I facilitated a self-organized session on launching a Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force at the Annual Meeting of Crisis Mappers. I blogged about this idea before the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010). Talk about a mistake and a missed opportunity.
I had clearly mentioned in my blog post and in my opening remarks that I was going to experiment with a model to set up a more formal volunteer network using the Ushahidi platform because that’s the tool I know best and because the bulk of this network already exists; because that’s what I can guarantee and take responsibility for getting done—and not just talk about endlessly saying wouldn’t it be nice if… At no point did I suggest that the other technology groups could not do the same. On the contrary, I invited them to step up to the plate and do the same, to take responsibility; take ownership.
The reaction from our humanitarian colleagues was largely positive with some important constructive advice. Not so with one of the technology groups present. The response from this group was that we couldn’t be the first to focus on preparedness more actively because of perception issues, i.e., that the Standby Force would be synonymous with Ushahidi and thence favored by UN colleagues who would adopt the platform instead of the other technology platforms.
My response? I immediately apologized for my faux-pas and promptly proposed not to call this initiative the Crisis Mappers Task Force. I vouched to be more explicit that the standby volunteer group I’m personally working to set up with a few colleagues would first and foremost be a network trained on the Ushahidi platform and surrounding ecosystem, e.g., OpenStreetMap, Google Earth, etc. because that’s what we’re good at. And as one of my colleagues who has trained more volunteer Crisis Mappers than anyone else said, “When I’m training volunteers it is never only on the Ushahidi platform, we have to use several other important platforms to make all this work.”
After this comment, I once again invited this other tech group (and everyone else present) to strengthen our initiative by setting up a joint standby network in collaboration with ours. I clearly said we would happily share our lessons learned on the volunteer model we are testing. No one has a monopoly on preparedness!
But that wasn’t good enough for this tech group. They also said we couldn’t go ahead and recruit, formalize and train a volunteer network on the Ushahidi platform because they would miss out on consulting opportunities and funding. Note: at no point did I ever suggest that this volunteer network would request funding or that we have a monopoly over the volunteer network we are recruiting. Again, the point was/is to use Ushahidi to experiment and test a standby model for volunteer engagement. Indeed, any other tech group is more than welcome to train the volunteers we’re recruiting on their own platforms. Indeed, if someone else had proposed a Standby Volunteer Network dedicated to crisis mapping before me, I would have joined theirs immediately and offered to train their network tomorrow.
But did this technology group step up to the plate and offer to train the volunteers we’re recruiting? No. Were they pro-active and did they take the opportunity to join and strengthen the initiative? No. Did they make any commitment whatsoever? No, they just did not want us to move forward and implement a core principle of disaster response: preparedness. I have little patience with this kind of positioning and jockeying. Needless to say, I don’t think our humanitarian colleagues were particularly impressed either.
So where does this leave us? Where we started: my colleagues are pressing forward to formalize a standby volunteer network around the Ushahidi platform, which again does not prevent other groups from doing the same and/or joining the initiative. This network of Ushahidi users largely exists already, we’re simply formalizing it so we can be better prepared. We absolutely want the volunteers we recruit to be conversant with the rich ecosystem of different humanitarian technologies that are of interest to them.
I don’t know how much more clear of a signal I can possibly send: please join us and help us strengthen this network.
If this particular tech group I’m referring to doesn’t step up to the plate and instead chooses to criticize others who take initiative, then they ought to know that the real perception issue here is this: humanitarian colleagues and others who were present at the session will perceive this particular tech group as being insincere about disaster preparedness.
The UN’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems commissioned by the former UN Secretary General and carried about by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:
To empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.
I was at the Third International Conference on Early Warning (EWC3) in 2006 where this report was first presented publicly. The key to effective people-centered early warning systems is preparedness. We want to empower an online community to use a wide mix of Crisis Mapping tools to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner (with guidance from the humanitarian community) to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment and loss of livelihoods for those threatened by hazards.
If I could train volunteers on 5 different platforms, I would. But I can’t because I’m not an expert on the other platforms and I already have a full time job (and then some). That’s why I took the initiative to organize the pre-conference Crisis Mapping Training Session at ICCM 2010. If we had had more space, time and timely funding, I would have organized an all day training on a dozen platforms and would happily do so on a regular basis. So I’m trying to play my role in this but I will absolutely not take responsibility for others who don’t step up and act but instead complain because my colleagues and I are choosing to act.
No one has a monopoly on preparedness.