Tag Archives: Volunteers

Crowdsourcing Community-Based Disaster Relief in Indonesia

I just came across a very neat example of crowdsourced, community-based crisis response in this excellent report by the BBC World Service Trust: “Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive—And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help.” I plan to provide a detailed summary of this important report in a forthcoming blog post. In the meantime, this very neat example below (taken directly from said BBC report) is well worth sharing.

“In Indonesia during the eruption of Mount Merapi in November 2010, a local radio community known as Jalin Merapi began to share information via Twitter and used the network to organize community-based relief to over 700 shelters on the side of the mountain […].”

“The Jalin Merapi network was founded following an eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano on Java, Indonesia in 2006. Three community radio stations who felt that the reporting of the eruption by the mainstream media had been inaccurate and unhelpful to those affected joined up with a group of local NGOs and other radio networks to produce accurate information on volcanic activity for those living on the mountain’s slopes. By the time of the 2010 eruption the network involved 800 volunteers, a presence online, on Twitter and on Face-book, and a hotline.”

“During the first eruption on 26 October 2010, the team found that their online accounts–especially Twitter–had become extremely busy. Ten volunteers were assigned to manage the information flow: sorting incoming information (they agreed 27 hashtags to share information), cross referencing it and checking for veracity. For example, when one report came in about a need for food for 6,000 internally displaced people, the team checked the report for veracity then redistributed it as a request for help, a request re-tweeted by followers of the Jalin Merapi account. Within 30 minutes, the same volunteer called and said that enough food had now been supplied, and asked people to stop sending food – a message that was distributed by the team immediately.”

“Interestingly, two researchers who analyzed information systems during the Merapi eruption found that many people believed traditional channels such as television to be ‘less satisfying’. In many cases they felt that television did not provide proper information at the time, but created panic instead.” […] “The success of initiatives such as the Jalin Merapi is based on the levels of trust, community interaction and person-to-person relationships on which participants can build. While technology facilitated and amplified these, it did not replace them.” […] “The work of Jalin Merapi continues today, using the time between eruptions to raise awareness of dangers and help communities plan for the next incident.”

 

Crowdsourcing Crisis Response Following Philippine Floods

Widespread and heavy rains resulting from Typhoon Haikui have flooded the Philippine capital Manila. Over 800,000 have been affected by the flooding and some 250,000 have been relocated to evacuation centers. Given the gravity of the situation, “some resourceful Filipinos put up an online spreadsheet where concerned citizens can list down places where help is most urgently needed” (1). Meanwhile, Google’s Crisis Response Team has launched this resource page  which includes links to News updates, Emergency contact information, Person Finder and this shelter map.

Filipinos volunteers are using an open (but not editable) Google Spreadsheet and crowdsourcing reports using this Google Form to collect urgent reports on needs. The spreadsheet (please click the screenshot below to enlarge) includes time of incident, location (physical address), a description of the alert (many include personal names and phone numbers) and the person it was reported by. Additional fields include status of the alert, the urgency of this alert and whether action has been taken. The latter is also color coded.

“The spreadsheet can easily be referenced by any rescue group that can access the web, and is constantly updated by volunteers real-time” (2). This reminds me a lot of the Google Spreadsheets we used following the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) continues to use Google Spreadsheets in similar aways but for the purposes of media monitoring and these are typically not made public. What is noteworthy about these important volunteer efforts in the Philippines is that the spreadsheet was made completely public in order to crowdsource the response.

As I’ve noted before, emergency management professionals cannot be every-where at the same time, but the crowd is always there. The tradeoff with the use of open data to crowdsource crisis response is obviously privacy and data protection. Volunteers may therefore want to let those filling out the Google Form know that any information they provide will or may be made public. I would also recommend that they create an “About Us” or “Who We Are” link to cultivate a sense of trust with the initiative. Finally, crowdsourcing offers-for-help may facilitate the “matchmaking” of needs and available resources.

