Colby student uses skills in Hurricane Harvey aid

When preparing to face a natural disaster, many focus on their own survival and well-being, but for Nile Dixon ’20, taking action and fighting to aid his community was instinctual. As one of tens of thousands of Houstonians impacted by the devastation of Hurricane Harvey this August, Dixon helped others by using his knowledge of technology and his passion for civic engagement.

Despite having experienced hurricanes in the past, Dixon was astounded by the concentration of rain and continuous flooding impacting Houston during Harvey.

“At first it kind of felt like it was just going to be like any other flood,” recounted Dixon. “But it was so much more rain than expected and it was kind of crazy to see that happen.”

As the city filled with water, thousands of Houstonians were forced to seek shelter after their homes were destroyed by flooding. Dixon’s family home experienced minor leaking, but they did not lose power or have to evacuate. Throughout the storm, Dixon pondered the efficiency of the relief effort.

“I saw a list of shelters circulating on the Internet and I thought how I would want to know how to get to a shelter if I couldn’t stay in my house,” said Dixon. “But if I didn’t have Internet, I couldn’t really figure it out. I would have to hope that I would find out somehow.”

Dixon recognized that even if individuals were able to access the list, they would not be able to tell which shelter was nearest to them or if each shelter was still accepting people. From this realization, Dixon decided to create a ‘textbot’ to make it easier to locate shelters efficiently.

“There were two separate parts,” explained Dixon. “First was trying to aggregate a list of shelters, and second was calling each shelter to see if they were still accepting individuals.” Using this information, Dixon established a phone number users could text for recommendations for the closest available shelter to their zip code.

“The textbot would be like if you had a friend who was a computer,” said Dixon. “You send it a text and it texts back.”

After creating the technology, he faced challenges spreading the word to people in need.

“The hardest part was getting it into the hands of people who needed it,” said Dixon. “We tried through social media and that was what got a lot of people using it.”

“There were people who would see it on Facebook and then they would share it with a friend who might not have access to Facebook at that particular time,” Dixon continued.

While Dixon was unable to track the exact number of people who used the textbot without slowing its performance, he estimates that the bot received messages from over 4,500 unique individuals and was active for about five days.

Now that Houstonians are focusing on de-mucking their homes and finding temporary housing, the bot is no longer needed for immediate shelter. Looking back on the process of creating the bot, Dixon learned valuable lessons about entrepreneurship and civic engagement.

“If you have something that can really help people, find the right time and you will definitely be successful in actually making your product viable and sustainable,” advised Dixon. “In a time of need, I made something that helped people.”

Using technology to help people has been Dixon’s goal since he began learning about coding as a junior in high school. He attended weekly meetings organized by Sketch City, a non-profit using technology to solve civic problems.

“I learned about what people did to address issues that they saw,” r e c a l l e d D i x o n , whose first project was coding a website to help find a f fordabl e h o u s i n g . “I was inspired and worked on it a lot more and the rest is history.”

As a computer science and s o c i o l – ogy major at Colby, Dixon is honing his technological skills while developing an enhanced perspective of human needs.

“If you were to be a CS major at MIT for example, 70 percent of your courses would be CS courses,” said Dixon. “That’s not bad, but if you want to solve problems you’re not going to be engaged with the type of people that allow you to see those problems that you want to help solve.”

“Being at a liberal arts c o l l e g e in some sense allows for me to see problems that I wouldn’t be able to see if I only took CS and math c ou r s e s ,” D i x o n continued.

Connections made t h r o u g h C o l b y ’ s a l u m n i n e t w o r k have also influenced D i x o n ’ s work.

“Colby is very supportive of s t u d e n t s being engaged,” said Dixon. “The Career Center is very helpful for finding people who are interested in your interests and for finding mentors.”

Dixon is also working with organizations outside of Colby to further develop his vision for the textbot. He will be collaborating with Humanitarian Toolbox, a nonprofit organization specializing in technology.

“Humanitarian Toolbox reached out to me and talked about possibly developing it further and making it much more robust for other cities to use in a time of need,” said Dixon.

Additionally, the technology will be repurposed to address other issues. For example, he is working on improving a program that makes it easier for homeless people to find shelters and food. He also wants to expand the technology to encourage political awareness.

“I’m using my skills with technology to address other social and political issues… developing technology to increase awareness about what’s happening in our local and state government” said Dixon. “For example, in the city of Waterville we have all these ordinances being passed and it’s interesting to see how much of what is being passed we don’t know about.”

Never one to shy away from taking action, Dixon will continue to find solutions to the problems he observes.

“If you have the inspiration to do something in a particular moment, and there isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t, then I think you should do it,” said Dixon. “You can do something to help people in a time of need, you just have to have the desire and motivation to do so.”