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The January 12, 2010 catastrophic earthquake in
Haiti showed some of the astonishing potential for volunteer-based digital disaster
relief. Thousands of people - with the aid of their computers, mobile phones, and
online applications - were able to do important work to save lives and bring
resources where they were badly needed, without needing to travel.
Online tools like Twitter, Ushahidi,
Finder, CrisisMappers, and the work of
nonprofit organizations like Crisis Commons
and Sahana Foundation (which hosts a free open
source disaster management system), have changed the way disaster relief is being
done all over the world. Many of these tools use crowdsourcing techniques, which engages large groups of people via the Internet to do important tasks like
raise money, collect information on needs in a stricken area and get them out to first
responders, translate information in to several languages, or map the crisis
in useful ways.
A great example of
crowdsourcing is Voluntweeters.
This is a group of largely self-organizing digital volunteers who use Twitter to
respond to all of the major disasters around the world. Of course people use
Twitter to do 140-character (or less) messages called tweets to people who
follow them. Twitter uses hashtags
for key words to help users to search the site to find things that interest
them. The one for Voluntweeters is #voluntweeters.
It has all the Twitter volunteer opportunities in one place. The account is managed by @KevinSage.
good in-depth description of how Voluntweeters works and what it
can do can be found in this case
study (PDF) of its response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake by Kate
Starbird and Leysia Palen from the University
of Colorado at Boulder. At the time of the Haiti earthquake, very few
people in the country were using Twitter, but it was enough to get news of
needs out to the world. With only four twitterers in-country, their messages
were retweeted (forwarded) and translated by hundreds of digital volunteers.
This information was then picked up by first responders who were able to get
help and to where it was needed.
A very interesting
part of the report describes the personal motivations for digital volunteers to
be involved in disaster relief work, some of them for as many as 80 hours per
week during the crisis. That was the case with Mirela Monte, who blogged about her
experience. Not surprisingly a
number of Voluntweeters had some type of personal connections to
Haiti - a friend or relative who was there. For others it was not so clear.
Another great example of what Voluntweeters can do is the
case of Red
Cross voluntweeters responding to the more recent February 2011 Chicago blizzard.
Volunteers mobilized by
Twitter crowdsourcing converged on Lake Shore Drive, distributing water and
food to hundreds of people stranded in cars until warming buses arrives to take them
to Red Cross shelters. Red Cross tweets, news, and updates generated so much credibility
among the Chicago community that offers of cash, blood donations, and volunteer
assistance immediately followed the crisis.
several, if not all, instances of online crisis relief efforts, multiple volunteer
digital disaster relief
projects work together to coordinate efforts. One of the main ones that anchors
this work is Ushahidi.
Ushahidi is an NGO project from Kenya that hosts a free online service that
collects reports about a stricken area via mobile phone or computer and then
maps them so relief efforts can respond. TechSoup has helped to publicize
Ushahidi's work several times, especially its extraordinary
work in Haiti. Another more recent example of Ushahidi's expanding work is its efforts in the
earthquake and tsunami.
Disaster relief is one of the primary activities of the NGO sector, and crowdsourced
volunteer digital disaster work is an important and
expanding part of it. It's quite incidental that it's a green technology in
that it allows people to have significant impact without needing to travel to
stricken areas. Aside from being a more environmentally friendly option, it also frees up transport systems for the responders who need to be on-site while still giving people a way to lend a hand from home.
I would love to read some evaluations of these efforts now that we're two years on.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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