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Oct 6 2010

The Promises and Challenges of Crisis Response Tech Volunteers - Part I

By Bob Greenberg

Topics: Information SharingRecoveryResponse

I’ve just returned from a three day conference sponsored by the International Network of Crisis Mappers “Haiti and Beyond.” If you don’t know them, the INCM is a network of technology volunteers who provide technology support, primarily in the form of using crowdsourcing techniques to help provide accurate maps and other situational awareness tools – to responders in a domestic or international event.

This relatively new phenomenon gained a lot of attention as volunteers mobilized by the hundreds, if not thousands, in response to the Haiti earthquake. John Crowley, from the Harvard Humanitarian Aid Initiative and Department of Defense’s Star-tides program, spoke at the Where 2.0 conference last spring, stating, “What we did in Haiti changed disaster response forever.” There are numerous reports on what this network did to help in Haiti, so I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say, this network provided the official response community an incredible capability to dramatically improve situational awareness to assist in decision making, resulting in the saving of lives and reduction of human misery.

In a smaller fashion, a similar phenomenon occurred during the San Bruno, California explosion and fires. In that circumstance, the head of planning for the Incident Command reached out to a network of people that he had worked with during previous domestic emergencies to see if they could assist by providing mapping and other tools to help them improve situational awareness in the command center. As a result of knowing Luke Beckman, then of Instedd, geospatial technologists and graduate students worked together to assist within less than 24 hours after the incident.

Examples like these are now commonplace as organizations such as the INCM, Crisis Commons, and dozens of others mobilize to support responders during significant events. The INCM conference was called to look back at lessons learned from these deployments and see how they could better support these efforts so that their capabilities could be put to greater use. While the majority of participants in the conference were involved in responding to international disasters, the lessons and issues they raised were similar to those that were discussed during the Red Cross sponsored “Emergency Social Data Summit ” this past August. The following are some of the key lessons learned and issues to address if this incredibly powerful network is to be harnessed effectively.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will address this and issues related to establishing a more thought through disaster response management system.

Organization and Structure

One of the issues that has come up frequently is the lack of any kind of mechanism or structure that would provide a channel for this network to work with the official response organizations. This is not a new issue but was raised time and again during the conference, particularly by Dr. Choi Soon-hong, the Assistant Secretary General and Chief Information Technology Officer of the United Nations Secretariat who spent two full days at the conference. The lack of that structure inhibits the impact of these volunteer networks as well as non-governmental organizations and other not-for-profits for a number of reasons. Among these are:

  1. There is an inability to provide these networks with requirements from official response organizations. One of the things that occurred during the response to Haiti and other disasters was that well meaning technology volunteers “mashed-up” tools that either weren’t required or used or, at times, duplicated existing tools which only served to confuse people. As result, a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into developing something that was simply not useful. I don’t want to sound too negative here, because there is no question that the contribution of these volunteer networks was incredibly useful and, as I said earlier, saved lives, but none the less, it is one of the problems that was cited by participants at the conference.
  2. There are questions among official response organizations as to the trusted nature of the volunteers and the authenticity and accuracy of the data being provided. This was another problem that was frequently cited. While some of this lack of trust can also be attributed to the lack of familiarity with the “crowdsourcing approach,” such as that used by OpenStreetMap, there are also legitimate questions raised due to the lack of vetting of these networks. Official response organizations want to know, for example, whether the volunteers have any training in crisis response. Are they credentialed to do what they are doing, and so on? As result, the valuable information that is being gathered may not be used effectively in the response.
  3. There are questions as to the redundancy and sustainability of the tools being provided. Since the tools often have no official sponsoring organization, there is no real funding stream to support the long term use of these tools. Moreover, there is concern that if an official organization becomes dependent upon their use and they go down due to lack of redundancy that could actually hurt the response.
  4. There is a concern voiced from official response organizations that without an effective system to channel these efforts, they could easily get overwhelmed with well-meaning volunteers with no way to effectively handle them. And, once they are integrated into the response, the official organizations now have to assume responsibility for supporting and securing them.
  5. Finally, there is a concern that the lack of organization and structure will mean that the official response organizations will simply not get the support they need. The example above of the San Bruno fires was a case in point in which the only reason they were able to get the support is because the head of planning happened to know Luke. Lacking that, they might not have been able to leverage the capabilities of Luke’s networks which made a real difference in enhancing situational awareness and decision making.

The issue of lack of organization and structure was, happily, one of the key issues discussed and debated during the conference and is being discussed among the broader volunteer community with the response organizations. More on this will be reported upon as developments take place.

The Promise and Challenge of Crisis Tech Response Volunteers: Part II

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