Grassroots Crisis development organization

CrisisCommons.jpgOn Saturday, CrisisCamp Haiti was a revolutionary step that was indubitably a success. Within 3 days of an idea a small group of people helped coordinate and run a series of CrisisCamp Haiti code-a-thons across 5+ cities, over 400 participants, and at least 20 continuous hours of work. At least 6 projects were started, and many more existing projects added people to their community, taught new skills, and built out new features.

In general, the last week has involved a whirlwind of grassroots organization and development of numerous projects. This change of realtime engagement and response by volunteers and non-traditional organizations through internet has no doubt raised the hackles, or at least the concern, of traditional responders, agencies, and government. There are often voiced considerations of causing confusion, providing technology that will have no use, and lack of organization and hierarchy.

Even within these grassroots participants there are calls for centralization, and building chains of responsibility that are somewhat antithesis to the very mechanism by which the project started and how it acts. Many of these projects formulated from simple ideas, growth through passion, an aligned community, and freedom to explore ideas and vet these within the organization. Over time the best ideas crystalize and become part of the long term project and others spin out to new projects.

It's about the Mindshare and Multiplied Resources

In the beginning of a Crisis response there is an intense desire for people to engage and provide some type of resource: money, time, guidance, knowledge, contacts. At the same time, there is the alternate side of organizations seeking these vast, and limited, resources. Aid agencies put out SMS shortcodes for donations, PayPal links, matching funds. First responders need time, physical labor, and fortitude. Technology projects seek knowledge, translation, testing, documentation, data, integration.

Perhaps uniquely, technology has the possibility of multiplying any individuals efforts. By providing code, or data, and aggregating that data out, my contribution can feed into numerous other projects - whereas time or money is nominally a single use resource. It can buy water, or work for an hour moving rubble, and that's all that resource can do for that time.

So a perceived problem is in bifurcation and redundancy of efforts and confusion. This can largely be mitigated by open collaboration, and easily sharing data through interchanges. Projects like the People Finder is slowly converging on this type of solution through the use of PFIF exchange and common aggregation points with API's.

We're working on improving the site and wiki in order to track active projects, aggregate similar efforts and point volunteers to project homes to join their individual communities.

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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.