Community organizations in times of crisis

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We have been working at Aspiration on our digital humanitarian and disaster response program for a year and a half. On June 4th and 5th, we hosted our second Humanitarian Technology Festival as an interactive and participatory event for practitioners, students, designers, etc. to gather and contribute to the current state of response. Deep thanks to all the participants, especially those who took notes so others could benefit from what we learned. We played a gametook care with ourselves, and enjoyed the outdoors.

But I do not care about humanitarian or disaster response

We all have enough to worry about without adding in disaster preparedness, even if research points to it being worthwhile (PDF). It is difficult for community groups to know how to prepare for (let alone know how to support in) a crisis. The existing resources are for enterprise-level businesses, or are focused on individual response. There is not much in the way of resources for the groups that Aspiration considers itself in solidarity with. (If you have found some — please do let us know! We would love to point at those resources.)

This challenge came up at both a session at the 2015 Nonprofit Development Summit and at a skill share at California Technology Festival Watsonville. A project started forming around how to be an active organizational participant in crisis response and recovery — without becoming a response or recovery organization. Our dream is that response, recovery, and humanitarian aid will look more like civics than a specialty, and that means embedded capacity in the existing network. Getting started on this path might look like a guide for community groups during a crisis. But a new challenge emerged — I have never been a part of a community group which has responded to a crisis. I have always been outside help.


Moshing the ideas #humtechfest @aspirationtech

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Together, we know a lot

Palante Tech has been a community group supporting their pre-existing network in crisis, however. During Superstorm Sandy, Palante kept the groups they already served up and running, when possible, as well as providing information about what neighborhoods had what functioning communication infrastructure (and why). They would like to know how to do it better in the future. The Humanitarian Technology Festival (#HumTechFest) was lucky to have Jamila from Palante in attendance, and they led a session about how to better understand and document the needs of community groups in a crisis. Our goal is to come up with a lightweight guide with some suggestions which are manageable to deploy in advance of a crisis, as well as some guidance in how to deal during and after a crisis. The session was also attended by some folk who work with New York City for small business preparedness, an international aid networking person, and a creator of games who is generally interested in response. They talked through the arc of the disaster cycle, faith-based volunteer organizations which activate in response, and the specificity required in interacting with formal organizations.

We still have a lot of questions

Could such a guide document the needs of non-response community groups in such a way to make those needs visible and easy to process in order to get available and needed aid from official response organizations? Better yet, is it possible to do so in a way which will hold those organizations accountable?

  • What questions would you have about how your organization could be more resilient in times of crisis?
  • What measures have you already taken to deal with a possible crisis?
  • What have you done to keep your doors, or the doors of your constituents, open during a crisis?
  • How do trainings provided by groups like Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster fit with your needs (or not)?

Send your answers (and questions!) our way. We are excited to build this resource with you, but we cannot do it on our own.

Thank you to the HumTechFest attendees, to Jamila in particular, and to Ken for broaching this topic at CA TechFest Watsonville.

Civic tech and digital response

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. This participatory event is for field practitioners, media makers and storytellers, technology developers, information security practitioners, members of affected populations, researchers, and everyone in between. We are hoping for a strong contingent of civic tech and civic media folk as well, for reasons we hope this post will make clear.

Humanitarian and disaster response deals with exceptional situations. But whether through historical happenstance or through poor design, response also tends to be short-sighted and deeply siloed. As crises are by definition beyond the capacity of “the norm” (existing infrastructure like governments), responders are often military or nongovernment organizations (NGOs). We deploy into places we do not fully understand the histories of, where we are not well connected with pre-existing efforts, and when we leave we often take our data and gained understanding with us. We too often make poor choices which deeply affect the future lives of a frontline community because “it is better than doing nothing.” I generally find the whole thing paternalistic and incremental when we should instead be focusing on systemic interventions to long-term issues of inequity by working with local populations to increase their capacity. A combination of coping with exceptional circumstances in a way which actively works with, depends on, and returns to pre-existing efforts is what I see in the overlap of civics and response.

