Interfaces between formal and informal crisis response

I’ve long been interested in the question of how formal and informal groups interact in crisis. It is my proverbial jam, as no one ever says.

Basically, it boils down to this: official agencies are resourced and have predictable structures, but are slow and lack visibility to an affected population’s needs. Emergent groups in an affected region are by definition beyond their capacity to respond and are not trained in response, yet they have acute knowledge of their neighbors’ needs and can adapt to dynamic environments. While I’m still working on the long-form expression of these ideas, an opportunity to prototype an interface came up recently through the Naval Postgraduate School, Georgia Tech Research Institute, and a place called Camp Roberts.

Camp Roberts

There’s this decommissioned Air Force base near Paso Robles called Camp Roberts, where interoperability experiments are conducted quarterly. Only the engineers/implementers are invited to attend – no C-level folk, no sales. Each year, one of those four is focused on what the military calls “Humanitarian Assistance & Disaster Response” (HA/DR). I have some deeply mixed Feelings about the military being involved in this space. I respect my friends and cohorts who refuse outright to work with them. I see the military as an inevitable force to be reckoned with, and I’d rather take them into account and understand what they’re likely to be up to. Finding this place to plug different pieces of a response together without the sales folk or directors present, to actually test and play and fail is a glorious opportunity.

A Game

I’ve been working on the opportunity to build a game around a formal/informal interface for years as a way to explore how collaboration would fill gaps for these different actors. This project is called “Emergent Needs, Collaborative Assessment, & Plan Enactment,” or ENCAPE. The idea is this: both sides to that equation lack understanding of, and trust in, the other. A game could externalize some of the machinations and assumptions of each side, meaning a demystification; and creating things together often leads to trust building (that’s a reason why I’ve invested so much in makerspaces and hackathons over the years).

My informal friends were into it. So were my formal friends. But in order to know we could have any impact at all on organizational change, support had to be official from the formal sector. This took years (the formal sector is resourced but slow, yeah), but the pieces fell into place a couple months ago and the chance to build a game was born.

The People

It was of course vital that a wide range of viewpoints be represented, so the call was broad, but still to folk I knew would bring their whole Selves, be able to trust each other, and would be interested in the results of the game research. Folk from informal response, official agencies, nonprofits, and private sector were all invited. In the end, were were joined by Joe, Galit, Drew, Katie, Wafaa, John, Seamus, and Conor. Thank you all for taking time for this.

What We Did

We actually ended up meeting in San Francisco for our 3-day workshop for hilarious reasons I’ll disclose in private sometime.
On Sunday night, some of us got together to get to know each other over beverages and stories.
On Monday, we went through a Universe of Topics and visualized the workflows for our various user types. I did one for the Digital Humanitarian Network, Wafaa did one for Meedan’s translation and verification services, Katie covered a concerned citizen, etc. What were our pain points? Could we solve them for each other? We overlapped those workflows and talked about common factors across them. Different personas have access to different levels of trust, finances, and attention. They use those to build capacity, connections, and decision-making power. How could we use these common factors to build a game? How could we explore the value of collaboration between different personas?

Participants broke down workflows into one component per sticky note, laid out in linear fashion. Wafaa and Willow stand at the board while others talk through potential overlaps.

Drew took this

On Tuesday, we reconvened and started the day off with a game: Pandemic. This got us thinking about game mechanics, emergent complexity based on simple rules, and how to streamline our game. Individuals presented on what their game might look like, if left to their own devices. We explored combining the most compelling parts of those games, and started a prototype to playtest. It ended up being a counting game. Hm. That can’t be right.
A very few sticky notes indicate various steps in the game. These have all since become wrong, although we wouldn't have been able to arrive where we are now without first having gone through this.
On Wednesday, we drew through what the game play might look like and troubleshot around this shared understanding. It was closer to modeling reality, but still took some counting. We drafted it out to playtest, narrated through parts which didn’t yet make sense, and took notes on where we could improve. The last bit of the day was getting a start on documentation of the game process, on the workshop process, and on starting some language to describe the game.
Cards and arrows are hand-drawn onto a whiteboard in order to visualize the logical steps or game mechanics necessary to move through one round of the game. Cards scatter the tabletop in a variety of colors, and with drawings on them. We’ve since continued cleaning up the documentation and refining the game process. And so dear readers, I’m excited to tell you about how this game works, how you can play, and how you can (please) help improve it even more.

