Developing a Model for Tapping Technical Volunteers: From Crisis Mappers to DHS’s NET Guard

Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers brought together a network of people who, as described on their website, work at

Leveraging mobile platforms, computational linguistics, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.

Their well publicized crisis mapping effort was done during the response to the earthquake in Haiti, but Patrick Meier of Ushahidi has tried to find a way to formalize the formerly ad hoc nature of the group with a “Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force“. This group would be organized in advance of the next big event to work with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs or (OCHA). He envisions the group providing three things:  (1) technical support with regard to software deployment and development; (2) multi-media support including “media monitoring, geo-referencing, mapping, blogging on updates, etc.”;  and (3) a general support element, the Crowd Force Team, which would include individuals without any particularly specialized skills other than a willingness to help.

Others have talked about a Virtual Crisis Crowd Coordination Center (Gisli Olafsson in particular), which could potentially complement the Task Force concept. The VCCC (which has way too many C’s to be an acronym) would be a place for people to register their interest in volunteering their technical skills (remotely) to be matched with the needs of pre-registered organizations.

It seems we are grappling a little for a model to tap the cognitive surplus of more-than capable people that want to volunteer their technical skills during disasters.

But it’s worth noting that the Dept. of Homeland Security is already moving forward with a pilot project called “NET Guard” or National Emergency Technology Guard, which provides a way to deploy technical volunteers during crises. Although this model was not designed for people with the technical expertise available to the Crisis Mappers community, the model is worth considering.

The DHS website describes the project and its rationale as follows:

Information Technology (IT) and communications systems are vulnerable to damage from natural hazards, accidents, and acts of terrorism and play an essential part in the effectiveness of response operations. Most of the National Planning Scenarios contemplate the loss of, or significant damage to, IT and communications systems.

Following authorization in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the NET Guard program concept was developed through a DHS scoping initiative and work group involving stakeholders and potential partners including state and local government representatives, emergency managers, potential private sector partners and DHS Divisions. DHS/FEMA will use the NET Guard Pilot Programs to test and further evaluate and develop the program concept.

The NET Guard Program is envisioned as a means to provide emergency, temporary reconstitution of IT and communications systems, or installation of emergency, temporary IT and communications systems, for governmental entities, private non-profit entities performing governmental functions, and private sector entities providing essential services. The NET Guard Program is also envisioned as a means to surge additional IT and communications resources into impacted areas to assist entities with emergency IT and communications system activities.

The concept of the team includes several similar themes present in the Crisis Mappers Task Force concept in that volunteers

  1. will be verified with having relevant expertise
  2. tested as an asset during exercises
  3. established and maintained by either a government entity or through a private sector sponsor (e.g. the IBM tech volunteer team)

The NET Guard would be part of the Citizen Corps but with local emergency management affiliations (which is key for the development of trust) and are envisioned to be incorporated into their local agency’s emergency operations plans. Included in their functions in the pilot program–but buried way at the bottom– is the function of…”staffing expertise for GIS applications, social networking”. I feel like I found the needle in the haystack!

So, the questions I would ask then are:  (1.) Would the Crisis Mappers Task Force ever be envisioned for use in response efforts inside the United States? (2.) Where do volunteer efforts such as the Crisis Commons fit with these models, particularly in the U.S.? And (3.) If this is intended to be a local asset, what happens when a community is impacted and your asset has evacuated? In other words, it doesn’t take into account people that would like to contribute that live no where near the event.

See Also:

The Promises and Challenges of Crisis Response Tech Volunteers

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5 responses to “Developing a Model for Tapping Technical Volunteers: From Crisis Mappers to DHS’s NET Guard

  1. I think the Net Guard concept should be broadened to include a wider array of specialties and skills. And also, why not expand the mission and potential roles of the CERT program?

  2. Hi Kim,
    definitely interesting idea. Let me try to answer some of your questions…

    (1.) Would the Crisis Mappers Task Force ever be envisioned for use in response efforts inside the United States?

    Whatever we call this taskforce, it should be entity bringing together variety of similar efforts to make the volunteer online crisis crowd more actionable and effective in emergency. I don’t see any reason why this “crowd” shouldn’t be used in US emergencies, it would be actually desirable, given the US ICT infrastructure and the nature of the online tech community that is more effective in more developed ICT environments.

    This to some extent also answers your question #3:

    “If this is intended to be a local asset, what happens when a community is impacted and your asset has evacuated? In other words, it doesn’t take into account people that would like to contribute that live no where near the event.”

    The reason to create such taskforce is exactly the one to have enough of trained “volunteer crowd” spread across the world, languages and cultures. That is the back-up option for the case when the disaster significantly impacts the local structures and networks (such as in Haiti).

    (2.) Where do volunteer efforts such as the Crisis Commons fit with these models, particularly in the U.S.?

    I tried to address this a little bit in my recent post http://crisisresponse20.tumblr.com/post/1258546125/crisis-camp-and-talks-to-first-responders

    Anyway, where I see potential problem:
    1. The crisis volunteer movement is very diverse and vibrant entity, which make it unique and to some extent subversive in a positive way,
    2. however, any attempt to institutionalize this effort is a sensitive issue that might create push back and loss of the above mentioned uniqueness. I am not saying there shouldn’t be more structured and organized approach at all, I think it is desirable to find a balanced way how to leverage both potential of this un-organized energetic crowd as well as to make it more reliable and predictable for the future crisis.

    There is one thing I am quite sure about: any incorporation under the DHS agenda might create a very very strong push back on the volunteer side especially on the international level.

    All of this is still very fresh and it is great to see that the discussion started…

  3. Here’s the problem, “any incorporation under the DHS agenda might create a very very strong push back on the volunteer side…”; yet, any organizations built to provide assistance that are not “blessed” and incorporated into the DHS/FEMA structure might be seen suspect by the response community. It’s all about trust.

  4. yes, I agree, and I am optimist in this sense. In the end it always comes down to the basic trust and willingness to help people in an efficient way. I don’t see a reason why we couldn’t build up a system where the volunteer crowd is supporting the traditional emergency response systems in a meaningful and effective way. I believe the process has started already.

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