Where one ends and the other begins

Civic tech is technology which enables engagement or participation of the public for stronger development, enhancing citizen communications, improving government infrastructure, and generally improving the public good. Civic media is any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents. Then civic media and tech are deeply linked with digital disaster and humanitarian response. All are about how people work with each other and with institutions, each is about more intentional infrastructure, and each is about having an empowered public supported by institutions and a global public. The excellent book Building Resilience gives a precise overview of the strength of social capital and community ties as the leading indicator to a region’s ability to cope with shocks and stressors, regardless of access to other resources. We anticipate the scenario we will be playing through at the event will get at these social ties as well as laying a baseline of understanding for those new to response.

From that background theory, the practice looks like responders working with already established civic infrastructure in order to bolster those networks of trust, to benefit from that knowledge, and to have a place to return created data and delivered resources into for post-response sustainability. But where do humanitarian aid/development, civic engagement, and disaster response transition into one another?

Civics and humanitarian aid

Digital humanitarian response could be seen as civics in places where there is not yet established technical, physical, or possibly even political infrastructure to bolster or route around. In this case, considering how the civic tools you are building apply to other locations is a useful theoretical framework. Perhaps more importantly — how could tools built elsewhere apply here? (Spoiler alert: Kenya and Tanzania have had mobile money for a looooong time, and we are only just starting to get it in the States — we have plenty to learn from other places.) Improving infrastructure is more and more grounded on baseline data, which can be collected for development purposes or as a means of civic engagement. When the creation of baseline data is happening for civic reasons, it indicates those social ties are being formed around local political empowerment, versus (the still worthwhile) baseline creation by intervening groups like UN OCHA for the sole purpose of response. Our goal in response is to only be around for as long as we are needed, but civics is about investing in a longer-term view.

Civics and disaster response

While humanitarian aid is (in part) about the creation or improvement of long-term infrastructure, disaster response is about existing infrastructure being disrupted, and not even in the questionable type of disruption from Silicon Valley, but in the sense of “nothing is working the way we planned because the power and internet we have come to rely on are down and I can’t find my child.” In these circumstances, building tools which allow for (or even encourage!) off-the-grid communication or storage-until-able-to-update matter. As in, tools which would also work in low connectivity areas like humanitarian deployments are often better suited for crisis response than other everyday-use tools. We will be thinking about how to perform such coordination at HumTechFest, too.

An aside here seems necessary, to point out that the chaos of response is in this disconnection from the infrastructures on which we depend. The chaos is not in the form of people. People are amazing, often even more so in a crisis. While most of the field of Disaster Sociology points this out, a shorter (and easy) read is A Paradise Built in Hell.

The square you start from matters

While we can talk all day about the technology we use in our everyday lives and in times of crisis, the purpose of that technology is to help us connect with one another, to help us have safer and happier (and I would argue more dignified and coequal) lives. Social connections bolstered by mediating technology is how communities help themselves. Take Civic Hall‘s Noel Hidalgo, and his Coworking Map during Sandy response. It is from those spaces so many of the preexisting civic tech was reapplied to the new crisis circumstance, and that people found each other in order to address their unique concerns. The strong civic ties allowed for a more robust response. The same is true of the success of Occupy Sandy, grown from the ties created during Occupy Wall Street, and for the listening centers in West Africa which became essential for information distribution during the Ebola outbreak. Caring about sharing data in advance means you can more readily ask for external help… and then hold those responding accountable because there is a baseline.

Deepening the connection

We would love to explore this overlap further, and be more intentional in things like data hand-off and collaboration between existing community-based groups like Public Labs and Open Referral and NYC Prepared, official response organizations like FEMA and local Offices of Emergency Mangement, emergent response groups like Occupy Sandy and Boulder Relief, and back to those long-term civic groups. We would love to think about how those communication patterns might look, and what resources we can create to expedite the process. We have a lot to learn from groups like Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Kathmandu Living Labs. As Heather Leson said in this blog post on Civicus,

How can maps and citizen-generated data empower civil society organisations to bring about change in their local community? In some parts of the world, existing physical layer maps are inaccurate and outdated. Imagine walking around your neighbourhood – do you know the names of all the streets, or where the nearest school or hospital is? With this kind of data, people are in a better position to plan futures for their communities. OSM enables each of these data items to be downloaded freely, making it a valuable civil society resource.

