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Pizza-Fueled Hackathon Helped GasBuddy Prep for Hurricane Irma

With Irma barreling toward Florida, GasBuddy decided to quickly expand its offerings.

(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Harvey taught Walt Doyle an important lesson. As Irma rushed toward a Florida landfall with Category 4 winds, he raced to put that lesson to good use.

A run on gas at stations in South Texas after Harvey struck sent Doyle, the leader of GasBuddy LLC and a former venture capitalist at Highland Capital Partners, into action. With Irma barreling toward Florida, he and his team decided to quickly expand their company’s offerings.

The goal: Re-engineer their mobile app in a single night with new coding that would help drivers know which stations had run out of fuel as they evacuated the area, or had lost their electricity.

"At a time of crisis, people go to their fuel stations," said Doyle, 50, who was named chief executive officer at GasBuddy at the start of last year. "It’s the tip of the spear. You never really think about it until things are really bad.”

Doyle ordered up rounds of pizza through the night for his 20 web developers in Boston and Saskatchewan. The end result: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, in a news conference just before Irma struck the state, praised the company -- previously known only for helping drivers find the lowest price for the fuel -- for its usefulness in helping drivers evacuate.

It’s an addition with staying power for future disasters, according to Doyle. "Fuel is almost a currency,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “There will be other disasters and we want to make sure we’re there to help."

40% Out

According to GasBuddy, roughly 40 percent of fuel stations are still out of gas in Florida as millions evacuated days in advance of Hurricane Irma’s arrival this past weekend. The outages have been exasperated by ports closed around the Sunshine State, preventing new fuel shipments from getting into the market.

GasBuddy, which launched 17 years ago, relies on users to say what the price of gas is at stations across the country.

When users started entering unusual prices such as $0.00 or $9.99 a gallon for gas stations in the Dallas area to signal that they had run out of gas, GasBuddy knew it needed to update its app, said Allison Mac, a company spokeswoman.

The first thing added was the ability to track gas-station outages on its website, but the team quickly realized it needed an all-night hackathon to develop code and test it out for its larger audience of users on the mobile phone app, Mac said by telephone.

The company was bought in 2013 by the Maryland-based private equity group UCG , which subsequently hired Doyle as its CEO. The self-described serial entrepreneur most recently worked as a venture partner at Highland Capital Partners, where he helped launch an identity-authentication business called

Since the company’s been in existence, its app has been downloaded 70 million times, Doyle said.

Over the past couple weeks, GasBuddy was "basically chasing the storm,” said Mac, the company’s spokeswoman. “During natural disasters, gas is a lifeline."

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