I would give the same advice to volunteers who recently setup this Crowdmap of the floods. I would also suggest they set up their own Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in order to deploy again in the future. In the meantime, reports on flood levels can be submitted to the crisis map via webform, email and SMS.

Does the Humanitarian Industry Have a Future in The Digital Age?

I recently had the distinct honor of being on the opening plenary of the 2012 Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The panel, “Innovation in Times of Flux: Opportunities on the Heels of Crisis” was moderated by Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. I’ve spent the past six years creating linkages between the humanitarian space and technology community, so the conversations we began during the panel prompted me to think more deeply about innovation in the humanitarian industry. Clearly, humanitarian crises have catalyzed a number of important innovations in recent years. At the same time, however, these crises extend the cracks that ultimately reveal the inadequacies of existing organiza-tions, particularly those resistant to change; and “any organization that is not changing is a battle-field monument” (While 1992).

These cracks, or gaps, are increasingly filled by disaster-affected communities themselves thanks in part to the rapid commercialization of communication technology. Question is: will the multi-billion dollar humanitarian industry change rapidly enough to avoid being left in the dustbin of history?

Crises often reveal that “existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive [since] response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities” (Leonard and Howitt 2007). More formally, “the ‘symmetry-breaking’ effects of disasters undermine linearly designed and centralized administrative activities” (Corbacioglu 2006). This may explain why “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster” (Manyena 2006).

But disaster-affected populations have always self-organized in times of crisis. Indeed, first responders are by definition those very communities affected by disasters. So local communities—rather than humanitarian professionals—save the most lives following a disaster (Gilbert 1998). Many of the needs arising after a disaster can often be met and responded to locally. One doesn’t need 10 years of work experience with the UN in Darfur or a Masters degree to know basic first aid or to pull a neighbor out of the rubble, for example. In fact, estimates suggest that “no more than 10% of survival in emergencies can be attributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hilhorst 2004).

This figure may be higher today since disaster-affected communities now benefit from radically wider access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). After all, a “disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). This communication challenge is far less acute today because disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital, and thus more and more the primary source of information communicated following a crisis. Of course, these communities were always sources of information but being a source in an analog world is fundamentally different than being a source of information in the digital age. The difference between “read-only” versus “read-write” comes to mind as an analogy. And so, while humanitarian organiza-tions typically faced a vacuum of information following sudden onset disasters—limited situational awareness that could only be filled by humanitarians on the ground or via established news organizations—one of the major challenges today is the Big Data produced by disaster-affected communities themselves.

Indeed, vacuums are not empty and local communities are not invisible. One could say that disaster-affected communities are joining the quantified self (QS) movement given that they are increasingly quantifying themselves. If inform-ation is power, then the shift of information sourcing and sharing from the select few—the humanitarian professionals—to the masses must also engender a shift in power. Indeed, humanitarians rarely have access to exclusive information any longer. And even though affected populations are increasingly digital, some groups believe that humanitarian organizations have largely failed at commu–nicating with disaster-affected communities. (Naturally, there are important and noteworthy exceptions).

So “Will Twitter Put the UN Out of Business?” (Reuters), or will humanitarian organizations cope with these radical changes by changing themselves and reshaping their role as institutions before it’s too late? Indeed, “a business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long—it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer,” whilst other actors fill the gaps (Reuters). “In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving” (Reuters).

The music and news industries were muddling along as well for decades. Today, however, they are facing tremendous pressures and are undergoing radical structural changes—none of them by choice. Of course, it would be different if affected communities were paying for humanitarian services but how much longer do humanitarian organizations have until they feel similar pressures?

Whether humanitarian organizations like it or not, disaster affected communities will increasingly communicate their needs publicly and many will expect a response from the humanitarian industry. This survey carried out by the American Red Cross two years ago already revealed that during a crisis the majority of the public expect a response to needs they communicate via social media. Moreover, they expect this response to materialize within an hour. Humanitarian organizations simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this surge in requests for help, nor are they organizationally structured to do so. But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian organizations have never been capable of dealing with this volume of requests in the first place. So “What Good is Crowd-sourcing When Everyone Needs Help?” (Reuters). Perhaps “crowdsourcing” is finally revealing all the cracks in the system, which may not be a bad thing. Surely by now it is no longer a surprise that many people may be in need of help after a disaster, hence the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness.

