Ending up in San Francisco as lockdowns over Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) loomed, he was two days away from being stranded himself. Rushing home, he was subject to a fourteen-day mandatory self-isolation.
With all three in lockdown, they teamed up (over telepresence) to create a website to connect those seeking help with those who can lend a hand: Crisis Heroes.
Crisis Heroes is a free community platform enabling the sharing of services and resources to ensure no one is left stranded during the outbreak. Think of it as a mashup of Tinder and Uber for volunteering and getting help when needed.
We talked to Mark about Crisis Heroes and how you yourself can pitch in.
FS: Where were you when the crisis hit?
Mark: I was in San Francisco. In the space of 48 hours things went from pleasant vacation to very grim. We started seeing people queuing at supermarkets for food. Every conversation we heard was about the virus and then out of nowhere there were whispers that San Francisco was going into a lockdown. So I called the parents and said, “What should I do?” And they said, “It’s time to come home.” So, a $3,000 one-way flight out, which I was happy to pay in the grand scheme of things.
I was on a Qantas flight from San Francisco direct to Melbourne. I missed the lockdown on San Francisco by three hours, and I hate to think what it would be like having to quarantine over there for the foreseeable future. I’d been left scratching my head to think I’m back here in my hometown of Burnie with my parents and putting some time to good use, I guess.
Where did the idea to create Crisis Heroes come about?
I was travelling with my friends Matt Platts, a software engineer, and Nicolas Hoban, a designer and lawyer. We thought about the idea of Crisis Heroes about 48 hours into self-isolation. We saw this gap in volunteer services. We’d already started toying with the idea until we saw a couple of other ideas out in public that really fuelled our ambitions to do this.
We saw in the local paper here on the Northwest Coast of Tasmania people were putting cards on their front windows, especially the elderly and the vulnerable saying, “I’m okay” or “I’m not okay.” And then I believe it was the Cancer Council were doing cards in letterboxes as well, which people could fill out.
So we got thinking, why not use the most powerful medium that’s being used at this time? And that’s the internet. So we thought to really leverage it and spread the message.
How long did it take to develop from concept to execution?
The three of us had a few I guess foundation meetings and in the space of under a week, we had built a prototype, tested, and launched Crisis Heroes.
Incredible. What’s the response been like so far?
We’ve had an overwhelming response in the sense that 350 people around the world have donated their services and time. And only what we’re just seeing now is the people that need help raise their hand. I think there’s a sense of pride maybe in raising your hand and saying, “I need help,” which people are becoming to realise that there are so many people wanting to help out.
How does it work in practice?
We’ve actually seen a few people start to raise their hand, and that’s the idea of Crisis Heroes. It’s 50-50. It’s for people to register their location anywhere in the world and volunteer their time, and the other thing is for people that need the help to register and request services.
So the good news is we’re actually seeing people come through saying, “I need a hand with picking up groceries or running errands or walking my dog.” The minute we see that example come to fruition with Person X helping Person Y, then that’s when this really takes off. But we’ve been doubling our growth every day in terms of people signing up to help.
Though the state of the world isn’t too rosy at the moment, I suppose Crisis Heroes is a ray of hope. It can empower people, even when they feel things are beyond their control.
There’s a silver lining to all this and people might never find it, but we’re never going to have this time like we do now to sit down and be creative and inventive in a time crisis. So we thought what better use of our time than to build this platform and that’s the message for anyone else out there that’s looking to help out in the community.
We’ve never had the tools or digital access like we do now to make positive change and it’s all these small steps. Even picking up the phone and calling somebody or chatting to an elderly person online, just small steps can go a long way to make a big change.
We weren’t going to just sit on our laurels and eat ourselves into a food coma. We wanted to turn a negative into a positive.
Do you think Crisis Heroes is a uniquely Australian thing? Considering our history of volunteerism?
I agree. I think the romance of mateship in Australia, we’re really seeing that on Crisis Heroes. Now is a time of fight or flight with people and you see all the negativity in the media surrounding toilet paper, people hoarding, people being nasty. But if you look away from the media for a second and look at something like Crisis Heroes or any of the good news stories, there’s that other big camp of people there that are rallying and donating time and services to helping others in need.
Once this is all over, Crisis Heroes can be used for bushfires, floods, cyclones, other natural disasters.
Our main focus now is on the Coronavirus. We saw a gap in volunteer services. It’s the perfect demographic of people volunteering and heading up these services that we haven’t quite thought about that online role yet. And here’s three blokes, three millennials I guess, if you will, that have really stopped and had a thought about how to think about what online or what mediums could be best used to push a service like this.
The site is still evolving, will you have requests for interpreting documents for non-English speakers, lending a friendly ear, or other services like that?
No question. The first thing with Crisis Heroes is if we can minimise the amount of travel for an individual in this daunting time, we’re really adhering to the social distancing. It’s about limiting the amount of travel for vulnerable people or exposure more importantly.
If there’s an elderly member of the community that can stay indoors and somebody else can go get their groceries, I think that’s a huge win.
The other thing as well is there’s no reason that people can’t use this service for a friendly phone call. That’s one of our I guess, “selections,” you can make on there, but there is the “other” button and people can be as inventive as they want.
You can sign up to help at crisisheroes.com.