Society - Written by Tim Bevins on Monday, February 1, 2010 5:32 - 5 Comments
Real-world impact from virtual-world collaboration: Crisis Commons
Crisis Commons (http://www.Crisis Commons.org) is an “international volunteer network of professionals drawn together by a call to service. We create technological tools and resources for responders to use in mitigating disasters and crises around the world.”
The group’s approach starts with facilitating partnerships and maintaining “a network of technology volunteers to respond to specific needs.” Included in its professionals’ network are developers, specialists, communicators, first responders, and project managers, but also “people who just want to help.” Everyone who volunteers usually gets to work on projects that align with their specific talents and interests, but, when dozens of people gathered in Boston on January 23 for a CrisisCamp event for Haiti, a group who intended to create software to identify Twitter messages sent from Haitian refugees did not have all the right programming tools and dived in to work on a non-technical task.
At CrisisCamps, people brainstorm and develop ideas. Special camps tend to address an individual event or create problem-specific tools. CrisisCamps often happen in several locations at once; camps for Haiti, for example, happened on January 30 in New York, Chicago, Montreal, Washington, DC, London, Toronto, and Mountain View, CA, and are scheduled for February 6 in Ottowa, Calgary, London, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City.
Because the next crisis is around the corner, at so-called Hack-a-Thon events, Crisis Commons volunteers prepare for future critical needs by developing new tools. The group’s web site explains: “We’re about responding to specific requests and needs. But we’re also about supporting just good ideas. Before a CrisisCamp, organizers reach out to responder organizations – governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and others – seeking requests for technological supports. We organize into teams to support those requests. But we also develop around things that are just good ideas.” All tools are open-source.
The group has a blog for updates on camp activities and outcomes and uses a wiki (http://wiki.Crisis Commons.org/wiki/Main_Page) for project and volunteer coordination. Anyone who wants to organize a CrisisCamp starts by by filling out a form with basic personal information, background information about skills and interests, and the purpose of the camp. Crisis Commons sets a limit of just one camp per city per day to ensure all local resources are located in one place for maximum impact.
Some of the projects already completed include:
- GPS maps of Haiti, along with instructions for downloading the maps into a Garmin navigators. The maps are available at OpenStreetMap.org. Haiti Crisis Map (http://haiticrisismap.org/) includes multiple overlays that show, for example, destroyed buildings and refugee camps and satellite images from multiple sources that is used for tracing in Open Street Map.
- A Haitian Creole-to-English translator for the iPhone
- An alpha version of We Have We Need Exchange (http://wehaveweneed.org), a site for relief organizations to post immediate needs so donors can respond quickly. Categories of need include food, fuel, medical, shelter, telecom, transport, volunteers, and other.
The impact of Crisis Commons’ CrisisCamp events on participants can be profound. Co-founder of Crisis Commons, Noel Dickover described the work he’s doing in the Haiti camps as “more important than anything I’ve ever done in my life.” Thom Goodsell, a software developer at Humedica Inc. in Boston, who participated in the Boston CrisisCamp on January 23, explains the value of Crisis Commons this way: “No one here is going to save a life directly. What we are going to do is build infrastructure to help them do their jobs better.”
Crisis Commons benefits from the desire of people to help in concrete ways in events where they cannot participate on the ground. Social network technology makes it possible to assemble people with and without technical skills to make real differences in virtual ways. Crisis Commons is an example of the potential for good that’s often overlooked or invisible on a day-to-day basis when people think about social media and the Internet, which are often derided as trivial and time-wasters.
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