Naturally, humanitarian organizations could very well chose to continue ignoring calls for help and decide that communicating with disaster affected communities is simply not tenable. In the analog world of the past, the humanitarian industry was protected by the fact that their “clients” did not have a voice because they could not speak out digitally. So the cracks didn’t show. Today, “many traditional humanitarian players see crowdsourcing as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they are already overwhelmed. They worry that the noise-to-signal ration is just too high” (Reuters). I think there’s an important disconnect here worth emphasizing. Crowdsourced information is simply user-generated content. If humanitarians are to ignore user-generated content, then they can forget about two-way communications with disaster-affected communities and drop all the rhetoric. On the other hand, “if aid agencies are to invest time and resources in handling torrents of crowdsourced information in disaster zones, they should be confident it’s worth their while” (Reuters).

This last comment is … rather problematic for several reasons (how’s that for being diplomatic?). First of all, this kind of statement continues to propel the myth that we the West are the rescuers and aid does not start until we arrive (Barrs 2006). Unfortunately, we rarely arrive: how many “neglected crises” and so-called “forgotten emergencies” have we failed to intervene in? This kind of mindset may explain why humanitarian interventions often have the “propensity to follow a paternalistic mode that can lead to a skewing of activities towards supply rather than demand” and towards informing at the expense of listening (Manyena 2006).

Secondly, the assumption that crowdsourced data would be for the exclusive purpose of the humanitarian cavalry is somewhat arrogant and ignores the reality that local communities are by definition the first responders in a crisis. Disaster-affected communities (and Diasporas) are already collecting (and yes crowdsourcing) information to create their own crisis maps in times of need as a forthcoming report shows. And they’ll keep doing this whether or not humanita-rian organizations approve or leverage that information. As my colleague Tim McNamara has noted “Crisis mapping is not simply a technological shift, it is also a process of rapid decentralization of power. With extremely low barriers to entry, many new entrants are appearing in the fields of emergency and disaster response. They are ignoring the traditional hierarchies, because the new entrants perceive that there is something that they can do which benefits others.”

Thirdly, humanitarian organizations are far more open to using free and open source software than they were just two years ago. So the resources required to monitor and map crowdsourced information need not break the bank. Indeed, the Syria Crisis Map uses a free and open source data-mining platform called HealthMap, which has been monitoring some 2,000 English-based sources on a daily basis for months. The technology powering the map itself, Ushahidi, is also free and open source. Moreover, the team behind the project is comprised of just a handful of volunteers doing this in their own free time (for almost an entire year now). And as a result of this initiative, I am collaborating with a colleague from UNDP to pilot HealthMap’s data mining feature for conflict monitoring and peacebuilding purposes.

Fourth, other than UN Global Pulse, humanitarian agencies are not investing time and resources to manage Big (Crisis) Data. Why? Because they have neither the time nor the know-how. To this end, they are starting to “outsource” and indeed “crowdsource” these tasks—just as private sector businesses have been doing for years in order to extend their reach. Anyone actually familiar with this space and developments since Haiti already knows this. The CrisisMappers Network, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and Crisis Commons (CC) are four volunteer/technical networks that have already collaborated actively with a number of humanitarian organizations since Haiti to provide the “surge capacity” requested by the latter; this includes UN OCHA in Libya and Colombia, UNHCR in Somalia and WHO in Libya, to name a few. In fact, these groups even have their own acronym: Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

As the former head of OCHA’s Information Services Section (ISS) noted after the SBTF launched the Libya Crisis Map, “Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is not easy task” (March 8, 2011). Furthermore, the crowdsourced social media information mapped on the Libya Crisis Map was integrated into official UN OCHA information products. I dare say activating the SBTF was worth OCHA’s while. And it cost the UN a grand total of $0 to benefit from this support.

