Disaster Relief 2.0 (with notes!)

The following is a presentation I gave on the hurricane relief efforts I participated in during 2008, as part of a group discussion on organizing & technology techniques at The Change You Want To See on Dec 17, 2008.

It’s Saturday night, and I’m a-goin’ nowhere fast. Perusing the Twitter, like y’do, and I see that Andy Carvin (@acarvin), who’d been tweeting updates on Hurricane Gustav for a few days, was now talking about setting up some online resources in response to the coming disaster. Interesting. Then it came along that they were having problems with a wiki that they’d set up, and I heard the call of my people. I offered to help.

I want to give you all a profile of the tools that were used, and how or why we chose them.

* NING. This was the nerve center of the online volunteer efforts. Creating our own social network allowed us to quickly aggregate both people and information. There were several hundred people joined up within a day or so. Ultimately it came to about 700 people.
* The forums were used for task assignments, suggestions/discussion of assignments and breaking news.
* The blogs were used for posting breaking news to the front of the network’s site
* The RSS aggregators were used for pulling a variety of information from other sources in a very raw format.
* That was the basic setup to start; you can see from the site now that other bits got added as we went along. I’ll talk about those in a minute.

* WIKI. Here we decided we would post what we called “static” information; it was going to be too tough to try and update all the news, traffic and weather alerts to this tool. Thus, this would be the container for all shelter, donation and volunteer type info
* We actually went through two shared-services wikis (PBWiki and WetPaint) before we landed with the final version, a self-hosted MediaWiki (the same software that powers the Wikipedia). The point here is that It’s Okay to try something out and abandon it if it doesn’t work.
* We decided on doing it this way because we realized there was a whole wealth of info already posted to the KatrinaInfo wiki from 2005, and it just needed to be updated, cleaned up and reorganized a little bit.
* Quickly we realized that we needed more oomph to the computing resources and Network Solutions donated a gianormous server for our use.

* TWITTER. (duh) Twitter was used in loads of different ways:
* Getting the word out about volunteer efforts, needs. We need a server, we need people to update the pet info page, etc.
* Alerts about the storm itself. There were some folks that hacked together stuff off of the US government’s hurricane alert system, for example, and turned it into a Twitter feed that people could follow.
* Alerts with news and blog posts about the storm

Additionally, there were groups of volunteers working on these other projects:
* SMS to RSS. The idea here was that people on the ground could text news and info that would get dumped into an RSS feed
* MAPS. Creating aggregated maps of shelters, evac routes, traffic updates.
* RADIO SCANNERS. Listening to police and weather scanners across the region to transcribe and post to a variety of channels.


* Results:
* 700 volunteers. Give people something to feeling passionate about.
* Expanded to the full hurricane season. 3 more storms
* Significant traffic to wiki and NING site.
* Significant media coverage. Make it easy for old and new media to access you in any way possible.

* Don’t reinvent the wheel. Andy quickly got in touch with folks who had worked on Katrina and the Tsunami efforts which was extremely useful. Document what you do, your process, what you learned. Share with your networks post-project.

* Leadership matters. It helped to assign project managers for each group of tasks and make sure those folks had a good, broad view of the goals. We were most concerned at times with duplicating efforts across services, as well as across agencies. For example, we removed the People Finder section of the wiki and directed people to the Red Cross almost immediately.

* Spheres of influence. Let’s be honest: it helps to have someone coordinating the project with ~5,000 followers and a significant media personality in the social web space. Spheres of influence and power still matter mucho.

* Balance of structure vs unstructure. From the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve learned that it might be helpful to set up some best practices, or at least guidelines, for organizing without organizations. When we remove explicit structure, implicit structure arises (a la “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Jo Freedman, 1970).

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