UPDATE: The OurStreets apps for iOS and Android have been updated and now allow users to contribute information about supply levels at nearby stores. The map of what’s available is now live at ourstreets.app/supply-map.
Online neighborhood message boards are teeming with messages of District residents who can’t find what they need at the grocery store. “We’ve been to the stores 3 or 4 times in the last 2 weeks, and the garlic/onion tower has been wiped clean almost every time,” laments Steve DiPangrazio.
Even the respectably well provisioned can run out of one item they might urgently need. Maybe it’s toilet paper, or hand sanitizer, or the one kind of frozen pizza your kid will eat. You could try to order on Instacart, but there’s a chance the store won’t have it, so you arm yourself with gloves and disinfectant wipes and head to the grocery store, only to find the shelf you need completely bare. It’s an all-too familiar problem in the age of coronavirus, but for local app developer Mark Sussman, it’s potentially a solvable one.
Sussman, 35, is an Eastern Market-based co-founder of OurStreets, an app for reporting unsafe traffic conditions like blocked bike lanes, poorly parked scooters, and dangerous driving. But soon the app will be transforming into “OurStreets Supplies” and users all over the country will be able to use it at stores to crowdsource information about what’s available.
The OurStreets app is currently being revised, but is available now for free in the Android and iPhone app stores. According to Sussman, once it switches to OurStreets Supplies, users will be able to open it in stores and assess supply levels of ten common staple items, such as toilet paper and diapers. “If you’re able to find it, you would snap a photo of that product,” says Sussman. Users will then be able to rate the supply on a sliding scale from “fully stocked” to “none” and affirm if it is safely available while social distancing. That information will be collated into a browseable map available on the app itself and on a forthcoming website.
The original app, which Sussman is now calling “OurStreets Classic,” launched in January. While it is available for use throughout the country, Sussman says that about half of the app’s users are in the greater Washington region. But the app, like so much of contemporary life, has been disrupted by coronavirus. “We were kind of going into this dormant phase where we were trying to figure out how best to make our resources useful,” says Sussman.
The app’s reimagining came after workers at the District’s Department of Public Works asked if it could be used to track retail store supply levels. “And then we just kind of ran with it,” says Sussman. Expanding on the basic idea requested by DPW employees, Sussman’s team also envisions a backend for retailers to access the data reported on the app. “The retailers themselves are then going in and letting people know whether or not those things are back in stock,” says Sussman.
Planning for the new version of the app began in earnest on Friday, March 20. Sussman acknowledges that creating a nationwide real-time supplies tracker is a daunting challenge, but he says that the situation is too urgent to wait.
“This is an ‘act now and make mistakes and figure it out as we go’ kind of situation, says Sussman. “The app is available nationwide. People are using it all over the country.”
Sussman anticipates that the new OurStreets Supplies version will be available by the end of this week or early next week. For now, he encourages residents to download the app and await a notification to begin chronicling the city’s available goods. “We need a critical number of submissions before we can make those maps live,” he says.
Sussman has an additional personal motivation to complete the update — his wife, Laurie, is seven months pregnant. “We’re very cautious even though she’s not high risk,” says Sussman. “We just don’t know how the coronavirus is impacting pregnant women. And so it’s really been very impactful on us figuring out how best to get our supplies.”
No one knows what kind of social distancing measures will be in place by the time the Sussmans’ baby is due, but it might be very helpful to have a lot of District residents scouring grocery stores looking for diapers and reporting back what they find.