Credit: Chris Bow

The rapid rise of V&TC’s has catalyzed the launch of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), formerly called the Humanitarian Standby Task Force (H-SBTF). Digital Humanitarians is a network-of-network catalyzed by the UN and comprising some of the most active members of the volunteer & technical co-mmunity. The purpose of the Digital Humanitarian platform (powered by Ning) is to provide a dedicated interface for traditional humanitarian organizations to outsource and crowdsource important information management tasks during and in-between crises. OCHA has also launched the Communities of Interest (COIs) platform to further leverage volunteer engagement in other areas of humanitarian response.

These are not isolated efforts. During the massive Russian fires of 2010, volunteers launched their own citizen-based disaster response agency that was seen by many as more visible and effective than the Kremlin’s response. Back in Egypt, volunteers used IntaFeen.com to crowdsource and coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Libya, for example. The company LinkedIn has also taken innovative steps to enable the matching of volunteers with various needs. They recently added a “Volunteer and Causes” field to its member profile page, which is now available to 150 million LinkedIn users worldwide. Sparked.com is yet another group engaged in matching volunteers with needs. The company is the world’s first micro-volunteering network, sending challenges to registered volunteers that are targeted to their skill set and the causes that they are most passionate about.

It is not farfetched to envisage how these technologies could be repurposed or simply applied to facilitate and streamline volunteer management following a disaster. Indeed, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have already developed a new smart phone app to help mobilize and coordinate volunteer efforts during and following major disasters. The app not only provides information on preparedness but also gives real-time updates on volunteering opportunities by local area. For example, volunteers can register for a variety of tasks including community response to extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross just launched a Digital Operations Center in partnership with Dell Labs, which allows them to leverage digital volunteers and Dell’s social media monitoring platforms to reduce the noise-to-signal ratio. This is a novel “social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief, demonstrating the growing importance of social media in emergency situations.” As part of this center, the Red Cross also “announced a Digital Volunteer program to help respond to question from and provide information to the public during disasters.”

While important challenges do exist, there are many positive externalities to leveraging digital volunteers. As deputy high commissioner of UNHCR noted about this UNHCR-volunteer project in Somalia, these types of projects create more citizen-engagement and raises awareness of humanitarian organizations and projects. This in part explains why UNHCR wants more, not less, engage-ment with digital volunteers. Indeed, these volunteers also develop important skills that will be increasingly sought after by humanitarian organizations recruit-ing for junior full-time positions. Humanitarian organizations are likely to be come smarter and more up to speed on humanitarian technologies and digital humanitarian skills as a result. This change should be embraced.

So given the rise of “self-quantified” disaster-affected communities and digitally empowered volunteer communities, is there a future for traditional humani-tarian organizations? Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is seriously misguided and out of touch with innovation in the humanitarian space. Twitter will not put the UN out of business. Humanitarian organizations will continue to play some very important roles, especially those relating to logistics and coor-dination. These organizations will continue outsourcing some roles but will also take on some new roles. The issue here is simply one of comparative advantage. Humanitarian organizations used to have a comparative advantage in some areas, but this has shifted for all the reasons described above. So outsourcing in some cases makes perfect sense.

Interestingly, organizations like UN OCHA are also changing some of their own internal information management processes as a result of their collaboration with volunteer networks like the SBTF, which they expect will lead to a number of efficiency gains. Furthermore, OCHA is behind the Digital Humanitarians initiative and has also been developing a check-in app for humanitarian pro-fessionals to use in disaster response—clear signs of innovation and change. Meanwhile, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has just launched a $75+ million fund to leverage new technologies in support of humani-tarian response; this includes mobile phones, satellite imagery, Twitter as well as other social media technologies, digital mapping and gaming technologies. Given that crisis mapping integrates these new technologies and has been at the cutting edge of innovation in the humanitarian space, I’ve invited DfID to participate in this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012).

