system Crisis Cleanup. Photo courtesy of Aaron Titus.