Tag Archives: Patrick Meier

“Information Aid”: As important to disaster survivors as food

Post by: Kim Stephens

After a disaster, the flow of information on social networks is often thought of and discussed in terms of what is coming from the impacted community. We debate at length the value of this content, its veracity and how the first responder community could or should use this type of data. However, what is not discussed as often is the information being provided to the survivors and its impact on their recovery.

Social media have democratized the ability for people to provide what Patrick Meier calls “information aid” or  “information relief” to impacted communities (it is his notion that information is as important as food). This in turn has created a new kind of volunteer, a social media “content curator”.  A study in Australia, published by the Australian Journal of Emergency Management,  looked at this type of activity after the January 2011 flooding and cyclone events and found that citizens who start community-based social media pages (particularly facebook in this example) act as filters and amplifiers of official information for those that were impacted (see the example of this from Missouri). They conclude that not only does this type of activity help provide survivors with timely public safety related information but also enables a sense of “connectedness…both to loved ones and to the broader community, providing reassurance, support and routes to assistance.” They call this  “psychological first aid” which aims to “reduce initial distress, meet current needs, promote flexible coping and encourage adjustment.” See this article for more info about psychological first aid. Their study is one of the first of its kind to look at the role of social media in this capacity and they found that people not only relied on these community pages for information, but that it did make them feel connected to others, encouraged by help given, and hopeful. Of note, the responses for feeling “suspicious or mistrustful of the information” were very low (4 and 5 %).

Content Curators

Although this type of volunteer is starting to become more formalized with efforts by organizations such as the Standby Crisis Task Force, CrisisCommons, and Humanity Road, it also can happen in a very spontaneous and, at first, unorganized manner with a person simply starting a Facebook fan page at the outset of a disaster. This example repeated itself again and again this year, and is best exemplified by the 18 year old girl that started a Facebook page in Monson, Massachusetts while still hunkered down in her basement as a tornado passed overhead. The page was titled simply “Monson Tornado Watch.” It grew to be one of the main sources of information for their town’s citizens as  volunteer organizations and regular citizens alike embraced it as a place to post any and all information they could find regarding response and recovery activities. Very quickly, one-fourth of the entire population became a “fan.” This page is still up and continues to be a place where people congregate virtually to provide and find information about recovery, as well as a place to connect and support each other.

Another great example of this type of social media spontaneous content curator  is from Joplin, Missouri, where many different people and groups started community-based pages with the intention of amplifying official information for survivors. One  facebook page, “Joplin Tornado Info” or JTI , even resulted in a guide: “Using social media in disasters“. JTI was started by a mother and daughter team with no public information or emergency management background. However, they understood the need for standard operating procedures, which they developed and detail in the guide.  Although the guide does not address the psychological reason behind the desire to start this type of facebook page, they do state that they simply wanted  “to be a clearinghouse for information, aid communication, and resources, not to champion any specific organization.”

Another reason their efforts were successful was due to their understanding of the scope of information they should be providing. “Ideally, a page covers a single  affected community.  Otherwise,  the information to be gathered and communicated  becomes  impossible to provide in a meaningful way to your  audience.” They also understood that people were often accessing this information on their smart-phones, sometimes while on their property cleaning up–not sitting at a computer watching the social stream. Therefore, their strategy was to repost vital contnet so that it didn’t get lost. “Timelines move fast, so reposting the same information during the day is a good idea.”

In conclusion, as emergency management organizations grapple with how to deal with this type of spontaneous volunteer, it is worth keeping in mind  what the authors of the Australian study found:

“…social media in this context is not to replace face-to-face support or contact, or to replace official warning services, but it can expand capacity to deliver information, extend the reach of official messages and limit the psychological damage caused by rumours and sensationalised media reporting. A mix and balance of official and informal information sources and communication channels is likely to be the best way to enhance emergency management capability.

Empowering individuals and communities to help themselves through provision of accurate, timely and relevant information and a mechanism to connect with others are fundamental needs that social media can deliver. The dynamic and organic nature of social media is such that pages and sites take on a life of their own. Self-regulation and careful administration are elements that serve to ensure that the sites that succeed are those that listen and support the needs of their users.

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.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=emergency+telephone&iid=937647″ src=”http://view.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/937647/denver-prepares-host-the/denver-prepares-host-the.jpg?size=500&imageId=937647″ width=”380″ height=”242″ /] 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

International Conference of Crisis Mappers, Four Themes


Intensity map for the 2010 Haiti earthquake

Image via Wikipedia


Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (Oct. 1-3) brought together many different groups of experts, with disciplines ranging from geospatial intelligence to international humanitarian relief, to focus in part on lessons learned from the response to Haiti. At the start of  the conference Patrick Meier, one of the event organizers, asked participants to reflect on how communication, cooperation and coordination can be improved for future responses to large-scale disasters. He reminded the audience, “Haiti is a clear outlier…we should be inspired by the response…but should not use it as our only model for moving forward.”

