Ed note: The report Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies analyzes how the humanitarian community and the emerging volunteer and technical communities worked together in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and recommends ways to improve coordination between these two groups in future emergencies.  The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), together with the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership, commissioned the report, which was researched and written by a team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

The Disaster Relief 2.0 Blog Series provides a public forum for people from both the humanitarian and volunteer and technical communities to discuss ideas in this report and the future of disaster relief.

You can follow conversations about the report on Twitter using the hashtag #DisasterTech and on the UN Foundation’s Facebook page. Readers can submit questions to the report’s authors through those channels; a transcript with answers to select questions will be published on UN Dispatch on April 11, 2011.

Collaborating for Effective Response

Jen Ziemke

The authors of the seminal report, Disaster 2.0 discuss the volunteer and technical communities (VTCs) as a group largely distinct from the formal, institutional community. Even our cultures are said to be different: we eat granola, and they wear suits. Reality is far more complicated and a clarification of our common identity would be a wise next step. Let’s reframe the distinction made between VTCs on the one hand and traditional organizations on the other.  After all, a substantial majority of members on the Crisis Mappers Network have held positions in formal disaster response, some for several decades. Volunteers in groups like the Standby Task Force include seasoned practitioners with the UNDP or UN Global Pulse. But what is really needed is a fundamental rethinking of who constitutes the “we” of disaster response, as well as dispensing with current conceptions of: “volunteers”, “crowds,” and “experts.” While distinctions can be endlessly debated, as humans, we are far more the same than we are different.

Those who never had the opportunity to be classically educated are nevertheless absolute experts of their own environment in almost every case. These are cab drivers who know a city like the back of their hand, mothers who understand the nuance of the local language, and teenagers with an incredible aptitude for recalling the who, what, where of their vast social networks. A group trapped under rubble texts their location to a group of university volunteers in Boston who scramble to find it on the map, desperately scanning the vast streets of Port au Prince until a Haitian woman walks in and quickly points to the intersection on a paper map.

Another person, because of their hard-earned expertise, knows all the details of remote sensing, but must rely upon the expertise of a new contact five time zones away to help open and navigate a troublesome file. In this new world, sharp distinctions soften and become fluid. A classically uneducated person offers life-saving information to a USAR team.

An incredible amount of collaboration is already happening inside these networks. We are growing comfortable with Skype interactions and recognize familiar contacts in our inboxes each morning. Like a chaotic urban landscape, we are comforted by persistence of this background noise that forms the hum and rhythms of a busy city. That background hum is the sound of collaboration and getting things done. No one mandated from above how millions of busy individuals, pressed and rushing, were to make their way to work today, but somehow, seated next to others on a subway, everyone next to everyone else without any thought to rank, much was accomplished.

Jen Ziemke is Co-Founder & Co-Director of the International Network of Crisis Mappers; Assistant Professor of International Relations at John Carroll University; and a fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Jen looks forward to brainstorming new methods for the analysis of geo-spatial data and exploring the dynamic social interactions emerging in the Crisis Mappers Network. She is honored to be a part of this growing community of practice.