Thursday, January 21, 2010

The value of crowds

(Photo by VictoriaPeckham, Flickr Creative Commons)

Last weekend hundreds of volunteers got together in Silicon Valley, DC, London and several other cities for CrisisCamps: Haiti - tech oriented brainstorm/build sessions to develop tools that could help with the rescue, relief and recovery efforts. Similar efforts were coordinated by Ushahidi - an Africa-based, text-message driven platform that crowdsources disaster information. At the same time, the engineers behind The Extraordinaries worked to develop a photo-tagging tool that runs on people's smart phones, so anyone could donate a few minutes tagging photos that would be used to help find those missing in the disaster and reunite families.

By the end of the weekend, countless hours (or maybe they were counted - anyone have the data?) of expertise, coding, planning, and building had resulted in several functioning products, including:
  • A free, centralized text message number (4636) that would aggregate text messages coming from Haiti help with location data and facilitate the coordination of relief efforts;
  • The above mentioned photo tagging tool for smart phones;
  • A Creole/English dictionary for aid providers; and
  • Frequently updated online maps with detailed information on damage
Many more projects are continuing - you can find one list of them here (scroll down). All of these are examples of crowd-sourced tool development.

One of those (scheduled for launch on January 28) is called The Disaster Accountability Public Database and aims to "build an easy-to-search and easy-to-manage public reporting database to monitor activities of relief organizations soliciting donations for relief efforts and to inform the public on the effectiveness of aid efforts on the ground." It is being coordinated by the Disaster Accountability Project. This will aggregate information from individuals about the aid they observe being provided - are materials getting where they need to go, are aid organizations doing what they said they would, are there gaps that can be filled? This is crowd-sourced crisis monitoring.

In all the reports about the outpouring of cash to aid Haiti, we've lost sight of the outpouring of crowds. We don't have an easy dollar value to hang on the tools that are being built or the monitoring that will come. But that shouldn't stop us from taking account of these efforts. Unlike the typical donation of goods or time in a disaster - which can themselves be, well, disasterous - this kind of help is valuable.

It is helpful because it revolves around fundamentally different organizing principles than donating shoes or blankets or hard to move goods. Those efforts stem from the desire to help and the knowledge of what the donor has.

In contrast, the crowdsourced tech help efforts revolve around the desire to help and a willingness to listen to what is needed. Because the tools to be built are technology-based the goods to be moved are primarily information-based. Information moves differently than shoes or blankets or hard goods. This allows for a different design approach. For example, donating shoes means bringing something in to the disaster area - something that may or may not be useful by those it finally reaches. When the good you are trying to move is information-based, you can think about how it moves in and out of the disaster area - allowing you, for example, to focus on using text messages to locate areas of specific need.

Hundreds of millions of dollars, donated by individuals, foundations and corporations, will (we hope) go to good use in Haiti. Hundreds of millions, probably billions, more will come from governments around the world and will (we hope) help Haiti rebuild. And hundreds of hours of crowdsourced information-based tools will also help deliver, distribute and monitor that aid over time. As we think ahead to the next disaster we need to keep in mind that well-directed crowds are likely to be an important part of the relief infrastructure.

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