The Contributions of Grassroots Technical Communities

The Haitian Earthquake saw the first significant uptick in responding entities. Gisli Olafsson brought this up the first time we’d met, at a talk of his at the Wilson Center. I was just starting to visually take notes (having broken my arm), and I was a year into leading a group called Geeks Without Bounds, one of the many technical response groups which had emerged and then stuck around. It was hard to know what we would be good at, where we fit in. Disaster response has such a long and complicated history, and the culture of technology is so used to being new, shiny, and the Fixer of All Things.

Seven years later, and the patterns of digital response are becoming so well ingrained in my soul that I can use the Socratic method to help new groups as they spin up without becoming frustrated, and insist on things like self care. There’s still a lot to learn – especially as our physical and digital environments are changing all the time – but here is what I have figured out about where digital/technical/whatever response fits into the larger response ecosystem: crowdsourcing (and microtasking), increasing everyday capacity, information communication technology, and easing collaboration through standards.

Because each of those is a hefty thing to speak about, this entry covers crowdsourcing and microtasking.

What’s the difference between crowdsourcing and microtasking?

Crowdsourcing is about gathering data, microtasking is about parsing through data. Both are predicated on a very large task being broken down into many tiny pieces, which can can then be done by relatively unskilled/untrained labor. Then all those individual contributions need to be able to re-combine into a logical Whole again without too much overhead. Because of the need for a very clear workflow, the problem-solving creativity of in this process exists in the creation of the workflow, the systems on which it runs, and the creation of the experience for the individual participant.

What follows is an example of an emerging crowdsourced practice and one with a smoother flow and two examples about microtasking. A later entry will cover how citizen science exists in the overlap between crowdsourcing and microtasking,

Crowdsourcing

Rescue Requests and Dispatch

The way I’m used to seeing rescue requests happen is through an overloaded emergency response system asking people to stay in their homes and wait it out. It’s never sat well with me, but I’ve been at a loss as to how, as a remote responder, assist. During Harvey, the Coast Guard activated the Digital Humanitarian Network to help go through rescue requests on social media to provide them with summaries every 12 hours which they could then respond to. 12 hours is a long time to wait, even if it’s a quick cycle for the formal sector. Locals started using Zello to request and offer help via the Cajun Navy. (Let’s return to a rant on redundancy in dispatched resources based on a lack of sharing another time, yes?) Rescue.fm has since started working on ways to coordinate dispatch beyond scribbling on pieces of paper and spreadsheets. Good work, Zello, Cajun Navy, and Rescue.fm! I’m excited to see how this evolves over time, and to see such clear improvements to systems for mutual aid.

Shelter Information

During Harvey response (and then again for Irma), Sketch City set up a workflow for volunteers to call shelters to ask for their capacity, available beds, location, etc. That information was then entered into a data structure which could be queried via SMS through code built by the HarveyAPI team.

Eventually, something like a data standard for health and human services could automate much of this process. But until and unless that happens, this sort of information doesn’t become available to people under stress unless folk are chipping in to make those phone calls and enter the data. Good work, Sketch City!

Microtasking

Mapping Infrastructure

The remote mapping of regions (whether in crisis or not) is something that Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has been doing as a core component of digital response since before their mapping of Port-au-Prince in less time than it would have taken to set up a contract through a response agency. Their Tasker is a beacon of how anyone can get involved in helping a response (or “Putting the World’s Vulnerable People on the Map“). Those maps are then used by responders and locals to allocate resources, find useful paths across treacherous ground, or focus restoration efforts. This most recent round of hurricane response was no different, and for that we thank you.

Translation

People should be able to ask for, and offer, help in whatever language they are most comfortable in. Areas affected by extreme environmental events will always be home to multilingual populations, whether or not they are visible. The incoming and outgoing information is often so varied as to mean blanket translations won’t work. Thankfully, Meedan stepped in with their Bridge tool and community to create a workflow around translating individual messages, announcements of services, and some documentation of products. Without them, we would have been even more colonial than usual (another rant for another time).

Closing

In short, there are many people in the world who want to help, and many who need help. Often, they’re one and the same. Our role as remote responders and system-builders is to help them find each other and to interact with fewer things in the way. A good first step for many people wanting to help is to have a quick, easy way to contribute – often through crowdsourcing or microtasking. A next step to plug in for more complex and longer-term efforts is ethically desirable as well.

