As soon as the rain from Hurricane Harvey stopped, a team of five Rice University students stepped up to help the Rice community recover.
Max Grossman, postdoctoral research associate in computer science (CS), and undergraduates Rushi Bhalani (CS), Spencer Chang (CS), Alex Hayes (STAT), and Napas Udomsak (CS) answered provost Marie Lynn Miranda’s call for data-minded volunteers to help with relief efforts. She dubbed them the “Nerd Pack.”
“We were all lucky to have not been impacted by the flooding, and we were looking for some way to help,” said Grossman.
The students met with representatives across campus to learn what questions needed to be answered to manage student, faculty and staff needs. Working out of the president’s conference room, the Nerd Pack looked to data to answer those questions. Some of that data was already pouring in, while more needed to be collected.
“IT set up a needs survey, which got a few thousand responses,” said Hayes. “We then used the data from those responses to answer big questions the administration had about how the Rice community was affected.”
They first prepared an assessment of home water damage in the Rice community, grouped by the different units in the university and by geographic location. They then prepared another on vehicle damage, and used geospatial plotting to determine which areas of Houston were the hardest hit.
By this time, the Rice Harvey Action Team (R-HAT) had been formed, which provided a way for the university to match volunteers with specific community needs. One of those needs was contacting everyone who had not responded to the initial survey, so a phone bank was set up in the Mudd building. The Nerd Pack supplied the data, and volunteers began placing calls to help fill in the blanks.
“We gave them an update every day, trying to indicate who was most at risk,” Udomsak said.
After the first phone bank was set up, Rice Student Association president Justin Onwenu told the provost that hundreds more students wanted to help.
“We started pulling information for another phone bank, this one matching R-HAT volunteers with staff who needed help cleaning out their flooded homes,” Bhalani said.
Volunteer opportunities continued to expand as the administration learned more. Students were able to volunteer at the Houston Food Bank, at shelters across the city, and with community organizations doing demolition.
While working with the data, the Nerd Pack realized there was a need for infrastructure.
“Everything we did could have easily been automated with a few hundred lines of code if the infrastructure was there,” Hayes said.
After that realization, the team reviewed the work they had done, prepared a proposal for infrastructure for future uses, and Grossman presented it to the board of trustees. They foresee the use being both emergency and nonemergency and hope that their work will help Rice better prepare for future events like Harvey.
Chang said he valued the chance to work with administration.
“It was really rewarding to see the tight loop between being asked for an analysis, seeing the provost distribute it to the right people, and then seeing the decisions made based on my work, especially for those that were very concrete, like people getting matched with housing that fit their needs.”
“You make a very visible impact when it’s for a civic cause,” he said. “We immediately got to see how our work helped.”