Projects like Promise TrackerTaarifa, and the Riffle provide that strong baseline data which can also be useful in times of crisis, as well as the surrounding communities of practice. How excellent would it be to have all the capacity needed to respond already in any given location?! So rad. Because then it is not a crisis. When we frame response on strong civic engagement rather than a traditional perspective of short-term interventions, we are acting in a more efficacious and coequal way. We are acting in solidarity.

Join us in building this new world

We hope you will join us to be a part of this responsible lifecycle on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass at the Humanitarian Technology Festival. If you want to carpool up from NYC, we are happy to help with gas. If you are on the West Coast, we would love to see you at the June 16th Digital Responder Meet Up in San Francisco. And if you are remote to both those places, we have an ongoing mailing list and semi-regular call-ins you can join.

Deep thanks to the Aspiration teamHeather LesonMatt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman for helping make this piece exist.

Communicating and coordinating without the internet at HumTechFest

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

We are preparing for the Humanitarian Technology Festival on June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass. During our initial discussions, we connected with Heather (Text on Techs), Nathan (Guardian and Wind Farm), Jamila (Palante Technology Cooperative and SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club), Damien (FemmeTech and the same SciFi Action Club), and Mikel (MapBox). Our hope is to discover and bring together those working on the core challenges of digital humanitarian response in effective, interesting, and playful ways.

During humanitarian and disaster response, taking care with people while in the midst of chaos is the name of the game. Core challenges to delivering goods and services are coordination and communication. Instead of market-created scarcity, people have to decide how to send what limited materials have been delivered on a narrow runway out over damaged roads and with limited gas. It’s also about knowing where those limited goods should be going. Many might theorize about how to get what is called “situational awareness” (knowing who needs what and where in a chaotic situation) in order to deliver resources accurately, but being in the chaos is different. Because (thankfully) only a few of us have experienced that chaos and need ourselves, it can be difficult to build appropriate tools and workflows for response. But if we’re going to work on just that while at the Humanitarian Technology Festival, we need to be sure we’re grounded in at least a proximity of reality. A big chunk of our first day will be comprised of playful workshops.

Who needs what, where… and getting it to them

First, let’s talk about coordination. Affected populations and responders have to deal with scarcity. Rather than having the option of picking up what someone needs from a store or website, we must instead find those materials on site from people we already know (or are willing to get to know). It’s fun to think about this like a recipe: finding individual components and interacting with others to combine those components into what you all need to survive. Maybe one person has a generator, and another person has gallons of water, and a third has a backyard farm. People in crisis don’t all actually go rogue (sorry, Mad Max), but tend to join together to help one another out, those in our example would make soup together. Pre-existing networks of trust make this easier, but issues of scarcity and access still arise which require people-interfacing and problem-solving skills. It’s hard to know what these circumstances are like until you’re in them. Or until you pretend you’re in them.

The SciFi Action & Apocalypse Preparedness Queer Club has devised a live-action role playing game for just that – problem solving through the self-imposed limitations of games. They ran one of these games one day in NYC this past year, and we’re thrilled to be working with them on this project and to have access to their gaming framework to help HumTechFest attendees have a safe but proximal experience to a response situation. 

Hello? Is anyone there?

Secondly, let’s talk about connectivity. When we are connected, we can communicate about what we need and what we have, and we can coordinate with each other about matching those haves and needs. When the communications infrastructure (the internet and/or cell phone data) we’ve come to rely on so heavily goes down (or was never there to begin with, as in some austere areas), issues of timing (sometimes called “gaps”) emerge—a request for food in one region might be addressed through other means by the time the message reaches its target audience, or perhaps diapers become even more necessary than soup as the soup delivery starts on its path to the point of stated need. If communication infrastructure is up, the delivery person can be called to come back or to reroute to a place that needs their payload more.

