Haiti’s viral volunteers: How social media is changing the face of crisis response

This Blog Post was originally posted on the Washington Post, Leadership Series on January 11

Jaroslav Valuch is cofounder and one of the coordinators of the standbytaskforce.com, an online volunteer community for live mapping that aims to provide a reliable interface between the online volunteer community and local and international humanitarian responders.

When tragedy hit Haiti a year ago, the professional search-and-rescue teams and humanitarian NGOs activated their standard operating procedures for emergency situations. They struggled to push their staff through congested Port-au-Prince airport, and then set up their base among the hundreds of tents of other volunteers and disaster cowboys who swarmed the country.

Meanwhile, there was another network also stepping in to help-but these volunteers from around the world never left their schools, offices, Internet cafes and living rooms. Instead they made up the volunteer tech and crisis mapping community, and they used technology to mobilize crowds of individuals hoping to assist and fill the gaps in traditional humanitarian response.

The online community managed to rapidly organize thousands of these volunteers around technology, regardless of their location, experience, language or culture. Instead of just sending a donation SMS and watching the unfolding tragedy on television, people around the world with no direct affiliation to any traditional humanitarian responders were themselves participating in a large-scale emergency response. They participated online by extracting vital information from Twitter feeds, by translating messages from Creole to English, by pinpointing on an interactive map the location of those still trapped, by categorizing water-shortage reports, by organizing and geo-locating essential data on hospitals and refugee camp locations, or by developing software applications that further improved all these efforts. It was an incredible symbiosis between humans and machines, because no matter how advanced the technology that was being deployed, it could never have performed without the human manpower behind it.

In other words, this is the social-media concept of “crowdsourcing”, but applied to disaster relief. SMS-based reports were sent from Haiti, processed by teams of online volunteers, and then in some cases found their way straight to emergency responders who could act upon them. In other cases, aggregated reports, visualized on interactive map, helped increase the situational awareness of responders and provided them with an alternate data source for cross reference.

This crowdsourcing operation also meant that hundreds of Haitians living around the world were able to connect more closely to their country and play a role in the relief efforts. They formed an absolutely critical backbone to the whole reporting system by providing real-time translation and geolocation. Technology also enabled them to enter into one-on-one conversations with people affected and to start providing assistance themselves.

Of course the scale of the online community’s direct impact cannot compete with the scale of the on-the-ground, international humanitarian community’s impact-nor with the impact of the very first, and most effective, emergency responders (the Haitian neighbors, brothers, mothers who first pulled other Haitians from the rubble). Yet the point isn’t that we should compare experienced and established traditional response systems, backed with huge financial resources, against a massive volunteer initiative that has newly emerged. The point is that we are learning to leverage the potential of social media and mobile communication to help crisis-affected communities-and that we must learn to leverage this even further, based on the lessons learned from Haiti.

The response of the tech and crisis mapping volunteer community was to a large extent reactive. Yes it was flexible and adapted quickly, but the link between this group and the more traditional humanitarian responders wasn’t there in advance. It was a collaboration we were building even as the emergency unfolded, which proved to be a challenging task. The earthquake in Haiti, as well as subsequent disasters such as the earthquake in Chile, fires in Russia and floods in Pakistan, identified tons of lessons for the future that can help to put into sustainable practice the idea that participatory, bottom-up communication during emergency and recovery-and its synchronization with professional coordination and data management systems-has the potential to significantly improve the effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian response.

Today, with increased access to technology, people are bound to share information during crisis situations whether there’s a managed process for it or not. The real challenge is to make such communication actionable. People talk in stories; but response teams talk in spreadsheets, charts and maps. In order to extract actionable information from average citizens, the community-generated data have to be collected and processed in a standardized, structured, organized way. Such a process requires a mass of well-trained, interconnected groups and individuals with various skills and expertise, who are all organized in a collaborative network. Such capacity can hardly be found on the ground and within traditional organizations, but it becomes feasible in the world of social media.

With Haiti, the humanitarian community came to recognize this potential. The core principles of ethical humanitarian response are founded on respectful and accountable communication with affected populations, so in many ways these new networks carry the same torch as traditional initiatives. The challenge is to make sure such networks are consistently based on trust, have reliable and predictable partners, and are able to provide standardized services in future emergencies, regardless of how high or low the media profile of a particular crisis. The key to effective response is preparedness; so in order for these new response networks to play an even more crucial role going forward, they need to be able to ensure the right structures are in place well before a crisis hits.

This past year was not only for us-the crisis mapping volunteer community-a year of lessons learned in Haiti, it was also a year that helped push forward the idea that trusted partnerships will lead to better preparedness. One of the key steps forward has to be further recruitment and continuous training of volunteers so our networks can become a trusted and predictable partner for traditional responders. To this end some of us have created the standbytaskforce.com, an online volunteer community for live mapping, that we’re hoping will provide a reliable interface between the online volunteer community and local and international humanitarian responders for situations where an extensive mapping and data processing workforce is needed.

Yet let’s be realistic. Regardless of how great our technology becomes and how many people we can organize around it, the success of the emergency response in a place like Haiti will always depend first and foremost on the preparedness of the local community and its ability to organize, effectively share information and act. The technological solutions cannot be pushed from outside the community without respect for traditional “off-line” networks of people. The increasing penetration of mobile technology and Internet across the world, however, is lowering the barriers for ordinary people to become reporters and consumers of emergency information. And this means that through the innovative application of technology, and the engagement it fosters, we have a unique opportunity to strengthen the resilience of a community in crisis-and its ability to be a more effective first responder, as well as partner, in its own relief effort.

Watch Jaroslav Valuch’s interview in our On Washington Post, Leadership series: Crowdsourcing leadership in Haiti

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