If we work together to build an ecosystem around different ways for people to contribute and request, we strengthen our social fabric and become more resilient.

With thanks to supporters on Patreon, who made it WAY less stressful to take the time to write all this down, and to Greg, Jeff, and others who reviewed the post.

Looking for Help

Want to help me survive while I help with crisis response? Now there’s a way! I launched my Patreon recently. I’m excited to do community response as backed by the community.
Screen shot of my Patreon page

I still feel a bit strange, asking the community to support my work in this as I’m also looking for more regular work gigs. If you see any program, project, or product management positions that I might be a good fit for, please do let me know. My work portfolio website, designed by the amazing Jen Thomas, has been live for a bit.
Screen capture of my work website. Includes types of work such as facilitation and teaching, as well as logos of organizations for which I have worked, including the Digital Humanitarian Network, Aspiration, NetHope, and Aspiration.You can also contract me for facilitation gigs specific to employee retention through Vulpine Blue.

An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

We are a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help:

Rescue

Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (willow dot bl00 at gmail) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse and @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

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. Continue reading

local San Francisco neighborhood preparedness

One of the hardest lessons and ongoing challenges in digital disaster and humanitarian response is how to connect with a local population. While many digital response groups deal with this by waiting for official actors (like the affected nation’s government, or the United Nations) to activate them, this doesn’t always sit well with my political viewpoints. Some of these affected nations have governments which are not in power at the consent of the governed, and so to require their permission rankles my soul. But to jump in without request or context is also unacceptable. So what’s to be done? It’s from this perspective that I’ve been diving into how civics, disaster, and humanitarian tech overlap. And it’s from this perspective that I’ve been showing up to Bayview meetings for San Francisco city government’s Empowered Communities Program. ECP is working to create neighborhood hubs populated by members already active in their communities. Leaders in local churches, extended care facilities, schools, etc gather about once a month to share how they’ve been thinking about preparedness and to plan a tabletop exercise for their community. This tabletop exercise took place on October 20th in a local gymnasium.

The approach of ECP is generally crush-worthy and worth checking out, so I won’t dive into it too much here. In brief, it is aware of individual and organizational autonomy, of ambient participation, and of interconnectedness. It has various ways of engaging, encourages others to enroll in the program, and lightens everyone’s load in a crisis by lightening it in advance. I am truly a fan of the approach and the participants. It’s also possible to replicate in a distributed and federated way, which means digital groups like the ones I work with could support efforts in understood and strategic ways.

Here is what doesn’t necessarily show through in their website: how grounded in local needs and social justice these community members are. There is a recognition and responsibility to the vulnerable populations of the neighborhood. There is a deep awareness of what resources exist in the community, and of historical trends in removing those resources from a poor neighborhood in a time of crisis. We’ve had frank conversations about what they’ll do about debris, and how the Department of Public Works parking and storage in their neighborhood is suddenly a positive thing. About what to do with human waste, and what a great boon it will be to have the waste water plant in their neighborhood. The things that wealthier parts of the city have vetoed having near them because of noise, pollution, and ugliness (NIMBY, or “not in my back yard”) will make Bayview resilient. They’re preparing to take care of themselves, and then to take care of other neighborhoods.

There’s a plan in NYC now to knock on every. single. resident’s door in the next crisis. It’s an approach other cities might also consider. But it’s one which is nearly impossible to implement. Who is doing the knocking? What are they doing with the information they gain? ECP’s approach is to apply their own oxygen masks first, and then to check on their neighbors, to know what the local Hub can take care of and what is needed for external support. When/If a city employee comes knocking on their door, they can then speed up the process of getting aid to where it’s needed (“I’m ok, but Shelly up the street has our 7 disabled neighbors there and they need a wheelchair, medication, and no-sodium food.”)


The end of the tabletop exercise had Daniel Homsey, the gent who heads up this program, talking about how we didn’t devise plans while together, but we did learn how to suddenly have to work at another role with people we’d barely or never met before. And I, as a digital responder, listened to what the community’s needs were, how they organized themselves, and considered the smallest interventions which could be maximally applied.

