Tag Archives: Volunteering

#CrisisMapping for Recovery: Crisis Clean Up–A Collaboration Tool

Post by: Kim Stephens

medium_8179611271A truism in emergency management is that after a disaster thousands of people want to volunteer–the more high profile the event the more show up, sometimes creating a second disaster. Having a system to organize these altruistic individuals is critical.  As one researcher states: “…the effectiveness of volunteerism depends highly upon how well volunteers and voluntary groups and organizations are coordinated.  In this sense, having vast numbers of people and supplies frequently pose serious challenges for emergency management.”  Coordination, in turn, depends on clear, consistent, and timely communications (FEMA). But how is this done effectively?

The Problem

Aaron Titus, a member of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, knows the ends and outs of volunteer coordination all too well. The faith-based group he is associated with can mobilize thousands of people–ready, willing, and able to work. In the days after Hurricane Sandy, that is exactly what happened: Aaron faced a veritable army of over 20,000 volunteers who needed to complete thousands of tasks across a large geographic area. How could he provide “clear, consistent, and timely communications” as well as a method to determine, track and record what everyone was doing? And…what about all of the other non-spontaneous organizations that also showed up to help?

medium_8236682972Coordinating not only what his own group was doing, but also ensuring that they were not duplicating efforts or leaving out survivors who needed assistance, was a problem that seemed insurmountable. BUT he had a secret weapon. During the southern New Jersey “derecho” storms of July, 2012 he had used  the little programming knowledge he had to sort out a simple, yet brilliant, software solution. With a  job as big as Sandy, he enlisted the help of other developers, including Jeremy Pack, to create a more robust version of that solution that ended up being utilized by more than 100 organizations.

The Tool

What Aaron created, essentially, was a work-order-system/Crisis Map. The system has the following basic components (see an example map here).

  • Intake: An online intake request/assessment form is made available to 2-1-1. This enables the 2-1-1 operator to input information (as non-personally identifiable, as possible) about where the work needs to be done, who is requesting, and what is being requested. These forms are customizable–for instance, if a disaster hit an area with a large population of non-English speakers, a field for “language spoken” could be added.
  • ccuLegendTracking: A case number is generated for each request and the form syncs to a map–automated fields are included to alleviate confusion, for instance,  the county-field is automated. Whether or not the work is on private or public property is also noted–which is VERY important.  Communities need to keep track of all public volunteer work in order to count this against FEMA’s public assistance contribution requirements.
  • Categorization: The software includes categories and codes for the work order request based on completion and type. Regarding completion,  a red icon indicates work is “unassigned,” yellow means “claimed,” green is “completed,” and grey is “out of scope.” There are two categories of work indicated: flood damage or tree/wind damage. This distinction is made because some organizations do not let volunteers operate chain saws.
  • Assignments:  Affiliated organizations, as well as organizations that can prove they are legitimate, are allowed to access the map in order to claim work and record completed work. By claiming work, the group essentially says, “We can do this one.”
  • Stop-Gaps: The system has features that prevent the same request from being recorded more than once. When the 2-1-1 operator starts to enter a name or address a field pops up listing all similar entries.
  • Updates: The volunteers doing the work can update the status on the software system, which is seen by the 2-1-1 operator. If someone calls back to 2-1-1 asking about the status,  the operator can see if a group (as well as which group) has claimed the work.
  • Reporting: 2-1-1 staff can generate summary reports about the work requested and completed to provide to local or state emergency management officials.

*****In response to a few questions on Twitter, there’s one point of clarification. The ability to sign-up for the tool is available to any organization participating in recovery, including 2-1-1.

Unique Solution

There are a couple of things about this  volunteer-work-order system that are unique. For one, no group is “assigned” tasks or even a geographic area–as is often done using a grid technique. They can choose what, when and where to work on their own. Also, even though the system is online, the privacy of the requestor is protected–only those groups that have been granted access can see all of the detailed information: the public-facing maps on the Crisis Clean Up website do not include homeowners names, addresses or phone numbers–see example below.

I also like that this system is integrated into the existing government partnership with United Way’s 2-1-1. A lot of State and local communities have started to use 2-1-1 to communicate emergency recovery information. For example, officials in New Jersey state “…2-1-1 is a critical communication link between emergency management professionals and the public-at-large. By the very nature of the 2-1-1 system, NJ 2-1-1 is perfectly positioned to respond immediately during times of crisis. It is structured to manage the expected high volume of crisis-related calls and the 2-1-1 staff is trained to direct callers to services most appropriate for their needs.”