If the centralized data pipes go down in these times, what are ways folk work around them?

Some excellent initiatives exist based on addressing the challenge of connectivity without an internet backbone, like Commotion Wireless and Project Byzantium, as well as many proprietary services. But these often rely on either long-term embeddedness with a community (like how the community Commotion Network in Redhook mattered during Superstorm Sandy response [PDF]) or rapid (read: expensive) setup through official channels which is also often proprietary and only for state-sanctioned response groups. We have ongoing political struggles with corporations like Comcast about the ability to set up community mesh networks and local internet service providers, and it’s worth continuing to build better tech and to push on that issue from many angles. (Those include our work on right to access as with our work with the Media Democracy Fund, as a political issue as with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or as an issue of public health and safety in disaster times). However, we arguably have everything we already need right in our pockets.  Wind Farm is incredibly useful for this context. Instead of a network being static (you’re not prone to moving your internet modem around the office), it assumes people have tiny storage and sufficient connectivity options in their pockets via their phones, and will be near each other as well as moving between synchronizing points. Based on this, we should be able to propagate communication and therefore coordinate with each other even when the backbone is down. Hirdonelle’s Listening Centers with Bluetooth file transfer is an example of what these networks might look like in practice. And when it comes to updating and using maps, OpenStreetMap’s new Portable OSM might come in handy.

Join us

We’ll be stitching all this together to create a safe but proximal way for HumTechFest participants to base conversations in a shared experience. We will be doing a workshop at HumTechFest to playfully discover how we would communicate and coordinate while facing scarcity and an internet blackout of sorts.

Register for HumTechFest June 4th and 5th in Cambridge, Mass.

Humanitarian TechFest 2016 East Coast Sessions

This originally appeared on the Aspiration blog

The Humanitarian Technology Festival session list will be co-developed with participants, facilitators, and partners in the time leading up and during the Festival.

The agenda will be designed and facilitated using Aspiration’s unique participatory model, in an environment where powerpoint slides are discouraged and dialog and collaboration drive the learning.

Sessions likely to be on the agenda include…

Data Flows: These interactive sessions will explore existing data flows and gaps in response as it is now:

  • What data is useful?
  • Is responsible data in disaster and humanitarian response different from any other circumstance?
  • Open data standards
  • Data lifecycles across the disaster cycle
  • Overwhelming data

Cross-Sector Collaboration: There are many local groups not related to response which already know a region, its people, and its needs — how do they communicate with response-specific organizations?:

  • Frontline situational awareness, institutional resources
  • How to know what might be beyond your capacity
  • How to know who to ask for assistance
  • How to hold responders accountable

Privacy, security and data: These sessions will explore the risks and responsibilities incurred when using technology in disaster and humanitarian response, along with ways to maximize control of information and technology destiny:

  • When–and When Not–to Trust “The Cloud” with Your Data
  • Managing Your Universe of Organizational Data
  • Securing Your Online Accounts
  • Managing Constituent Data: The Dream vs. The Reality

Social Justice in Response: while the primary focus of the event will be tech and tech strategy, we’ll also take time to learn about and reflect on how we can continue and amplify our social and environmental justice purposes, even while things are urgent

  • Listening to frontline populations in priority setting
  • Using response as a way to advocate for other ongoing efforts

Participant-Led Sessions: More than half of the agenda will be built by participants before and during the event, covering topics, tools, themes and issues proposed by those present.

Learning by Making: Hands-on workshops for sharing essential technology skills, with sessions including:

  • Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Tasker, with participants learning the interface for contributing to maps around humanitarian issues
  • Mapping the Digital Response Ecosystem, to create a shared view of data and people flows
  • More, more more! Tell us what other hands-on tech skills you would like to learn, and we’ll try to find facilitators to get you there.

Tell us what should be on the agenda and how we can make this event more relevant and valuable for you!

Join Us!

