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L332 - Session 3

Page history last edited by Julie Steele 14 years, 2 months ago

Session notes


Session Title: Open Info Flows in Disasters: Haiti and Chile


Discussion Leaders:

  • John Crowley




Observation: there is a phenomenon where volunteers are on the leading edge of action and creating new response models, which are later taken over by more highly-trained experts.  Why aren't the experts on the leading edge?  What is it that volunteers bring to the table that experts don’t have?

  • Skillset
  • Imagination
  • Time
  • Money
  • Innocence (they don’t know it’s hard)

Also, there is a lot more risk on an institutional side to take initiative: the ramifications of failure are higher for an expert than for a volunteer.


Illustration of the skillset issue: In our IT staff (city of Boston), it’s all MySQL and Microsoft tools – no one knows Linux, so no one would have thought to use Ushahidi.


There were two types of volunteers at Crisis Camp:

  1. People who streamed in off the street and could use a mouse: we gave them satelite images and said, "Here, wherever you see a road, draw it on this map."
  2. People who came in knowning sys admin, Java, etc. and said “I have technical skills and can be useful here.”


There is sound social science behind the volunteer phenomenon.  University of Delaware and University of Maryland studies showed that in disaster after disaster there is a phenomenon of emergent behavior, and every time there is an effective response, it is a result of emergent behavior.


Example: After 9/11, the Coast Guard had nominal control but they chose not to exercise it, so there was an ad hoc flotilla of ships that was ferrying people out of lower Manhattan.


For the first time, we have a communications mechanism that is designed to create emergent behavior.  This probably amplifies the volunteer phenomenon.  On the other hand, this is not entirely new: calling 911 and having volunteer firefighters might actually be similar behavior, in that having a 911 system is a way of crowdsourcing information, and a volunteer firehouse makes use of trained people who care.


One model for working with skilled and unskilled volunteers might be the fire department and the Red Cross: if your house burns down, the skilled firefighters come in and manage the more risky business of putting the fire out, while the volunteers from the Red Cross can manage sheltering your family and other lower-risk necessities.


There is a flip-side to the innocence issue.  In addition to the people who do something great because they don’t know how the system works (and are therefore able to think outside the box), you also get people who do unhelpful (or worse) things because they're unfamiliar with procedures and don’t know it’s not okay.  Sometimes volunteers just get in the way.


Getting in place a mechanism for the effort to participate in ongoing work domestically and internationally is difficult, and we don’t have one.


What are the issues of transferability around getting tools like Ushahidi down to the state and local level?  There are Emergency Operation Centers that are meant to be activated, but they don’t really have the same tools.  Dept. of Homeland Security ran a conference recently, and talked through some of these issues: how do we get crowdsourcing, mapping, etc. in place?  Some of it is a funding issue.  But the biggest issue is a mental model around how we interact with the citizenry.  There seemed to be a desire to control information.  There is a real fear of losing control.  Need to trust citizens so they can help themselves.


There’s also a need for government to trust the information.  “So that came in from 1000 mobile phones? How do I know that hasn’t been manipulated?”  Need to trust the information so that it becomes actionable.


Maybe it’s easier to start with a non-emergency system first (in terms of community tracking systems), and work from there towards an emergency application.  Also, there’s nothing to stop you from using a non-emergency system in emergency circumstances.


The international structures for sharing information become really complex.  There’s supposed to be a series of clusters led by the UN; in reality, there’s nothing above that cluster system to make sure that the clusters are actually sharing their information and activities.  An informal network fills the gap.


Domestically, there’s a very hierarchical system.  CA is perhaps the leading example in the domestic system; maybe FL second (necessity is the mother of invention).  Someone says it is actually virtual Alabama.


Recommended: “The Strength of Weak Ties” (PDF download) by Mark Granovetter


How do we make this sustainable?  How to we turn this capacity for a burst of activity into an organized structure without making it an institution?  Maybe a project management system modeled on coworking or working from home that would allow transformation into a lead-generation tool or a talent management tool, etc. 


We need to get together (not in a time of crisis) with NGOs and other organizations to ask, “What do you really need?” and to train folks on certain tools.  Sometimes coders come in and say, "Oh! I know how to solve this!" and they don't know that something similar already exists... or maybe they do know, but they think their solution is better.  Innovation and competition are great in the marketplace, but not always great in the arena of emergency response.  Sometimes a "good-enough" system that a lot of people are trained to use correctly and can interface with effectively is better than an "optimal" system that will only cause confusion.  There needs to be better education about what’s already out there.  More collaboration would keep people from reinventing the wheel.


Getting the right people invited into these camps is a key: many crisis response orgs are top-down and don’t know how to look for people who should be at the table.


Tip for managing volunteers: give everyone a title.  Even if they’re arbitrary, titles help people to feel like they’ve got some persisting responsibility, instead of feeling like some folks who just showed up once or twice.


We need someone with convening power and neutral space.  The UN has the convening power, but they don’t often having the neutral space to pull things off.  They also don’t have the agility.


Follow-Up Items

  • Notes

Comments (1)

Susan Chamberlain said

at 1:21 pm on Mar 13, 2010

Here's the link I mentioned on how volunteers who "don't know it's hard" are both on the leading edge and the trailing edge (not the same volunteers on each edge, of course):

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