So how much does this all costs? Unfortunately, it is free for anyone to use. Why  “unfortunately?” Free usually means that the product or the solution is not sustainable–although it is open source. They do have a “donate” button on the website, but I’m guessing their list of contributors is quite small. Aaron and his team work on this software tool as a labor of love–however, I’m sure they would be happy if the Knight Foundation, or another philanthropic organization provided them the necessary cash flow to ensure disaster-impacted communities could have access to this amazing tool. If you are interested in volunteering with them I’m guessing Aaron would be pleased to hear from you–especially if you are a seasoned grant writer! Contact him via Twitter @aarontitus.

Bonus Video:

Volunteer photo 1. Credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunaparknyc/8179611271/”>Luna Park Coney Island</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Volunteer photo 2. Credit: photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/vixwalker/8236682972/”>Vix Walker</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Note: Developer Andy Gimma now co-leads the Crisis Cleanup project, along with Chris Wood.

Social Media After Action Review: Brisbane Australia

Brisbane CBD and the Story Bridge, Brisbane QLD.

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

An Independent Review was undertaken to study the use of social media by the City Council of Brisbane, Australia during the historic flooding events of January, 2011. Thanks to Patrice Cloutier  and his daily “picks” for alerting me to the story. I recommend the report be bookmarked for ready reference by any emergency management organization either already engaged in social media or considering using the medium. Another important social media case study was also recently completed by the Queensland Police Service, which I highlighted last week.  The findings are similar, but the Brisbane report does touch on a few different insights I’d like to draw attention to here.

Strategy for information flow to the public and FROM the public.

Several of the keys to the Council’s success mentioned in the report were items that I think most of us really understand and are comfortable with.

  •  It is important to have an established social media presence before a crisis occur.
  • It is important to have staff redundancy, e.g. more than one person knows and understands how to use the platforms.
  • Communications to the public via these mediums should include items such as information regarding how to stay safe, evacuation centers and routes, staging areas for relief supplies, and public relations info including details about response activities–often designed to instill confidence in the public that we are doing a good job (the latter, in my opinion, is often overly emphasized).

 But with regard to obtaining information from the public via social media, our comfort level decreases, markedly. The review of the Brisbane Council’s activities includes an entire section on how they monitored social media channels and then were able to quickly feed that information back to decision makers.

Council’s social media channels were monitored continuously and the information was provided back to the (Local Disaster Coordination Center) LDCC where appropriate. Using a system of ‘hot topics’, the most common queries from the public via social media channels were fed back hourly to the LDCC to obtain the correct responses which could then be shared publicly.

Relationship Building

Another theme throughout the report, similar to the QPS review, is the importance of relationship building with the community  “to ensure that they trusted Council as an authority in the space.” This includes everything from the tone of the postings which should be open and conversational, to the speed of answering enquiries.  This of course, can present challenges as well:

For overcoming difficulties, the main issue was the rapid speed of information flowing and managing this effectively. Due to the nature of social media, regular response times that might be found in traditional media weren’t acceptable, and it was important to streamline existing communication processes.


The report indicated that the Council has a Digital Communications Team which “devised and implemented a highly successful social media campaign to communicate vital flood information to the community.” The Digital Team was already in place pre-event and had identified four overarching objectives for their social media communications: Audience reach (raising awareness of the SM channels), information management, information sharing, and community and business mobilization. Once the crisis began to unfold they planned for four key communication areas:  evacuation center locations, waste disposal info, health and safety, and volunteering information.

Almost the instant a crisis occurs people are already asking where they can volunteer and what they can donate. Using social media channels to communicate this information seems like a natural fit, especially since quite a few of these request occur on the platforms and since people will organize to volunteer with or without you.

One of the biggest social media successes for Council involved co-ordination of volunteers from early on in the flood event and the aftermath. Council social media channels were used as the main communication tool to ask for volunteers to help in clean up efforts. On Friday 14 January around 5pm, the Lord Mayor announced that there would be Volunteering Clean-Up weekend.

By 6am the next day, more than 10,000 volunteers arrived at designated meeting points and had registered to help the community. Facebook and Twitter were used as primary means of coordinating volunteers at the volunteer areas and in the coming weeks, Councillors also used these channels to ask for help. On many occasions, Councillors asked for help from 100-250 volunteers with only 24 hours notice, and upwards of 700 showed up.

Great stuff, and some great lessons for all of us.