V&TC summit summary

Posted on Oct 24, 2012 in Conferences, Musings and Insights, Other Companies

Huge hearts to Galit for so much help on this doc, and to Matt Stempeck and Heather Leson for their heavy input.

On October 10th, a small group of Volunteer and Technical Community leaders and academics focused on crisis and humanitarian response gathered at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. The V&TC summit was scheduled to occur just before the annual International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) beginning the following day. The session provided an opportunity to establish and strengthen face-to-face relationships, open channels of communication to be built upon at ICCM and extend beyond the framework of the event.

The event was conceived and subsequently organized by Willow Brugh (Geeks without Bounds) and Pascal Schuback (Crisis Commons). The location for the summit was generously offered up by Lea Shanley and David Rejeski, both directors within the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center, in support of V&TC efforts.

A number of active community members from a range of backgrounds and affiliation were able to attend the summit on the painfully short notice we were able to provide, forming a dynamic group of individuals. The full-day session yielded a better understanding of challenges the broader V&TC network faces in responding to humanitarian needs and communicating amongst each other and with more traditional organizations. Ideas for improving upon volunteer response and organization were outlined, as well as a followup plan of action to provide continuation and solidify development.

Below is a summation of what was discussed, and how we hope you’ll comment and contribute.

•    Christiaan Adams (Google.org Crisis Response team, Google Earth Outreach team, Random Hacks of Kindness)
•    David Black  (University of Toronto, Volunteer director for CrisisCommons)
•    Galit Sorokin (Deep Field, RELIEF, STAR-TIDES, Burning Man)
•    Heather Leson (Ushahidi, Director of Community, Crisismappers, RHoK, Stand By Task Force member)
•    Jen Chan (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative)
•    Jen Ziemke (Crisismappers co-founder)
•    Matt Stempeck (MIT Media Lab – Center for Civic Media)
•    Pascal Schuback (Global Emergency Mngr at UW, Crisis Commons, Humanitarian Toolbox)
•    Rob Baker (Ushahidi, Product & Outreach Manager, Crisismappers)
•    Ryan Burns (University of Washington, Woodrow Wilson Center)
•    Willow Brugh (Geeks without Bounds, RHoK, Humanitarian Toolbox)
joined remotely:
•    Mike Brennan (Second Muse, Random Hacks of Kindness)
•    Sara Farmer (Hunchworks, Standby Task Force, Geeks Without Bounds adviser)
The realm of Volunteer and Technical Communities (V&TCs) is an involved and far-reaching one. As a whole it forms a broad network of digital response groups with immense support from volunteers and aid when needed in humanitarian and disaster relief operations. While good intent is something to be admired and fostered, the difficulty lies in placing aid and skill where most useful to maximize productive impact. This must be balanced with minimizing interference in an already complex and often chaotic response operations environment.

Seated along a long table in a boardroom, the discussion commenced around a few main topics: traditional and emerging response structures, volunteer engagement, and bridging methods for more effective response and coordination amongst groups. As challenges were identified around integration issues, a few proposals came about. As an examination of fielding the sudden influx in volunteers during response, a test scenario was suggested to experiment with methods of mitigating the inflow and appropriately assigning volunteers based on need and skill. In addition, the need for clearly defined technical challenges and a code of conduct were addressed.

There’s a distinct issue of high turnover in many response communities, resulting in too few experienced participants who are then too overwhelmed to mentor additional leaders. The technical and volunteer communities are no different. The issue of burn-out is further complicated by a matrix of factors including ease of engagement, learning curves, coordinating volunteer influx immediately following an event, and maintaining self-care all the while. Many methods exist for guiding volunteers and staff in a fluid way, but none are perfect, all are specific to different platforms and response phases, and few offer redirections for visitors who might benefit more from placement within a more suitable group. The methods of engagement range from endless self-posted volunteer opportunities (Idealist, UNVolunteers) to more structured coordination with project managers, placers, and curated jobs / tasks list (Catchafire, Sparked). Because there is no unifying system of coordination, understanding the ways in which groups interact, request assistance, and process volunteers is essential to collaborated efforts of response. It is the author’s opinion that we may be able to aggregate, but not centralize, efforts (see http://xkcd.com/927/). Currently, nearly all joint efforts between organizations and referral of volunteers is done at a one-to-one ratio on the part of V&TC leaders.

V&TCs’ emergent nature and working methods can appear disorganized, particularly  to more traditional structures. The mistaken appearance is largely due  to the iterative processes inherent to digital development and  innovation. To less digitally inclined sectors the high turnover and  rapid-refinement of tools from the outside may instead appear as  unstable tools not yet ready to be deployed.

