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4 Questions to Ask Before Digitally Volunteering for the Nepal Earthquake Response

By Wayan Vota on May 1, 2015


In the aftermath of the Nepal Earthquake, we all want to help the people of Nepal recover and rebuild. Giving money to vetted organizations that are working on the ground is a great way to help. But many of us, called by empathy for those suffering, want to do more.

Over the past few years, technology has opened the door for digital volunteering – allowing anyone with a computer to boot up and contribute to the efforts. This is a great alternative for those that feel giving money seems too passive and impersonal and crave the rewarding feeling of actually doing something.

However, before you contribute your time and skills, it is important to think critically about if and with whom you should volunteer. Here are the 4 questions that Jessica Heinzelman and I ask ourselves before volunteering for Nepal, or any disaster response:

  1. Do I have the time?

    Volunteering should not be thought of as a passing commitment, finished after an afternoon hackathon. Volunteering your time, especially in disaster response, should be a serious commitment to long-term change. Please be brutally realistic with your ability to add a new activity into your already hectic daily life, and commit to continuing the activity for the duration of the need.

  2. Do I have relevant skills?

    Now is not time to learn how to code node.js or read Nepalese. If you don’t already have the specialized skills or knowledge needed for an intervention, consider fundraising instead, or growing your skills through a lower-risk digital volunteering activity that you might deploy next time there is an acute need. Inaccurate data analysis or mischaracterization of a map feature could cost lives on the ground.

  3. Is the activity relevant?

    It can be easy to turn on our computers and feel like we are doing something that is making a difference. The fact is, the real impact happens on the ground and your analysis, maps or data should be clearly integrated into on-the-ground response mechanisms.

    If you are unsure, employ Jessica’s WWHD rule: What would a humanitarian do? If you were to explain your volunteering role and/or organization to people in humanitarian response, would they agree that it is valuable? What may seem logical to you and I, may be a luxury in the midst of crisis. Responders on the ground are brutal at prioritization and triage – there is too much to do. If your work is making the essentials easier, great! If not, your work is likely for naught.

  4. When should I stop?

    In the immediate aftermath of a disaster there is clear benefit of engaging a virtual workforce that is removed from the chaos and affected infrastructure, but know when to stop. If your work could be done better by those with local knowledge, hand it over when they have the capacity. And keep in mind that once the country starts rebuilding, and skilled staff start looking for work to earn the money they need to recover, volunteering could take away from the recovery process itself.

After our own analysis of these questions, Jessica and I are taking our own advice. We have opted not to volunteer our tech skills due to a variety of considerations. Instead, we are using our organizing skills to create a Nepal earthquake fundraiser in Washington, DC.

Please sign up here if you’d like to help design or participate in the event.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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10 Comments to “4 Questions to Ask Before Digitally Volunteering for the Nepal Earthquake Response”

  1. Monica Jerbi says:

    Thanks for yet another insightful blog post with practical information, Wayan. I think the analysis in general is spot on; however, if a large amount of people are answering “no” to questions 1 through 3, then what you really have is a missed opportunity in my opinion.

    Yes, many crowdsourcing, crowdmapping, etc. endeavors are highly technical and most people don’t have the specialized skills, local knowledge, foreign language abilities, etc. to contribute in a meaningful way. But it is possible to design multi-layered crowdsourcing exercises with the crowd — including those who must honestly answer “no” to questions one and even two as framed above — participating in less techy areas. This leaves the experts to focus on more meaty analysis since much of the heavy lifting has already been done.

    For example, after Super Storm Sandy the Civil Air Patrol created a crowdsourcing opportunity that anybody could do in just about any window of opportunity they had available. See http://irevolution.net/2012/11/01/crowdsourcing-sandy-building-damage/ and http://idibon.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/ISCRAM2013_Paper.pdf. Digital Globe’s crowdsourcing platform Tomnod is similarly designed to enable “crowd” participation, including those who would have to answer “no” to questions 1 and 2 above. Tomnod has a non-techy crowdsourcing opportunity related to Nepal RIGHT NOW. See http://www.tomnod.com/.

