Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Need for Inter-Galactic Travellers in Disasters

The title of this blog post is taken from an IGNITE talk that Akiko Harayma gave at the International Crisis Mappers Conference 2010 in Boston. In her talk she used the analogy of the humanitarian workers and the crowd-based volunteers being from two different planets speaking two different languages. She pointed out in a great way how we need to figure out ways to bridge that gap, through increased dialog between the two.

The truth is that what the humanitarian workers need during a disaster is not yet another source of information. We already have information overload in the field.  What we need is the ability to “outsource” some of the information management process to the volunteer based crisis information managers out there.

But in order to achieve this, we need to have people that can translate the needs from the humanitarian community into requirements that the crowds understand. Those of us who have done software development know that one of the trickiest things we face is actually understanding what the end user needs. The number of software projects that have attempted to improve efficiency and simplify life for end users, but have in fact created more work for them is staggering. A good colleague David Platt has written a book on the subject called Why Software Sucks.

The truth is that what you need is to be able to “translate” those needs into requirements that the the “techies” understand. The best way to do that is of course to bring those techies into the world of the end users. However in the case of disaster response, we definitely don’t need more people to arrive in the field.

What we need are people who know both worlds. People who are bi-lingual and can explain to the techies what the humanitarians really need. Preferably we need at least one of those in the field to help gather the needs and someone in the crowd-space that can help translate those. In worst case we should have someone in the crowd space who can help act as the interface/link between those two different planets.

I do see myself as an inter-galactic bi-lingual traveller, but I want to find others that can help us play that role during times of crisis. If you are one – send me a line so that we can make sure we play this important role together next time a disaster strikes.


  1. excellent post. GWOBorg is trying to do exactly this and would love to talk to you more about how we can help bridge this gap. +) Diggz

  2. Here is emerging the new 'middle layer' I spoke with some amazing people about at #iccm10. This is hopefully going to be recognized as an art/discipline just as crisis mapping has.

    Where is this conversation going to be conducted? I'm here... a fellow cosmonaut and 'multilingual' innovator. @3kv

  3. Hi Gisli,

    One thing that I would point out is that during an emergency, it would be great to have someone like this profile embedded inside the humanitarian community on the ground. No matter how much we say that things can be done remotely, only someone on the ground will truly understand the needs / requirements.

    Perhaps someone within OCHA could play such a role? Or someone within an NGO consortium? Perhaps the IM focal points within the clusters could have such responsibilities added to their TORs (or could feed them through a focal point within OCHA)? With the required establishment of an IM Network on the ground, it seems like a likely conduit for such requests - no?


  4. Johnny - lets talk. My skype handle is disasterexpert :-)

    om - Welcome fellow cosmonaut. We are going to do this conversation over the next few weeks online and via skype. My handle is above :-)

    Andrej - I totally agree. We need to have this function on both sides. We are looking into ways to implement this and it would be great to get input from your side on what models you feel work.