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

Becoming Structured

Feeding off the Pixels and Paintbrushes blog entry. Interested in that transition space between the analog and the digital. It’s funny, liminal has long been my favorite word, rivaled only recently by penumbral. More and more, I get to look at and live in that space. But now I see it more as the space of transition, not just as space between/at the edge.

So this thing happens, where we have formal structures, and the informal takes up the space between. As in the previous entry, each of these has its purpose and strengths and weaknesses.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

This drawing based off a conversation with Galit, a cohort and roommate.

As a reference, let’s take the limited work I’ve done with Occupy Relief efforts. I act as human API – if you need something from a formalized organization, including them getting out of the way, let me know. Then there are posts like this one, which is totally legit. But it puts me in a strange place of saying “I stand with you politically, but if you want this taken care of logistically, then let’s do that.” Something that keeps me in the relief space is how stark a relief differences are thrown into1. The choices that have to be made, and what is considered important when, and what cultural artifacts are created by those choices. A big part of how adaptable and powerful Occupy is, is based upon their NOT being defined nor legible. More and more I wonder how to make groups like FEMA legible to Occupy, rather than the other way round.

Reading Seeing Like A State, if you can’t tell. So very good. And then, I got to see Douglas Rushkoff speak about his new book, Present Shock. I think a HUGE part of these ideas overlap.

He equated the quest for the upper right quadrant in Capitalism with the Singularity as an example of existing world views being applied to new ways of considering the future. Rushkoff also brought up the feminist media theory of storylines and plots of male vs female orgasm – one is a single escalation and then easy bell curve down. The other being complex, multi-apex, etc. The only way we’ve known for things to be predictable is with the storyline we could track – the male orgasm model2.

Now we have the ability to see, track, understand the complexity of “actual” life3 through big data4 in a way that understands as it emerges, rather than forces adherence to a predictable, and thereby incomplete, model. And instead we are applying the same two-dimensional, simplistic pattern to it, and cutting off the long tails of a bell curve we’ve forced everything into. We’re bringing the legal system of documents and MAYBE spreadsheets to a database and RDF world5. We are not allowing ourselves the nuance of the paintbrush, digitized through the use of high-density pixels. We’re making ourselves bland and bucketed instead. A low-res snapshot of culture, of which the mere act of capturing makes us fulfill it more closely. Through quantified self and things like Prism, we’re stealing our own souls, at least as things are set up now6.

And this is why I’m doing the research I am. I’m tired of us lugging our unexamined baggage into the future we’re building. In the past, institutions were where knowledge was stored. Now it’s stored in us, in a sharable and duplicatable way. Seeing Rushkoff was inspiring, because he noted that yes, it’s difficult to exist in the crevices, but it’s also totally worthwhile. Video and audio are up already on the Berkman site.


It’s the trying to fit new things into old methods. We have to be willing to embrace some unpredictability in order for the lives of others to be more predictable to themselves. Crowds becoming “less predictable” to an outside view, but they’re becoming more self-determining. Let go of the reins and let it guide itself. Isn’t that the point of having power? To push it outwards?

1. See why penumbral is a favorite word?
2. Sidenote that I just tried to find links to the academic background on this, but guess how useful the internet is for THAT.
3. Or at least a closer approximation than we’ve had in the past.
4. Which would be the crowning, and crowing, triumph of Sociology.
5. And the database model isn’t The Best, it’s just “better” than what we’ve had before, in that it’s more self-defining and adaptable.
6. Damn kids get off my keyboard.

Brainmeats : Occupy Everything

Brainmeats Episode 1 – Occupy Everything!

Download ogg format or mp3 format.

The inaugural episode of the BrainMeats podcast is devoted to the Occupy movement and what hackers and makers can do to support the protesters on the ground. Willow spoke over Skype to AriEllaMattRuben, and Smári about the history of OWS, the meaning of illegibility within the movement, software tools for protesters, and more. Absolute thanks also to Lisha who came up with the idea of these podcasts (and who will be joining in future episodes), and who also edited and is hosting the audio.

The episode is licensed Creative Commons: Attribution, Share Alike, Non Commercial

Smári writes more about the concept of illegibility within Occupy at

The RSA Animate videos mentioned in the podcast can be viewed here:
The Internet in Society: Empowering and Censoring Citizens
Language as a Window into Human Nature

Also mentioned:

A mobile tool for viewing what protesters and police are saying and where they are.
Briar is a secure news and discussion system designed to be used by journalists, activists and civil society groups in authoritarian countries.
The Guardian Project
Creators of Android apps and firmware MODs intended to protect communications and personal data from unjust intrusion and monitoring.
The Free Network Foundation
An organization committed to the tenets of free information, free culture, and free society. They use peer-to-peer technologies to create a global network intended to be immune to censorship and resistant to breakdown.
A donation-funded Tor exit node project
A (non-secure) tool for communicating micro-blog-style for a specific amount of time to people within a specific radius around your present location.
Fluid Nexus security issues