Tag Archives: Volunteers

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.

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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.