CrisisCommons at Harvard and Sloan Foundation

Last week, Noel, Heather, Chiara and I traveled to Cambridge to speak at the Harvard Berkman Center. Surrounded by open internet luminaries such as Clay ShirkyDave WeinbergerEthan Zuckerman, and many others, we shared our experiences in creating CrisisCamp and growing the CrisisCommons. Our purpose was to gain insight into what has become apparent as a yet unmet, but highly desired role of a volunteer crowd advocate to crisis response organizations.

CrisisCamps emerged and have been successful by having connected with the inherent desire for humans to help one another – and preferring to do so in a way that is more meaningful than just donating $5. They want to give of their time, expertise, and capabilities. The last two decades have additionally provided a global information network that has embraced open communication, open source, and open information. The CrisisCamps were venues that hosted people that were willing to spend their spare time, and many times take time off of work, to contribute to the larger community response.

Along the way, we learned many lessons. CrisisCommons was created as a way to capture the knowledge and relationships that were passing through the various response and volunteer communities. We’ve held events such as CrisisCongress to convene the many leaders of the local groups. Together we identified the successes, failures, and gaps in our approach. The goal was to identify what the potential role and methods of CrisisCommons and CrisisCamps should embrace.

Insight Redoubled

While presenting this history at the Berkman Center, the room of normally very loquacious individuals sat in focused attention. Some with knowing and understanding looks, and others with new interest and inquisitiveness. As we stopped to ask for questions we were urged that we had spent much more time thinking about the problem and were providing valuable knowledge on the current response and volunteer landscape and potential to the audience. Where we had sought to get immediate feedback we were providing new information and insight to this experienced group.

Of course, after we had shared the history, evolution, and current plans for the future the audience was ready to share their own experiences (see Ethan’s thoughts)- many summarized as “You’ve done amazing work – and have seen the issues I’ve noticed during my career but have deftly avoided some of the larger pitfalls.”

A major issue that was discussed revolved around the specific role CrisisCommons has with respect to Volunteer Technical Communities (VTC) and Crisis Response Organizations (CRO). Is CrisisCommons an advocate of VTC’s, or is it more of a CRO that has relationships and responsibility with official organizations and also the ability to effectively communicate with VTC’s.

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CrisisCommons needs to find a way to act and be perceived as a member of the major organizations without quelling the grassroots and emergent behavior that have made CrisisCamps successful and effective. Yet with more process and research, CrisisCommons can provide real guidance and shepherding of CrisisCamp and VTC efforts that would affect both real, needed, innovation to unmet problems as well as adoption and reliability of developed solutions.

Today we are headed to the Sloan Foundation to share our work and lessons learned. The Sloan Foundation provided funding to support the research and meetings such as CrisisCongress that brought all the active leaders to one place to discuss these larger issues and set a direction forward. We’re truly grateful for their support and look forward to learning what they see as the future of CrisisCommons.