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Disasters and governance
Jon Lebkowsky, 20 Sep 05

montage.gifI've been talking to Rudi Cilibrasi, who hosts four disaster response sites (,,, and about cyberspace responses to physical world disasters. Rudi's been putting very effective time and energy into these sites and other response efforts, such as the PeopleFinder Project that has emerged as a way to track and connect evacuees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

PeopleFinder volunteers are talking about the future of the project, which can become an effective part of disaster management and, unlike other similar projects, will be an Open Source solution, therefore portable and transparent. Emily described the PeopleFinder project in a recent WorldChanging post, and Jamais followed up with a description of the core technology, the People Finder Interchange Format. More recently, Rudi's been developing Rdata with the AsiaQuake team and administrators. Rdata is an Open Source project using the Ruby on Rails framework to develop a search capability, currently operating on the PeopleFinder Project's PFIF data.

Rudi and I were discussing how various efforts to gather data following disasters are still pretty disorganized, but evolving. He pointed me to the AsiaQuake Mission Statement, the medium-term goal of which was "to add transparency to the relief process by highlighting how monies are being utilized and how efficiently relief efforts are proceding in each area." The longer-term goal

is to provide for an open infrastructure for direct community involvement in the preventative protocols for disaster mitigation, and in designing the systems for disaster recovery. With some luck, this will become part of a broader movement for direct involvement of skilled experts and community members in creating the tools necessary to navigate the challenges of the future.
The Mission Statement goes on to say that
The only solution is clear accountability, transparency, and careful review at every level. Other governmental efforts to date have been obviously ill-prepared in recent years for a variety of catastrophes, and this is no surprise; governments and politicians are notorious for being slow moving in these types of matters. This time, individuals will take the lead, and invite governments to cooperate, but will not be held back by political inattention. Now that there is a spectacle that has focused our attention, we should utilize this concentration to create a foundation for solid preparation against these and other matters of global importance, such as:
  1. Climate variability and global warming
  2. Biodiversity preservation and conservation
  3. Oil crisis management and shift away from the cheap energy and driving economy

That statement, written in January, is as relevant to Katrina as it was to the earthquake and tsunami in Southeast Asia. We need open, transparent citizen initiatives to cope with disasters and to manage effective adaptation to climate change, and we can't depend on existing forms of government, which are slow to acknowledge and respond. I think it's less clear exactly how citizens build responsive non-governmental organizations (or distributed "dis-organizatins") that can be effective and escape the kind of entropy and stagnation that seems inherent in more bureaucratic structures.

In the writings Mitch Ratcliffe and I collected for Extreme Democracy, there is much discussion of increased citizen participation in governance. Jim Moore talks about a "second superpower", and some of us have envisioned a kind of meta-government built on computer-mediated communication platforms, with some elements of the blogosphere providing at least some sense of the kinds of public dialogue that are possible.

It could be that we will find, in our responses to extreme situations like the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, a context for the evolution of new forms of organization and new kinds of relationships between citizens, NGOs, and various levels of government. Hopefully we'll see open, transparent, accountable and highly effective responses, rather than a chaos that invites martial law.

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As someone running a Katrina aid site as well, I can comment first hand on the rise of ad-hoc, citizen-driven responses, and the failure of government and traditional NGO's to capitalize on the "dis-organizational" resources available.

My site is one of many sites that allows people to take in refugees/evacuees/survivors from Katrina and help them get back on their feet in a better environment than the FEMA & Red Cross shelters. These websites sprang up extremely rapidly in the days following the disaster - I know my site and were both up and running by Wednesday, August 31, for instance. The initial rush of housing sites has now been followed by aggregators that bring together all of the different site's availability information into a single meta-site, sharing information by XML or database connection string. An anonymized XML version of my KatrinaHome data is available, for example, and is supported by a "Share" DTD.

