Why We Need a Disaster 2.1 Report

The recent Disaster 2.0 Report published by the UN Foundation, OCHA and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) represents one of the most important policy documents to have been written in recent years. The report acknowledges in no uncertain terms that the humanitarian space is moving towards a more multi-polar system and that this represents an unprecedented opportunity for the future of disaster relief, albeit one that presents clear challenges.

We applaud and thank the authors of the report for bringing this to the attention of the policy community. We realize they were under a lot of pressure and had little time to produce this official policy document. Indeed, we understand that the authors and collaborating organizations were in a hurry to publish this report in time for the Dubai Conference to have maximum publicity. We also realize that innovation and learning happens a lot faster than reports can keep up with.

That said, we have a number of concerns about the report. The first is that while some of us were interviewed for this report, none of us were given the opportunity to provide feedback on what was actually written about our work and respective communities before the very public launch of the report. The drafts remained closely guarded and we were not allowed to discuss the report in any detail at the Humanitarian Action Summit. This hardly constitutes the dialogue that the report aimed to create.

Our second concern is the use of the term “Volunteer & Technical Communities.” This term, which becomes the framework for the entire report, is at times problematic since it suggests that the diverse communities involved in the disaster response in Haiti and beyond are similar enough to be discussed using one catch-all label across a variety of issues. The acronym V&TCs is used to make generalizations and as such should be treated accordingly, but generalized comments like “the VTC are struggling to get founds” clearly reveals the myopia of formal institutions when it comes to their reading and understanding of the new multi-polar space.

In addition to this there is a fundamental error in the way the term V&TC is used, highlighting some confusion on the different organizations and networks working in this space. CrisisMappers is a horizontal network of humanitarian practitioners, technologists, researchers and volunteers. Ushahidi is a 501c3 organization that describes itself as a non-profit technology company. OpenStreetMap is a volunteer project, while Sahana is a software company that creates a Free and Open Source Disaster Management system. CrisisCommons is a technical community of volunteers and so on. Placing all these actors in the same basket is not particularly appropriate since some of these organizations/networks are not volunteers.

Our third concern is the personal tone of the report. It does not appear to be objective, choosing to highlight certain issues or groups over others and selecting to promote a particular agenda and set of recommendations that has not been subject to consultation and feedback, and hence does not have buy in from the “new” actors in the multi-polar humanitarian system. We are certain that others in this space will have comments and opinions about the recommendations offered, which it would be important to discuss before moving ahead with any framework for action.

Our particular concern with the recommendations is that they propose creating new structures rather than leveraging existing ones. Why create a new Humanitarian Technology Forum rather than utilise the various existing ones (from RHoK to the CrisisCommons weekly calls)? Why set up a Humanitarian Innovation Lab rather than support and encourage existing groups to continue innovating? To over-organize this community would undermine the creativity that makes it so special.

Fourth, there is little to no credit given to Haitian Diaspora activities and no mention about local response activities such as Noula/Solutions efforts, no mention about the Cite Soleil mapping community. Given the fact that those actors are actually the first responders in major disasters, it is striking that the report does not address the 2.0 possibilities to improve the work with local communities as responders and partners of international humanitarians. On this note, there is no mention of the Ushahidi Haiti Project transition to local ownership, i.e, the Haitian software company Solutions.ht which is now using their own platform on joint projects with the Red Cross, IOM etc. Surely sustainability and local ownership of such projects is key to humanitarian response.

Fifth, the authors of the Disaster 2.0 report may want to explore why Mission 4636 worked well with the military but not with the UN. The report assumes that “interfacing with the UN” is the only measure of success. It is not. And if we did interface successfully with the military, why is the blame put solely on the so-called “V&TCs”?

We have dozens of additional concerns which we’ve listed below. There are also a number of errors both in how organizations are represented and how the history of involvement in Haiti is told. We have not listed these as they would reflect only the stories and organizations we know well. Everyone in this community should get a chance to correct and comment.

In our opinion, making cosmetic changes to the report won’t help. We believe the report, and particularly the recommendations, should be re-written and opened to the rest of the community in the process. That would be a real dialogue. This is why this blog post also appears as an editable Google Doc here. We invite all other communities who were written about in the Disaster 2.0 report to add their observations, especially if they weren’t given the opportunity to review a draft of the report before it was published.


