Disaster Preparedness & Recovery

Technical Communities Redefine Disaster Volunteerism

Making every disaster local with technology, social media and volunteer communities.

Many emergency managers today struggle with the challenge of incorporating social media into what they do both during an event and on a daily basis. Social media is unpredictable, and the information spread through these platforms is erratic, hard to control and difficult to verify.

Another challenge for emergency managers will be merging convergent volunteers, social networking and emerging technology. It generates something Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant at Carnegie Mellon University’s Silicon Valley campus, calls “open source disaster management,” which could be an effective tool because of its potential, but is frustrating for emergency managers because it is unconventional.

“It will be like open source [free] software,” Botterell said. “It’s a process that nobody owns, with nobody in charge, and nobody has a clue how to make a business out of it — yet it keeps happening anyway.”

That’s why CrisisCommons was developed — it converges international resources during a disaster.

CrisisCommons is an international community of volunteers encompassing crisis response organizations, technology organizations, government agencies and citizens working together to use technology to help respond to disasters and improve preparedness.

Traditional volunteers are mobilized to perform a specific range of actions: manage logistics, provide medical care or establish shelters. This new form of volunteer, according to a World Bank report published in March 2011, is the humanitarian technologist. “These experts — who are most often technical professionals with deep expertise in geographic information systems, database management, social media and/or online campaigns — applied their skills to some of the hardest elements of the disaster risk management process,” the report stated.

Instead of working in a hierarchy, volunteer technical communities (VTC) use a decentralized “commons” structure that’s adapted from online communities like Wikipedia. They work in loose groups; they gather in a global, virtual community. Emergency managers will have to understand who they are, what they do and how to use them.

Volunteer Technical Communities

The VTCs use the word “community” very deliberately: They create an online community of people who share common characteristics and interests. Where the worldwide adoption of Internet technology over the past 15 years has dissolved many real-world community bonds, virtual communities like Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, VKontakte (Russia), and Mixi (Japan) have replaced them.

One of the most striking examples of how the strength and growth of online communities has affected emergency management is the difference in response to earthquakes.

During the Great Hanshin (or Kobe) earthquake that struck Japan in 1995, cellphones were uncommon and the use of Internet communications was new. The few people with Internet access were overwhelmed by those desperate to get information.

During the 2011 Thoku (or Great East Japan) earthquake and tsunami, social media allowed citizens to create their own knowledge base, in real time, and share it globally. Or consider the difference between the 1999 Kocaeli and the recent (2011) Van earthquakes in Turkey. Pelin Turgut, Time’s Turkey correspondent, recalled lugging around a satellite phone in 1999 to dictate stories because there was no other communication. After the latest earthquake, she wrote, “Technologies whirred into motion that would have been unimaginable back then.” Those included Google’s Person Finder, crisis mapping using geocoded tweets from the public, one-click text message donation services and Facebook aid requests.


The missing piece of the puzzle was a community that could support and coordinate the VTCs and provide a link between them and the emergency response and relief agencies that they wanted to help. CrisisCommons was proposed as the nexus for three groups: crisis response organizations, other VTCs and private-sector companies willing to donate resources.

CrisisCommons’ founders — Heather Blanchard, a specialist in policy development in crisis communication and management; Noel Dickover, a consultant in human performance technology; and Andrew Turner, a neogeographer helping build a geospatial web — were working through the details that would define CrisisCommons when the Haiti earthquake happened in January 2010.

Valerie Lucus-McEwen Valerie Lucus-McEwen  |  Contributing Writer

Valerie Lucus-McEwen is a certified emergency manager, certified business continuity professional and an adjunct professor for California State University, Long Beach. She can be reached by email.

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