In October 2017, Ryan Luginbuhl woke up to the haze produced by raging wildfires across his home state of California. When he checked his email, he was greeted by unexpected news: an alumna of his alma mater, Cornell University, had been forced to flee her home with nothing more than her wallet and passport, and needed a place to stay.

As the president of the Cornell Alumni Association of Northern California, Luginbuhl was uniquely situated to help out. Luginbuhl created a Google Sheets document and invited alumni in the region — who number around 15,000 — to assist not just the displaced woman he had initially read about, but 10 Cornell alumni whose lives had been uprooted by the wildfires in total.

Within hours, 230 alumni had offered some form of assistance, from money to housing, including 120 who opened up their homes to those who had been displaced, he says. Luginbuhl then manually matched the 10 alumni in need of housing with temporary places to stay the old-fashioned way: by making a series of phone calls and connecting people.

For these individuals, just having a place to stay gave them a small form of respite as they sought to put their lives back together after the disaster. But for Luginbuhl himself, out of this situation was born a larger realization.

The current tools for matching volunteers to emergency responses, and volunteering opportunities more generally, were inadequate. Social media was too dispersed. City services were too clogged. There had to be a third way.

“I thought this can be automated,” Luginbuhl says. “Our initial idea was to create a next generation system to do disaster needs matching.”


Help Emerge

Months later, this idea is coming to fruition, albeit in a slightly different form. Along with two individuals he met at the Stanford’s Health++ Hackathon — Sarah Daniels and Felipe de Araujo — Luginbuhl co-founded Help Emerge, Inc. as a chatbot interface that matches volunteering needs with opportunities.

Still an early-stage startup, Help Emerge, Inc. is now working with the City of West Sacramento to prototype this matching process on a city-wide scale through a new interface called GovRock, which they developed during the 2018 Startup in Residence (STIR) program.

GovRock is a tool that allows cities to create volunteering events, poll different community members and subsets of the population about how they want to get involved, and ultimately help cities grow their volunteer base — all across a streamlined and centralized online platform.

To Luginbuhl, GovRock answers two key questions for any emergency or non-emergency situation: “Who is in need?” and “Who can offer assistance?”

These questions matched up nicely with West Sacramento’s desire to create a platform for spreading information for volunteer opportunities across municipal networks and matching would-be volunteers with ways to help out.

Over the course of STIR’s 16 weeks, Help Emerge worked closely with West Sacramento to put together the interface, listening to the needs of different municipal representatives across more than a dozen city departments.

Through GovRock, the city can not only narrow in on who to reach out to specifically within their population, but also post events on the platform and market those events to different subsets of the population.

“[Working with the City of West Sacramento was] a really interesting test-case for solving day-to-day civic engagement,” Luginbuhl says. “The ultimate goal is to make a meaningful next generation platform for a natural disaster responses.”


Onward and Upward

Developing GovRock through the STIR program — a program for developing smart city technologies that make life easier for the people who run cities and the people who live in them — has given Help Emerge an unprecedented opportunity to work with closely with the City of West Sacramento without being held back by red tape

It has also opened up a world of opportunities for the early-stage startup.

“Having the opportunity to be in the STIR program helped us get our foot in the door not just in West Sacramento, but in other cities, and with other organizations as well,” co-founder Sarah Daniels says.

The platform has found and sustained interest from public information officers and community resilience managers across the country, she adds.

“We’ve been very careful in building something that can be very versatile,” she says. “There’s a lot of software out there that’s not being designed for city governments. With each feature, we want to vet it and make sure the cities will actually use it.”

So far, this has been quite successful. Despite working together for fewer than four months, Help Emerge and the City of West Sacramento have already entered into a one-year contract.

Help Emerge also demoed GovRock at the BridgeSF conference in San Francisco in May of this year, hosted by City Innovate, where they were one of five winners of the US Ignite Award.

Luginbuhl and Daniels hope that this is just the beginning for City Emerge and GovRock.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to work with one city and show that we’re a good partner to work with,” Luginbuhl says. “A one year city contract in less than 4 months, talking to over 30 cities — those numbers are as good as it gets.”