Creating (New) Collaborative Spaces

There’s this ongoing sense of frustration from the adaptive, iterative, inclusive informal side of disaster response with the formal side. While we often focus on how to get members of a population not accustomed to collaboration to feel empowered to speak and act, and that is a core component of any work I do, that’s not what this entry is about. In the same way that I think many people don’t engage in their environments when conflict is a possible component, I think the lack of collaborative and codesign approach in the formal sector is simply a lack of exposure and understanding.

Come with me / and we’ll be / in a land of pure collaboration – sung to the tune of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination

The thing to understand is that after Kindergarten, most people have been discouraged from being collaborative. While it comes easily in our youth, when we haven’t built up the skills (social and technical) to operate from that source, it can be difficult. When creating codesign space with members of a formal or traditional organization, they come with the mentality that experts are the best (and perhaps only) people equipped to know how to assess and respond to a challenge. In this mentality, only academics have time to think, only corporations have access to resources, and only people who have been in the field for decades can see patterns. Often, because of the constructs around being an expert or specialist, people considered as such have had difficulty finding cohorts. In fact, you’re often actively discouraged away from it – anyone who shares your field is a competitor for limited resources. Any remotely collaborative activity is done asynchronously and piecemeal, cobbled together later by yet another specialist. This backdrop should indicate the importance of providing safe and guiding space for learning collaborative methods to those coming from traditional sectors. Here’s how I’ve done collaborative space-making in the past.

First, we must understand the codesign methods we aim to use by making it safe and inviting to work collaboratively, and ways to ask questions and with the expectation of listening. We call this “holding space,” through facilitation methods of encouraging inclusivity like paying attention to equal speaking time and accessbility of language. Within this space, we set a North Star, the purpose of the group. Frame all conversations and problem solving trajectories by that North Star.

With the Field Innovation Team (FIT) for FEMA’s Hurricane Sandy response, our North Star was “helping members of the affected population.” This might seem obvious, but formal organizations have been set up to help the official response organizations – Office of Emergency Management, or Red Cross, or the local police department. This has happened in the past because of scaling issues of knowledge and delivery abilities. Any situational knowledge was based upon limited aerial imagery (difficult and expensive), people who were in the area but are now able to report by being in an office (stale information), and past experience (misaligned patterns).

With things like crowd mapping, a higher resolution of situational awareness is possible. People on the ground can tell you where they are and what they see. With this ability comes a new responsibility, to deliver response at a similar resolution. This setup also includes an ability to directly interact with members of the affected population, so it’s important to refocus our efforts on our end users.

Any time any question came up, or any difficulties got in our way, we reminded ourselves about our main objective. From this, we immediately saw many paths to achieving the objective such as education, housing, heat, and connectivity. Through skill and connection discovery, we determined what the best focuses were, based on the team members present. We were already collaborating – by focusing on a main objective, and outlining various ways of achieving that objective, people start to consider how they can offer ways of getting there. Too often, we delineate our jobs and then figure out what we can do – which would have limited our creativity by leaps and bounds.

This is when it’s important to have a slew of collaborative tools in your back pocket. What will kick up this new track of collaboration with productivity? Just as importantly, what will be so easy to use that your newly-fledged collaborators won’t trip over install processes or learning curves, losing this precious momentum towards beautiful new worlds? I really like etherpad, hackpad, or google docs as a starting point for this: nearly everyone uses a word processor, and it’s immediately evident as to what is going on. Suddenly, there is a shared view! The common problem of resolving differences across multiple word documents has disappeared in this setting! Reports begin to write themselves out of meeting notes! Butterflies and bluejays are frolicking in the sky. Be wary that during this part of the process, it is important to both make sure people understand what is going on, while also not becoming their administrator. Help people put their own information into the platform, don’t do it for them when they stumble. Other great platforms are trello, basecamp, and loomio for near-immediate recognition of usefulness. People will sometimes stumble in the transition – simply take their recent update on the old method (email, anyone?) and continue the discussion on the new collaborative platform.

Once that objective is set, everything else is just problem solving. Things which would have kept us waiting to act instead became new opportunities to try things out.

Back in New York, the Joint Forces Office wouldn’t allow the FIT team in, because not all of us were federal employees, a few of us were foreign, and some of us were *cough* activists */cough*. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we instead worked from the apartment of a friend-of-mine. They had better (and more open) internet, far superior coffee, and great serendipity liklihood. While working from there, we linked the OccupySandy volunteering map into the Google Crisis Map and (unofficially) chatted with UNICEF about what options we hadn’t yet looked at for resources. The neutral space allowed us to accomplish far more than we would have in the official offices. It also meant that as we tried out collaborative tools, firewalls didn’t get in our way. When we were later welcomed into the official offices for their first-ever design jam (with Frog Design!), the indignation about Basecamp and hackpad not loading was so great that the FEMA firewalls are now on different settings!