So - there have been all sorts of great, innovative grassroots responses - everything from SMS services and WAP access, to convoy arrangers, job finders, and a zillion other things - creative, fast, nimble, grassroots responses to an evolving disaster situation. While FEMA was scratching its head wondering what to do, Moore's "second super power" stepped in and created an emergent response independent of borders, political power plays, and hidden agendas. And, they met with success: bloggers and regional media picked up the torch, and collectively, tens of thousands of people have signed up to make space available for hundreds of thousands of refugees.

However: At this point, I can't help but feel that these grassroots efforts have been hamstrung by a lack of direction/support from the big players - the Red Cross and FEMA. Certainly there have been some successes, but fundamentally, the grassroots tools are underutilized - their information isn't being used in the shelters, and few evacuees have been placed in home relative to the amount of space available.

There are certainly reasons for FEMA and the Red Cross to be wary of grassroots efforts - obviously, they don't want a evacuees scattered across the country in disorganized diaspora fashion, nor do they want to put either evacuees or volunteers in danger (the background check issue), and so on - all legitimate concerns. That's the frustration of it though: with a few simple guidelines, either organization could have lent structure to and capitalized on the grassroots efforts. For example, FEMA could publish a data dictionary (or DTD) of information that they would want about volunteers, so that at some point they could consolidate the collected information and use it in a federally sanctioned response. Or, at least draft some policy guidelines for grassroots responses. Or, heaven forbid, create some web api's to allow grassroots efforts to use a single, sanctioned back-end system. Or, of course, they could create their own volunteer placement site, in which case I'd be happy to shut down mine and direct members to the official destination. For all I know, the Red Cross and FEMA actually have an organized plan that renders sites like mine pointless - again, if they'd share that information, I'd be happy to shut mine down. Instead - nothing. No reply to my emails and phone calls other than "were not involved in that."

So, grassroots efforts continue to operate in an information & support vacuum. Will the volunteer information collected on my site ever be used in any meaningful way? Who knows.

At this point, I'm hoping for the future that Jon outlined - a "...context for the evolution of new forms of organization and new kinds of relationships between citizens, NGOs, and various levels of government. Hopefully we'll see open, transparent, accountable and highly effective responses, rather than a chaos that invites martial law." But, I question whether monolithic, paleolithic organizations will be able to adapt to the changing circumstances enabled by new technologies and form any "new kinds of relationships." They appear at present to be unable to draft policy in any meaningful time frame, much less execute on any policy - is this likely to change? Bureaucracy and outdated methodologies/policies seem to have compromised these organization's ability to deal with both the disaster and the unaffected public's response to the disaster. Let's hope that efforts like the PeopleFinder Project are successful in bridging the gap - certainly that bridging effort doesn't appear to be coming from the official organizations.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 20 Sep 05

Jon, some of us have created a wiki to facilitate co-ordination, standards discussions, and to create a clearinghouse for existing and potential projects. It's at, and called Recovery 2.0

Posted by: Greg Burton on 20 Sep 05

On a personal level, Alphageek has posted a five part diary at with step by step recommendations for preparing yourself, your family, and your friends for emergencies and disasters. Good stuff.

This winter is certainly going to be expensive in the Northeast. I'm trying to get some state and local officials in to talk to the local solar association about preparations for the winter and the fuel availability situation.

Posted by: gmoke on 20 Sep 05

I posted a big comment here this morning about my experiences, but it seems to have disappeared?

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 20 Sep 05

It's there now. Some characteristic of the post threw it into the moderation queue.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 20 Sep 05

Sweet, thanks Jon.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 20 Sep 05

Something I was nattering about on Brin's blog, that I think deserves more critical eyeballs:

One of the interesting things about living in CA and OR are the more-or-less annual arrival of Voter's Guides. Big newsprint booklets providing vital statistics on candidates, plus exhaustive examinations of ballot measures.

They're suprisingly well put together.

I would like to see localities -- states, counties, and/or cities -- produce a disaster guide.

It would have:

* Addresses and numbers of hospitals.

* First aid information. Real basic stuff, in comic book form if necessary.

* A shopping guide for basic first aid gear.

* A guide on putting together a disaster supply kit.

