Disaster Relief 2.0

Posted by – June 17, 2012

The social media explosion is pushing disaster relief professionals to reach out to social networks of volunteer and technical communities (VTC’s) and learn new ways of managing information flow in disaster operations. Fortunately, technological advances have made a new kind of information management possible: Disaster Relief 2.0, where VTC’s use current information technology  and crowdsourcing to support disaster relief operations. Disaster Relief 2.0 is also a social movement attempting to bridge the cultural and technological gaps between VTC’s and disaster relief professionals to improve disaster response.

The technologies, approaches, and social networks enabling Disaster 2.0 have been developing since the birth of the Internet, but the concept came of age when worldwide social networks of VTC’s used these tools to respond to the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Spurred by reports of 316,000 deaths, VTC’s processed tweets and texts into search and rescue targets, used web mapping services to convert satellite imagery into tactical maps, and outsourced dataprocessing to social networks. These efforts resulted in some incredible rescues and logistical triumphs, but also created frustration and resentment as disaster relief agencies were overwhelmed by the flood of information from well-intentioned VTC’s. The Disaster 2.0 movement, coordinated by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), is fostering a dialogue among VTC’s, international relief agencies, and academics to learn lessons from recent disasters and develop solutions.

The dialogue has included the 2010 Emergency Data Summit, hosted by the American Red Cross, whose associated whitepaperonline video and outcomes document provide  good starting points to frame the discussion. HHI conducted interviews to gather lessons learned from recent large-scale disasters and summarized them in a remarkable report  (above) that should be required reading for VTC’s and disaster relief professionals. Patrick Meier, founder of CrisisMappers, has a widely read blog promoting the value of VTC’s and crowdsourced data in disaster response, and Emergency Management has several articles worth reading. And even I have blogged about mashups for analysis, Ushahidi, and the Emergency Data Summit.

My take-aways from these conferences, reports and papers:

  • Both VTC’s and disaster relief professionals need to remember that the objective is to improve disaster relief, not to play with online tools or defend bureaucracies – or, as Craig Fugate said at the 2010 Emergency Data Summit, “Do not focus on the technology, the tools or the gizmos. Focus on the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Social media can empower the public to be part of the response, not as victims to be taken care of.”
  • Despite anecdotes of cellphone text messages leading to miraculous rescues, crowdsourced data has low reliability. It appears, however, to be with us for the foreseeable future.
  • VTC’s experienced in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) providing mapping services have proven to be incredibly valuable, but utilizing them requires training and establishing relationships and procedures before disasters strike.
  • Outsourcing data processing to VTC’s has been successful but the procedures and software to manage small tasks sourced to a crowd are underdeveloped.
  • Outsourcing of intelligence and planning to VTC’s has been highly successful, but requires developing relationships with VTC’s that thoroughly understand disaster field operations. Such groups gather maps, pictures, community information, coordinates, potential targets, etc. overnight to inform disaster field operations the next day (see p36 of the HHI report).

The latter two strategies have been so successful that several American Red Cross chapters are organizing virtual Disaster Assessment Teams (vDAT’s) of experienced volunteers to perform these services.

I would suggest that, in addition to the above, there are some issues that remain neglected:

  1. Briefings for senior leaders have not kept pace with the available technology, leaving them partially informed and losing data and/or metadata. It is time to go beyond the BLUF rule and create hypertext briefing pages linked to verifiable data sources and dynamic maps. After all, why should leaders be handed hardcopy briefings when they read the NY Times on their iPads?
  2. There are very few analytical tools on the Internet to create actionable knowledge from  data and information. Both VTC’s and disaster relief professionals need services that perform simple calculations such as estimating the extent of an innudated area or the census population within an area.
  3. Many call for increased training and professionalism in VTC’s, but disaster relief professionals need to develop experience in social media, information technology, and the culture of the young technorati driving VTC’s; in the Disaster 2.0 dialogue, both sides need to listen and learn.


P.S. See the follow-up posting regarding VTC’s for outsourcing intelligence gathering