Hardening Against Disaster by Going Digital

When tropical storm Irene decimated parts of Vermont, a state program stepped in to ramp up digital development in response. “Never let a crisis go wasted,” says the program’s director. 

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Vermont Digital Economy Project, which helped him acquire an iPad and use it to collect data, manage his logging plan, present information to clients and connect with other loggers.

“A lot of people draw this odd look because here I am a horse logger, and I built my house by hand,” Russell said. “I live off-grid. … But I’ve never really been afraid of digital technology. I see it as another tool in my toolbox.  I’m still out in the woods with horses rolling logs by hand, but I have my iPhone and my iPad with me.”

Russell wasn’t alone in having to reassemble the pieces after Irene struck. Throughout Vermont, small towns were devastated.   While the state began disaster relief, the Vermont Council on Rural Development began its own approach to community recovery.

The council established the Vermont Digital Economy Project, which used the immediate need for disaster relief as a way to help communities get ready for future disruptions. They created and shared digital tools with town governments, non-profits and small business owners.

Bridport Creamery, founded in 2012 by cheese-makers Nicky Foster and Julie Danyew.

While Foster and Danyew knew a lot about making cheese, they needed help with their digital marketing.  The digital project paired them with an adviser to help develop their online store. 

“We’ve had a lot of visitors who never would have known about us because they found us online,” Foster said, “It’s definitely benefitted us.”

Strengthening local institutions through digital tools helps communities recover more quickly when difficulties like storms and natural disasters arise, says Paul Costello, executive director of the Digital Economy Project.

“We take the whole idea of resiliency and emergency preparedness and say, yes these things are great for emergencies and that’s very important,” he said. “But let’s do it for every day.  Let’s enrich the culture, enrich the community and enrich the business opportunities.  All of those things make us stronger as communities and better prepared for future challenges. ”

Starting in 2012, over the course of 18 months, the digital project has set out to make access to broadband ubiquitous in Vermont’s small towns. They expanded and established local social networks. They worked with libraries to provide digital literacy staff. 

They also recognized the need help the state’s innovation economy. “Vermont has always been a really creative place,” Costello said. “For such a small state of 625,000 people, we’re always at the top of the list for per-capita patent development.”

Vermont doesn’t have a large manufacturing base, so small businesses are even more vital to Vermont’s economy and quality of life, says Costello. The natural disaster put that into sharp focus.

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