Page 9

  • “Volunteer and technical communities (V&TCs) like OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi, Sahana and Crisis Mappers…”

Ushahidi is a non-profit technology company, not sure that it qualifies as a V&TC, same for Sahana.

  • “As organizations, some V&TCs are struggling to attain financial sustainability, especially when asked to respond to successions of major disasters.”

Which V&TC? This is one of the main issues we have with the report. The term V&TC is being used as a catch-all for technology companies, volunteer groups, etc that have notable differences. One should be careful about generalizing like this because it may give the wrong impression about specific groups. For example, financial sustainability is not the core concern of volunteer groups like the Standby Task Force for example.

Page 11

  • “During the response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the volume and velocity of data began to overwhelm this approach, helped by a new dynamic: the rise of the cell phone.”

The rise of the cell phone is not a new dynamic. Cell phones are mobile communication technologies that have been around for a long time now. The new dynamic was not cell phones, the new dynamic was a process not a technology, i.e., the process of crowdsourcing micro-needs assessments by leveraging the ubiquity of cell phones in Haiti. These phones were around during previous crises in Haiti, but no one took the initiative to use them for disaster response.

Page 13

  • “Most importantly, however, there has not been a mechanism for coordinating the collaboration between these two groups and no formal channel for these groups to engage in a dialogue about the underlying problems of information management.”

This is true for Haiti, but not for Colombia and beyond. This is why we shared the full report from the OCHA Colombia earthquake simulation exercise with the authors of the Disaster 2.0 report during the first week of January 2011, i.e., in the hopes that our findings and recommendations would be factored into the Disaster 2.0 report. Our assessment of the Colombia deployment details the mechanism that the Task Force is using to coordinate and collaborate with formal humanitarian organizations. This mechanism was revised several times during the past 6 months and was used when the head of the Information Services Section at OCHA requested activation of the Standby Task Force for Libya.

Page 18

  • “Yet without a formal interface for information exchange with the humanitarian system, or appropriate data standards, this new data-added to the raging river of information that aid workers faced as they struggled to build the relief effort from the ground up.”

Yes, this was true for Haiti, but not for Libya. An interface was further developed by the Task Force in collaboration with OCHA in the months leading up to the Libya deployment. At the very least, the report should include a footnote to this effect.

In addition, OCHA reached out to the various volunteer and/or technology communities in response to the Japan earthquake, e.g., to Crisis Commons about explicit data standards and dataset collection. In both these situations a common Skype chat was the most effective and fast interface for information exchange that allowed almost real time activation and dialogue to go on.

  • “As the volunteer and technical communities continue to engage with humanitarian crises they will increasingly add to the information overload problem.”

This implies that in Haiti we were part of the problem, but that is not true. We were not overloading the humanitarians simply because the fact of the matter is that the vast majority were simply not aware of our efforts. Those responders who did collaborate with us identified ways for us to interact with them so we could be most helpful to their operations. In relation to traditional responders, once we established personal contacts on the ground and introduced the system, we quickly identified ways to actually decrease the overload problem.

In Libya, however, the problem was exactly the contrary: lack of information. The overload of information is one problem, but far from the only one. In the Libya situation (and then Japan), CrisisCommons and the Standby Task Force were asked to provide information that the humanitarian community didn’t have or couldn’t collect because limited capacity.

Page 19

  • “The affected population become mobile-enabled.”

They had been mobile-enabled before, it’s just that the humanitarian community never sought to secure a short code and draw on crowdsourced SMS in order to communicate with disaster affected communities.

  • “As a result, both the information that V&TCs submitted and the faster methods for information management that V&TCs used and shared only exacerbated the field staff’s sense of information overload.”

As far as the Ushahidi Haiti Project goes, we never submitted information actively or directly in an unsolicited manner. The situation had more to do about part of the humanitarian community simply not knowing about the information source or how to use it. Again, as previously noted, the quote above tries to paint new actors as part of the problem, which was not in fact the case.

  • “The affected population became mobile-enabled. At the time of the earthquake, the state of cellular connectivity in Haiti was such that tens of thousands of citizens could, and did, directly communicate their needs to a domestic and international audience, and those citizens expected that a few thousand international responders would be able to monitor their hundreds of thousands of requests for aid and at least deal with aggregate trends, if not individual requests. Some of these increased expectations were created by the V&TCs, who were responding to messages sent over social media.”

