Post by: Kim Stephens
Who’s at the scene of a crisis first? The answer from a local emergency manager, who did not hesitate, was whichever squad car is closest. But of course I meant the public. People who witness a crisis are always the first responders. In the keynote address, given by Kurt Jean-Charles of the Noula project, at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers he described his experience after the earthquake in Haiti. He said his first reaction was to run as fast as he could to check on his family. His second reaction, once he knew his family was safe, was to help. He picked up a hammer and chinked away at the rubble to try to save people, anyone. When that proved less-than effective, he turned to what he knew–technology, and built a collaborative platform to link his countrymen’s’ needs to available resources.
But even with that amazing example I still somehow feel disheartened. Volunteers in disasters are as old as man, yet lately I am hearing about resistance to volunteers. This is particularly troublesome as we plan for new ways to involve the general public to help in new, often creative, ways (see “A Virtual Crisis Crowd Coordination Center“).
Examples of this resistance to volunteers:
- The blog post in Disaster Zone by a person that wants to volunteer. The young man states:
- From my own experience talking to a local OEM. I asked if they would entertain the concept of a cyber-CERT team, in other words a group that could be trained in social media to both communicate the agency’s message and to possibly look for information from the public as well, especially during times of crisis. The response I received was hesitance, and many questions:
- What about liability?
- Can they gather this information and then put it out under the auspices of the agency? Is that legal?
- What if they get the information wrong?
- The other response was a little more troubling: “Well, we don’t really use our CERT team anyway, because there really isn’t anything for them to do.”
- Another example is the Oil Spill Crisis Map, which used the Ushahidi platform during the BP Oil Spill to document citizens reports of the spill, including: “oil sightings, affected animals, odors, health effects and human factor impacts made by the eyewitnesses”. The common operating platform Virtual USA was deployed during this crisis for use by the response community. Virtual USA is a data sharing system for States (and even private industry in this instance) developed by the Department of Homeland Security.
I am 26 years old, just graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Geography with minors in Geospatial technology (think GIS/remote sensing) and Applied Design (think graphics design). I have a programming background and am extremely tech savvy. I also have 9 years of fire/ems experience, 2.5 years of law enforcement experience, and almost two years of emergency management experience. I have tried contacting the the local EM office several times to see if I could volunteer there. They have yet to offer any reply to my attempts. (Emphasis added)
I have met these guys in the past so it’s not as though I am a stranger. I was offering to do any projects they needed help on. I have experience establishing social media presence for fire and ems and even for businesses. I am very proficient in graphics design and video production software, I currently am working on a national PBS television project and could offer help with all facets of public information material from videos to brochures to whatever.
Virtual USA integrates a set of processes and solutions that complements existing policies, processes, and architectures in each of the respective states. The aim is to establish seamless information exchange among participants, as needed and as authorized.
At a demonstration of this project in Manor, Texas one person asked if Virtual USA could incorporate information gathered and collated from platforms such as Ushahidi. The response was discouraging. Yes, they absolutely could include this information, but no, they didn’t want it. In other words, during the oil spill response they had the ability to include data collected from the public and curated by volunteers in the Oil Spill Crisis Map, and the states asked for that data to be removed.
So where are we regarding using volunteers and accomodating new ideas from them? I know there are many agencies that use volunteers to great effect. FEMA has a course called Developing and Managing Volunteers. But it seems that the course needs to be updated regarding use of volunteers and new technology.
I welcome your comments and examples.
- Keynote: Kurt Jean-Charles of Solutions (jilliancyork.com)
- Crowdsourcing with Humanitarians in Training (ushahidi.com)
- Haiti, Noula and the Humanitarian Community (ushahidi.com)