Technology

Help Just a Click Away


Sites like Lotsa Helping Hands are using social networking tools to enable people to aid others right in their own backyards

The six-hour drive separating Jack Saux from his grown daughter, Jennifer, never seemed all that long until Jennifer was diagnosed with cancer. Instantly, the half-day it takes to drive to Jennifer's home in Texas from his residence in Louisiana became a lifetime. The elder Saux couldn't easily hop in the car if, say, his daughter needed someone to pick up her kids from school. He couldn't suddenly appear with a home-cooked meal when radiation treatments sapped her energy. Jennifer needed people close by. "She has got a long road to travel to get to that cure," Saux says by phone during a recent return trip from Texas. "She may become tired and need help."

That kind of help is just what Hal Chapel and his friend Barry Katz hope to provide. The pals launched a social networking site, Lotsa Helping Hands, to help people battling illnesses and their caregivers ask for and organize help from friends, family members, and neighbors. "When someone is diagnosed with a situation in the family, managing the help alone is a significant part-time job," says Chapel. "We were talking about, 'Wouldn't it be great to have a site where friends and family could come together and help?'"

"It Is Just Wonderful"

While many nonprofits employ social networks and other emerging Web tools to mobilize millions for worldwide causes, sites like lotsahelpinghands.com are using those same tools to enable people to lend a hand to friends, family, and others right in their own backyards. Some help thousands of small, private groups cope with an illness. Others, such as GoLoco, simply let people find acquaintances in need of a ride.

These causes don't grab headlines like the protests in Colombia recently organized via social networks, but their impact on individuals may be no less momentous.

Take Lotsa Helping Hands. Shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer in December, Jennifer logged on to the site and sent out a few e-mails to friends, who in turn passed the messages to their acquaintances. Soon, more than 100 people in Jennifer's extended network had signed on to provide meals, drive to doctor's appointments, or volunteer for any number of tasks that Jennifer might post on an online calendar on the site. Many in her network were parents of the first grade students Jennifer had taught. "If they see a need that is not filled on the calendar, they can sign up for it and you don't need to be calling on the phone," says her father. "It is just wonderful because it has allowed her to live a life that is not centered around her cancer."

In designing the site, Chapel and Katz drew on personal experience. Katz's wife passed away in 2003 after a multiyear battle with ovarian cancer. Soon after, Chapel's wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Each saw the difficulty of calling neighbors and friends in hopes that someone could pick up kids or prepare a meal while they shuttled back and forth between home, work, and the hospital. The pair built in features that make it convenient to organize a team of helpers. Users can send a single e-mail to notify an entire network of a need and activate regularly reminders to the volunteer who takes on the task.

Going my way?

Lotsa Helping Hands is self-funded, but Chapel and Katz hope to make money from the site by enabling for- profit health companies, such as hospitals, to license the social networking technology for their own patients. The company also hopes to raise the interest of advertisers, such as flower-delivery services.

GoLoco, a social network for ride sharing, has a similar idea of making it easier for individuals to help friends, neighbors, and others nearby. Launched on Earth Day in 2007, the site is designed to help people save on gas and cut carbon emissions by helping them find rides. "Many people, particularly students and people in their 20s, find it a means by which they can reduce the cost of travel, which is a very burdensome thing," says Robin Chase, the site's CEO and founder.

Chase got the idea for GoLoco when working with her prior startup Zipcar. Zipcar helped car-less city dwellers grab a quick ride. But it didn't help those without automobiles living in the suburban and rural areas most often lacking frequent public transportation. GoLoco does this by matching people with others going their way and providing drivers with online tools to collect payment for the costs of providing the ride, such as gas and vehicle wear and tear, with a few mouse clicks. GoLoco collects a 10% transaction fee to fund the site.

Seth Davis, a 28-year-old competitive cyclist, began using GoLoco to help fellow bikers who wanted a ride to a track in a neighboring state. Last summer, he regularly shuttled a packed car and a stuffed bike rack to the track. More than 12 people took a lift. GoLoco estimates the carpool saved the earth 1,000 pounds in carbon emissions. And Davis knows he helped some car-less cyclists keep training. "Some people would not have been able to go and race if not for the rides," says Davis.

Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York .

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