Formal/Informal Crisis Response birthday party

A couple weeks ago was my 40th birthday. And as you may know, I occasionally throw conferences for my birthday party (CatCon in 2013 & 2016, Animal Talks in 2020, and governance structures in 2022). This year I did the same, focusing an intimate group on the interface between formal and informal groups in crisis response. You know, my jam

I was graced with the presence of John Crowley, Liz Barry, Joseph Pred, Evan Twarog, Suzanne Frew, and Schuyler Erle. I will forever be so grateful to these folks for showing up to share their brains and hearts on this topic. 

Scoping the problem

We started with a retrospective of our experiences of this interface, domestically, at the point in time when response is transitioning into recovery. It sort of looks like this: 

Informal groups are ALWAYS the first to respond – neighbors helping neighbors. They keep supporting each other until the formal groups show up on the timeline of days after the inflection point. Need for the local groups wanes as formal groups provide services. But then, as the formal groups pack up to move on to the next thing, the informal groups are vital again. So there are two main problem times that an interface would help out with – one as the formal groups are showing up, to know how to interact with the informal groups, and to not trample existing effort and knowledge; and a second when formal groups should be handing back off to the informal groups. 

In this retrospective, we ended up with headers about preparedness, a culture of friendliness, necessary support, knowledge transfer, interface, and leadership. From that, we drove to three main conversations.

Cultural competency

While we all love a good story about cultural competency issues, we realized we had our own gaps here. Although we who were in this conference might personally be equipped to translate between formal agency members and social justice flavored activist groups, a very real possibility is emerging of right wing groups being the first responders on the ground. Suzanne focused us around the idea of Cultural Competency.

We talked a lot about the difference between carrying guns to deal with roving people with guns trying to take over your community space, a la Black Flags and Windmills post Katrina, and people carrying guns to claim ownership of supplies or territory. We talked about motorcyclists and Anonymous doing work to prevent interruption of mourning in Sandy Hook. We also talked about how people in the formal sector may not be aware of how those are different, or frankly care why. 

Joseph brought up a way to cope with this type of problem and its ilk would be to unify folks through Management by Objective and to make space for cultural competency. At the end of the day, if people are feeding other people with no strings attached, they should be welcomed in doing so even if our political ideologies differ. 

We also talked about how different groups fail based along lines of their ideology. Many conservative groups double down on control when things aren’t going their way. Disaster capitalists try to make a business out of a single experience without understanding the larger context, and anarchist groups fall apart. 

Speaking in a way the audience can hear

John and I (and many others) have been working on a pamphlet for individuals in formal entities for awhile now, and it shaped much of the conversation we had. The thinking being that we will never know who the informal groups are in advance of finding them, so better to focus on finding groups we can find in advance, to help them hold space for the power of informal organizing in times of crisis. Joseph had the incredible idea during our sessions that we should make an ICS form in addition to the pamphlet which is essentially “here’s how to do this,” assuming the pamphlet or other mechanisms have made it clear why it’s worth doing. 

Another friend and I continue to plug away slowly on a zine for informal groups, which could be found on the internet, or handed to informal groups by the formal groups following the ICS form.

Decision making

We had two threads here – Joseph brought up how unified command would work way better for having informal participation and representation than a traditional command pyramid structure for ICS, and Liz brought up Sociocracy. For the formal and informal groups to get along with each other, we assume some demystification of how the other type makes decisions would help to build some trust. 

Wrap up

We’ve got a lot of work left in front of us, and most of us have shifted our focus from this interface to things that are more sustainable for us. However, we’ve all been reinvigorated to restart the conversation and see if we can make improvements here. If you’d like to join up with us to do anything from reviewing docs for readability to finding funds to support this work, please do reach out. 

Special thanks to my husband for keeping the house livable while I had friends invade it and we got thoroughly comfortable. 


IMG ref: Where “search” is when we hope an informal group might find a guide online by finally having enough time to do a search; “ICS form” is when a formal entity might follow an ICS form to understand how to navigate things with the informal group; and “governance” is when these groups would need some sort of governance structure unifying them to continue working together.

All photos in here are by Suzanne. The chart is from yours truly.

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:


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.

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.