The Chicago Red Cross shows us the power of open source

On Tuesday November 18th, Jim McGowan with the Red Cross of Greater Chicago gave a presentation at OpenGov Hack Night about their open source project: DCSops.


The Red Cross uses DCSops to manage their situational awareness information and dispatch volunteers to an incident. This is a huge change from January when they were using carbon paper to record information about incidents.

Jim McGowan first encountered Chicago’s civic hacking community after attending the first National Day of Civic Hacking event in 2013. The system they were currently using to manage Volunteer Connection was cumbersome and the organization would have to do information management by spreadsheet. McGowan then started attending OpenGov Hack Night and began to be inspired by all the work being done.

McGowan began working with a developer in San Diego to create DCSops. This was done as the local chapter of the Red Cross and not the ‘big’ national organization – primarily because it was easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. The bet paid off, with DCSops now expanding to multiple chapters across the country. What’s more, the app is designed, coded and deployed using volunteers.

The app is responsively designed so that it can be used in the field on iphones and tablets. This is important because in order to receive cash assistance the Red Cross has to have a signature. With the app, people can simply sign with their finger instead of the carbon paper. The app also saves information on the iPad or iPhone so that if there’s no internet connection it can be uploaded later.

In practice, when an incident occurs the Red Cross dispatcher can create an incident within seconds. Once that occurs, the app pulls from Volunteer Connection to get all of the volunteers that are on duty. The dispatcher can select who they want to recruit and send a text message to all potential volunteers. Volunteers can text back that they’ve accepted the assignment and then check in once they arrive. This information is then fed back into the DSCops system. Additionally, since Twilio now has MMS messaging volunteers can take pictures of an incident and send that back to headquarters.

The Chicago Red Cross is now looking at ways to help grow and sustain the app. This also includes an idea to create a Red Cross Labs so that the Red Cross can hire full time staff to help with tech projects.

You can view McGowan’s entire presentation below:

For more information about how you can volunteer with the Red Cross, you can visit their website here.