There are two fundamental mistakes in this paragraph. One is that affected population didn’t become mobile-enabled. As explained in the following lines the local population was already enabled to use mobile phones. The second one is that V&TCs were not responding to messages directly via social media, but rather only to SMS.

  • “During the Haiti response, two new data inflows were added to the system: one from the V&TCs and one from the affected community of Haitians.”

Yes and it was only thanks to these informal actors that the affected communities were able to get their voices out. The Ushahidi Haiti Project and Mission 4636 were the main tools that allowed affected communities to have a real voice during the crisis.

Page 25

  • “The information managers in Haiti had to confront two such fire hoses: one from an emerging V&TC and one from the affected population. These are the subjects of the next two sections.”

No, they didn’t, many were not aware that this information existed (unlike Libya). It was our team drinking from a fire hose, trying to make sense of the incoming flow of information from hundreds of different sources. We were tackling the fire hose head on and filtering & curating the information to provide more structured and actionable data on a live map.

Page 26

  • “4636 Alliance is a partnership of FrontlineSMS, the Thompson-Reuters Foundation Emergency Information Service, InSTEDD, and Internews to offer an SMS shortcode and associated services to Haitian citizens. It was affiliated with the Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities initiative.”

First of all, the official name is “Mission 4636”. This list of members is incorrect, the correct one can be found online easily.

  • “Ushahidi’s director of strategic partnerships mobilized approximately 200 students at Tufts University Fletcher School of Diplomacy to monitor and geolocate reports from Twitter, Facebook and the 4636 alliance on the Ushahidi platform.”

We monitored over 300 difference sources including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, radio, mainstream news, television, and official UN/Humanitarian reports, in addition to mapping the most urgent life and death text messages from Mission 4636. We never limited our monitoring and geolocation of reports to Twitter, Facebook and 4636 text messages.

Page 27

  • “Based on new code written during the first hours after the quake, the modified Ushahidi platform provided a mechanism for Patrick’s classmates to begin collating social media posts and plotting each message on a map.”

New code was not written during the first hours, all we did was customize the platform which didn’t require new code to be written. New code was written during the second week to add new features deemed necessary to support the live crisis mapping operations.

  • “2. Pinpointing the location of a plea for help took lots of time and had to be right.”

That’s a false generalization, we would say that 20% took “a lot of time” but the vast majority were geo-located well under an hour (if not 20 minutes) when we processed them, especially when the OpenStreetMap of Haiti became available. Furthermore, the Haitian Diaspora were doing the majority of the geolocation themselves with an average turn-around time of 10 minutes. That said, we did at times have a backlog of text messages.

  • “Working separately from Ushahidi, several NGOs partnered with the U.S. State Department to launch a single SMS number for aid requests in Haiti. These partners, who included Rob Munro of Stanford University, FrontlineSMS, InSTEDD, Energy for Opportunity, and the Thompson Reuters Foundation, worked with cell phone carriers in Haiti to set up a resource called an SMS shortcode.”

This is false. Josh Nesbit from Medic:Mobile (formerly FrontlineSMS:Medic) sent a Tweet that he was specifically looking for an SMS gateway for http://haiti.ushahidi.com. Someone (in Cameroon) saw his Tweet and put him in touch with Digicel. Within an hour, Josh was on the phone with a contact at Digicel and the latter agreed to provide a short code on the spot. Later, the State Department provided an official letter to Voila-Comcel so that this telco could also provide the 4636 short code on their network because they were at first hesitant. Josh then reached out to Robert Munro at Stanford. Erik Hersman and Brian Herbert from Ushahidi were part of the early conversations on 4636.

Page 28

  • “Messages began to flow into 4636 almost immediately.”

There is no mention in this paragraph or report that it was thanks to Brian Herbert of Ushahidi that we had a new (built over night) platform that allowed volunteers to log in and translate & geo-locate text messages coming from the 4636 short code. These would then be pushed to the backend of the Ushahidi-Haiti platform for review, geo-location verification and publishing. It was only 2 weeks later that Crowdflower and Samasource entered the picture with their micro-tasking platform and training.

Page 37

  • “But the newer V&TCs do not yet have the resources to mobilize large numbers of volunteers, nor do they have the capacity to send small teams to the field for every disaster.”

