A few weeks ago, both of us were uprooted from our colleges due to school cancellation. This was undoubtedly a trying time, having to manage a complete move out in less than 2 days. During this time, we noticed our respective schools began circulating “Mutual Aid” spreadsheets: a central hub for students in our area to offer help with things such as food/grocery delivery, transportation, or emotional support. These efforts were immensely inspiring, seeing our local communities step up to help one another during these difficult times. We began to look further into this concept and found that many cities also had Mutual Aid groups, with 100s of volunteers ready to help elderly and immunocompromised people. However, we noticed all of these platforms utilized an unwieldy spreadsheet to manage volunteers and requests for help. So, wanting to play our part, we built Covaid: a platform to manage/coordinate mutual aid efforts and connect community volunteers with those in need.
What it does
Covaid is a web-platform that allows city-based mutual aid groups to engage with their local volunteer base. On the platform, volunteers can sign up as part of a specific organization ("Pittsburgh Mutual Aid") or independently if one doesn’t exist in their area. From there, they can create offers of help with tasks such as grocery delivery or medication pickup. These offers are then posted on the virtual community bulletin, a hub where help requests can be made to specific volunteers. Additionally, requesters can also submit a general request for help, after which our platform will match the request with the 3 best volunteers. A notification is then sent to the coordinating mutual aid group containing the requesters contact information as well as that of the 3 volunteers. This notification can arrive in 3 different ways: a) through an email sent directly to the mutual aid group, b) through an automatic update on a shared Google Sheet, or c) on a mutual aid organization dashboard (WIP). It is then the duty of the mutual aid group to facilitate the completion of the request. Through this platform, we hope to make it much easier for organizations to manage their volunteers/requests during this hectic time. At this same time, we want to make it much easier and accessible for people to get the help they need. Ultimately, we hope a tool like this will give people’s kindness and generosity a platform to create change, bringing local communities together during this difficult time.
How we built it
Our platform is built using a Node.JS server, with Express as the server side framework, and React.JS on our frontend. Our database is implemented using MongoDB and design decisions were made with Figma. We are using the Google Maps API to localize volunteers and the platform is hosted on Heroku.
Challenges we ran into
We first built this platform without the intention of making it directly geared towards mutual aid groups. Our original idea involved a decentralized system where volunteers individually handled all requests that were sent their way. However, after speaking with a several mutual aid groups across the country, we realized that without thorough volunteer clearances or some form of compensation, it was unlikely that individual people would make sure all their requests were completed. As a result, we went back to the drawing board to redesign a significant portion of our workflow. Now, our platform allows mutual aid groups to directly interact with our platform while keeping the same decentralized workflow for areas that don’t have existing organizations.
Accomplishments that we're proud of
We are proud of the speed at which we developed the platform as well as the rate at which we acquired users. As of 3:41 AM on Sunday night, we are at 205 volunteers on our platform from many different cities across the nation. The feedback that we've received is that our platform is simple to use, has a clean UI, and makes the process of managing mutual aid a lot easier than the Google spreadsheets that these groups were originally using.
What we learned
Throughout this process, we learned that an original solution to a problem may change dramatically after listening to and understanding the people that will be using your solution. Initially, we thought that a decentralized network of volunteers would be a much more scalable solution to this problem of matching requests with volunteers. However, we quickly learned that building an interface/experience that is tailored to a user's city can promote much more engagement with the platform and create a sense of community. We originally designed Covaid to be a tool that anyone could use anywhere, but we now understand the importance of keeping things like community adapted for a specific user’s experience. There is an inherent level of trust within an individual community, and efforts like mutual aid can really bring them together during difficult times. Our hope is that Covaid inspires other cities to start their own mutual aid groups, and to use our platform as the vessel to coordinate their initiatives.
What's next for Covaid
Covaid is almost at a stage where it is ready for mutual aid group integration. In the next week, we will be partnering with Pittsburgh Mutual Aid and Baltimore Mutual Aid to run a pilot on a select group of their users. The results of this pilot will better inform us about the user experience on the platform, and will ideally prepare us for even more scaling. Research has shown us that across the US there are almost 60+ mutual aid groups, and we truly believe that all of their effort and hard work can be further streamlined with a platform like Covaid.
Try It out
express.js, figma, google-maps, heroku, mongodb, node.js, react