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The tech that keeps World Central Kitchen cooking in times of disaster

The charity founded by chef José Andrés feeds people in need—pandemic-related or otherwise—with help from essential apps, gadgets, and services.

The tech that keeps World Central Kitchen cooking in times of disaster
Workers prepare meals in New Jersey as part of World Central Kitchen’s COVID-19 response. [Photo: courtesy of World Central Kitchen]
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Whatever business-travel problems you’ve encountered in the past, World Central Kitchen’s have almost certainly been worse.

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This Washington, D.C., nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés in 2010 has spent the past decade cooking for disaster survivors in some of the least convenient places on Earth. And since last winter, it’s had to deal with a pandemic that’s torn up social safety nets and left more people needing its help—in the organization’s home turf in the U.S. as well as in more remote destinations.

Two executives with World Central Kitchen (a 2018 Fast Company Most Innovative Companies honoree) spared some time to talk about lessons they’ve learned about how technology can best keep their organization in gear.

Communications apps

Like a lot of organizations, World Central Kitchen has moved much of its interoffice banter from email to Slack. That messaging app, soon to be bought by Salesforce for almost $28 billion, offers task-management tools above what most email clients offer. “It’s the actual search, reminders, forwarding, assigning,” says Erich Broksas, WCK’s chief strategy officer. “I think it makes things a lot better.”

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But for all its virtues, Slack is also among the first apps to get set aside when WCK team members arrive in an area that’s starved for robust connectivity. “Slack just takes up too much bandwidth,” Broksas says.

It was already natural for us to have a remote, disparate workforce.”

Erich Broksas, World Central Kitchen
Instead, the team relies on Facebook-owned WhatsApp. “It works really well in low-bandwidth environments,” says CEO Nate Mook, who notes that WhatsApp will heavily compress an image before sending, while Apple’s iMessage strives to preserve the full-quality version.

Mook’s chief complaint with WhatsApp may sound familiar: its requirement that you add somebody to your WhatsApp contacts list before texting or calling: “You end up with these massive address books,” he says.

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WCK is now testing the encrypted, privacy-optimized messaging app Signal. Mook credits the service’s recent feature upgrades as well as one enduring virtue: “It’s not owned by Facebook.”

The pandemic, however, hasn’t been that much of an issue for WCK beyond greatly increasing the team’s time spent on Zoom. “Half the team are usually traveling and responding to disaster,” Broksas says. “It was already natural for us to have a remote, disparate workforce.”

Connectivity

WCK employs satellite connectivity less often than you might expect for an organization that routinely lands in areas that have been leveled by wildfires, hurricanes, or earthquakes.

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“What we generally see is that the reliance on our planet right now for cellular technologies means that it is almost universally the number-one priority to get up and running after a disaster,” Mook says.  Adds Broksas: “In the U.S., for the most part, it’s 48 hours before the cell connectivity comes back.”

During disasters such as 2019’s Hurricane Barry, technology has helped WCK deal with extreme disruptions to everyday life. [Photo: courtesy of World Central Kitchen]
Because individual carriers may not bring up service equally rapidly, WCK uses unlocked phones that can switch from one service to another with a swap of a SIM card. Team members also often rely on an old-school hack: forcing their phones into 3G mode to avoid crowded 4G frequencies. But 5G may complicate that; for example, Apple’s new 5G iPhones only allow falling back to 4G.

For that first day or two in the field when cellular may be a no-go, satellite remains a valuable but expensive option. “It kind of sucks,” Mook says, noting issues like its line-of-sight requirement and the potential for rain to interrupt the signal. “But it works in a pinch.”

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The organization is now testing the Iridium Go, a $999 hot spot that lets team members use their regular smartphones via a satellite connection. SpaceX’s growing Starlink constellation of low-Earth-orbit satellites also looks promising, but WCK hasn’t yet had a chance to test it.

However, WCK is already skeptical over the disaster-recovery potential of Loon, Google’s balloon-hosted internet service. “By the time the balloon is up, we’re long gone,” Broksas says.

Power and beyond

Electricity continues to be WCK’s highest hurdle, because transmission lines can’t be restored as fast as cell towers. So the organization has to bring its own current.

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Mook and Broksas tout the GoalZero Sherpa power bank, a $300 device that can recharge everything from a smartphone to a laptop and which can charge itself from GoalZero’s portable solar chargers. But more often, they rely on traditional generators or the power ports in vehicles. So as much as WCK might benefit from cutting-edge technology such as a field-deployable fuel cell, it would settle for quieter, less-polluting generators.

Meanwhile, the demand for energy keeps going up. “The reality is, devices now pull so much more power than they used to,” Mook says.

Moving meals in Washington, D.C., during the COVID-19 crisis [Photo: courtesy of World Central Kitchen]
WCK continually adds new devices to its toolbox, a point Mook makes by picking up the box for a DJI Mini 2 drone, a $449 pocket-size quadcopter that records 4K video.

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“The controller is actually bigger than the actual drone itself,” he says, adding that WCK relies on drones to assess the situation on the ground and to document it for the rest of the world: “Drones give you a perspective to help clarify how catastrophic the situation is.”

In December, the U.S. Commerce Department put DJI on its banned-entities list for allegedly enabling human-rights abuses. That may complicate WCK’s work even if it hasn’t yet stopped DJI from continuing U.S. operations. Either way, this organization already knows the value of having alternatives ready.

Says Mook: “What we’ve learned is, you just can’t rely on one technology or one thing.”

About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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