Remember that people are delicate. What most people in the formal sector have been missing for a long time is the ability to SPEAK and to ACT, just on a different vector than those in historically marginalized populations. We are asking all parties in the codesign process to be active and engaged. In distributed and collaborative spaces, this is something we excel in. It is therefore our responsibility to show all newcomers how awesome it can be. Stand with them to make more space. Sometimes as manifest in blanket forts.

The Informal Side of Sandy Response

So, apparently I was at the White House today – my first time, as I never went on any of those tours as a kid. In a series about the FEMA Think Tank, this was the first to happen there, and somehow they decided inviting me was a good idea. Sure, I know inviting the rest of the field time is a good move. But this satire-punk kid? Oof.

The whole thing was streamed as a phone call (that, and other notes, will be available at within a week or two. The chat was live-tweeted as well via the hashtag #femathinktank – some interesting stuff there.

img by Scotty! Thanks for indulging Galit and myself.

img by Scotty! Thanks for indulging Galit and myself.

After the mics were off, we did a round-table on connecting the formal to the informal – honest discussion about some tough ideas on moving forward. I was asked to be one of the four people to lead us out. Here’s a summation of what I was getting at:

We’re talking about connecting the formal and informal. Somewhat obviously, I’m from the informal

Individual voice (sometimes represented through social media) is important in response because it gives high resolution and granularity to our understanding of what is going on. Instead of dropping in one massive block of resources, we can figure out where tiny bits go. How communities can help themselves and help each other. In short, mutual aid. This is couple with wanting to respond at the pace our technology has made us accustomed to.

I look at this a bit like the record industry in the age of the internet. FEMA right now can become kickstarter or some other platform on which people can connect directly, and have a way of interacting and supporting each other. Through providing those connections, you can bring your institutional knowledge and directive of assistance to bear on interaction. Or you can be like the record industry and become not only obsolete but also unliked. (I like you all.)

How do we create space for innovation in tech and in policy while allowing paths for systematizing? The things that work can’t just be ad hoc all the time. Challenges are bigger than we can plan or train for – have to give people space and support to figure it out on their own.

The tools exist, as we’ve shown, and we can make more. What is needed is an assumption and platform for us working together.

Be transparent about what you do, how to be in touch. It’s already chaotic, help make it less so. The populations we aim to help can be included in that knowledge. We need your bigger abilities and institutional knowledge. We as individuals also have to learn to support you as our government. So many of these things happen out of directed conversations and open minds.

Ialsomaybetookapictureofatinyoccupytentwhileinthewhitehouse. And slid down the railings. ([x] World Bank [x] White House [ ] NASA). I wonder if they’ll ever let me back.

Hurricane Sandy: Response Overview

This blog entry was co-written by Galit Sorokin and Willow Brugh, and edited by Lindsay Oliver. Mad props to them and to all the fine folk we had the honor of working with. Special thanks to Tropo, who made it possible for me to deploy with the FEMA innovation team. And kittens and hearts to the Field Innovation Team.

Background of experimentation and collaborative innovation

Humanitarian and disaster response is a layered and multifaceted complex system of invested stakeholders, criss-crossing operational levels, and overlapping missions and goals. IE, there are all sorts of players in the field, and they have different motivations and modes of operations. Think about all the different components that go into an office job – operations, staff, developers, and the like. Then you get into the tech that supports them, how they interact and are influenced by the space they inhabit, and the like. All of this revolves around a shared purpose of output and expectation. Then remove all the intentionality and shared methods of communication, and make everything immediately pressing. You now have some idea of what disaster response is like: while there are needs that must be prioritized and protocols to be followed, every issue to solve feels like an emergency – because they are all emergencies.

There are many efforts around linking separate operational nodes and helping them to be more interoperable, reducing redundancy in response and furthering existing efforts. Two such efforts are Camp Roberts RELIEF and STAR-TIDES.

Camp Roberts RELIEF experiments have catalyzed the development of interoperable disaster management tools. It has brought together interagency partners and humanitarian responders with the institutions responsible for building situational awareness and informing key decision makers.

STAR-TIDES (Sharing To Accelerate Research-Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) is a research effort that promotes sustainable support to stressed populations – post-war, post-disaster, or impoverished, in foreign or domestic contexts, for short-term or long-term (multi-year) operations.  The project provides reach-back “knowledge on demand” to decision-makers and those working in the field. It uses public-private partnerships and “whole-of-government” (the philosophy that everyone in a community has responsibilities and roles in a disaster) approaches to encourage unity of action among diverse organizations where there is no unity of command, and facilitates both inter-agency and international engagement.