The Game

ENCAPE is a collaborative card-based strategy game that depends on storytelling for every action to connect the bridge between formal and informal sector responding to a crisis. To relieve a crisis you must work with other players to complete a mission. Personas are built on the actual/abstract players of crisis response. ENCAPE is released under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike, and we encourage players build their personas as they imagine.

There are 5 kinds of cards.

  • Missions – When a crisis occurs, missions emerge. A mission might be feeding a large number of people, or performing search and rescue, or accurately allocating millions of dollars to survivors.
  • Actions – A certain amount of information, resources, and/or labor is needed to fulfill an action, and actions combine to accomplish a mission. Only certain actors can take certain actions, such as a digital responder tracing satellite imagery, or a concerned citizen making signs, or an international nongovernmental organization pushing $150k into a region.
  • Players – 
Who plays in a game matters. Each player has certain attributes – how and when they can spend information, resources, and/or labor, who they can interface with, what they need to focus on – which approximate reality.
  • Updates – 
Crises are chaotic. Your original mission changes with updates from the field. These come after actions have been decided upon, and might be the power going out so more labor is required to provide medical care or a local group you didn’t know about already covering feeding locals.
  • Connections – These may be granted by other players with whom your player has completed a mission. It is a card onto which they can place some of their own information, resources, and/or labor pieces for the person to whom they are connected to use. A connection card might also include caveats or amplifications for using those pieces.

Pieces represent what it takes to get something done

These appear in 3 parts. These are spent to perform actions, which are used to accomplish missions.

  • Information – In order to get the right job done well, information is needed. It’s also scarce in a crisis! Information can change (a road has gone out etc), as indicated by an update. You can also be overloaded with information, which means it’s harder to make accurate choices, which is what happens when more information is provided than is needed.
  • Resources – Whether it’s rebuilding a school or installing resources, equipment and consumables are necessary. They’re also in short supply! What might have existed before a crisis may have been damaged, and getting access to more is tricky. Sometimes, resources can become inappropriate or disuseful (such as a fridge malfunctioning and food going bad), as indicated by an update. More resources than are needed can also show up, which causes waste.
  • Labor – Feeding people, building roads, and mapping regions all take the time of people. People want to help in a crisis, and they show up in droves – which is good, because there’s a lot of work to be done! Sometimes, a news broadcast (as indicated by an update) could cause too many people to show up. Idle hands mean sad humans and idle hands – indicated in this game as waste.

Overwhelming Generosity

Excess information, resources, and/or labor spent on a particular task is indicative of waste. Maybe too many volunteers were sent somewhere, or 20,000 blankets showed up to one location rather than the needed 2,000. Waste indicates an inefficient system, and is tracked.

More about how the game is played can be found here.

What You Can Do

We need play testers! I’d love to come and do a session with you in the Bay Area, or you can do it on your own and let us know how it went.

  1. The game instructions also include how to make cards.
  2. Make a copy of the instructions doc and name it with YYYYMMDD_internethandle.
  3. Suggest edits in those docs, share back to me.
  4. Have players fill in this feedback form.

Thank you

Huge thank you’s again to those who gave their precious time to this event (Joe, Galit, Drew, Katie, John, Wafaa, Seamus, and Conor). Deep thanks to Scotty, Scott, Jean, Daphne, and Seamus for logistics. Thanks to Humanity Road for their fantastic Emergency Management card deck that gave us good brain fodder and a solid foundation.

Want to hire me?

I’m working with Vulpine Blue these days on coordinating distributed teams. Let me know if you’d like our help.