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Sarah Rich, 16 Feb 07
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When the South Asian tsunami hit in 2004, socially networked organizers scrambled to set up online systems for broadcasting news and offering resources to victims in need.

Worldchanging was an early responder to the crisis, networked as we already were with a global team of web-smart helpers. Two of our India-based team members, Rohit Gupta and Dina Mehta, were instrumental in setting up TsunamiHelp blog and wiki, which became an invaluable resource in the first days after the disaster.

Only too soon after gathering some established methods of organizing large-scale communication, volunteering and donation channels in Asia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, inciting another frenzied process of setting up accessible platforms for victims and their relatives. Some of the experience from the tsunami came in handy in creating KatrinaWiki and Katrina PeopleFinder, which both aided in reconnecting separated families and keeping everyone abreast of new developments via a volunteer, citizen-run operation.

But all of these things happened in the aftermath of crisis. Anyone would agree that if such systems had existed in advance of the storms, there would have been less suffering and confusion, and fewer lives lost. So now, as the need for emergency preparedness against weather and terrorism bears increasingly on our consciousness, a number of people are looking at building digital support networks that will be there in the event of catastrophe.

Two University of Maryland professors, Ben Shneiderman and Jennifer Preece, recently presented a paper in the journal, Science proposing an online, public "community response grid" (CRG) for citizen-to-citizen communication and assistance in the event of emergency. It would be located at The paper explains:

Community members (who would register in advance) could use Web-based computers, mobile devices, and cell phones to give and get text messages, photos or videos. The site would support coordination as emerging software tools could enable agencies to integrate reports and promptly recognize patterns. Civic leaders could disseminate information on a street by street basis. A CRG would be most effective if it is used on a regular basis so that people know about it and develop closer community contacts. Such activities would build trust and increase social capital that will be needed during major emergencies.

The piece points to the widespread adoption of networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and the success of localized, open community resource models like Craigslist, as indications of the public's interest in and proclivity towards online social tools. Whereas "government agencies have been slow to adopt social computing for national security, disaster response, and emergency relief," citizens understand and use it with ease.

The proposal suggests that could be funded through user fees collected by local internet service providers, meeting a budgeting approximately akin to that of local 911 phone operations. In theory, the online emergency assistance could withstand disasters of a magnitude that could easily overwhelm or wipe out phone services.

The professors are planning to initiate a pilot program at the University of Maryland to explore this concept's potential, which according to an article in the BBC today, may start later this year.

(Thanks to Professors Shneiderman and Preece for speedily sending me a review copy of the paper.)

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It is hard to tell what the professors are actually proposing without reading their paper, however I don't know if they are focusing on the right target audience.

Disaster response (part of my job duties for the State of Texas) is organized according to a military-style chain of command. This is so important, that everyone who is professionally involved in disaster response, no matter how tangential, is asked to undergo federal NIMS training. The primary subject of this mandatory training? Chain of command.

A let's use the web to empower the people isn't a winning argument in this environment.

The talking points need to be reframed into how disaster response professionals can successfully utilize and integrate web 2.0 concepts, social networking, mashups, and citizen reporting into their operations.

That is more likely to open doors and funding people.

Posted by: David Smith on 16 Feb 07

(From another professional emergency manager, currently based in California...)

David, let's not confuse the management of government response assets with the much larger question of community-wide response to disasters. NIMS doesn't address the latter topic, and the idea that the entire population can (or should) be "militarized" into a hierarchical command-and-control system seems highly questionable.

Officialdom has its job to do, and while ICS/NIMS is less than perfect, it's the best technique we've found so far for doing that job. But there's a great deal more to any disaster than just the official response.

The reality is that, even in relatively minor emergencies, victims are far more often rescued and/or assisted by their fellow citizens ("bystanders," as we somewhat condescendingly call them) than by professional rescuers. And that tendency grows stronger as the scale of a disaster expands.

The notion that emergency response can be reduced to a simple military-style hierarchy is one of those simplifying assumptions we use to make the uncertainties of disaster management a little less overwhelming. Such assumptions are useful at times, but we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that reality is anywhere near that simple.

In any event, self-organizing public behavior during disasters has always been a reality. Government can cooperate with it or fight it, but we don't have the power to prevent it even if we wanted to.

Personally I suspect we might not do better just to leave it alone, at least until we understand it better.

Posted by: Art Botterell on 17 Feb 07

I'm not arguing that the public should be brought into the chain of command, but rather pointing out that there is a huge chasm between the culture that disaster response professionals operate and the decentralized premise of social networking.

I think there is great potential in the merge, but my take is that the payoff will be faster if you reframe the opportunity by targeting disaster professionals and try to show how our problems can be solved by web 2.0 solutions.

Posted by: David Smith on 17 Feb 07



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