In conclusion, and as argued two years ago, the humanitarian industry is shifting towards a more multi-polar system. The rise of new actors, from digitally empowered disaster-affected communities to digital volunteer networks, has been driven by the rapid commercialization of communication technology—particularly the mobile phone and social networking platforms. These trends are unlikely to change soon and crises will continue to spur innovations in this space. This does not mean that traditional humanitarian organizations are becoming obsolete. Their roles are simply changing and this change is proof that they are not battlefield monuments. Of course, only time will tell whether they change fast enough.

The Standby Volunteer Task Force: One Year On

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) was launched exactly a year ago tomorrow and what a ride it has been! It was on September 26, 2010, that I published the blog post below to begin rallying the first volunteers to the cause.

The first blog post announcing the SBTF

Some three hundred and sixty plus days later, no fewer than 621 volunteers have joined the SBTF. These amazing individuals are based in the following sixty plus countries, including: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guam, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Republic of South Korea, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela.

Most members have added themselves to the SBTF map below.

Between them, members of the SBTF represent several hundred organizations, including the American Red Cross, the American University in Cairo, Australia’s National University, Bertelsmann Foundation, Briceland Volunteer Fire Department, Brussels School of International Studies, Carter Center, Columbia University, Crisis Commons, Deloitte Consulting, Engineers without Borders, European Commission Joint Research Center, Fairfax County International Search & Rescue Team, Fire Department of NYC, Fletcher School, GIS Corps, Global Voices Online, Google, Government of Ontario, Grameen Development Services, Habitat for Humanity, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, John Carroll University, Johns Hopkins University, Lewis and Clark College, Lund University, Mercy Corps, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of New Zealand, Medecins Sans Frontieres, NASA, National Emergency Management Association, National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue, Nethope, New York University, OCHA, Open Geospatial Consortium, OpenStreetMap, OSCE, Pan American Health Organization, Portuguese Red Cross, Sahana Software Foundation, Save the Children, Sciences Po Paris, Skoll Foundation, School of Oriental and African Studies, Tallinn University, Tech Change, Tulane University, UC Berkeley,  UN Volunteers, UNAIDS, UNDP Bangladesh, University of Algiers, University of Colorado, University of Portsmouth, UNOPS, Ushahidi-Liberia, WHO, World Bank and Yale University.

Over the past twelve months, major SBTF deployments have included the Colombia Disaster Simulation with UN OCHA Colombia, Sudan Vote Monitor, Cyclone Yasi, Christchurch Earthquake, Libya Crisis Map and the Alabama Tornado. SBTF volunteers were also involved in other projects in Mumbai, Khartoum, Somalia and Syria with partners such as UNHCR and AI-USA. The latter two saw the establishment of a brand new SBTF team, the Satellite Imagery Team, the eleventh team to joint the SBTF Group (see figure below).  SBTF Coordinators organized and held several trainings for new members in 2011, as have our partners like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. You can learn more about all this (and join!) by visiting the SBTF blog.

We’re  grateful to have been featured in the media on several occasions over the past year, documenting how we’re changing the world, one map at a time. CNN, UK Guardian, The Economist, Fast Company, IRIN News, Washington Post, Technology Review, PBS and NPR all covered our efforts. The SBTF has also been presented at numerous conferences such as TEDxSilicon Valley, The Skoll World Forum, Re:publica, ICRC Global Communications Forum, ESRI User Conference and Share Conference. But absolutely none of this would be possible without the inspiring dedication of SBTF members and Team Coordinators.

Indeed, were it not for them, the Libya Crisis Map that we launched for UN OCHA would have looked like this (as would all the other maps):

So this digital birthday cakes goes to every SBTF member who offered their time and thereby made what this global network is today, you all know who you are and have my sincere gratitude, respect and deep admiration. SBTF Coordinators and Core Team Members deserve very special thanks and recognition for the many, many extra days and indeed weeks they have committed to the SBTF. We are also most grateful to our partners, including Ning, UN OCHA-Geneva and OCHA-Colombia for their support, camaraderie and mentorship. So a big, big thank you to all and a very happy birthday, Mapsters! I look forward to the second candle!

