In JP, Social Networking Helps Neighbors Dig Out

By Jess Bidgood

Jan. 14, 2010 (Updated Jan. 27)

Loay  Abdelkarim shoveled in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday, having been dispatched via Joseph Porcelli's SnowCrew project. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Update, Jan. 27: The SnowCrew has continued their work for a couple of blizzards now, and is heading out again to deal with the 12 inches of snow dropped by the Jan. 26 and 27 winter storm. 

JAMAICA PLAIN — After a blizzard, New Englanders know the drill. Mounds of snow leave cars buried, driveways blocked and sidewalk indistinguishable from street. In order to brave still-slippery roads to get back to work or school or anything normal, you have to dig yourself out.
Given that the Boston area got up to 18 inches during this week’s snowstorm — and parts of Western Massachusetts received as much as 30 — shoveling out this blizzard was no small task for the strongest of Massachusetts folk. But the snowfall was an even bigger problem for elderly or disabled individuals who can’t shovel for themselves.
In a corner of Jamaica Plain, people plodded into the snow as the blizzard wound down on Wednesday to help their neighbors, guided by a labyrinth of social technology that fused Google Maps and text messages with Twitter, Facebook, email and a tailor-made social networking site.

Snow piled up in the narrow main streets of Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood after Wednesday's snowstorm. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

It’s a pilot project that you could call “Shoveling 2.0,” and it starts with longtime JP resident Joseph Porcelli. The day after the storm, he sat in the front room of his apartment as people trickled inside, swaddled in snowpants, hats and boots.
“Have we met before?” asks Porcelli, shaking the hand of a tall, gray-haired man.
“No, I just text-messaged you,” answers Jay Pendexter, an artist who lives a few streets over. “I got an email about it and they said they wanted to get some people together to shovel, so here I am.”

Porcelli, 34, works as a social-technology consultant, but this is a guinea-pig side project. On his laptop screen, there’s a Google map with dots for houses, cars and businesses that need to be shoveled out.

The map also plots the addresses and cell phone numbers of people who have volunteered to help. Porcelli is using software called GroundCrew  — first developed as a political organizing tool  — to assign volunteers to each shoveling site.
Porcelli and his co-shovelers used Twitter, Facebook and a local social network Porcelli founded called Neighbors For Neighbors to get the word out. By the time the blizzard was winding down, they’d identified about 20 sites that need shoveling and more than 30 people had used email and text message to let Porcelli know they were ready to help.
“We’re going to go out in teams today,” Porcelli says to the eight people now gathered in his living room. “Roy’s just figuring out what our last locations are.”
Porcelli holds up his laptop, where the face of his friend Roy Krantz can be seen via videochat. It’s Roy’s job to coordinate everyone’s shoveling missions.
“We’ve got a house on Day Street that needs to be done, that’s just a sidewalk,” Porcelli says, listing sites and assigning shoveling groups to them. “There’s a couple of really small businesses that can’t get here in time because of the traffic, and some of those small businesses can’t afford the tickets we get, so it’s been requested we help.”

Joseph Porcelli, center, and Roy Krantz, via videochat, assign volunteers to shoveling sites. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Missions assigned, the group heads out.

The first stop is a car a few doors down the street. The whole group pounces on it, shoveling around the wheels and scraping ice off the windows.
One of them is Tori Hatch, a research technician who’s lived in JP for almost 20 years. She can’t believe what she’s seeing.
“Eight people shoveled out a buried car in, that’s gotta be a world record, without messing up the sidewalk,” Hatch remarked.
For Hatch, coming out to help was a no-brainer. “I’m able-bodied and I can, and it’s fun to do stuff with other people,” Hatch said.
But she said she probably wouldn’t have made it out if the emails and text messages hadn’t allowed her to show up where and when she wanted to. “It was 4:00 in the afternoon when I saw the (alert) saying, ‘We’re getting together at 4:30.’ So if it hadn’t been quite immediate, it wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Loay Abdelkarim, another shoveler, thinks the technology took the headache out of trying to coordinate an unknown number of volunteers with an unknown number of shoveling sites during a storm of unknown duration. All of that uncertainty, he said, makes it hard to reach out to your neighbors in a large, dense neighborhood like JP.
“Being able to passively receive the information I needed is what made it possible,” Abdelkarim said. “Technology made it possible for me to live in a village, as opposed to what I am in, in a very large community.”
The group fanned out and shoveled out more cars and sidewalks, hitting almost 20 by the end of the evening.
Across town, Laurie Liebster drank tea on her couch, tearing up because her car had been shoveled out that day.
Liebster suffers from back and foot injuries that were exacerbated when she shoveled her car out in December’s blizzard. Now, she can’t do it at all. So when she saw the open call for homeowners in need of shoveling help, she signed up.

Tori Hatch and Loay Abdelkarim shoveled in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday, having been dispatched via Joseph Porcelli's SnowCrew project. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

“Since I hurt my foot, I felt really stranded a lot,” Liebster said. She works in elder care, and would have had to stay home Thursday if she hadn’t had help.
“It meant a lot to me, more than like a service, like, ‘You got my cars out’ “ Liebster said. “It’s like I’m part of a neighborhood that wants to give back and wants to be a part of something.”
Porcelli plans to take the lessons he learned shoveling on Wednesday and apply them to other neighborhood activities, like picking up donations or helping the elderly with their groceries.
But as his snow crew retired to a local pub together, and Liebster prepared for work the next day, the project, it seemed, had already made a difference  — one driveway and one neighbor at a time.


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