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The Rise of the Voluntary Humanitarian Technologist in Disaster Response

By Guest Writer on November 18, 2011

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Excerpt from Volunteer Technology Communities: Open Development

2010 redefined the role of volunteers during humanitarian emergencies and disaster risk management. Traditionally, civil society organizations ranging in size from small community organizations to the international Federation of Red Cross mobilized volunteers to perform a wide range of actions, in order to: manage logistics, provide medical care, and perform community based risk assessments in addition to other forms of direct action.

During 2010, a new form of volunteer emerged from the background: 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.

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Working inside communities like OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi, thousands of technologists responded to earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and flooding in Pakistan. Volunteers processed imagery, created detailed maps, and geolocated posts made by the affected population to a myriad of channels in social media.

Some deployed under the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), The World Bank, and International Organization of Migration (IOM), trained Haitians how to use simple tools for remapping their communities. Others provided reachback support to the United Nations (UN), the European Union, United States and across the globe, making their supercomputers and large storage arrays available for processing imagery, managing translation workflows, and serving large data sets.

The rise of the Volunteer Technology Communities (VTC) brought a new set of organizational designs to problems that have often become snagged in bureaucracy. Instead of working in hierarchies, VTCs used flattened, decentralized structures with decision-making and conflict resolution mechanisms that were adapted from online communities like Wikipedia and open source software development projects.

“The use of Volunteer Technology Communities (VTCs) made possible by new Web 2.0 technologies present a fundamental shift in how we can support Disaster Risk Management programs and intervene in disaster situations. We are only at the beginning of this story. The seeds planted through initiatives like the Crisis Commons and Random Hacks of Kindness hold great promise for the future.” – Saroj Kumar Jha, GFDRR Manager

As a result, the VTCs moved far faster than larger players in nearly all circumstances – and perhaps faster than established protocols will allow. It is here – in the politics and tempo of this new volunteer capability – that the bottom-up, grassroots structures need protocols to work with the top-down systems within large organizations.

Volunteer Technology Communities: Open Development provides an introduction to some of the Volunteer Technology Communities (VTC) that made their mark during 2010. It is meant to provide a starting point for discussions of how UN agencies, The World Bank and other organizations might better integrate/use the best parts of these VTCs going forward.

Critical to their evolution will be for these communities to move beyond the situation of immediate response and early recovery towards the full disaster risk management cycle including; reconstruction, risk reduction and preparedness.

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