Passing the I’m-Not-Gaddafi Test: Authenticating Identity During Crisis Mapping Operations

I’ve found myself telling this story so often in response to various questions that it really should be a blog post. The story begins with the launch of the Libya Crisis Map a few months ago at the request of the UN. After the first 10 days of deploying the live map, the UN asked us to continue for another two weeks. When I write “us” here, I mean the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), which is designed for short-term rapid crisis mapping support, not long term deploy-ments. So we needed to recruit additional volunteers to continue mapping the Libya crisis. And this is where the I’m-not-Gaddafi test comes in.

To do our live crisis mapping work, SBTF volunteers generally need password access to whatever mapping platform we happen to be using. This has typically been the Ushahidi platform. Giving out passwords to several dozen volunteers in almost as many countries requires trust. Password access means one could start sabotaging the platform, e.g., deleting reports, creating fake ones, etc. So when we began recruiting 200+ new volunteers to sustain our crisis mapping efforts in Libya, we needed a way to vet these new recruits, particularly since we were dealing with a political conflict. So we set up an I’m-not-Gaddafi test by using this Google Form:

So we placed the burden of proof on our (very patient) volunteers. Here’s a quick summary of the key items we used in our “grading” to authenticate volunteers’ identity:

Email address: Professional or academic email addresses were preferred and received a more favorable “score”.

Twitter handle: The great thing about Twitter is you can read through weeks’ worth of someone’s Twitter stream. I personally used this feature several times to determine whether any political tweets revealed a pro-Gaddafi attitude.

Facebook page: Given that posing as someone else or a fictitious person on Facebook violates their terms of service, having the link to an applicant’s Facebook page was considered a plus.

LinkedIn profile: This was a particularly useful piece of evidence given that the majority of people on LinkedIn are professionals.

Personal/Professional blog or website: This was also a great to way to authenticate an individual’s identity. We also encouraged applicants to share links to anything they had published which was available online.

For every application, we had two or more of us from the core team go through the responses. In order to sign off a new volunteer as vetted, two people had to write down “Yes” with their name. We would give priority to the most complete applications. I would say that 80% of the 200+ applications we received were able to be signed off on without requiring additional information. We did follow ups via email for the remaining 20%, the majority of whom provided us with extra info that enabled us to validate their identity. One individual even sent us a copy of his official ID. There may have been a handful who didn’t reply to our requests for additional information.

This entire vetting process appears to have worked, but it was extremely laborious and time-consuming. I personally spent hours and hours going through more than 100 applications. We definitely need to come up with a different system in the future. So I’ve been exploring some possible solutions—such as social authentication—with a number of groups and I hope to provide an update next month which will make all our lives a lot easier, not to mention give us more dedicated mapping time. There’s also the need to improve the Ushahidi platform to make it more like Wikipedia, i.e., where contributions can be tracked and logged. I think combining both approaches—identity authentication and tracking—may be the way to go.

The Volunteers Behind the Libya Crisis Map: A True Story

My colleague Clay Shirky calls it “Cognitive Surplus” in his recent book. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams refer to it as “MacroWikinomics” in theirs. What is cognitive surplus? The trillion hours of free time enjoyed by the world’s educated population every year. Don and Tony describe MacroWikinomics as mass distributed collaboration on scales we’ve never seen before thanks to technology. We’re familiar with deficits and shortages, writes, Clay, but when it comes to surplus social capital, things quickly become unpredictable—especially when this capital scales thanks to the use of social networking platforms and Web 2.0 technologies. But then again, says Clay, “Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.”

We saw cognitive surplus and macrowikinomics in action in the wake of the Haiti earthquake when more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti. The map above depicts the location of each digital volunteer based on their ISP address.