By examining tweets from the audience made during the morning presentations, I was able to tease out several themes that emerged:

1. Response organizations in Haiti mostly had to rely on low-tech solutions for mapping since the country had little technology infrastructure.

  • Paper maps were the norm for those working the response on the ground.
  • Information gaps existed, according to some, due to a lack of technology and spatial awareness of both the citizens in the affected country and the response community.
  • Information overload on the ground is what stops most collaboration/coordination from happening.
  • No matter how many digital maps are made, ultimately, decisions are made from sitreps and verbal agreements on the ground. Therefore, there are real challenges in incorporating crowdsourced information into established organizations and data flows.

2. Finding information about the affected area was sometimes easier to gather from those not in the impacted zone (e.g. , those in the Diaspora), although getting that information into the hands of responders in the field was a   challenge.

  • Discovering information about a particular place doesn’t always have to come from  survivors. Sometimes a “local” can be physically very far from the disaster location (a large number of ex-patriots wanted to help and had first hand knowledge of the impacted area).
  • Ushahidi’s best accomplishment could very well have been crowdsourcing volunteers.
  • Crowdsourcing also occurred in traditional organizations. The World Bank’s Galen Evans described how over 600 earthquake engineers were essentially crowdsourced to analyze aerial data.
    • Everyone wants to help in a disaster, but we should think about what experts can be utilized during an event before the event.
  • Was the information coming from SMS texts reliable? Christine Corbane from the Joint Research Centre explained how their research found geo-tagged, crowdsourced SMS text messages highly correlated to the spatial distribution of building damage intensity in Port-au-Prince.

3. The crisis mapping community can add value to the response community, but processes to do so need to be established.

  • The crisis mapping community can translate each affected person’s story during a disaster into actionable data so that crisis managers can act. (See great new blog post by Gisli Olafsson on this topic.)
  • But, creating a common language among cartographers, humanitarians and beneficiaries is tricky: we need to develop baseline cartographic literacy.
  • The UN’s OCHA representative described how the emerging technology community and the humanitarian community don’t speak the same language. The one thing we have in common is that we all want to help. Questions remain:
    • Who coordinates the crowds?
    • How does the tech community fit into the UN cluster groups?
    • Can the crowd be used for data processing and data cleaning?
    • Why didn’t these groups coordinate during the event? Everyone was overloaded, pre-event coordination needs to occur.
  • The keys to success will be shared standards, shared situational awareness, and shared goals.
  • Standard operating procedures should be put in place to help govern this information sharing.

4. Affected populations or nations can and should be empowered to help themselves.

  • Ushahidi representative noted how empowering the local community in Haiti was key, and the locals eventually took over information curation.
  • The Grassroots Mapping Network discussed how simple technology can be employed for data anaylsis:  anyone can use their kit to fly a kite or balloon with a camera attached and gather data without the need for a satellite connection.  This inexpensive solution can help communities do their own mapping.
  • A representative from Development Seed discussed how we should think about needs first and technology second because there are many places that have limited technology capabilities. He stated:”This is why we are building really tiny software” and introduced maps on a stick, or maps on USB drives loaded with spatial data for low resource settings. This can help people in the field, even those that don’t have internet connections.

One tweet sort of sums up the day: Does better data come from improved technology or more meaningful engagement of locals?”

For a complete summary of each speaker, see the blog of  Jillian C. York who transcribed the talks as they occurred.

For a more complete after action report on Crisis Information Management during the Haitian earthquake: see: “Haiti and Beyond” by the ICT for Peace Foundation, March 2010.

Is Social Media a disease or a liberation technology?

There are some people in the emergency management community who see social media as purely beneficial, but we have to recognize that there are others that see it as just another headache, or added responsibility, and want nothing to do with it.

Patrick Meier, firmly in the beneficial camp, posed this question on his blog iRevolution on Aug. 8, 2010:  Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?  A couple of days later, I received an email from a local emergency manager describing social media as a disease that he didn’t want to catch. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=computers&iid=9316917″ src=”http://view1.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9316917/intel-light-peak/intel-light-peak.jpg?size=500&imageId=9316917″ width=”234″ height=”336″ /]These two concepts are so far apart that it made me pause. How can some emergency managers  be so resistant of this new technology suite, when others are essentially calling it a savior to the people?

Patrick’s question was based on an article by Larry Diamond in the Journal of Democracy entitled Liberation Technology. You can read Patrick’s post and the article to get the full implication, but in essence he is talking about how people are using social media to organize themselves in order to protest repressive regimes and even over-throw governments in some cases.  These new tools, including Ushahidi, allow average citizens to map and document everything from voter intimidation to environmental disasters. As Dr. Diamond asserted, the age of human rights abuses going undocumented died with the birth of YouTube.

Yet, here in the U.S. we don’t have government officials fretting over  Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as they do in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. (thank goodness); in fact we have the opposite, complete denial in some cases, that it even matters. Does it matter? As emergency managers, do we care what people are doing on social media after a disaster? I’m going to leave this question open-ended, but I hope to use this blog over time to make the case that we better be paying attention.

What do you think? Disease, savior or little bit of both?