* A emergency procedure guide. What to do in case of Earthquake / Flood / Big scary wind storms / chemical spills (or attacks) / biological attack:

- Where are the shelters in the area?
- What should you bring with you if you have to evacuate?
- What hospitals can handle decontamination / smallpox cases / etc.?

* And finally, a guide on how to become a volunteer in time of trouble.

In addition to providing information to citizens, this document would in a sense be a contract. It would clearly state what the state and local government can do for you, what you should be prepared to do yourself, and what you can do for the government.

A truely competent and forward thinking FEMA would require states and localities to make up these guides. They could provide funding and advice, but for the most part the exercise would be an opportunity for local disaster preparedness planners to think it through.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 20 Sep 05

This kind of "response" makes me think about "preparation". Both have a place and we can learn from both.

At (dealing with an increasingly plausible influenza pandemic) we're entering a new phase, where much of the relevant "what is" and "what may be" information is already there, and at least some of us seem to be focusing on the "what can we do".

Plans for many countries are linked. Similarly, "personal preparedness" documents are linked. Now we're moving into "community preparedness", trying to see what documents we can create that would help the local leaders (which means almost everyone, as leadership is a role, not a person).

We're rehearsing what a pandemic would be like, so we can share our blueprints in advance.

We're dealing with it in a sort of "open consultancy" aproach: there's room to describe some specific scenario (a supermarket, a shoe shop, water services, etc) and then others (experts, creatives, people from other fields) will jump in to try and imagine what would be the best way to keep that supermarket working (providing food and proper profit, etc) amidst a pandemic.

There will soon be a "Pandemic Awareness Week" - probably second week of October.

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 20 Sep 05

Jon, I am struck how you start your essay talking about collaboration in disasters towards humanitarian ends, and end on a note of anxiety about martial law.

Do you think there is an inherent quality of emergent responses that forestalls their being used to undemocratic ends?

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 20 Sep 05

I like Stefan's suggestion. I'd add a simple, but often overlooked suggestion:

Know your neighbors.

Our area was hit by the large ice storm in 1998. Freezing rain fell for 5 days straight, coating everything in ice at least 1.5 inches (4 cm) thick. Trees and utility poles shattered, roads were nearly impassible, and we were without electricity for nearly 2 weeks. (And we were on the fringes - things were even grimmer in Québec and Montréal.)

Our household was fine. We have wood heat, gas cooking, and the experience to ride out hardships. I has 12 volt lights rigged up within a few days, makeshift refrigeration and potable water. We brought neighbors to live with us and saw to the needs of several others. I'm adept with a chain saw, and quickly found other folks clearing roads and driveways. With very little organizing, the able-bodied in our town knew exactly whom they were watching out for, and which crews to join to clear roads, rescue shut-ins, etc.

Government-printed disaster guides would have been very helpful, but it was the fine-grained, neighborhood-based, local knowledge that saw us through our little episode. Community was the first responder.

Posted by: David Foley on 20 Sep 05

Do you think there is an inherent quality of emergent responses that forestalls their being used to undemocratic ends?

Emily, emergent responses can be disorganized, chaotic, or, as I suggest above, they can be "open, transparent, accountable and highly effective." (And I have a nagging doubt about that word 'emergent' - it might not be quite right, though I'm not sure what other word I would use.)

Anyway, I wasn't hoping for responses to be emergent so much as I was hoping for them to have openness, accountability, and some degree of coherence.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 20 Sep 05

"Know your neighbors."

Absolutely! A few weeks back I was talking with a friend from the Bay Area about the fix he'd been in if the Hayward fault let loose while he was at work across the Bay from home. He talked about the supplies he'd laid in, and the fact that he was reluctantly thinking of getting a shotgun . . . but nothing about getting to know the folks on either side. Knowing that his wife and kids could count on help from neighbors would be a far greater assurance than a gun.