As I noted in my talk at PopTech last year, it was an emotional reaction to the breaking news on CNN that prompted me to call my colleague David Kobia at Ushahidi to launch a crisis map of Haiti. But it was access to social networks, cognitive surplus, free social networking and easy mapping tools that translated that initially private, emotional reaction into public, collective action. And this was by no means a one-off, as I recently noted in my blog post on Changing the World One Map at a Time.

The Standby Task Force volunteers behind the Libya crisis map have been equally inspiring. They come from diverse backgrounds and live in some 30 countries. The map above doesn’t (yet) include all the 220+ Task Force volunteers, but it  gives you an idea of just how global this initiative is.

Just yesterday, I found out that one volunteer is an airside manager at Heathrow airport in charge of real-time crisis management and incident control. He jumps on Skype to help out on the Libya crisis map after the last aircraft have taken off around midnight. Another is 63 and was part of an initial group that put the pieces together leading to the modern tour business of rock and roll concerts back in the 1970s. He did the setup for the Simon & Garfunkle tour in the early 80s. A third volunteer brings 16 years of disaster management experience to the Task Force and has lead a number of international search & rescue teams around the world. I could go on, and on—there are more than 200 of such profiles!

It’s also great to see that the Task Force is nowhere close to just being a “Global North” initiative. We have volunteers from (or based in) Haiti, Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, Samoa, Colombia and Brazil. And this is again just a subset.

These volunteers have accomplished so much over the past 7 days. An hour after UN/OCHA requested activation of the Task Force, the Tech Team launched the technical platform for the crisis map using Ushahidi, which they’ve been customizing (front-end and back-end) every day since. They launched a second map for the public just days later and in the first 3 days of that launch, the site received 18,000+ unique visitors and 44,000+ pageviews from 65 countries.

The Media Monitoring Team, Geolocation Team, Reports Team and Verification Team have mapped some 500 individual reports in just 7 days. They’ve been monitoring over 70 individual online sources almost around the clock for relevant content that can be added to the map. The Geolocation Team has found GPS coordinates for all the reports that end up on the map thanks to the Reports Team. The Analysis Team has produced a number of important heat maps and trends analysis reports for OCHA. The Verification Team has been providing quality control for the mapped data and triangulating reports whenever possible.

Meanwhile, the Task Team has focused on two core and urgent research projects solicited by the UN to improve the crisis map and their preparedness operations. The Humanitarian Liaison Team is composed of Task Force coordinators and representatives from the UN and other humanitarian groups. They facilitate communication between the teams listed above and our humanitarian partners. Between them, all of these teams have written over 1,200 Word document pages, font size 10, based on their exchanges on the Skype—again in just 7 days. Did I mention that these are all volunteers contributing their own “cognitive surplus” above and beyond their current jobs, classes, family lives?

It’s incredible to think that the Task Force only launched last October. And it’s only going to keep getting better, keep growing. Indeed, we’re now in touch with the coordinators of the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) program after I suggested to the UN in a phone conversation and my previous blog post that we tap into that resource to scale the Task Force’s support for Libya and beyond. It turns out the UN has an Online Volunteers Service (OVS) website!

According to our contacts at OVS,

“Many NGOs, governments and United Nations agencies already recognize the value of online volunteering, their satisfaction with the collaboration with online volunteers runs at 90%.  In 2010, our three person OVS staff team mobilized 10,000 online volunteers from 168 countries who completed 15,000 assignments, amongst them online volunteers who supported UN OCHA Colombia in the area of disaster related data gathering and management.”

To say I’m super, super excited about this potential collaboration would be an understatement. In fact, I always grin when writing the following to recruit new volunteers: “So, you want to be a Crisis Mapper?” Totally stealing Yoda’s line from StarWars when he asks young Luke Skywalker: “So, you want to be a Jedi, hmmmm?” For me, today’s Jedis are definitely the crisis mappers I work with on the Task Force. So as I’m fond of saying:

“May the Crowd be with you, always.”

Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force: Apply Now!

Please click here to apply to the Crisis Mappers Volunteer Task Force.