This sort of cross-agency and cross-organizational innovation is the background from which much of the following approach stems. The team brought experience from these events to respond to Sandy as a part of the FEMA Field Innovation Team. We chose to focus on the Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) as the interface between the affected population and responders. In this case, “responders” refers to response professionals, such as the Office of Emergency Management or EMTs. DRCs can be put in place by formalized groups such as FEMA and Red Cross, or can be community efforts by churches, schools, and ad-hoc groups. “DRC” in a standalone reference  refers to an official one, “Community DRC” refers to a non-official one.

As Sandy crept up the East Coast, the Field Innovation Team rallied around the following directive goals:

Pre-purpose Deployment

Mobilizing the whole community requires an interfacing contact at the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) level whose sole focus is connecting FEMA to the social network and resources of the DRC’s local context. This proposal outlines the potential deployment of a tiger team, experts that solve systemic or technical problems, whose mission would be to:

  1. Identify needs in the region and specific community where a DRC is operating; (building check points along the way).
  2. Communicate those needs to the DRC along with potential whole of community approaches that could be mobilized against those needs;
  3. Design innovative approaches to meeting the identified needs using participatory (multi-stakeholder) processes, mobilizing whole of community to pursue a community-designed solution (akin to CAP at Camp Roberts). Down-select and/or fuse to one that most closely matches the needs, opportunities, and constraints of the in-need populace.
  4. Implement solution and track effectiveness. In parallel, track these needs and chosen solutions as indicators of capability gaps that could be explored through exercises and field experiments (such as through RELIEF) and turned into lessons learned/issues identified.
  5.  Take capability gaps identified during deployment to subsequent field exploration at RELIEF/Camp Roberts, where the NPS/NDU team can convene multiple stakeholders to further develop and explore innovative, scalable solutions that can be deployed in the next disaster.

Tangible Example
With communications failures in the residential and commercial sectors, DRCs require a means to connect disabled citizens with their loved ones and provide disability services. FEMA has acquired iPads and software that can facilitate communications, but requires a team that can deploy with these devices and devise a CONOPs in real time (and problem-solve in real time). The tiger team would work with stakeholders to design methods for deploying the services via iPad, implement one or more of these methods at DRCs, track the success, and take any gaps into subsequent field explorations.

With all of this in mind, we deployed with the following mission:

To strengthen whole of community by amplifying the connection between the formal and informal sectors.

Questions we use to frame our work

  • What can we do in these areas which is not already being done?
  • Would what we propose to do provide innovative, systemic changes?
  • How much time will it take? Is it accessible?
  • When identifying needs in the field, we assess if needs are being met.
    • If no, then why not?
    • If yes, then how?
    • Are needs met traditionally? If not, then what ad hoc solution was made possible and implemented?
    • Note: While this is may not have been how we framed our work or responded, it’s how we assessed what was going on and can be used in future scenarios.

Initial problem set assessment


  • Was unscalable, and behind too high of walls to access.
  • Power was too big an infrastructural problem to tackle due to lack of access to data and red tape.
  • This is now a project for Camp Roberts.


  • Was outside our connections and capabilities, but was a missed connection. Could be an attainable goal in later efforts with appropriate communication channels open.
  • Too broad an issue to tackle in such short a time. Also, we were discouraged and bumped off from spending energy on the problem.
  • Connections were available but uncommunicated across teams.
  • Housing is too big an issue to resolve with quick technology based solutions and therefore did not recieve as much attention


  • Came back online much more quickly than anticipated. Was not as much of an issue during triage and initial recovery, and was locally resolved relatively quickly.


  • We helped install vsats and signage (not just communications to the rest of the world but also on the ground and between groups).
  • While a well planned-out approach, there was a lack of opportunity to properly and fully implement.
  • Signage was tested and successfully installed. It is important to note that this location’s communication came online faster than most.

What we ended up working on:

How FEMA gets to enter an area

Currently deployed with FEMA’s innovation team (iknowright?) for #Sandy, so I’ll be brief. Lots of stuff being worked on, lots of approvals have to be gotten before it sees the light of day. But here’s a brief overview of how FEMA is able to deploy anywhere, to address some rumors and assumptions going around.


People in state and city have to even know that they can, and must, request from state. Then they have to know how. Same goes for state.

This process happens every. single. time. Want to put in a DRC? State has to request it.

Arrows are one way.

Why groups like Occupy and other localized efforts are important – these rules don’t apply to you. The info you create and the knowledge you have can be acted on.
Groups like FEMA also have historical knowledge. Some policy DOES exist for a reason, which is difficult to understand outside of context.

Last mile is the problem. Resources pushed to state, up to them where it goes.

A lot of people are saying FEMA isn’t around. Think about this – they have 900 community relations people are currently working New York and New Jersey. Out of 3500 total FEMA staff. Think about that – 900 of those are community relations, deployed, right now. They are there. But they need your help.