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Coronavirus - Sharing Essential Items

23 April 2020
Back in mid-March I was sickened watching the greed of people panic buying in supermarkets, filling shopping trollies with toilet rolls, and stripping the shelves of flour and meat. I couldn't help but feel for the elderly and housebound people out there and how they must have felt, also watching the shelves being gutted of essential items that we all need. This crisis suddenly became real, it was happening now. I realised there was soon going to be an urgent need to organise knowing who needed certain essential items, and organising getting these items to them. We all can only contribute what we are capable of, making the best of whatever skills we each have, and a one I have is building computer systems, including websites.

I worried what if the shops eventually completely run out of food and essential items? How will those stuck at home survive? It would have to come down to those of us who can spare a few things, donating them to those in need of them. A self organised peer support network for sharing essential items. So I had an idea, to build a proper website to manage it all.

I worked out a design for a simple website where people unable to get to supermarket could request the essential items they needed, and people with those items in surplus, could donate them to meet the specific requests. This way we could all share what we had extra of, with those in need. All it then required were people to be organisers for their local area to collect the donated items, and get them to the people who had requested them.

At my local council I tracked down who was in charge of crisis management and emailed them my idea. They came back that they loved the idea, and wanted to keep in touch and would bring it up at the next crisis meeting.

I know how government departments work and how long it can take when it comes to making a decision. There were already stories appearing on every news bulletin about exactly this problem. This was a crisis and there wasn't time to wait for them to ask me to go ahead, so I decided to take the risk and set to work. For a week I worked all day, every day, until 4am in the morning, and did nothing else. A site like this would normally take months to design, code and test. I made the design flexible so it could be used in any area, built accounts for Organisers to login, hid specific personal data to all but the local Organisers, built a proper SQL Server database to store the data in behind it, and thoroughly tested it.

I tracked down the contact details for every national organisation who looked after the elderly or housebound I could find, and most councils across southern England, as well as the NHS, Department of Health and Social Care, and numerous others. I sent them each an email with login details and offered them use of the site and would support it for them, for free.

One person from an organisation I emailed rang me straight up and asked 'what did I think I was doing?' and politely told me I was encroaching on his patch. Nice. No problem I said. Then I had a number of 'deleted without being read' emails (sigh), quite a few 'we've already something in place', and a lot of emails saying it was exactly what they need and were really interested, so were forwarding it on to someone else internally, never to be heard from again.

Two weeks later, just when I had let it go, the same stories are back in the news a second time, about people stuck at home unable to request the essential items they needed. So I wrote to my local MP to see if she had any direct connections. She replied 2 weeks later, that she loved the idea and said she would be passing it on to my local council, ...erm, the same people I had started with and loved it and had not heard from since.

I discovered many of these organisations seem to be poorly organised, still run on pen and paper and phone calls, or maybe even a spreadsheet. They haven't put any proper systems in place that in a crisis like this would enable them to reliably cope with a sudden increase in requests and workload. Is it lack of planning? Or lack of budget? I suspect a bit of both, and more the latter.

I paid for the domain name 'Essential Items' for 1 year so anyone can access the site for the next 12 months. The system I have built, and its source code and database, will still be here after that. I'm sure there will be a lot of retrospective reviews of how we handled this crisis, and what needs to be put in place in case it ever happens again. If a need is identified to put proper systems in place, or any I contacted get back to me after the crisis is under control with an interest to use it, I will be happy to help them out. I will keep an eye out for later in the year.