_______________________________________________________

The disaster response to Haiti was unprecedented in terms of volunteer buy-in and contribution. It was also reactive. The hundreds of volunteers who rallied to the cause were certainly able and committed but one of the main challenges during the first few weeks was the need to train and maintain this informal network. The humanitarian community openly recognizes the important role that volunteer networks can play in crisis response. What they need now are guarantees that a trained and professionalized volunteer force can be on standby and activated within hours. The good news? Many of the volunteers I interacted with during the response to Haiti, Chile and now Pakistan are eager to join a professionalized volunteer standby team.

So what exactly are we waiting for? I posed this question to my colleagues George Chamales and Rob Munro in San Francisco yesterday. Indeed, there’s no reason to wait. We can get started now so we can take this initiative to the upcoming International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) and get feedback from participants. The challenge, as mentioned in my previous blog post on Disaster Relief 2.0, is to find a way to interface an informal distributed network of volunteers with a highly organized and structured organization like UN OCHA. Three types of reliable networks are needed for this interface: (1) Tech Team; (2) Task Team; and (3) Crowd Force Team.

On the technical side, what colleagues and I have found to be particularly important is to have a group of software developers who are already highly experienced in deploying platforms like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc. This is not about building new tools from scratch. The point here is to rapidly customize existing tools that have already seen action. On the Ushahidi side, there are more and more seasoned Ushahidi developers. These individuals are the ones who made the deployments in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan possible. This network of core technical and reliable volunteers doesn’t need to be large and it already exists.

What this group needs, however, is a support team that can take specific technical tasks given to them for implementation, e.g., fixing an important bug, etc. That way, the core team can focus on rapidly developing customized Ushahidi plugin’s and so on. We need to create a roster of standby software dev’s who are already qualified and ready to support the core team. This group largely exists already, but we need to formalize, professionalize and publicize this information on a dedicated site and turn them into a standby force.

The second type of standby group needed is the Task Team. These are individuals who are not software developers but savvy in media monitoring, geo-referencing, mapping, blogging on updates, etc. These individuals already exist, they played an invaluable role in contributing their time and skills to the responses in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan. Again, it’s just a matter of formalizing, professionalizing and publicizing the information, i.e., to render visible the capacity and assets that already exists, and to have them on standby.

This core task-based team also needs a strong support team for back-up, especially during the first few days of an emergency. This is where the Crowd Force Team comes in. This important team doesn’t need prior-training; only Internet access, browsing experience, an interest in online maps, news, etc. Perhaps most importantly, members of the Crowd Force Team are known for their energy, commitment, team-player attitude and can-do mentality.

We want to formalize this Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force in a professional manner. This means that individuals who want to be part of Tech, Task or Crowd Force Team need to apply. We will first focus on the Ushahidi platform. In the case of the Tech and Task team, interested applicants need to clearly demonstrate that they have the experience necessary to be part of the Standby Task Force. I would actually want to include representatives from the humanitarian community to participate in vetting the candidates who apply. Individuals who want to join the Crowd Force Team will also need to apply so we can keep a roster of the people power available along with their skill set.

There’s no reason we can’t do this. If we learned anything from Haiti, it’s that Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) don’t need to be physically present to contribute to disaster response thanks to online social networking tools and open source platforms like Ushahidi, etc. They can be part of the online community. We need CERTs 2.0 and just like traditional response teams, they should be trained and ready.

My experienced colleagues George Chamales and Anahi Ayala will lead the Technical and Task Teams respectively. Anahi will also coordinate the Crowd Force Team. They will help select the applicants, set up the appropriate communication channels and keep a calendar of which members of their teams are available for rapid response on a daily basis. Jaroslav Valuch and I will support George and Anahi in their efforts.

Please click here to apply to the Crisis Mappers Volunteer Task Force. Once we have developed a robust model for interfacing with the humanitarian community using the Ushahidi platform, we hope to work with other colleagues from FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc., so that their qualified volunteers can be part of this dedicated Task Force.