    A side benefit to non-techy crowdsourcing endeavors like the Post-Sandy and Tomnod examples is the cathartic benefit to those who live in the impacted communities or have close personal ties to them. When major disasters like Super Storm Sandy take place in developed areas, it is important to give people something to do that makes them feel good. That prevents them from working themselves into a frenzy complaining on social media and taking it out on the good folks at the Red Cross, etc.

    As more people in the developing world get online, I believe non-techy crowdsourcing as a means of covert riot prevention (social media fueled) will grow in importance. But again, it really is a design issue with all possible participants, including those who might answer “no” to some of the questions above, in mind.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      We may disagree on 1 and 2, but I really hope we can both agree on #3. Non-relevant activities (and there are so, so many) help no one, and often actually cause problems.

      Along with that, I sternly disagree with the need to “give people something to do that makes them feel good.” Let that be fundraising. There are those that should respond, and everyone else should just get out of the way.

      Good intentions are not enough, and there is absolutely no need (real or perceived) to coddle people outside of the disaster zone.

  2. Herman Fung says:

    Good, to-the-point, advice. Cheers Wayne and Jessica

  3. Steve says:

    Great advice. All too often I see great talent being wasted to solve a problem someone with no disaster response experience decided existed after watching CNN coverage. That “problem” may not exist, or their solution may not be practical (being polite) for us in the field. Not seeing their tool/app/whatever get used discourages them from helping again.

  4. Timo Luege says:

    Hi Wayan

    I disagree with part of your first item. Yes, you should know whether you have enough time to complete whatever activity you are volunteering for. But that does not necessarily have to mean that you have to invest tons of time.

    There is value in someone volunteering an hour or two mapping on OSM, looking through images on Tomnod or helping identify tweets through Micromappers. On of the beauties of ICT enabled remote support is that it can be split into so many different parts that the individual parcels can be done in comparatively little time and add to the whole.

    I don’t think we should discourage volunteers by saying “You need to invest tons of time”. Depending on the activity, that is not always the case.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      So you want gobs of folks without any real OSM experience randomly drawing (or half-drawing) landmarks and then not caring if their work helped or not? Or would like a volunteer who takes their time, thinks about the long term, and really gets into mapping and gives you great, high-quality product?

      I think the answer is obvious. So is the need for people to invest real time in volunteering – for earthquake response or anything else. We have enough flakes in our work already. No need for more.

      • Timo Luege says:

        The fact that we all prefer highly skilled volunteers with tons on their time does not means we should discourage those who are willing to contribute but only have little time. It is then a question of how do you channel that enthusiasm. And while OSM is a bit more complex, many other things like TomNod or Micromappers are not.

        • Wayan Vota says:

          Well that’s where we differ. I don’t think its our responsibility to make work for those that are willing to contribute but “don’t have time” for deep interactions. I say we should only accept technical help from those that are willing to make time. Everyone else should do whatever they do best (and have time for) and donate cash instead.

  5. Monica Jerbi says:

    I don’t think it is so black and white, Wayan. Yes, giving or raising cash is the way the vast majority of Americans can help TODAY with the greatest impact for Nepal. However, as more countries get online and maps improve worldwide, today’s crisismapping activities will need to evolve to stay relevant. New ideas and new (including inexperienced) people are constantly needed. I definitely don’t think you need to give people something meaningless to do to keep them out of trouble and make them feel good (especially if they are not truly committed to helping), but there are infinite possibilities for creating crowdsourcing solutions to help disaster survivors (and their friends and families near and far) help one another and authorities in identifying and prioritizing needs. As noted in this comment thread, these solutions don’t necessarily have to be overly technical and time-consuming.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      I think that there is and will always will be a very small subset of activities that are based on real, defined need, and someone with tech skills can complete it quickly vs. the many, many ideas that spring up with “I want to help” and are designed to make the supporter feel good but are not grounded in actual need.