We strongly encourage you to join in the fun at this unique and interactive gathering!


We welcome questions, inquiries, suggestions and requests.

How can humanitarian response be decentralized?

Originally posted on the Aspiration blog

For a long time, it wasn’t possible to include everyone’s voice in planning or decision-making without impossibly large amounts of time. There was no way to listen, at scale. So aggregation and centralization became common, especially in times of urgency, even with the troubles these tend to cause.

But now, with the technologies we have, we can *listen*, in high resolution and in high fidelity. But technology isn’t a silver bullet. We also need the political will and the personal values to make that happen. With Aspiration’s new Digital Humanitarian Response program, we get to support some of the rad people willing and able to make these movements happen. In May, we hosted the Humanitarian Technology Festival at MIT. The Digital Response Wiki provides resources and notes, and here are some top-level highlights from the event:

Disaster and humanitarian issues don’t happen in a vacuum

Notes from the Humanitarian Technology Festival

Groups like Public Lab help lay the groundwork (both socially and technically) for fast-cycle disasters, via their ongoing interaction with communities around environmental justice. This also provides scaffolding for handing off responsibilities after an extreme event. Kathmandu Living Labs, a group committed to mapping the infrastructure of their geography, is an excellent case study in this. When the Nepal earthquake hit, they were able to jump into action quickly due to pre-existing Open Street Map communities, workflows, data infrastructure, and (most importantly) social ties. Kathmandu was then capable of making use of (and maintaining) the updated data after the fact. Simply by being (and being allowed to be) active in affected communities on a day-to-day basis, organizations can support communities in becoming more resilient to disasters.

That said, preparing for extreme events before they happen can help mitigate the severity of impact on people lives. We explored the idea of games to make what might be considered dull more fun. No need to start from scratch (though that can be stimulating as well!). Climate Centre makes such games, and publishes them openly over on their website.

We already have much of what we need

One of our spectrogram statements was, “We already have all of the technology we need.” While we were divided in our responses, we acknowledged that the ability of groups of people to make do with what they have in disaster is astounding. And our preferences apply here technically as well as ethically. Distributed, federated systems both for technology and for communities/governance are more resilient than centralized systems (as well as addressing human rights in general). There are a few of these rad systems being built, NYC Prepared being one of my favorites.

Data and consent are deeply linked

Data use with populations that are vulnerable (based on their history, their current circumstances, or both) is still a big question, but not one we need to face on our own. OpenGov, Missing Persons, and other transparency-related initiatives have figured an awful lot of that out, and we should take note. Additionally, while consent is different in high-stress situations than in long-term advocacy campaigns, it should still be a strong consideration in any plan or intervention.

We looked at the Framework for Consent Policies which came out of a Responsible Data Forum in Budapest, and suggested advocating for a “notify this set of people in case of emergency” embedded into social platforms, similar to Networked Mortality or ICE contacts in some phones. This way, people would be consenting and determining who would be their contacting associates in case of disaster (unlike what Facebook recently did). Consent is a component of accountability, both of which highlight how frontline communities might be the architects of their own rescue.

Accountability is just as important in precarious situations as it is in everyday life, if not more so

Accountability is sorely lacking in humanitarian aid and disaster response. Fantastic organizations exist to track where spending is going, but money is often considered misspent. Frameworks exist for deploying aid in ways which alleviate, rather than exacerbate, conflict and tensions. However, these frameworks and mechanisms are still sometimes insufficient, as even well intended groups remain in regions for decades while populations become reliant on them, rather than becoming self sufficient.

Rather than come up with an external group to hold response groups accountable, we figured the frontline community could state whether or not initiatives are working, and those reports could be sent directly to the response organizations, their donors, and relevant constituents. This factors in strongly to the Dialling Up Resilience initiative grant of which Aspiration is a part (Yes, it’s spelled with 2 L’s. They’re Brits). More on that soon.

You can find more thorough notes from Humanitarian Technology Festival on (you guessed it) our wiki. Reach out to us if you have any questions about this ongoing work. Contact us here: / @willlowbl00