The state response to the massive snow storm in NY was predictably slow and not up to the task. The New York Times reported that “streets across vast stretches of the city remained untouched, leaving tens of thousands of residents unable to get to jobs and many facing long waits for ambulances and other emergency services.” In addition 911 dispatchers fielded tens of thousands of calls with a backlog of more than one thousand at one point and “at least 200 ambulances got stuck on unplowed streets or were blocked by abandoned cars.”
This centralized top-down approach to disaster response is meant to be effective and to save lives, but it has cost lives instead and will continue to do so until we realize that a more distributed and decentralized approach facilitated by digital technology is a better mach for the complexity of disaster response. Indeed, findings from a recent study commissioned by the Red Cross reveal that 75% of people now expect an almost-immediate response after posting a call for help on a social media platform during a disaster.
The Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are particularly troubled by this figure. They shouldn’t be. It is high time that crisis response organizations start viewing the public as part of the team. One way to do so is to create an open marketplace for crowdsourcing crisis response.
The real first responders are those who are affected by a disaster, i.e., the local residents, not state officials. We could post second responders (official disaster responders) at the corner of every street but this would require tens of thousands of additional responders at a prohibitive cost. Clearly, official response teams can’t always be there. But the crowd, the crowd is always there. One answer to our Snowmageddon woes is therefore to help the crowd help itself.
Hence this Ushahidi deployment:
This kind of service enables affected residents to map their needs and for those less affected to map how they can help. You don’t need to be a disaster response professional to help your neighbor dig out their car. Imagine how many ambulances could have been dug out if the crowd were better connected to swarm the response. Recall the example in Estonia where volunteers organized online to start a mass garbage cleanup campaign. Some 50,000 all showed up on one day and collected over 10,000 tonnes of garbage.
As I’ve written before, there’s a lot that disaster affected populations can (and already do) to help each other out in times of crisis. What may help is to combine the crowdsourcing of crisis information with what I call crowdfeeding in order to create an efficient market place for crowdsourcing response. By crowdfeeding, I mean taking crowdsourced information and feeding it right back to the crowd. Surely they need that information as much if not more than external, paid responders who won’t get to the scene for hours or days.
We talk about top-down and bottom-up approaches. Crowdfeeding is a “bottom-bottom” approach; horizontal, meshed communication for local rapid response. Information of the crowd, by the crowd and for the crowd. For the marketplace to work at the technical level, users should easily be able to map their needs or map the resources they have to help others. They should be able to do this via webform, SMS, Twitter, smart phone apps, phone call, etc.
But users shouldn’t have to keep looking back at the map to check whether anyone has posted offers to help in their area, or vice versa. They should get an automated email and/or text message when a potential match is found. The matching should be done by a simple algorithm, a Match.com for crowdsourcing crisis response. (Just like online dating, users should take appropriate precautions when contacting their match). On a practical level, this marketplace will work best if it draws many traders. That’s why the data should be easily shared across platforms.
New Yorkers are a resilient bunch so the City should leverage the goodwill that exists by helping the crowd connect and help itself. They set up an online marketplace for crowdsourcing needs and crisis response and let New Yorkers participate in their own response.