Politicized Humanitarianism

This post is a collaboration between Margaret Killjoy and yours truly. If you find yourself in need of a co-author or ghostwriter, or just generally like to be challenged and your hopes dashed and lifted at the same time, please reach out to them.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Desmond Tutu

Four years into the Syrian Civil War, with no end in sight, the Syrian refugee crisis is just getting worse and worse. More than four million people have fled their homes and sought refuge in Turkey, Europe, and throughout the world.

There are wonderful grassroots initiatives (most too informal to even call “organizations”) who are on the ground in Europe helping Syrian refugees navigate the nightmare they’ve been thrust into (bureaucracy and xenophobia) after the nightmare they’ve escaped (the Syrian civil war). But as crucial as it is to meet these people’s immediate needs, it will take more than emergency aid to solve the source of this crisis and ones like it. It will take radical, political solutions.

Relief organizations and related nonprofits could position themselves to advocate and act towards / in alignment with those solutions. Which is to say: we need humanitarianism, yes, but if we’re going to find long-term solutions, we also need politicized humanitarianism.

When we speak of people and groups being politicized, we don’t mean campaigning and/or voting for elected officials every few years. Instead, to be political means to do work that addresses the very way our society—and its decision-making—is structured. For many of us, to be political also means to embrace the feminist concept that the personal is political—that the way we interact with one another one-on-one cannot be divorced from the broader structures of social control. Continue reading

Missing Persons Application!

This is a draft of a blog entry. The idea needs further refinement, and we welcome your feedback!

When a disaster occurs, whether fast like an earthquake or slow like a drought or war, people go missing. As outsiders wishing to contribute to restoring the stability of our worlds, the desire to reunite friends and loved ones through the technology we know so well can be tempting. Making use of our knowledge of social platforms, geotagging, and databases is far easier than addressing the long-term systemic injustices which allow these crises to affect entire populations in the way they do, afterall. But let’s say a typhoon has just made landfall, or that there’s a sudden influx of refugees from a drought-blighted country, and you and a group of your friends have gathered to see what you can do about it. This is beautiful — we need to learn how to work in solidarity with those in other geographies. But it’s also a delicate space. This particular post is about whether or not you should build that missing persons app, or spend your time contributing to something like Google Person Finder, OpenStreetMap, Sahana, or Standby Task Force instead.

The missing persons/reunification domain of humanitarian response is not just about people logging themselves so as to be findable by those missing them. It’s also about those individuals being protected during the process, having support in finding those they’ve been separated from, and the infrastructure which surrounds these actions. Software has a lot to contribute to connection, information security, and sorting through indexes, but missing persons is a delicate space with real humans in the mix.

This is an inhabited space


There are already missing persons tools and organizations which have been vetted for capacity and integrity for follow-through and security. Here are the few most successfully used ones: American Red Cross’ Safe and Well, Google Person Finder, Sahana, Refugees United, International Committee of the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Please offer to help improve and maintain these existing tools (code repos and communities are linked to from each name)! If you are uncomfortable or unsure of how to contact them, please let me/Tim know!

However, we also understand that the world changes. We gain access to new technologies, there are new clever people in the world, and our understandings of situations change. There is *always* room for improvement in this space, just as any other. Want to do something substantively “better” or different than what the existing tools and organizations already do? Here’s what you need to know:

A component, not a solution

The software-based frontend and backing database are a TINY FRACTION of the overall system of missing persons reunification efforts. People are often missing for a *reason*, possibly because of political unrest, domestic violence, or displacement. If your platform publishes photos of someone or their geographic location, will someone try to come after them? Can you protect their physical and emotional wellbeing? There are national and international laws in place to protect such individuals, especially children, and your component of the system must be in alignment with those laws (or have a damn good and intentional reason for not being as such). Ethically, you should also respect an individual’s desire or need for privacy. In the Missing Persons Community of Interest, organizations handling missing persons data are reviewed by external parties for their ability to perform long-term maintainence and protection of said data. You and your tool will need to undergo the same rigor before being launched.