The Standby Task Force response with OCHA in Libya makes this statement false. The Task Force has almost 500 trained volunteers from over 50 different countries.

Also, noting that we do not have the capacity to send small teams to the field assumes that this is part of the mission of all these V&TCs which is definitely not the case. (This again explains why the use of the catch-all term V&TCs is a disservice). Much of the novelty and power of the new communities in this space is precisely the fact that a lot of the work can be outsourced and done remotely. There is nothing in the Mission of the Task Force about our deploying to the field. Indeed, as our byline reads, we are an online volunteer community for live mapping. So writing that we do not have the capacity to send small teams to the field reveals that the authors of the report don’t understand who we are and what we do.

  • “The CrisisMappers community is forming a team called the Standby Task Force, composed of experts who are willing to train and deploy to emergencies to provide broad support for imagery, mapping and crowdsourcing.”

The CrisisMappers community did not form the Standby Volunteer Task Force. The Task Force was launched during the 2010 Crisis Mapping Conference but many were critical of the way that we proposed to move forward. That is why the title of our online volunteer community is “Standby Volunteer Task Force” and not “CrisisMappers Standby Volunteer Task Force.” The mission of this online volunteer community is to provide live mapping support to organizations that request help. We do not deploy to emergencies but provide remote live mapping support. The Task Force is composed of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom are skilled professionals and students in various fields. See our Volunteers Profiles section for more details.

Page 38

  • “[Ushahidi] morphed from a blog to an SMS-based platform to facilitate submissions of reports from the field.”

The Ushahidi platform was not originally a blog and is definitely not limited to SMS. Information can be sent to the platform for mapping via: webform, email, SMS, smart phone apps, Facebook, Twitter, Check-In’s, voicemail, etc.

Page 39

  • “When some V&TCs did not have as strong showing a in their support in the 2010 floods in Pakistan many veteran humanitarians were puzzled.”

It’s important to note that the Task Force didn’t exist at the time, but even so, core volunteers from Ushahidi-Haiti and Ushahidi-Chile were directly engaged in the PakReport.org crisis mapping efforts. In addition, Andrej Verity of OCHA got solid support from requests he sent to the Crisis Mappers Network. Again, it’s important not to suggest that all V&TCs are alike or respond in similar ways.

Page 40

  • “Some newer V&TCs have begun debates between internal factions, often between technologists who wish to provide platforms for general use and crisis responders who wish to support the application of these platforms to specific humanitarian operations. Some have debates between factions who believe one technology or method is being advocated above others. Others worry that the organizations will need to make fundamental changes to their mission and organizational design to chase the resources necessary for transforming a volunteer organization into an institution that performs a critical role during a disaster. These debates are ongoing. There is also a real possibility that competitive dynamics—if taken too far—may start to damage brands which the V&TCs have begun to build within the international humanitarian system.”

This sounds like a very judgmental personal opinion. We have no problem with it if it is supported by real examples supporting this statement otherwise it sounds like a very broad generalization that cannot be used to support or start any constructive dialogue about it. With regard to brand being built, this is also somehow unclear and should be explained in details or deleted.

Page 41

  • “V&TCs are instead accustomed to shaping malleable architectures of software code.”

It is very problematic to use V&TCs as a catch-all and then to generalize across different groups like this statement. At the Standby Task Force, 90% of volunteers are non-techies, non-software developers, they are crisis mappers.

  • “Many V&TCs have little experience with working on megadisasters.”

In this statement and throughout the document there is a confusion between groups / networks and the individual volunteers that compose them. One of the core strengths of the V&TC groups / networks is precisely that some of their members are experienced field responders. They have experience in disasters, and they share this knowledge in a collaborative way with other volunteers. We have seen this in recent Task Force deployments.

Page 51

  • “Competition and Collaboration. In the V&TCs, competition has emerged as a disruptive dynamic. Communities that need each other’s strengths are being force to compete for money in the donor pool, and some are finding the need to compete in areas of overlap or are being asked to tackle issues where other V&TCs are already working. Some competition is good; but coordination of effort needs to be put in place so that scarce resources are not wasted on work which is already complete or better done by other organizations. also ensure technology is in the hands of practitioners before the disaster.”

