Disclaimer: I’m terrible at blogging, and know it. My last post before this one was last November. However, I feel strongly about what I’ve written here, and hope to continue learning from those around me.
On April 27th, 2011, at least four E-F4 tornadoes touched in the area near Chattanooga, TN (my home town). Having used social media for disaster relief purposes for over a year, I quickly became involved in the immediate aftermath of the storms’ destruction.
For over a year, I’ve been involved in an organized group of volunteers behind CrisisCommons, a nonprofit organization that uses technology and social media to help in times of crisis worldwide (http://crisiscommons.org/).
CrisisCommons seeks to advance and support the use of open data and volunteer technology communities to catalyze innovation in crisis management and global development.
CrisisCommons actively supports CrisisCamp, a barcamp event, which seeks to connect a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis.
A month ago, right after the Japan quake, I wrote the following in a LinkedIn post inside a Chattanooga-based group to explain a little more about what CrisisCommons does:
A Crisis Camp is where volunteers get together (often times programmers, but people with any skills normally have stuff to do) to help in times of crisis around the world. There was a very big effort right after the earthquake in Haiti, during the flooding in Pakistan, and many other disasters that occurred last year.
The movement is centered around www.crisiscommons.org, of which I’m a member, and communication is mainly doing through twitter using hashtags such as #crisiscamp, #crisiscommons, and others.
I first learned of Crisis Commons in early 2010 following the Haiti earthquake. I participated in a single CrisisCamp in Boston in February, 2010 to help with the Haiti relief efforts, and since that first involvement with Crisis Commons, I’ve helped disseminate CrisisCommons information over Twitter, and have recently become a team member of the behind-the-scenes infrastructure team to help keep the servers and website up and running (even in times of no crisis), although I haven’t really done anything useful yet, and haven’t been as involved in the CrisisCommons movement as much as I would have liked to be.
Over the last week, however, disaster struck where I least expected it: Home. I never imagined that I would be putting my experiences to use to help in my own (United States based) backyard. I have observed a lot over the last week about how real-time crisis data affects communities. A lot of good has been done by dozens of individuals in my community. However, there is always room for improvement, and there were issues I noticed that I’m still not convinced have a good solution. I have learned much over the past week that I hope to never forget, and I’d like to write them down publicly.
- Ask organizers before making information public
On Thursday morning, I was wide awake at 4:30am, probably because my adrenaline had been pumping since 6:30pm the evening before! My housemate was not too far behind me, as he was headed into his regular 10-hour shift of translating at a hospital. Being the social media nutcase I am, I immediately got onto my iPhone and perused Twitter and began tweeting out some information. My housemate forwarded me an email (from HIS smart phone) that a deacon at my church (New City Fellowship) had sent, asking volunteers to show up at New City in the morning. I tweeted that out, asked folks to start using some hashtags for the relief effort, and then fell asleep again for a couple hours.
By the time I made it to New City, my tweet for volunteers had gotten retweeted, and was even relayed across a radio station – and then it became clear to me that while the leadership at New City was very willing to have the volunteers, they were not expecting a huge turnout!
Lesson Learned: Check with the organizers to see if the information should be made public or not.
- When many people want to help, collaboration is vital
In the wake of the tornadoes, something very interesting happened. While dozens of people began networking together over Twitter and Facebook (which wasn’t all that surprising), several websites appeared with lists of needs. The problem wasn’t a lack of information. The problem was too MUCH information in too many locations. Nothing was centralized, and a lot of work was being duplicated, on multiple websites, making it difficult to find “all” the current data.
Over the weekend, I met with @StratParrott, @JonFMoss, and @brandipearl to talk about a website Strat had started, http://chattanoogaareadisasterrelief.com, to address just this issue. Strat had done (and is still doing) an amazing job collecting & centralizing data into one location, and even in volunteering his time and talents to help with the relief effort.
While the website quickly became recognized as one of the go-to sites for disaster relief information in the Chattanooga / Cleveland / Ringgold areas, there were STILL too many websites posting data on their own. A centralized location for all of the data was still needed.
In future times of crises, I would love to see a community come together and work on a project together, where all of the data is located in one spot. Last night, I discussed this problem briefly with a CrisisCommons IT volunteer who lives in Seattle who has also noticed this kind of problem in disaster relief response. An idea has been floated about building a 2-way data-sharing application, where multiple websites can display the data (and solicit data from individuals), but be able to share the data with everyone else using the application.
I will continue discussing this idea with the CrisisCommons community, and am hopeful that a solution for this kind of problem can be solved – and that in times of crises, websites will choose to collaborate, and not do their own thing.
- Even if an organization has thousands of volunteers, it does not mean it has local recognition
Following the tornadoes, while I had in the past tried to organize some folks to talk about CrisisCommons, I learned that there wasn’t much recognition for the work, purposes, and advantages of working with this specific community. I also quickly realized that due to this “unknown”, it was not a good time for me to try to find more people. I realized that if I had continued to try, I would have become annoying, I would be providing unwanted “advice”, and that I would harm the organizing efforts that were doing good.
A key facet of my education as a Community Development major at Covenant College is that if a local community doesn’t embrace an idea, then the “community developer” should NEVER “force” this idea onto the community. Similarly, I believe that in times of crises, that if something is already being done in the community that is providing “good”, then that effort should not be hindered. Yes, there is always room for improvement. But there comes a point where it is important to step back and decide whether or not your idea and your voice really matter. In the long run, will doing something just a little bit different really make a big difference?
Usually, in times like this, when life & death is NOT on the line, the answer is no. (Of course, there ARE those times where experienced rescue crews from “outside” a community MUST be given absolute authority. There is a big difference between “relief” and “development” – relief is doing something for people that they can not do on their own.)
My lesson: spend time outside of the immediate aftermath of a disaster to forge relationships, spread the word, and find people to support the work that an established organization such as CrisisCommons is doing. That way, when crises do hit, the relationships will already be formed.
These are just three of my observations, and “what I learned” moments over the last 7 days. A lot of good is happening here, and a lot of help is still needed for hundreds (thousands?) of people in our area. I will continue to do what I can through social media – and when I have the time, through volunteering with my hands – to help. But these 3 lessons I believe are vital to remember: Check with organizers, collaborate! collaborate! collaborate!, and build relationships before times of crises.
As a former Community Development major at Covenant College, I truly do envision myself (and hope to be) using technology and social media some day as a full time job to help those suffering in poverty and in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters world wide. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, I’m all ears!
Excellent post. Lots that I could say in response. For right now, I will simply say two things:
First, on the technical side, to address your point 2, I offer the possible suggestion of having a site that is kind of an aggregator of all the information:
For things like Tweets, FB posts that are public, Flickr, etc. it would have to use technology similar to that used by “sentiment analysis” systems to recognize (and filter) what was relevant.
RSS feeds could, of course, be ingested via some automated mechanism.
For other things, possibly we could encourage people to use RDFa or some kind of other semantic markup to identify relevance. But then the site would have to proactively crawl the Web to identify that markup. Thus, this would take some serious IT power, and would probably have to be provided as a cloud service by Google or the like (although someone could probably build it to run on Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine).
Then, on the ComDev side, in regard to point 3, I think that this important to raise. People need to recognize technology is a means, not an end. It shouldn’t be promoted at the expense of what is actually important – i.e., saving lives.
This means people who do the tech side of things will largely be unsung heroes, and to call attention to themselves will generally be counterproductive. But as Christians, we should be familiar with what it means to do good works in secret.
Thanks again, David, for sharing these thoughts. I know that you have a lot of experience and effort backing them up, and I look forward to seeing what you will do in the future.