Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, there was a dire need for immediate aid. Mobile fund-raising campaigns, supported by a slew of boldface names and institutions, raised tens of millions of dollars in a matter of days.
Apart from donating money to aid organizations, what could the average individual do to help from thousands of miles away? The leaders of CrisisCommons quickly came together to hold CrisisCamp gatherings around the world, calling on volunteers to bring their technical skills and help those on the ground in Haiti.
CrisisCommons, a nonprofit aid group, was founded in March 2009 by a group of individuals interested in “the idea of creating a common community consisting of citizen volunteers, crisis response organizations, international humanitarian relief agencies, nonprofits and the private sector.” Participants included those with strong technical backgrounds (computer programmers, hackers, developers), individuals with expertise in social media, and even people without particular technical skills. Over the next nine months, the group met in person and held online discussions about the role of technology in humanitarian relief and disaster response efforts and carried on a dialogue about what CrisisCommons could potentially do.
When the disaster in Haiti struck, they knew that they had the skills and energy needed to build computer applications and tools that could be used to directly assist those on the ground in Haiti.
Canadian Heather Leson, a community organizer for the Toronto Girl Geek Dinners and Podcamp, was already a member of the CrisisCommons Facebook group when she received an email from CrisisCommons co-founder Heather Blanchard on January 12, 2010, mentioning a global conference call the following day. Leson, like many other volunteers, participated in the call; she became the City Coordinator for CrisisCamp Toronto. Members of CrisisCommons chapters across the U.S. and the world were soon mobilized and decided to hold the first camp on the Saturday following the earthquake.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
On Saturday, January 16, four days after the earthquake, CrisisCommons organized the first Haiti Earthquake CrisisCamp in Washington, D.C. Four groups in other cities decided to hold gatherings as well. Over the next few weeks, some 40 CrisisCamps were held in cities like San Francisco, New York, Denver, Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, Bogotá and London. The gatherings were not as formal as a conference; instead, they had a more grassroots approach similar to a “barcamp.”
Volunteers reached out to others in the tech, business, nonprofit and government communities via social networks like Facebook, e-mail lists and word of mouth. Twitter proved to be a highly valuable tool for recruiting volunteers. Heather Leson describes:
"Our Toronto core team was built on Twitter. We obtained an emergency response planner, a venue, a media relations coordinator and two social media trainers. My tweets were RT'ed by BoingBoing and Alyssa Milano. These provided enough visibility to capture some amazing volunteer help in our city."
In many cities, Eventbrite was used to get an estimate of who was coming and what skills he or she brought. CrisisCamp organizers found businesses or organizations willing to host the meeting space—in D.C. the camp was held at the Sunlight Foundation and NPR headquarters, a software company sponsored the gathering in Boston and the University of Toronto hosted the group in Toronto.
Organizing a series of CrisisCamps across the world was a great lesson in collaborating with a purpose. With such an ad-hoc gathering of people from different backgrounds, how could CrisisCamp leaders best manage and coordinate activities not only at their individual site locations, but across the different Crisis Camp sites? How could collaboration on such a large scale be organized?
The first key was strong leadership: Each CrisisCamp site had primary organizers, and each project in development had a designated team leader. As co-organizer Andy Carvin shares, “We show up with the essential tasks already outlined, and we then get to work. For each project we’d identify a project manager, and we’d meet up during the day at regular intervals, like we were doing Agile product development on speed. Each city would have a coordinator as well, and sometimes an overall project manager who could keep everything flowing.”
The second key was having a wiki that was used as a central repository for all things CrisisCamp Haiti. The wiki was a place to set agendas, delegate tasks and figure out who was doing what. Newcomers to CrisisCamp could look at the wiki to make sense of what was happening. Since multiple camps were being held around the world on the same day, having the wiki made it easier to change over content from location to location.
How could organizers manage this mass collaboration across locations? In the video below, Peter Ordal at CrisisCamp in D.C. describes how the different groups communicated with one another.