Complications versus easing interaction

Your goal is to make finding loved ones easier, right? Think about how many tools are already in play (see “This is an inhabited space” section above), and what adding one more to the mix would be like. Every new missing persons platform is another point of decision-making stress on the missing persons and those seeking them. Imagine being asked for personal information about yourself while under extreme duress over and over and over again.. or having to repeatedly enter in the details of someone you love and are deeply worried about while on a desperate search for them. The listed existing tools have gone through (and in some cases, are still working out) data sharing flows to reduce these stressors while still maintaining their committments to privacy and security of the data they hold. If you launch your tool, you’ll need to adhere to the same levels of empathy, respect, privacy, and sharing. (Side note, please don’t start a “uniting platform,” either, lest we get here. That’s what sharing standards are about.)

We look forward to your heartfelt, well-thought out contributions to this space.

Tim and Willow

What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.
Continue reading

Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.

Humanitarian Technology Festival

I came on with Aspiration back in January as the Community Leadership Strategist, to merge the work I’ve been doing in the humanitarian and disaster response space with Aspiration’s practices and team. It’s been a *blast* so far, and continues to be.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last 5 years has been about what social justice looks like when we’re doing response, with a focus on technology (as that opens up paths to conversations we otherwise quit having). With Geeks Without Bounds, we did hackathons all over the world, including Random Hacks of Kindness and SpaceApps Challenge. I’ve been a coordinator for the Digital Humanitarian Network, keynoted the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, was invited to the White House to talk about Sandy response, facilitated the first hackathon IN (not just for) Haiti, etc etc etc. I’ve also had a huge organizational crush on Aspiration since my first DevSummit in 2013, attending as many Aspiration-connected events as possible. When I was able to join Team Aspiration, I was overjoyed — even while much of the work I’ve continued to do on response had already existed, it’s been a slow shift to get those previously-defined objects to be a bit more Aspiraiton-shaped.

The Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge May 9+10 is the first event that is both committed to response and framed on Aspiration ethos. I am SO EXCITED about this it hurts. Let me explain why.

The very way we deliver aid perpetuates the need for more aid, both for fast- and slow-onset disasters (or “extreme events” or “humanitarian issues” or “earthquake” or “famines” or whatever you’d like to say). When people need lodging after a hurricane, they’re either told to evacuate and/or they’re put into temporary homes, away from neighbors and family. There is little impetus to return and rebuild both social and tangible structures. People are uprooted, and must start from scratch. When, instead, we see that people don’t just need lodging but in fact need social fabric, responders (and the technologies used for response) can focus on how to maintain family and neighborhood ties. People are then less stressed as well as being more likely to take their own actions to return and rebuild.

For humanitarian aid, this is even more paternalistic and stratifying… while not actually “fixing” any of the things it aims to. Aid is primarily about making the giver feel better. But like Tom’s Shoes picking up on the “buy one, give one” idea that OLPC actually handled with cultural grace and systems thinking, instead Tom’s put some people out of work while trying to provide something THEY thought others needed. Even if it had been delivered in a less-jerky way, aid often ends up with locations dependant on that aid, rather than internally strengthened. This is one way we keep extracting resources out of other places without actually contributing to those locations. See also this bit of the paper I’m still working on. This allows the worst parts of globalization (erasure of cultures, consolodation of wealth, etc) to continue.

Some might say “fine, let them fend for themselves,” but that’s not ok either. When we don’t have to look at our neighbors (when we build walled housing complexes, or segregated schools), we can ignore how bad things are for them. And that’s also not an acceptable answer.

What we need are ways to listen to what people can offer, and what they need, under the assumptions that we are equals. This is why I’m so excited to see how the participatory methods I associate so strongly with Aspiration come to bear on this space. Just do a search-and-replace for “Nonprofits” to “Affected Communities” on our Manifesto and Participant Guidelines. People in these fragile situations are NOT a population to playtest new tools. Not only do failures have a larger impact in these spaces, but to think of another location and its people as “demo” space is undignified and unjust. We need better ways (not just better tools) for life EVERYWHERE, and to assume that we WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)-o’s have all the answers is downright arrogant. By instead, as we do at Aspiration events, speaking to each other in easy-to-understand language, under the assumption that everyone is bringing something meaningful to the table, and that together we’ll figure it out; we can shift not only how we do response, but the after-effects of that response.

I’m especially excited to speak to people about distributed response, and how the tools we build for ourselves can be welcoming to others using as well. Check out NYCprepared and Taarifa to see what this can look like.