The competition issue should be addressed more accurately and constructively. OpenStreetMap and the Task Force are not competing, for example, they are collaborating as partners. That is why the Task Force represents a coordination effort with CrisisCommons, OSM, Sahana, etc. The Task Force is not looking for funding, so the donor pool comment is inaccurate as a generalization.

In addition to the notes above we would also like to add one more issue that we found very surprising in the report: Crisis Commons, which is one of the main and most active V&TCs group, and which was incredibly active in the Haiti response as well as CrisisCamps, are hardly mentioned in the report. Crisis Commons posted a list of all the projects they have worked on and have a detailed descriptions of their activities during the Haiti Crisis.

In conclusion, we want to reiterate our opening comments. This Disaster 2.0 report is an important policy contribution. It establishes that so-called V&TCs have a positive role to play in the more multi-polar humanitarian system that is evolving.

Thank you for reading.

Contributors: Patrick, Jaro, Rob, Anahi and Helena

9 comments on “Why We Need a Disaster 2.1 Report
  1. Gisli Olafsson says:

    (In the spirit of openness here is the text of an email that I sent to the CrisisMappers and CrisisCommons communities)

    After reading this blog post I started putting comments in the linked google doc, but I immedately felt that this might result in us going down the wrong path.

    Before I go further I should state that I did not write the report, I however did help do some of the research, including interviewing a good number of those interviewed for the report. I was also interviewed myself as the team leader for ICE-SAR.

    I feel that this review is focusing too much on how things have been done instead of looking forward. I don’t believe in going down that road, but still I want to correct a few things in the review before I paint the way forward.

    This review strikes me as an answer to any critic that is raised against the volunteer groups, instead of for many of the issues raised it definitely reflects issues that were in place during the Haiti response. This report was focusing on the Haiti response and pointing towards issues that have since been addressed for example in Libya deployment (which was a great success in my mind) is a little naive. The process of doing the report helped many in the humanitarian community to start addressing these issues and I would like to say that you could say OCHA’s involvement in the whole report process led to SBTF being requested to participate in Libya.

    Most of the critic raised in the report had already been raised by many of us from the humanitarian community and as a vibrant and great community, the VT&Cs had learned from those “mistakes” made during Haiti. Your review should rather focus on those lessons learned and accept the critic rather than putting on this defensive stand it currently has.

    You put way too much credit on the 4636 effort and try to minimize the fact that Haiti was the first megadisaster since mobile phone become prevalent and common place in the developing world. As I mention in the google doc comments I have put in, then reports originating from mobile phones were coming into the response teams in great number via other channels than 4636. These were all coming in without your process and technologies being part of the solution.

    Mission 4636 was a great proof of concept and that is all. The truth of the matter is that it’s effects on the actual response were at most minimal. It however taught us that there is a way to structure how this kind of information can be captured, processed and forwarded to those responding. It has opened the eyes of the traditional humanitarian community as to how they can deal with this new stream (via mobile phones and social media) of information that they previously had no solution to.

    We must be open to accept that there are politics involved inside the volunteer community. The review makes everything sound like all the different volunteer groups live in a place where everyone is collaborating and working towards the same goals without any conflict happening.

    As the person asked by the leadership of the SBTF to deal with conflicts in the Libya Crisis Map effort I can tell you there are conflicts. Often these conflicts were due to people from one organizations thought that people from other volunteer organization were trying to put their label/brand on the effort. As many of the groups do require some type of funding or at least some kind of attention (whether it is from media or humanitarian organizations) then this is inevitable.

    We must ensure we have ways to address those issues and unlike what the review suggests then I think we don’t have that independent forum yet. SBTF is not that forum and neither is CrisisCommons. Hence the suggestion in the report for such an independent forum (and in my blog post written during the CrisisMappers conference).

    Now enough of comments on statements in the review itself…

    I don’t think we need a new version of the report to move forward. What we need is to start the dialog of how to implement the recommendations. Some have already been implemented as you point out in the review, but others – especially the bigger ones need further discussions.

    As we start discussing each individual recommendation we may see other ways to implement them than necessarily those started in the report. That is to be expected and based on my discussions with the authors during the HHI summit then they said these were just ideas of how to move forward.

    As we move forward, each one of the groups needs to be humble and willing to accept they are not perfect and that the only way to really revolutionize the way we do humanitarian information management is through collaborative efforts that focus on passion and not politics, communities and not organizations, information and not data, processes and not people, shared goals and not individual goals and most importantly we can’t loose the focus on who were are doing this for – we are all working for those directly affected by the disasters.