With leaders in place and a wiki to share information, what were CrisisCamp volunteers actually working on? There were many different types of projects being tackled at each site, from creating an updated base layer map of Port-au-Prince and a missing persons database to developing a translation service and a supply exchange board. Twitter was also being monitored for tweets relevant to aid and relief efforts on the ground. As CrisisCamp co-founder Andrew Turner notes, “These efforts, tools and communities are not completely ad-hoc and spontaneous. They have evolved through joint experiences, social networks, technical exchanges and personal needs. The tools were developed around an initial kernel of a problem and then modified, evolved, cajoled and carried from one event and use to the next.”
Projects that CrisiCamp Haiti volunteers collaborated on included:
A Port-au-Prince Base Map: CrisisCamp Haiti was tasked with creating a more accurate base layer map of Port-au-Prince. This open-source, interactive map was used by first responders and relief organizations on the ground to navigate around Haiti’s capital. Volunteers worked to digitize map files and to add and replace street names. People without strong technical skills could also work on this OpenStreetMap; all they had to do was log in, create an account and start editing. iMapHaiti was a website set up with videos to briefly and clearly explain how to work with the tools.
Kyle Psaty of CrisisCamp Boston shares in the following video on how OpenStreetMap was used to map Haiti.
Person Finder: CrisisCamp volunteers worked to simplify the multiple missing person databases that were cropping up online. They compiled these various family and missing persons locater services into a Google Person Finder database. The end product was a Person Finder that integrated reports coming in from the New York Times, CNN iReports, a Facebook app, the Red Cross and SMS reports to the 4636 short code.
A mobile translation app: Much time was also devoted to developing Tradui, a mobile translation app that provides Creole-to-English and English-to-Creole translation for the iPhone and Android. Once the basic dictionary was built, the teams worked to expand the app to translate phrases and add pictographs, images that could be used if someone is illiterate or having trouble communicating.
Chris Selmer at CrisisCamp DC describes the app in this video:
“We Have We Need” exchange: Similar to Craigslist, the "We Have We Need" online board was used by relief organizations and individuals on the ground to find and exchange supplies and to match their needs with offers from donors.
Tweet Triage and Tweak the Tweet: The hashtag #Haiti was being used on Twitter for all tweets related to the earthquake. But how could tweets directly related to the relief efforts be sifted and sorted from all other tweets? Kate Starbird at Colorado University and others had already developed Tweak the Tweet, a crowdsourced "triaging" of tweets to get them in a more structured fashion. She and her team decided to work with CrisisCamp deploy Tweak the Tweet after the earthquake. This involved slightly modifying tweets related to the earthquake to make information pieces relating to location, status, needs and damage more "machine parsable." Then, Tweet Triage was used so that aid groups could focus their attention on tweets that required action on the ground. As described on the project's wiki: “Tweet Triage sucks in all #Haiti tweets and presents an interface for crowdsourced triage; the general public looks at the raw tweet stream and marks the tweets that require action on the ground. Aid groups can then focus on only those tweets and ignore the noise.”
Haitian Voices: The Haitian community requested that CrisisCommons create a place online for survivors to tell their story of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Haitian Voices is an online space that is a work in progress; on the site survivors will be able to share their stories with one another and the world.
In the video below, American Public Media reports on what was happening at CrisisCamp Haiti in Washington, D.C.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
Building relationships with governments, NGOS and other aid-related institutions is challenging for any group. CrisisCamps volunteers used their social networks to reach out to organizations and quickly connect with exisiting aid and emergency response agencies. In the midst of the earthquake crisis, not having a pre-existing relationship with a group made it more difficult for CrisisCamp organizers to find a "client" to work on a project for.
With so many projects being developed at once, it's not surprising that it proved challenging to keep everything coordinated. Andy Carvin noted that an important lesson learned was to give people specific tasks to work on, which helps to reduce any confusion and improves project management. Kate Starbird described the challenges of managing Tweak the Tweet: "The boundaries of our work groups were very porous - people jumped on and off projects frequently. [We found someone] to pull together work from the different sites and to direct people from afar. In many ways, these tasks were far harder than running the Tweak the Tweet campaign or building in-house tools to support TtT use."