The question is, how do you go about getting people to make friends and organize? It's tough to go beyond the "stock up on crap" stage of preparedness. Just writing about this, I'm picturing having to deal with busy-bodies and micromanagers and people over-enthused about firepower.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 20 Sep 05

Please excuse a long post, but I have a complex thought about this whole business of empowerint action by individual citizens. (Some of this appeared at

I have called NoLa the “anti-9/11” because these two tragedies illustrate diametrically opposite sides of the same lesson. When resilient citizens feel empowered, they can be prodigious assets in a crisis. When resilient, self organized action by citizens is actively quashed, any crisis will deepen and the professionals will not find their jobs getting easier. Instead, by patronizing and restricting citizens, they will see their burdens grow worse.

Take our first example - the resonant tragedy that struck when a new millennium was just nine months old. The professional caste has been relentless in pushing a false interpretation of September 11, 2001. Have you noticed that both left and right speak in terms of public “fear and panic?” Both the administration and its critics tend to parse the problem relentlessly in terms that bicker over which branch of the protective caste should be given more power over our lives.

But look closer. They offer no real evidence for anything like systematic panic, during the terrorist attacks or in the aftermath. Along with Boston Globe correspondent Elaine Scarry, I have tried to show the exact opposite. 9/11 appears to have been a moment when the Age of Amateurs came briefly to the fore, showing some of its true potential for the 21st Century.

In fact, the one truly significant thing that happened that day, other than the attack itself, was a staggering display of citizen competence, courage and autonomy, on a day when all of the paid professional protector castes failed. Every effective measure that was taken - to reduce the harm, evacuate victims, palliate suffering and fight back against our enemies - every single action that worked that day - was performed by independent citizen amateurs, empowered by modern technologies and an adaptable will to use them. (see: ">,

No wonder, the professional castes have united - despite their superficial political differences - around a single goal. To distract people from what really happened on 9/11.

An example: Debates over the PATRIOT Act swirl around a devil's dichotomy, choosing *between* security and freedom. In this debate, the civil libertarians have my loyalty... but ONLY to the extent that I am forced to accept this dismal, narrow and insipidly misleading zero-sum game. (Being asked to choose between my childrens’ safety and their freedom? Bah!) While I send folks like the ACLU checks, I am also resentful that they want to "protect" me... instead of helping me protect myself.

And now we have Katrina, another example of the Protector Caste failing utterly to prepare or prevent or palliate harm... only on a vastly worse scale than 9/11.

After all, on 9/11, their failure came about as an unfortunate confluence of many factors some of which weren’t anybody’s fault, all uniting to create a sudden Perfect Storm. Isolated acts of incompetence combined with sheer bad luck - plus enemy innovativeness - to make Professional Anticipation fail at all levels. This did not mean that our paid protectors were systematically incompetent... they were saving us from many other threats, quietly and professionally, all the time, and have continued to do so, even hampered by the Neocons' all-out war on neutral professionalism.

What 9/11 did prove was an age-old adage that even the best anticipators only succeed some of the time. Inevitably, no matter how skilled, anticipation will fail. And when that happens, we must fall back on the other thing. Anticipation’s partner, in helping human beings deal with the future.

Resiliency. The trait our fellow citizens - (on that day, mostly Bostonians and New Yorkers) - demonstrated prodigiously. And the one thing that the Protector Caste has been downplaying - instinctively and surely NOT consciously - ever since.

Alas, resiliency was treated as an enemy, before and during Katrina.

Here, unlike 9/11, there was plenty of warning. Years in the case of the fragile levees (see my 1990 novel EARTH, which made eerie predictions) and many days in the case of the storm. Failure of anticipation now becomes culpable. Especially after a hundred billion dollars supposedly spent on readiness.

But failure to enhance citizen autonomous resiliency can only be seen as criminal.

Online, the mystical-libertarians are going ape, claiming that this event shows the INHERENT incompetence of government. An banal response that is wholly insupportable. Other emergencies have been handled well, within recent memory. Especially when skilled and vigorous officials swiftly engaged all resources, including private, corporate and individual effort.

Government's failure in this case arose first from the War Against Professionalism waged by this administration.

