Monday, October 4, 2010

A crisis grassroots efforts consortium

It was very interesting to attend the International Crisis Mappers Conference in Boston this weekend. It was especially great to see all the passion in the room, especially from the volunteer grassroots community, but also very important to see key players like UN, OCHA, World Bank, NATO send some key people there to get the conversation going between those two camps. I firmly believe that conferences like these are the key to breaking down the barriers between those two different communities.

As I said it was especially great to see the passion from the grassroots community. In many ways the Internet has broken down the barriers of like minded people to reach out as a group to offer assistance during times of crisis and actually be able to help out. I have in a previous post talked about the importance of establishing the correct interfaces between those two camps.

One thing that however does create a bit of concern for me is that those efforts are a bit scattered. Many of them are grouped around technological solutions (Sahana, Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, InSTEDD, etc.) or around a type of volunteer (CrisisCommon for developers, CrisisMappers for GIS people, etc.) and at various points during the conference you could here a bit of competition rise between them.

It is however when all those different organizations work together that they really achieve disruptive changes. A great example of this was the Project 4636 effort in Haiti. We however have to make sure efforts like that become repeatable and can be deployed immediately in the aftermath of a disaster (or even before a disaster occurs) instead of having to establish all the links during the chaos that we experience immediately after a disaster occurs.

Just over ten years ago the IT managers of the largest NGOs in the world established a consortium called NetHope. Today 32 of the largest NGOs in the world participate. What makes NetHope unique is that nobody forces those organizations to collaborate but if 5+ organizations are interested in collaborate around a specific project then it becomes a NetHope project and they go out together to get funding for it. Where as in many consortiums years are spent trying to get a consensus amongst all the members NetHope believes in smaller victories over shorter times.

I believe what we need in the volunteer grassroots crisis community is a consortium based on the same approach as NetHope did for ICT in NGOs. In other words a consortium to which the various technology/solution open source projects would be members of, but also the volunteer community groups like CrisisCommons, CrisisMappers, etc.

In this consortium everyone would be on equal footing. When the humanitarian community expresses needs for solutions or assistance, then the grassroots groups can decide whether to participate in each project or not.

At the same time a consortium like this would become and information sharing platform about what is being done around the world in utilizing open source and volunteer communities to improve the response to crisis and the quality of life for people in the developing world.

When projects that involve multiple organizations are formed these organizations could go out jointly to donors and thereby increase the likelyhood of receiving support for these projects. The NetHope model has shown that repeatable funding increases through the institutional ties that consortiums like this can establish much easier than individual groups can.

You could also see a consortium like this host a yearly simulation exercise/tech fair that would allow new technologies be experimented on in a simulated environment. The model that StrongAngel used but we have unfortunately seen repeated in the last few years. But more on that later…

Lets figure out what it would take to form this kind of a consortium and get all the actors involved!!

Individually we fail – united we stand!


  1. A 'crisis camp' for peer coordination and communication should really be set up. The instruments we need are similar to the plethora of what is being used now, and different in a way that a lot of other collaborative communities could benefit from.

    Data portability, microformats, cross spectrum conversation management and asynchronous interactions can be rolled into a collection of standards based information exchange much better than the hodge-podge of elements being used now.

  2. Yes there needs to be a platform where these things are discussed across the different communities/efforts already in existance.

  3. From the UN side, I have been pushing for the IASC Task Force on Information Management take on such a role (especially during an emergency).....sort of a global level body that would help to coordinate the various project/activities aimed at helping those on the ground.

    But, first step would be an organizational mind-set change to allow more than IASC/Cluster Lead to participation.....


  4. Problem is that IASC Task Force is not open to all the various grassroots organizations. I think what you need is a grassroots consortium that then sets up the link between the IASC Task Force and the grassroots organizations. And that consortium can then be an active participant and voice in the IASC IM Task Force.

  5. Ive been thinking about organizing a conference focused on volunteer & grassroots orgs. Would love to talk to anyone else interested in this idea. +) Diggz

  6. @GisliO: yes, the IASC would need to open up (as I noted). I like the idea of a 'focal point' being invited to represent the consortium at the IASC Task Force level....very concrete recommendation that might not create fear/panic in the IASC.

  7. And I know the community is looking at this as a way to address those fears...

  8. We are trying to form such a consortium and presently we have a grouping under the banner of what we call Humanitarian-FOSS projects that include Ushahidi, OSM, InSTEDD, Google and Sahana. We recently agreed on a code of conduct to create better harmony between projects, especially during response.

    And work is in progress on a maturity model that looks at all aspects of being a responsible and accountable response group. This based on recent discussion we had on the challenges small grassroots groups like ours face responding to disasters.

    Things are still very much in the early stages of this presently very informal grouping, but I like the idea about making it something more formal akin to NetHope, though ideally it would have been good to be part of a sub-grouping of NetHope than taking on the overheads of creating yet another consortium.

    Gisli, we welcome your further input for how to better structure our H-FOSS group to be more effective and accountable especially during response.

  9. Hi Chamindra,

    I really like your approach to the Humanitarian-FOSS projects. It is definately the first step in forming such a grassroots consortium as it brings together the different technological solutions. I have joined your mailing list and hope to be able to provide input there.

    I would also like to see the volunteer groups (CrisisCommons, CrisisMappers, etc.) join hands in a similar fashion and work more together. I am working that angle also with them.