    I fear a non-constructive dialog resulting from many of those comments and I would like to ask everyone to rather look forward than focus on the past. Lessons are there to be learned from, not to dwell on them. Each one of us is making tons of mistakes and instead of defending them, lets learn from them and accept our lack of knowledge, lack of abilities and lack of understanding of the real needs.

    Let us start a more constructive dialog and really make a difference in this space through the spirit of collaboration I feel the DR 2.0 report talks about. Lets break bread together and solve those things there instead of starting a flame war online.

    We at NetHope have in the past 6 months worked hard to lay the groundwork for moving humanitarian information management to the next level. That groundwork focuses on breaking down the barriers between the different response organizations as well as enabling the needed channels between all the different players, both the traditional ones as well as the new players like the VT&Cs.

    Moving this forward will take funding, because unlike the pure volunteer communities (which one might argue any of the VT&C’s are), the traditional humanitarian organizations do need funding to change the way they work. I am happy to say that we believe we have identified sources of sufficient funding to support that and hope to make announcements in that respect within the next couple of months.

    It will also need political support within the donor community (aka developed countries) and within governments of disaster prone countries (because they represent the people we really are “working” for). This we have also been working on and have identified ways to address them.

    In the meantime we hope to help bring the different groups together around a shared vision of revolutionizing the way crisis information is capture, processed, analyzed and managed. Lets join around that vision instead of digging trenches and starting flame wars.

    Will you join those of us wanting to go down the more productive road and help us realize this vision of a revolutionized crisis information management? It will take guts, it will take us all being humble and it will take hard work – but the results will be saved lives and reduced suffering – which is worth that hard work many times over…

    Gisli Olafsson
    Emergency Response Director

  2. Gavin Treadgold says:

    I’ve made some changes to your description of the Sahana Software Foundation – we’re not a company, but are a registered non-profit (I’m not sure if our 501c3 status has been approved yet). Hope this will be reflected in due course in this post. Cheers Gav

  3. Mark Prutsalis says:

    For the record, the Sahana Software Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, not a “software company.” We currently have no paid staff and have been operating on a minimal budget for several years. All of our code is written by a global community of volunteers. So I think we qualify as a V&TC as much as anyone.

    But I also share the view that the acronym “V&TC” is fraught with peril. It is clearly a huge improvement over “VTC” without the ampersand. I understand “V&TC” to be an “and/or” and inclusive therefore of purely volunteer organizations such as the SBTF or OSM and those that are not. The “technical” seems to bind us. But whether we are communities or organizations or companies is another question. At the risk of over-generalizing, there is something there that binds all of us together and a convenience to being able to refer to us collectively.

    We were elated that the Disaster 2.0 report recognizes that organizations such as ours have value and need financial support in order to become reliable partners of the disaster relief community. In that sense, we were glad to be singled out and also lumped together with such other worthy efforts as the SBTF, Ushahidi, OSM, Crisis Commons and many many others.

    Mark Prutsalis
    Sahana Software Foundation

  4. Gisli Olafsson says:

    I support the comment that V&TC is a bad acronym. So in the true sense of the collaborative spirit I hereby offer a reward of a bottle very nice french wine, handpicked in a winery to be awarded at the next Crisis Mappers conference to the person coming up with the best name. Further rules of competition to be defined later 🙂

  5. Nigel Snoad says:

    Patrick, Jaro, Rob, Anahi and Helena,

    thanks for engaging so publicly, and adding depth to both the report and, I hope, to the continued conversation.

    There’s a lot to say, but on the V&TC term: as (probably) the creator of the damned phrase, it was a compromise to get us away from VTC (which was in common use in the many of the 2010 reports and discussions). Amongst those who contributed to the report, either in inception or during research and editing there was a real struggle to come up with a term for those actors who were not “the traditional humanitarian community”, in all their diversity of structures, engagement and longevity.

    So we’ve fallen into the trap of categorization: by using a term to speak of “the other”, by contrast to an (admittedly vague) “formal humanitarian” group does lead to artifacts of in-group/out-of group sociology, particularly “illusory correlation” where there’s an assumption of more shared interests and alignment that really exists. It’s what we also get when we talk about race, or a bunch of other social-affect categories no matter how hard we try to do otherwise.

