The disaster response to Haiti was unprecedented in terms of volunteer buy-in and contribution. It was also reactive. The hundreds of volunteers who rallied to the cause were certainly able and committed but one of the main challenges during the first few weeks was the need to train and maintain this informal network. The humanitarian community openly recognizes the important role that volunteer networks can play in crisis response. What they need now are guarantees that a trained and professionalized volunteer force can be on standby and activated within hours. The good news? Many of the volunteers I interacted with during the response to Haiti, Chile and now Pakistan are eager to join a professionalized volunteer standby team.
So what exactly are we waiting for? I posed this question to my colleagues George Chamales and Rob Munro in San Francisco yesterday. Indeed, there’s no reason to wait. We can get started now so we can take this initiative to the upcoming International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) and get feedback from participants. The challenge, as mentioned in my previous blog post on Disaster Relief 2.0, is to find a way to interface an informal distributed network of volunteers with a highly organized and structured organization like UN OCHA. Three types of reliable networks are needed for this interface: (1) Tech Team; (2) Task Team; and (3) Crowd Force Team.
On the technical side, what colleagues and I have found to be particularly important is to have a group of software developers who are already highly experienced in deploying platforms like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc. This is not about building new tools from scratch. The point here is to rapidly customize existing tools that have already seen action. On the Ushahidi side, there are more and more seasoned Ushahidi developers. These individuals are the ones who made the deployments in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan possible. This network of core technical and reliable volunteers doesn’t need to be large and it already exists.
What this group needs, however, is a support team that can take specific technical tasks given to them for implementation, e.g., fixing an important bug, etc. That way, the core team can focus on rapidly developing customized Ushahidi plugin’s and so on. We need to create a roster of standby software dev’s who are already qualified and ready to support the core team. This group largely exists already, but we need to formalize, professionalize and publicize this information on a dedicated site and turn them into a standby force.
The second type of standby group needed is the Task Team. These are individuals who are not software developers but savvy in media monitoring, geo-referencing, mapping, blogging on updates, etc. These individuals already exist, they played an invaluable role in contributing their time and skills to the responses in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan. Again, it’s just a matter of formalizing, professionalizing and publicizing the information, i.e., to render visible the capacity and assets that already exists, and to have them on standby.
This core task-based team also needs a strong support team for back-up, especially during the first few days of an emergency. This is where the Crowd Force Team comes in. This important team doesn’t need prior-training; only Internet access, browsing experience, an interest in online maps, news, etc. Perhaps most importantly, members of the Crowd Force Team are known for their energy, commitment, team-player attitude and can-do mentality.
We want to formalize this Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force in a professional manner. This means that individuals who want to be part of Tech, Task or Crowd Force Team need to apply. We will first focus on the Ushahidi platform. In the case of the Tech and Task team, interested applicants need to clearly demonstrate that they have the experience necessary to be part of the Standby Task Force. I would actually want to include representatives from the humanitarian community to participate in vetting the candidates who apply. Individuals who want to join the Crowd Force Team will also need to apply so we can keep a roster of the people power available along with their skill set.
There’s no reason we can’t do this. If we learned anything from Haiti, it’s that Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) don’t need to be physically present to contribute to disaster response thanks to online social networking tools and open source platforms like Ushahidi, etc. They can be part of the online community. We need CERTs 2.0 and just like traditional response teams, they should be trained and ready.
My experienced colleagues George Chamales and Anahi Ayala will lead the Technical and Task Teams respectively. Anahi will also coordinate the Crowd Force Team. They will help select the applicants, set up the appropriate communication channels and keep a calendar of which members of their teams are available for rapid response on a daily basis. Jaroslav Valuch and I will support George and Anahi in their efforts.
Please click here to apply to the Crisis Mappers Volunteer Task Force. This first round of applications will close on October 22nd. Once we have developed a robust model for interfacing with the humanitarian community using the Ushahidi platform, we hope to work with other colleagues from FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc., so that their qualified volunteers can be part of this dedicated Task Force.