Mozilla Drumbeat has been collaborating with the good folks at Crisis Commons since connecting with them at our Drumbeat Toronto event last March. Beginning tonight (Friday, September 3), they’re hosting a “CrisisCamp Marathon Volunteering Weekend” for Pakistan, with events in Toronto, Sydney, London, Bangkok and — thanks to Mozilla’s own Atul Varma — Silicon Valley.
It’s a chance for anyone with a laptop to help with everything from Pashtun translation to data entry to user-interface testing. CrisisCommons also has a Usahidi instance for the floods running here, and are looking for specific help in geo-coding incidents on the ground.
Natalie from last week’s Crisis Camp Silicon Valley demonstrates the street mapping project she’s working on for Pakistan flood relief
“Plunge in and do things:” civil society and the web
As Mitchell Baker wrote last week, she often gets asked how Mozilla can help respond to humanitarian crises. Mitchell and other Mozillians attended a CrisisCamp Silicon Valley event last Friday; in her follow-up post, Mitchell draws the link between CrisisCamp and civil society, “developing a world where people don’t look to government and formal ‘non-governmental organizations’ for all the answers.”
CrisisCamp’s direct participation and collaboration represent civil society in action — “see a problem, do something. Form an association, virtual or formal. Build a tool — or a product. Reach out. Don’t wait for government to set up a special official organization — plunge in and do things.”
Order in chaos and “humane workflow”
The challenges of thousands of distributed participants “plunging in and doing things” are obviously familiar to Mozilla’s own work. Atul describes some interesting parallels between his own first experience of CrisisCamp with Mozilla’s process of turning the potential chaos of mass participation into a more “humane workflow.”
One thing I noticed about the chaos surrounding the Internet-based efforts [at CrisisCamp] was that, like Mozilla, they were formed very organically. This meant that there were a plethora of activities going on which anyone could participate in, but the picture presented to a newcomer was confusing and messaging wasn’t always consistent. Tasks needed to be completed urgently; the changing landscape on the ground meant that problems and solutions were constantly changing, and assumptions were frequently challenged….
Combined with the distributed nature of the solution, acquainting newcomers with a reasonably humane workflow for contributing was non-trivial: just processing a report on pakreport.crowdflower.org, for instance, often meant switching between tabs containing getlatlon.com, OpenStreetMap, and a Google Docs page containing advice and other resources. There was a lot of copying and pasting involved.
Sarah from CrisisCamp Silicon Valley describes some documentation and user experience challenges
How could Mozilla help?
Last week CrisisCommons did some blue sky thinking at the Berkman Center around long term strategy with folks like Clay Shirkey, Ethan Zuckerman and David Weinberger. (See Ethan’s excellent “Crisis Commons, and the challenges of distributed disaster response.”) Some early thoughts on how Mozilla and Drumbeat might help:
Helping to build better tools and user experience. Atul describes how browsers, for example, could help solve some of the workflow problems he describes through addons or scripts that would eliminate duplication and make the user experience for volunteer contributors easier. Creating these specific scripts and addons could fuel a potential Drumbeat project, a P2PU Webcraft course project, or innovation challenge.
Attracting skilled contributors. CrisisCommons is always looking for web-savvy generalists, but also skilled specialists for their “Technical Tiger Teams.” Mozilla may be able to help attract specific community members around specific tasks and challenges where needed. Clearly defining specific skill-sets and tickets would probably help this go faster and get better results.
Sharing expertise around developing open standards. One thread of the strategy dicussion at Berkman focused on how CrisisCommons might emerge as “an international forum for standards development and data sharing around crises…. training the broader community about the importance of standards, and on the challenge of defining problems where solutions would benefit a broad community.”
Helping with agile open source work habits and processes. Atul notes that basic open source work habits and processes, like a real-time virtual space or chat room (IRC) and some sort of issue tracker, would have been useful to last week’s CrisisCamp Silicon Valley. (CrisisCamp notes in response that they’ve run into several issues trying to get everyone onto a single issue tracker or chat solution.) Co-ordinating effort from a far flung community of global volunteers is obviously difficult — it would be great if Mozilla could share some of what it’s learned along the way.
Fundraising. CrisisCommons is 100% volunteer-run. One of their hopes is to potentially hire a full-time community engagement person to develop their own community and build deeper ties with other Volunteer Tech Communities (VTCs) and Crisis Response Organizations (CROs). They’re also interested in setting up an open source lab in Silicon Valley. Funding for these projects could potentially come from small-dollar donations online.
Building a better (humanitarian) web
Efforts like CrisisCommons can help draw the link between openness, technology, and a better, smarter world — connecting the open internet to the kind of civil society Mitchell describes, and strengthening the web’s ability to act as infrastructure that helps communities respond to crisis. Not just through traditional government and NGOs — but through ordinary people plunging in and doing things in a smart, agile way that genuinely serves the needs of people on the ground. Ethan’s post provides an excellent summary of the huge challenges in actually achieving that goal. But it’s inspiring to know that a small army of “civic hackers” around the world will be rolling up their sleeves this weekend. See you there?