    So to step out of the abstract: yes, the use of a term like V&TC conflates a lot of underlying differences, and there are pathologies that result from it, but because there is an IASC taskforce, that has a reasonably stable membership (even though it is formally open), the apparent relevance of new actors and capabilities in the Haiti response, together with the work of longstanding groups like Sahana and MapAction caused us all to grasp on to terms, and ask for consistent interfaces. This is particularly important during crises, when suffer from overload, and we fall back on the familiar, and on bonds of trust.

    Ironically I keep having in my head one of many similar conversations with the Military when I was doing CMCOORD trainings, or when working in the field: a Major, or a Captain pleads “can you please just give us an interface we can work with, rather than 100 different NGOs all asking for their own thing?” They ask for a reason, and I’ve struggled as best I can to explain why that’s not possible, and to also provide one. It’s why coordination structures exist, and why I was so glad to see these conversations evolving last year at the Crisis Congress and particularly at the Crisis Mappers Conference.

  6. John Livengood says:

    Very much appreciate the thoughts described above. It was very disheartening reading this report where the focus was place on a specific few organizations involved in the complex response surrounding Haiti. My organization, Pacific Disaster Center, went to great lengths to develop and de-conflict the initial damage assessments, location of IDP’s, mapping the health facilities and other critical infrastructure elements. These activities were conducted in the first days and in conjunction with MINUSTAH, regional organizations such as PAHO, and volunteer organizations such as MapAction, helped create the basis for the initial response. Based on this report, it feels like the work I did (consumed by OSM and Sahana) never existed. We have also continued work mapping the cholera epidemic and have worked with other biosurveillence organizations attempting to identify the sources of these outbreaks. All this work is glanced over to focus on specific organization and not on the community providing these critical information resources. There needs to be some form of recognition. At the onset, I had requested that citation be provided on our datasets, nearly all were ignored and were dumped into a mash-up without any credit to the original provider. It’s a fact that we all require some sort of validation, especially those that call this a profession. Otherwise I am just an anonymous contributor which doesn’t support continued involvement in this program. I wish I could just be happy with support, but even as a non-profit under the University of Hawaii, I need indicators or measures of effectiveness to justify continued involvement. Just as the authors and agencies involved in this report need validation and funding, and just as Disaster 2.0 was published in a rush to support “maximum publicity” for the Dubai Conference, you are generalizing the community that got you there.
    Secondly, Haiti is an extreme case and should not be identified as the baseline for response and the future of humanitarian assistance collaboration. This is not the normal scenario and should not be held in the same expectation for future response situations. We’ve had Pakistan/Australia/Sri Lanka/Brazil flooding, NZ/Japan/Pakistan earthquake, conflicts in Bahrain/Egypt/Libya/Ivory Coast/Sudan, Russian wildfires, tropical cyclones, and so on. There is no common framework on supporting these events and the expectations for response are undefined. (you can’t identify expectations on a faceless community) It takes a certain situation to rally the full potential of this community but we should identify realistic expectations instead of pointing toward the most significant outlier, Haiti.
    Lastly, humanitarian assistance and disaster management involves more than just response. Sure, it’s the feel good solution that makes people feel like they are making a difference but 80% of your response options expire at the onset of any disaster. There are important activities in preparedness, prevention, and mitigation of disasters. Response should only be your last defense. We need to be able to develop and leverage existing risk and vulnerability assessments, understand the socio-cultural-economic implications surrounding disaster prone regions. These are the foundations to support a thoughtful and expedited response when necessary.

  7. Dave Leng says:

    For its relative flaws I was delighted to see the report.
    It emphasised an official hat tip to the new technologies and to now look at how to embrace them.
    I was able to point to it to lift the profile of our efforts to integrate them into traditional Disaster Management.
    When you start engaging at government level its very handy to point to known names like OCHA and UNFoundation. That gives the pen pushers the security of the information without feeling like their necks are poking out. And they don’t dig down far if at all. Too busy being busy.
    There is such a lot of development in this area that no report is going to adequately capture the capabilities of these new tools without being out of date by the time it is released..
    One of the new tools that has profound implications for moving forward is the new check in service for Ushahidi, which I am very excited about. Because of its “newness” it will take a while for its potential to be fully realised. But it has been exactly something I have been looking for. Beluga, Loopt, Groupme were all getting vetted for exactly that purpose. I just hope check in runs with low bandwidth requirement that developing nations are limited to.

