This D.C.-Made App Will Tell You Which Stores Have Toilet Paper And Other Supplies The creators are pivoting their platform's focus from street safety to pandemic preparedness.
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NPR logo This D.C.-Made App Will Tell You Which Stores Have Toilet Paper And Other Supplies

This D.C.-Made App Will Tell You Which Stores Have Toilet Paper And Other Supplies

OurStreets Supplies users report what's still on shelves to let others know what's still in stock. Jens Hembach/Flickr hide caption

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Jens Hembach/Flickr

Until a few weeks ago, D.C.-based entrepreneur Mark Sussman was gearing up for the public launch of OurStreets, an app that allows users to report dangerous driving behavior and badly parked e-bikes and scooters. The app has been quietly available for Android and iPhone since January.

Then came a global pandemic. And with businesses closing and local officials urging people to stay home, a platform to crowdsource safer streets and sidewalks started to feel a little less relevant—at least for now.

[Read the latest updates about coronavirus in our region here]

But over the weekend, Sussman and co-founder Daniel Schep realized they didn't have to sit idle and wait for the coronavirus outbreak to subside. They already had the OurStreets platform built. Then, Sussman says, one of his contacts in the D.C. government posed the question: Couldn't they turn OurStreets into a way of providing real-time information about what food and supplies are available, and where?

"We just kind of ran with it," Sussman says.

His team spent the weekend figuring out how to pivot from street safety to pandemic preparedness.

Next week, OurStreets will launch OurStreets Supplies, a platform that asks shoppers to report back on what's available at different stores. The app will be free for users—and for municipalities and retailers, at least for the first 60 days.

"Instead of issues that you could be reporting around street safety, [the app] is going to show you different supplies that you may be shopping for, such as toilet paper or hand sanitizer, fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, etc.," Sussman explains.

Users will be prompted to select the type of item they're shopping for, snap a photo of what they find on the shelves, and report whether the item appears to be fully stocked, sold out, or somewhere in between. Then they'll be asked to select which store they're reporting from. The app will also ask them to note if they felt they were able to engage in safe social distancing practices while shopping.

Once OurStreets receives a critical mass of reports from a particular area, Sussman says, it will publish information from individual user reports in a real-time map, both in the app and online at the OurStreets website. OurStreets already has a significant base of users in the D.C. region.

Rendering of a future OurStreets supplies map. "People are afraid to go from store to store to store to find what they need," says co-founder Mark Sussman. Courtesy of/OurStreets hide caption

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Courtesy of/OurStreets

Sussman also wants to partner with retailers themselves. He envisions that every time a user submits a report, the relevant retailer would be notified of shortages on their shelves. Employees stocking shelves could even submit information about new supplies as they put them out for the public, he says. He's also hoping to work with municipalities and nonprofits locally and across the country on the project.

Is there a danger that users could all rush to the same place to buy toilet paper?

"Certainly," Sussman acknowledges. "We want people to act rationally. If everyone races to the same store, they're going to create overcrowding and not be able to safely socially distance."

OurStreets Supplies could help alleviate the need to shop around, hitting multiple stores and risking further exposure.

"There's not necessarily a lack of supplies—there's just a lack of information around where those supplies are located," he says. "People are afraid to go from store to store to store to find what they need."

There's some appeal to that idea. Sussman says OurStreets has doubled its active Android users in the last few days, and he expects to continue to see spikes in downloads as the word gets out.

OurStreets Supplies will be available next week, but he recommends that users download OurStreets now. His team will send out a push notification when the Supplies update is available for download.

All those new users aren't necessarily a bad thing for OurStreets' original goals of getting people to crowdsource information about bad behavior on streets and sidewalks.

"We know that street safety is not going to be solved when the coronavirus crisis is over," he says. "The OurStreets Supplies initiative is a resource that is not quite as niche, and we think that's really important."

For now, Sussman says the OurStreets team is glad to try to pitch in to the coronavirus response.

"It's renewed our sense of purpose," he says.

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