CrisisCommons and Congress

A little more than a year ago, a small group of volunteers coordinated to host the first CrisisCamp in Washington, DC. At the time, we just wanted to pull together first responders, technologists, government, NGO, and interested citizens to discuss crisis mitigation, response, and humanitarian relief efforts. The two-day event was a complete success in connecting these communities in dialogue and projects that led to field deployed projects. In the last meeting of CrisisCampDC we discussed the potential future of these camps - and on a whim I registered, installed MediaWiki and Mikel provided a logo.

For the next 9 months, side projects occured and interesting conversations continued, but without a single coherent focal point. What happened in early January completely changed how we thought about volunteer crisis response. In the hours and days following the Haitian earthquake thousands of volunteers around the world began brainstorming and contributing to projects that would hopefully have a positive benefit to the response and affected communities.


CrisisCommons.jpgBy Thursday we had decided to host a CrisisCampHaiti in Washington DC and very quickly similar groups decided to hold events in 4 other cities. The CrisisCamps provided a focused venue for developers, volunteers and organizations to coalesce and collaborate on developing needed solutions and information that would assist on the ground efforts.

OpenStreetMap had already been identified as a key resource in the response - starting first with the use of unclassified 1990's paper maps, and then increasingly with the availability of high-resolution and up-to-date commercial satellite imagery. This provided for a very simple task for general volunteers with a computer and internet connection to begin tracing road networks and infrastructure. Videos like got new volunteers up to speed and mapping within 10 minutes.

The technical expertise brought to bear was powerful. Mobile phone apps such as Tradui for translating between Kreyol and English; We Have We Need, a place where relief organizations can quickly post their most urgent needs and have them matched by generous donors during a time of crisis, and more.

Developers conceptualized and created green field applications, others worked on adapting existing tools to new uses or connecting them together - such as an Ushahidi to OpenStreetMap bridge that would allow for people on the ground to send mobile messages that could update the actual map data.

The outpouring of effort was amazing. In essence, the realization was that people wanted to contribute. And instead of sending $5 via a text message they wanted to donate their even more valuable time and expertise to provide true value and support.

Crisis Continuity

These efforts have been widely discussed, and the power of thousands of connected, capable, and caring technical and helpful people immediately pointed at a problem is compelling. However, what is not immediately apparent is that these efforts, tools, and communities are not completely ad-hoc and spontaneous. They have evolved through joint experiences, social networks, technical exchanges, and personal needs. The tools were developed around an initial kernel of a problem, and then modified, evolved, cajoled, and carried from one event and use to the next. Jesse & Mikel have espoused this concept before.


It is this continuity through many experiences and efforts that forges the applications and organizations. Following the initial surge, a core component of the community continues to talk about lessons learned, how to expand the tool, integrating with other workflows. An interim solution in one event slowly becomes more integrated as part of a response with new features, languages, and capabilities along each step.

This is primarily possible through openness: open-source, open-data, open-collaboration. Open Source software means that any solution developed can be reapplied and improved upon as new requirements and capabilities are needed. Open data guarantees that there is a free flow of information before, and during an event that can reach to any and all responders and volunteers as appropriate. Unforeseen needs can be met by modification and analysis of the data. And finally Open Collaboration means that people freely exchange needs, solutions, and ideas that ensure best options are available.

The continuity is further expressed in the tools and data remaining in the affected areas for citizens and government to utilize. There is less of a vacuum remaining after organizations withdraw as local groups can take ownership of the tools as well as stay connected with the community to build capacity.


What has been missing is a community that provides support and coordination of these various efforts. New projects will start and be deployed. But how do NGO's and response communities identify which tools are available, reliable, and meet their operational requirements? How do they work with the volunteer communities to identify needs, provide ideas and specifications and adopt these tools as they are developed, tested, and supported?

A goal of CrisisCommons is to provide this role. Through international communities as well as local and regional organizations and camps that understand relevant risks and responses to provide for pertinent and continued support.

Organizations such as the World Bank, MapAction and others clearly have identified the potential of working with organizations such as CrisisCommons that can be an interface to the moving surges of volunteers, companies, and tools that they can leverage in reconstruction efforts.

There is a change in how the public is engaging and supporting in crisis response. They are able to augment capabilities and provide surge support. But it is necessary to recognize that the capability to respond and engage quickly and effectively occurs through continuous evolution. In preparation, prevention, and mitigation of disasters we can apply our tools and knowledge. In reconstruction we can modify and integrate the viable solutions into sustainable operations.


There are still a number of questions that have yet to be answered about this type of model. This week the first international CrisisCongress is convening with individuals from around the world to discuss the models of volunteer crisis response and technology. Through our discussions, shared experiences and problem solving we will have a clearer vision for how to continue the successes we have had and grow the capability for people to respond and help in moments and places of crisis, whether across the globe or in their own community.


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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.