"Mass collaboration during a crisis will always include some chaos. We just need to find ways to ease the crowdsourcing to make it teachable and valuable," says Heather Leson. (This was also an important lesson learned by the Ushahidi/Fletcher School team).
Passing off projects to CrisisCamp gatherings in other cities was also a challenge, especially in instances where IRC (internet relay chat) ports were blocked, since this was a main way leaders communicated with one another. Leaders in different cities also found it challenging to learn how to create and manage a CrisisCamp since there was no structured information or toolkit availabe. Ensuring that projects and tasks were not being duplicated in different cities was also taxing.
In a recent blog post, Berkman Center senior researcher Ethan Zuckerman described other challenges identified by CrisisCamp members, including clearly defining problems and solutions, overcoming volunteer fatigue, and making sure projects are appropriately connected to the needs of relief agencies on the ground.
By all accounts, CrisisCamp Haiti was successful in creating and deploying online tools and mobile apps that quickly met many of the needs of those on the ground aiding in the relief effort.
CrisisCommons also received a lot of media attention about what they were working on, which aided in recruiting more interested volunteers and gave the group more credibility.
Andy Carvin shared a lesson learned:
“Remember that social media can be a mobilizing tool for offline, as well as online activities. If you’re doing something that can be grounded in your community, and work needs to be done fast, try to get people together in person if it’s appropriate. Not everything has to be done online, even though social media can help connect the dots."
Heather Leson described the challenges she faced and lessons she learned as the CrisisCamp City Coordinator for Toronto:
"My biggest challenge was balancing the software development and social media projects while trying to match the volunteers to the tasks at hand. I've used these experiences to guide my effort to spearhead improvements to the volunteer and CrisisCamp experience. Mass collaboration during a crisis will always include some chaos. We just need to find ways to ease the crowdsourcing to make it teachable and valuable."
Weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, another earthquake struck Chile. Again, CrisisCamps were held to help the relief effort there. Gatherings have also been held to work on projects centered around the Gulf oil spill in the United States. Volunteers worked to build an mobile Oil Reporter app.
What place does CrisisCamp serve in future relief efforts? As Zuckerman notes:
"The goal is to move from a Bar Camp/Hackathon model to a model that’s able to build sustainable projects. This means bringing project management into the mix, and asking hard questions like, “Does this project have a customer? Is it filling a well-defined need?” It also means building trust with crisis response organizations and groups like the World Bank and FEMA, who can help bring volunteer technology groups and crisis response groups together."
The group is trying to more fully develop an identity and figure out how it fits in amongst relief organizations, technology groups, governments, and private sector companies.
Recently, CrisisCommons held an international CrisisCongress where CrisisCamp leaders from cities around the world came to share their experiences from and lessons learned with CrisisCamp Chile and CrisisCamp Haiti. They also discussed how to better prepare for when another disaster strikes. You can read more about their discussions on the CrisisCongress wiki. Members of CrisisCommons are trying to learn from past gatherings to inform how they move forward in the future. They are in the process of compiling a CrisisCamp After Action Report on Haiti and Chile Response Efforts that will share detailed information about lessons learned and insights gained from these two response efforts. Kate Starbird shared, "From our preliminary research, we know that many remote volunteers used Tweak the Tweet as one tool (among many) for helping to filter and direct information to people who could act on it. We feel that this was a small part of the overall response, but an important one - and one that will be important to understand for future efforts."
A Crisis Wiki has also been built, as Carvin describes, to serve "as an editable yellow pages of resources for people who are being affected by disaster, or are concerned about people affected by disasters." It can work for any particular disaster.
Interested in joining or starting a CrisisCamp in your city? Visit http://crisiscommons.org/crisiscamps/ to see if a chapter already exists in your city and http://wiki.crisiscommons.org/wiki/Projects to learn how to start your own project or participate in a project already running.
blog comments powered by Disqus