    Agree with Gisli to look forward.
    This report is the first of many and they will improve.

    Query the need to emulate the innovators, is there a real need to control this area?
    Yes there is a questionmark about the model in relying on volunteers and a professional volunteer system could be a better way to go.
    But how about engage the innovators, after all they are the ones leading the field.
    Give them the funding to set up a more solid foundation
    Give them the official stamp of recognition so governments will start to listen to the “crazy IT guys” in the developing nations who see the benefit of these tools.

    Humanity Road was another group who lucked out in the report in spite of their efforts.

    Dave Leng

  8. Jeffrey Villaveces says:

    Dear Crisis Mappers,

    These comments are my own and reflect my personal point of view. I agree that the report could be improved, and I also have several recommendations. I think it should be noted though that, first, the report is not so much a ‘policy document’ as it is a study. To become a policy document, that is a whole additional step, but this is an important first step. That being said, it’s a UN study which looks at how the UN can work with the responder community.

    Let’s go through the criticisms point by point. I won’t go into the text debates at the end, though. On point one, sin comentarios, I am always in favor of more openness, although it’s difficult for me to judge the authors or editors on this score. On point two, I do think the VTC catch-all category can be problematic. The entire ‘volunteer’ concept is a bit charged, in fact the idea in UNV is that you can be paid and be a volunteer. This was confusing for me, too, when I started working as a UNV. I’d just assumed that I’d have to work for free (well, with the USD falling as it has you’re just about working for free as a UNV now!). I don’t know all the reasons for having used that category though, and I assume there are some reasons the authors have for using it.

    On points 3 (and 4 really), non-objectivity and things that were left out, I agree too that there are some points that would have been nice to see. But I don’t think the report was viewed as a tool to visualize every example in Haiti or elsewhere of crisismapper efforts (I’ll refrain from using the term VTC from now on). I think that maaany things that were done in Haiti deserve additional write-ups, I don’t see this report as being the medium to accomplish all that. As far as the recommendations vs using existing fora, leveraging existing fora makes sense. It doesn’t mean the crisismapper community should expect immediate action on all these fronts by the UN, and I agree totally that both sides benefit from increased inter-action. I don’t know if the position here is that the UN should not invest in creating any additional structures? I think that there is an argument to be made that having some formal UN structures designed to inter-act with other groups could facilitate such inter-actions. As things stand, the inter-actions are likely to be ad hoc. I was just going through one of these sorts of ad hoc interactions all morning, trying to introduce and sell a number of tools to on-the-ground responders. It’s not easy, and there is no structure currently for doing this. I take time from my normally assigned functions to do it, and while I’m lucky usually that is questioned. I appreciate dynamics like the SBTF, etc., but there is also something to be said for setting up some responsible entities to manage certain processes within a UN context. With no official managers, many processes will be hard to move forward.

    On point 5, I think that it should be taken into account that the report is designed to evaluate how the UN interact with crisis mappers, not the US military via Southcom, for example. The crisismapping community should be aware of the vast differences, both in terms of humanitarian principles and in terms of the duration and goals of many interventions, that exist between providing support to military responders and providing support to humanitarian responders. This area is not immediately clear for many crisismappers, especially given the relative compatibility of the two in something like an earthquake response, as compared to a complex emergency response. There are an entire set of guidelines created that govern how these communities should interact, which to date I have seen no analysis on by the crisismapper community. I’m not saying that this happened, but I have been in situations where the crisismappers were blocked from interacting with the UN BECAUSE they were interacting with the military. Just something to keep in mind, especially with some deployments which have been implemented since Haiti. All that being said, it’s still a relevant comparison to make, maybe they will, it would be a point to add on.

    In any case, great start to the discussion. Seriously, I think everyone should get everything out on the table as part of the spirit of what this report should inspire. Free information and free exchange of ideas…


  9. Laura Taylor says:

    Hope that in any disasters, technical teams and disaster rescue organizations will work hand in hand to help the victims. The technical teams should spread the news regarding the disaster so that many people will become aware of, and that more people can help. Disaster rescue organizations must be determined to rescue victims from the disruptive effects of disasters. The most important goal in any disaster is to save life.

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