A Colby College sophomore from Houston is applying what he’s learned as a computer science and sociology major to help his fellow Texans in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation.

Nile Dixon, who has been home in Houston for summer break, developed a textbot – an automated text program for cellphones – that gives residents of his inundated city the location of the nearest shelter.

Nile Dixon’s ‘textbot’ program for cellphones pinpoints where stranded residents should go.

Dixon said he found a list of shelters circulating on Facebook for those who had to evacuate their homes because of flooding. But he figured some of those in the most dire need of a safe place to shelter might not have access to the internet and Facebook because of damage to digital networks caused by the flooding, but could still use their cellphones to send and receive text messages.

For those who send a text with a zip code to the phone number that Dixon set up for his textbot, that phone will use the zip code to determine the caller’s location, and text back the location of the nearest shelter.

Since Monday afternoon, when the textbot was set up, it has sent and received thousands of messages. Dixon circulated word about the service on his Facebook page and asked friends to circulate it as well.

“We haven’t been able to run numbers on how many unique users we have received, but the bot has sent and received over 5,000 messages with 1,000 happening within the past 12 hours,” he said by email Wednesday around noon.

He said one woman told him that she called a hotline set up to direct people to the nearest shelter and kept getting directed to the city’s main shelter in the convention center downtown, far away from her location.

Dixon’s textbot was able to direct the woman to a shelter closer to her home and not as large as the convention center, which is reportedly overcrowded.

The technology helps people who aren’t necessarily familiar with Houston, Dixon said, because it takes the guesswork out of looking at a list and trying to figure out which shelter is closest. It also is easily updated, so as shelters are opened or closed, the system can keep up and direct users to the shelter nearest them that is still up and running.

Dixon said he and Neeraj Tandon, a friend from Houston, plan to improve the code for the textbot and develop similar programs that could be used in other hurricane-prone cities “so they don’t have to have people on the fly building tech in the middle of the storm.”

Dixon said his own family weathered the storm relatively well. The roof on his family’s house did develop a leak, he said, and the family lost track of an uncle for a while, but he was eventually located safe and sound.

Textbots are something of a Dixon specialty.

He previously built one for the Colby College bus system so people would know when a shuttle was on its way.

“In some cities, like Houston, if you are waiting for public transit, you can text a stop ID to this number, and you will receive the next times for the bus,” he said. “We decided to do the same thing for Colby and some people really liked it.”

He and Tandon, a medical school graduate, also have developed a textbot for homeless people, allowing them to get a text message directing them to the nearest homeless shelter. They have also worked on a textbot to address human trafficking that uses fake sex trafficking advertisements that steer people to resources on the negative impact of prostitution on society.

Dixon had planned to be back on campus Sunday, but his flight out of Houston has been rescheduled five times because of the storm. He now hopes to fly out Thursday. Classes begin next Wednesday.

Colby attracted him, he said, because its financial aid made it possible for him to afford college. He also likes the college’s computer science program, which is interdisciplinary, allowing him to combine computer science and other studies. And, he said, the school offers a wide selection of classes that interest him.

He said adjusting from growing up in big city like Houston to attending college in a small town like Waterville has been relatively easy.

“There is a certain level of convenience that comes with being in a large city. You can walk down the street and be able to receive certain conveniences that aren’t as available (public transit being a primary example),” he said. “But I really do love being in the town of Waterville. The people in town are sweet and caring and it definitely feels like my home away from home.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at:

[email protected]