Due  to the same iterative processes, there are also certain inherent  challenges which arise in collaborative methods and interaction within V&TCs.  Leaders and members of the community spend large amounts of time and  effort revolving around attempts to establish a baseline for  interaction, while basing said attempts on flawed assumptions of  operation.
By establishing a shared code of conduct for community interaction, we can focus on the more direct problems  of what we are doing and how. This also makes us more approachable to the more traditional sector. We’re syncing with another team working on a similar problem set and will update just as soon as that happens.

In a way, extreme ad hoc organizational methods can be captured by the unconference model, stating “whoever attends are the right people” – organic emergence of action plan based on visible needs and available skillsets. This adaptive process allows for quick deployment, but means it is nearly impossible to set up a plan in advance. By its very nature, progress requires players to be in a shared space in time (online or otherwise) for clear communication. Traditional response follows well practiced, fine-tuned protocol set to act as predictably as possible for the sake of coordinated efficiency.

Bridging the differences between structured and emergent response is advantageous beyond simple connectivity, as it provides an opportunity to leverage the strengths of each. For instance, careful planning while tracking multiple factors means a more efficient use of resources. Likewise, placing value on directly connecting to the local stakeholders in an event, and engaging with them, creates a richer awareness of local context. The potential of combining the strengths of structured planning with emergent local knowledge means potential for more accurate, accelerated, response on the ground. In other words, maximizing efficient use of resources while minimizing waste of time and effort and therefore improved response and possible reduction of risk in the field.
Acknowledging potential and aspiring to merge these approaches is not enough. What must be determined is how to do so. A suggested starting point is having a community leader and/or point of contact, clearly found in association to your organization (I like “hello@” or “info@” as default email addresses for these folk) as an easier way for people to plug in. There are also groups like the Digital Humanitarian Network which provide a more traditional way to contact a group of actors.

We need to test and build out our abilities in tangible ways. Theory can get in the way of practice, and we learn the most about how people will act when they’re put in a practice situation. Running through practice scenarios with multiple groups also leads to collaboration, as people see what technology exists and how to interact with it. The relationships formed lead to more efficient response, as knowing *who* to call in a company is just as important as knowing the company exists. But again, running our own V&TC scenarios is not enough – we must also integrate with the traditional and real-world response organizations lest we form our own cozy bubble. It is up to us to set the tone of transdisciplinary collaboration, for throwing aside unecessary politics while paying heed to past lessons. We’ll be attempting to do just that at an upcoming scenario.

With so many different ways to interact not only between adhoc and  heirarchical systems, but also within the groups comprising them, we  talked about beginning to use rigorous methods to discover what works  and what doesn’t. What works will clearly change based on the situation  and players, but a baseline can (and should) be established. With  permission from the RHoK community, and buy-in from local leads, we hope  to test out several different methods of multi-city collaboration at  the next event in a more intentional and documented way. It is important  to determine these methods of engagement before stressors beyond  deploying a new system are present. IE, let’s figure this out now,  rather than trying to figure it out when things are on fire.

When a major crisis is in the news, V&TC groups see a sharp spike in volunteers. We can test different approaches to mitigate this influx. We can also improve the intake pipeline to better capture, assess, and deploy interested volunteers who come in off the web. Incorporating lessons from interdisciplinary fields like online marketing and political campaigns’ volunteer programs, we may be able to not only mitigate the influx, but make more effective use of volunteers’ professional skills. A crisis simulation would allow us to test these methods before incorporating them into a live crisis response scenario. Anyone interested in designing around these challenges is welcome to join – email Matt Stempeck (stempeck@mit.edu).

The V&TCs have a great deal of technical know-how that could be applied to traditional response issues, making such response organizations more effective and efficient through better workflow. And there are potentially many more volunteers with skills that could aid both V&TCs and response organizations, who are not currently called upon. However, the dichotomous approaches of these separate groups come with differing sets of expectations, even in regards to technology and where and how it can be best applied. To bridge this gap in the most broadly beneficial manner, we’re organizing a workshop to scope techincal challenges and the guidelines for producing appropriate problem sets in the future. You can jump in on this project by joining the online workshop October 26th.

We hope these projects will be contributed to by the community at large. If they are not something you can endorse, we hope you will comment and guide them in a more agreeable direction, and join in on conversations around them.

Released under Creative Commons (attribution, share alike) – derivatives welcome, share and enjoy!