But it was thereupon horribly exacerbated by the behavior of the professionals, themselves. From state, local and federal officials to FEMA and local police, what we saw was a relentless and nearly uniform reflex to quash autonomous citizen action. Whether those actions were illegal-but-understandable (e.g. looting for food and water) or heroic and impressively innovative (hotwiring school buses to evacuate the poor) the common reaction was to insist that people STOP whatever assertive action they were taking and return to cesspit shelters, to sit with folded hands and wait.

Was this racism, reflexively preventing dark-skinned folks from acting on their own behalf? Then what about all the white folks driving trucks and buses toward New Orleans and Biloxi, who were turned away and prevented even from delivering fresh water? Excuses varied, from worries about liability to prickly defense of command procedure. But what we need to be noticing is the common element that underlies every excuse. The effect of limiting citizen resiliency.

Let there be no mistake. People could have stepped in, taking the place of the missing National Guard, for example. (Decades ago, a volunteer civil defense network existed in every community.) During the Katrina Crisis, thousands tried to do as their countrymen did, four years ago in New York City. But this time, every barrier was put in place to prevent individual effort.

If 9/11 illustrated empowered citizenship, NoLa displayed a new phenomenon: professionals waging outright war against citizen empowerment.

Look, I have every sympathy for our skilled professional protectors. I doubt, at a conscious level, they even know what they are doing. Reacting to a sense of beleaguered siege mentality, I suppose. Indeed, they have been suffering horribly at the hands of super-empowered amateurs... the inept ideologues comprising an administration of meddlesome maladroits who think they know more about diplomacy than diplomats, more about the military than trained officers, more about science than scientists, and more about policy “mandate” than the sovereign voters.

Ever since 9/11, we have seen the worst of all possible situations. The professionals have been sabotaged and thwarted from above... and they, in turn, have reflexively defended their turf by quashing citizen empowerment. BOTH anticipation and resiliency have fallen into dark times, exactly when we need both traits to become super enhanced, in order to cope with a world transforming before our eyes.

Posted by: David Brin on 20 Sep 05

Stefan, you're right that it's tough to connect with neighbors, cooperate, help each other, get along, etc. It's just tougher not to. Your neighbor is seriously considering holding his little household together with canned goods and a shotgun. That sounds far more difficult to me than having some civic skills. It seems to me that we devolve to our worst behavior, whether we're a disaster victim, a bureaucrat, or a cop, when we're afraid of those around us. We act our worst when we expect the worst of others - then we all prove one another right. That approach hasn't been working too well - perhaps it's time to try another?

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Sep 05

David B., excellent comment, thanks! I think we have to redefine authority relationships and rethink command and control structures and permission systems. That's happening, in fact, and it's not surprising that institutions with rigid hierarchies are resisting (much more noticeably in an extreme situations like Katrina's aftermath).

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 21 Sep 05

David nice words bad idea. If you live in an area of fair crime level you have to come to grips with the fact that in a disaster the thugs come out to play. No in this case you have two and ONLY two choices.

1 get your non violent arse the hell outa the area before the disaster hits... not possible with earthquakes and such...

2 get a shotgun preferably 2 double barreled pump action shotguns... Oh and make sure your doors are sturdy;/

Personaly I live where people are nice and kind and not where alot of bad disasters are likely to ever happen.

Posted by: wintermane on 21 Sep 05

Wintermane, I understand your and appreciate your point. I'm not naive. My dad was a district attorney and prosecuted at least a dozen murderers (yes, here in pastoral, quaint Maine). I've lived in crime-ridden cities. Fools have tried to mug me several times, and wound up in the hospital as a result. I can take care of myself. But I still think that community and cooperation will get us through more hardship than some stupid John Wayne impersonation. Community discourages crime. Community helps you feel not desperate, not alone. Community is how we organize to control our own fate, instead of surrendering it to "authorities." The thugs come out to play when they feel like they can get away with it. Strength in numbers beats heroic individualism every time - even when you have a shotgun.

Posted by: David Foley on 21 Sep 05



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