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Technical Communities Redefine Disaster Volunteerism

Making every disaster local with technology, social media and volunteer communities.

Many emergency managers today struggle with the challenge of incorporating social media into what they do both during an event and on a daily basis. Social media is unpredictable, and the information spread through these platforms is erratic, hard to control and difficult to verify.

Another challenge for emergency managers will be merging convergent volunteers, social networking and emerging technology. It generates something Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus, calls “open source disaster management,” which could be an effective tool because of its potential, but is frustrating for emergency managers because it is unconventional.

“It will be like open source [free] software,” Botterell said. “It’s a process that nobody owns, with nobody in charge, and nobody has a clue how to make a business out of it — yet it keeps happening anyway.”

That’s why CrisisCommons was developed — it converges international resources during a disaster.

CrisisCommons is an international community of volunteers encompassing crisis response organizations, technology organizations, government agencies and citizens working together to use technology to help respond to disasters and improve preparedness.

Traditional volunteers are mobilized to perform a specific range of actions: manage logistics, provide medical care or establish shelters. This new form of volunteer, according to a World Bank report published in March 2011, is the humanitarian technologist. “These experts — who are most often technical professionals with deep expertise in geographic information systems, database management, social media and/or online campaigns — applied their skills to some of the hardest elements of the disaster risk management process,” the report stated.

Instead of working in a hierarchy, volunteer technical communities (VTC) use a decentralized “commons” structure that’s adapted from online communities like Wikipedia. They work in loose groups; they gather in a global, virtual community. Emergency managers will have to understand who they are, what they do and how to use them.

Volunteer Technical Communities

The VTCs use the word “community” very deliberately: They create an online community of people who share common characteristics and interests. Where the worldwide adoption of Internet technology over the past 15 years has dissolved many real-world community bonds, virtual communities like Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, VKontakte (Russia), and Mixi (Japan) have replaced them.

One of the most striking examples of how the strength and growth of online communities has affected emergency management is the difference in response to earthquakes.

During the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake that struck Japan in 1995, cellphones were uncommon and the use of Internet communications was new. The few people with Internet access were overwhelmed by those desperate to get information.

During the 2011 Thoku (or Great East Japan) earthquake and tsunami, social media allowed citizens to create their own knowledge base, in real time, and share it globally. Or consider the difference between the 1999 Kocaeli and the recent (2011) Van earthquakes in Turkey. Pelin Turgut, Time’s Turkey correspondent, recalled lugging around a satellite phone in 1999 to dictate stories because there was no other communication. After the latest earthquake, she wrote, “Technologies whirred into motion that would have been unimaginable back then.” Those included Google’s Person Finder, crisis mapping using geocoded tweets from the public, one-click text message donation services and Facebook aid requests.


The missing piece of the puzzle was a community that could support and coordinate the VTCs and provide a link between them and the emergency response and relief agencies that they wanted to help. CrisisCommons was proposed as the nexus for three groups: crisis response organizations, other VTCs and private-sector companies willing to donate resources.

CrisisCommons’ founders — Heather Blanchard, a specialist in policy development in crisis communication and management; Noel Dickover, a consultant in human performance technology; and Andrew Turner, a neogeographer helping build a geospatial web — were working through the details that would define CrisisCommons when the Haiti earthquake happened in January 2010.

CrisisCommons organized a CrisisCamp in Washington, D.C., a few days after the earthquake during which IT professionals, software developers and computer programmers came together to develop projects that would assist disaster relief. Eventually there were CrisisCamps in several cities across the United States and Canada, and the model spread to Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. Many of CrisisCommons’ active volunteers joined right after the Haiti earthquake.

David Black, the emergency manager at the University of Toronto, found out about CrisisCommons from a tweet asking for help to host a CrisisCamp to help Haiti in the Toronto area. “All they needed was space and Wi-Fi,” he said. “I’m at a university, and I have lots of that. They brought everything else they needed.”

Black helped recruit students with both technical and nontechnical skills from the University of Toronto for what was called CrisisCamp Haiti. He watched computer students working with technology professionals to build a language translator for clinics. Haitian students who couldn’t go home helped develop the language syntax.

Black is still very involved with CrisisCommons as an active member of its Governance Committee, along with Pascal Schuback, a program coordinator for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

Schuback was involved with CrisisCamp Haiti in Seattle, working with the London CrisisCamps. “The London team was taking on projects in the morning and we would take over in the afternoon,” he said. “We would just rotate through the technology with the capability of continuing their projects.”

The most significant collaboration from CrisisCamp Haiti was the OpenStreetMap for Port-au-Prince. CrisisCampers used satellite imagery from the United Nations to create a highly detailed map in 48 hours. Non-programmers traced roads, and Haitians living outside Haiti identified streets and other landmarks. The map was widely used by governments, rescue teams and nongovernmental organizations.

Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, provided this example in one of his blogs: “As the map improved in quality, the volunteers were eventually able to offer routing information for relief trucks based on road damage that was visible on the satellite imagery. A convoy would request a route for a 4-ton water truck, and volunteers would use their bird’s-eye view of the situation — from half a continent away — to suggest the safest route. Ultimately the government of Haiti requested access to the information, and CrisisCamps provided not only the data, but training in using it.”

Since Haiti, CrisisCommons has been monitoring worldwide crises and supporting CrisisCamps when they are established, as they were for the earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, China and Japan; the Gulf of Mexico oil spill; the floods in Pakistan and others. CrisisCamps and coordination with other VTCs have become routine.

Facing the Future

The future of emergency managers will certainly incorporate emerging technology — and the volunteers who practice it — into planning. “What we need to do is change our mentality of what volunteers can do,” said King County’s Schuback. “How can we use this [new technology] in emergency management?”

The obvious answer is to embrace the local technical community early. One of the foundations of emergency management is developing relationships before an event and not during the response. But it’s important to recognize that those relationships are going to look different and who you might be working with probably won’t be in the same room or even the same country.

“I have worked with people from Nairobi, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Canada — all over the place,” Schuback said. “Every disaster is local in our global environment.”

Available Tools

CrisisCamps and other volunteer technical communities have designed several projects to help emergency managers better operate before an event. The Situational Awareness and Rapid Assessment Application, developed by Pascal Schuback, program coordinator for the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management, is a situational reporting app for crowdsourcing information about emerging emergency situations.

The Mobile Assessment of Damage for the Public app streamlines reporting and assessing the amount of damage during a disaster. It helps develop the preliminary damage assessment estimates that help determine disaster declarations.

The Collaborative Risk Assessment Tool — an online app to collaboratively do a risk/hazard analysis — was proposed as a way to support hazard identification and scoring.

Social Media for the Emergency Manager (SMEM) was established to help bridge the social media gaps in emergency management practice. The strategy is to have monthly open conference calls and ad hoc workgroups called BarCamps. The first SMEM gathering was at the National Emergency Managers Association mid-year conference in March 2011, a report about which highlighted the gap between how these new technologies could be used and how they’re currently being used, with a heavy emphasis on training, education and buy-in at senior leadership levels.

CrisisCommons’ current focus is encouraging technical volunteers to get involved with their local agencies and vice versa. To that end, the CrisisCamper Tour 2011 made 22 stops in 16 cities, engaging local technical communities and emergency managers to help create those relationships. The CrisisCamper Tour 2012 is being planned for the East Coast.

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager and certified business continuity professional. She also writes the Disaster Academia blog for Emergency Management at

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.