Boston Review

So, I was at the lovely H4D2 conference, after the hackathon, hearing about tools people had built for response. One of my favorites was @SemanticFire. But I was peopled-out, and left dinner early. Connecting my phone to the wifi for one last twitter check before a book and bed, a deluge of texts and IMs come in – “Are you ok?” To which I can only think “yes of course I’m ok, leave me alone, I am worn out. Why does everyone suddenly need to talk to me?” And then they told me, and I ran down the hotel hallways in bare feet to find Sara and Elena.

During response, there is a lot of chaos. It’s the nature of the beast. As technologists, we like everything to be able to fit into orderly functions and objects, and optimize for best path (well, I do it because I’m compulsive, but close enough..). But sometimes such a path is difficult to find, and trying to force reality into order only makes it worse. Remember this post about Sandy response from Lindsay? As Matt Stempeck and I talk about (not quite sure where the phrase comes from – we both attribute it to each other, so it must have come from the ethers), “design for the messiness.”

As digital responders, sometimes there is no action necessary to take, no tool to deploy, but it is still useful to create that common view. Aggregating information into one place can move the conversation from “what is happening?!” to “what can we do about it?” When we have a more closely shared view of reality, we can build great things together. We create a baseline on which to operate.

What we did:

To create that common view, we curated a document of vetted media that was coming in. Where there were live broadcasts, what people were hearing from the police blotter, and correcting information as we went. Gdocs have this beautiful attribute of allowing for iFrames pulled from their contents, so we embedded it on the GWOB site (but it could have been anywhere, really), where it automatically updated. We also created a non-iFrame-based page, which had to be manually updated, but could be viewed on mobile and tablet. The URLs of these pages were broadcast outwards for people seeking information.

How we do it:

A bunch of people pile into a chat room. Usually Skype, which hurts my security-aware soul, but you also have to go where people are. Those rooms are built upon pre-existing connections between members of the community. What happened this time, that I thought was super useful, was the forming of an event-based room which had a few representatives from various groups in one space sharing the meta view and compiling various resources pulled from our specific contact realm. It was a coordination of efforts. The room will dissolve post-After-Action-Report.

From that chat, you have the public-facing document. There is also an internal document tracking what is in progress and internal reflection – what we could be doing better, who is on what task, etc. While each deployment is fairly ad hoc, these components seem to appear in one form or another each time.

Digital humanitarians

We’re not just doing business. We’re checking in on each other. There is humor, and there is grace, and there are stumbles. We come with our own baggage and expectations of protocol and procedure. But through it all, there is always the main objective: to make things suck less.

Especially want to thank Sara from Change Assembly, Heather from Ushahidi, Arlene from OpenIR, Erhardt and Matt from Center for Civic Media, Cat and Chris from Humanity Road, Jen from Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, Om and Rose from Standby Task Force, Lyre from Boston Crisis Camp, Hilary and Christina and Donna and Joanna, Pat from Sahana Eden, and of course (and as always) our own Lindsay. Honored and proud to work with such an amazing group.