Drafting an introductory handbook for Digital Response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We’re getting ready for the Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge, Mass June 4th and 5th. We’ve already talked about our potential sessions (let us know if you have more ideas!), how civic tech and media are related to response, and the scenario/game we are going to play. Another opportunity presented by having so many diverse folk in a room is that of creating an introductory handbook for digital responders. We will benefit especially from having folk present who haven’t been through a response deployment before.

A surge of interest and attention

Humanitarian and disaster response sees large influxes of attention and funding during high-stress situations, the navigation of which creates one more factor for those already doing logistics. These sudden influxes are called “surges,” and the sudden but disproportionate shifts in what is possible with those increases is called “surge capacity.” Digital response sees an even larger influx of attention, as it’s easier to log in to a readily handy device to sort data than it is to fly to an affected region. But while much of traditional response has some history in coping with and utilizing surges through protocols and expectations of how volunteers should (and shouldn’t) engage in the field, the digital space lacks that onboarding infrastructure and expectation setting. What if we had a communally-held introductory guide/handbook to send the wonderful new people invested in helping out digitally when things get additionally chaotic through people’s good will? The next layer to add to this is how we can be better prepared to contribute both digitally and locally to disaster risk management. Imagine that digital contributors collaborated in parallel and, even, inside local and global organizations to help make a difference.

The beauty of seeing ourselves as global citizens

But what is digital response? The excellent Heather Leson has already said it far better than I ever could in this WeForum piece:

Seeking a way to “do something,” more and more people are answering the call to action on social media after each emergency. Digital responders or “digital humanitarians“ immediately log on when news breaks about a natural disaster or human-created catastrophe. Individuals and teams “activate” based on skill sets of volunteer and technical communities (VTCs). These digital responders use their time and technical skills, as well as their personal networks in an attempt to help mitigate information overload for formal humanitarian aid in the field. The terms often used to define these contributors in the humanitarian space are remote help, citizen engagement, citizen response, localized community, civil society and global civic technology. Some participants are new to online humanitarian response, but have found a topic or location that drives their passion to get involved.

This surge of action by participants is often just as chaotic as the actual physical emergency response. People are compelled to work, at a dizzying pace, by the fact that many parties involved in first response require valid, urgent and usable data. Focused on the needs of the citizens in affected areas, informal and formal networks collaborate and sometimes collide in an effort to make sense of and identify needs or stories from this user-generated content. With a combination of will and skill, they create updated maps, datasets, information products, and even communities (both online and offline). The global growth of these activities is based on access to information, connectivity and language skills as well as digital literacy levels. These groups are making efforts to become more inclusive while respecting local language, culture and knowledge. The mantra of most digital responders is “support” not “supplant” local citizens, humanitarians and emergency responders.

The complication of churn

As a coordinator across these groups, with their new members, and for unaffiliated individuals coming across a response overview and wanting to jump in, much of my time is dedicated to helping to onboard newcomers, matching their skills to the ongoing and chaotic efforts of a whole slew of response groups. There are data standards, politics, and various communication channels, and the whole thing is extraordinarily difficult to self-navigate. While self-assigning one day might happen with something like the Participatory Aid Marketplace (please someone build this), we’re not there yet. In the meantime and in open source fashion, having an introductory guide would go a tremendous way towards helping everyone involved. Newcomers do want support in getting their bearings, and we could codify what we’re up to, rather than spending valuable time in urgent situations on something which is able to be systematized. Of course we want to be supportive and human and present for new folk, but we also need to be able to focus when at all possible. Heather did some basic needs framing here for her talk at Understanding Risk which can be perused here.

Join us on making a way forward

Join at HumTechFestto work on on just that — an externalized handbook, which can then branch that into smaller pieces on a bonus day following the event. We need to know what your newbie questions are, what your jaded “I’m tired of onboarding and wish you knew the following things…” are. Heather already started on a Table of Contents, and we welcome your thoughts on what could be consolidated, added, or prioritized.

Can’t make it to Cambridge? Come to our West Coast meetup on June 16th in SF! Can’t make it to either, or want to join the ongoing conversation? Check out our mailing list!

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