We've all been watching and reading the latest news reports from Haiti and the terrible consequences of the January 12th earthquake. But, there is also an important story behind the news.
When disasters strike, most media coverage is focused (and rightly so) on the immediate needs of the relief efforts: locating victims, collecting and distributing food/water/medical supplies, and providing shelter. But, what about the effort required to keep all the rescue teams organized? And, what happens when more and more of the relief efforts are supported by virtual teams of people working all around the world? How do they keep organized?
That is exactly the issue faced by a new type of relief effort sweeping the cities across the world. Organized around local events called Crisis Camps (and organized by Crisis Commons), a whole movement of volunteers is using technology and mobilizing to help. And, the results are pretty impressive, as can be seen from this news coverage from a recent Crisis Camp held in Washington, DC.
But, with hundreds of volunteers working on dozens of projects all over the world, how do they keep organized and focused? There are many tools to help individuals and groups communicate and share knowledge/ideas (e.g. IRC chat, skype, Google Docs, etc). However, the most robust, flexible, and easy to use tool is still a central wiki https://wiki.crisiscommons.org, which anyone can access and contribute to.
It is true that most "off-the shelf" and freely-available wiki solutions are not perfect for this purpose: there is often lack of structure from ad-hoc contributors; there is no easy way to assign tasks and track their progress; and, data is often difficult to aggregate and extract in meaningful ways. Yet, despite these problems, the underlying characteristics of wikis are certainly well aligned with the needs of crisis relief: they are quick to edit, flexible, and generally open to all. When disaster strikes and large numbers are mobilized to help, these are certainly huge strengths.
So, if you are interested in helping out with Crisis Camps, find one in your community (yes, you can find the details on the wiki at https://wiki.crisiscommons.org, or follow twitter hash-tag #ccHaiti). Since we are based in Toronto, we are involved in Crisis Camp Toronto, and are looking forward to the next one on Saturday, January 30th. Hope to see you there (in person, or online - maybe with your contributions on the wiki)!
By: Dragan Stojanovic