Humanitarian Disaster Coordination Workshop

CrisisCamp PHX MeetingThis week I attended and spoke at the Humanitarian Disaster Coordination workshop held at UVA's Darden School of Business. Focused primarily on the role of logistics in response activities, organizations such as DHS/FEMA, UPS, US Coast Guard, American Red Cross, and academic institutions like LSU and Michigan State University shared their experiences in supporting the emergent, dynamic, and chaotic operations of distributing resources. The topics for this workshop primarily focused on Demand Signal Visibility - who needs what, where?

I found the world of crisis supply chain operations fascinating in the complexities of moving something like tents to remote areas of China or even locally like Louisiana. There is a very complex landscape of Federal, State, and Local government, VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Acting in Disaster) such as Red Cross, FBOs (Faith Based Organizations) such as Salvation Army, and the Military. And that's not even considering the complex organizational and operational processes within these organizations. Clearly the effect is a working, but highly inefficient and potential fragile operational capacity in responding to disasters. The flood of unwanted in-kind donations (as high as 90% of donated goods need to be discarded because they are unusable), competing interests, conflicting operations, and communications issues result in frustration and a concern that in a catastrophic disaster - particularly within the United States - that we would be ill-prepared to respond effectively.

However, these organizations are very interested in understanding how they can better coordinate and collaborate. There is a clear realization of the need to put in place better plans before a disaster occurs. The entire purpose of the workshop was to convene the different communities of government, military, NGO, private industry, and academia in order to share difficulties and brainstorm solutions.

Emerging Trends

In particular, my talk shared the emerging drivers, trends, and issues in information sharing and collaboration in humanitarian activities. Major events from Katrina, through Haiti earthquake and reconstruction have highlighted that citizen engagement through digital media is dramatically changing the on-the-ground needs sharing and response capabilities. Traditional crisis response organizations currently utilize a very top-down approach, be that at the "local" level of first responders in the country or region - but also through national efforts led by FEMA - that is being faced with these trends but currently not clear on how to incorporate the data. "Social Media" is currently primarily supported through external affairs and is considered a publicity mechanism. However, as was made clear in the recent American Red Cross Survey, 74% of the polled adults expect less than a 1-hour response to their need when published through a service such as Twitter or Facebook.

Open Sharing

The internet has provided a global, connected network that dramatically lowers the barrier to free exchange of data. Administrative policies focused on open-government, combined with general acceptance that shared data improves the quality and grows value is leading organizations to more readily share their data - particularly with open-standards.

Realtime Data

Inexpensive, connected, and prevalent mobile devices are dramatically increasing the number of 'sensor nodes' that are publishing data continuously to the web. Social media, resource tracking, news, weather and climate sensors are all providing continous streams of data that have a huge value in providing situational awareness and communications.


In order to understand the deluge of information, analysis tools are being put closer to users - particularly domain experts and locally situated groups that

Social Networks

People are connecting and collaborating through online networks, bridging social, family, professional and local communities. They're able to communicate in real-time about issues they care about.

Crisis Crowds

Around any crisis, communities of interest - diaspora, family, and general good will - is causing people to want to actively participate in helping the survivors.

New sensor platforms

Mobile phones, Texting, broadband internet allow anyone, anywhere to be sharing data and providing information and feedback. In addition, inexpensive digital devices are allowing people to build ad-hoc balloon imaging and other sensing platforms.

'Citizen' Engagement

Combined, all of these capabilities are actually allowing the local, affected populations to have an immediate, positive impact on their response. Neighbors and communities are able to assist one another and coordinate with official response organizations.

Work we're doing

Groups like CrisisCommons have a lot to offer as it combines members of these response organizations with technologists, private industry, and citizens in developing agile and supportive capabilities. In the workshop it became clear of the potential and growing need to utilize digital media as part of operational support and not just as public outreach. Integrating aggregation, analysis, and curation tools of the huge flows of data are vital to organizations so that they can understand their own operational picture as well as the broader 'common operating picture' across the entire disaster.

At FortiusOne, we've built GeoIQ to integrate dynamic data such as Twitter and Flickr with logistics information of shelters, hospitals and other infrastructure to provide these common operating pictures both within organizations as well as on the ground through field-deployed systems. GeoCommons has served as a tremendous repository of data and information analysis that augments these operations by providing to the general public the capability to contribute and share these analyses.

Disaster response is changing quickly - information technology playing a key role in quickly augmenting local and remote capabilities. The future is in combining these with actual logistics of materials through the international and national responders to be more effective and supportive.

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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.