Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Recovery 2.0

Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine has started a tag and a proposition for a movement: Recovery 2.0 (tagged recovery2)--an attempt to galvanize the digital community into using their efforts to fight disaster. His original proposition post is here, the tagged collection of all his relevant posts is here. A wiki has been created here; a meeting will be held in conjunction with Web 2.0 in San Francisco on October 6, 2005.

I have a lot more to say about this, and I think it's one of the more important things I've blogged about, so please, please, please click on the permalink timestamp to read the whole post.

It seems that Jarvis was at least partially inspired by the work that went into the KatrinaPeopleFinder, and I found out about Jarvis's proposal while reading Ethan Zuckerman's first summary of how that went. A particularly relevant quote to the fundamental idea here, from Ethan,
But when 2,000 people show up and ask for something to do, it’s a great idea to take advantage of their generosity. Estimating that it took roughly two minutes to enter each name into the database, volunteers donated roughly 2,250 hours of time over the past 48 hours to do data entry. That’s a $11,600 in-kind contribution, valuing people’s time at US minimum wage. Could a talented programmer solve the unstructured data parsing problem in 120 hours at $100 an hour? Possibly. Probably not. And 1,999 other people wouldn’t have had the chance to help out and feel good about doing their part. [emphasis mine]
I would add to that that a single talented, paid, programmer would also finish the job 120 hours after the start, unlike the volunteering masses--assuming no sleep. Parallel processing is a powerful thing, and in catastrophes true-speed counts. Most of the current and proposed tasks on the wiki right now focus on databases that kick into gear after the disaster has happened--missing people registries, aid organization registries, relief-organization registries, shelter-finders, needs posting systems.

Chronic problems that are, in total, more harmful than natural disasters, sudden wars, and accidents. But sudden catastrophes are shocks to the system and must be planned for and given special attention as such specifically because they are sudden and surprising. That said, some chronic problems--poverty and other kinds of vulnerability--inform the outcome of disasters a lot. That cannot be overemphasized, but no one should need to be convinced any more, sadly.

The only way to fight that vulnerability is the best way to fight disasters generally.


Preparation, preparation, preparation. It cannot be repeated enough. I've written about it before and I'll write about it again. A stitch-in-time saves nine, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, practice makes perfect, etc. etc. etc. . Some of the commenters on Buzzmachine have said this, but it needs to be said again. Any movement that is convened at Web 2.0 and which proposes to take advantage of the enormous amount of ready, willing, and skilled labor out there wanting to make a difference would do a great deal of good if it can figure out how to use the web to bring those resources to bear on the problem of preparation.

I've blogged previously about a local, East-Bay, non-profit, CARD (Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disaster) which focuses on preparing vulnerable groups (the poor, the elderly, immigrants, pet-owners, etc.) for disasters by working with the existing Community-Based Organizations that already try to serve these groups but are often too overloaded and overwhelmed to provide their own disaster counseling. CARD is part of a Bay Area coalition called PrepareNow, but I don't know of a national analog to this movement. (Full disclosure/bragging: CARD is also largely staffed by my good friend Scott.) The American Red Cross, of course, does a great deal to try and prepare the public for disasters, but that's not its sole focus. (September, by the way, is National Preparedness month.) The preparedness community as a whole could probably use a lot more support from the geek community.

Small groups like CARD and PrepareNow and large groups like the American Red Cross have a host of informatics needs, both in terms of office work that needs to be done and communication and connectivity with target community. Connecting these groups with willing volunteers, as well as extending their mission throughout the country (and, hopefully the world) and systematically addressing some of their goals are all tasks that the parallel-processing, socially comitted worldwide geek swarm can address in a way that was never before possible. "Very large force, meet almost-intractable object. Get to work." One of the biggest benefits of having a large Union is that, in theory, we should all be able to help each other through various crises. The web makes that increasingly possible.

My programming chops are not anywhere on the order of wizards like Ethan, so diving into a serious opensource coding project like Sahana is not something I--or many of you--can do. But if someone were to assign me a fairly simple but repetitive task for a project I believed in, especially one I could do from my own computer at odd hours, I'd be a lot more likely to be useful. There's a lot to be said for managers and geeks who spend time not designing deeply clever solutions but instead coming up with easy to perform algorithms and unbreakable ways of dividing complex tasks into very simple pieces. Assuming that we'll get more of that, here are some ideas that I'm going to propose off the fly:

  • 1) Come up with a good way of dividing up the United States, for now, into breakable zones. (This applies to the world to, but I'm starting with what I know.) Counties? Zipcodes? Congressional Districts? Municipalities? Population centers? Somebody should assign a scoring system that's centered around disaster relief, basic social services, and decide what's the best way to break up each state. Maybe in Wyoming counties is best, but in California transit districts make more sense. Then any subsequent task on my list (or any others) can be broken down into geographical chunks and efficiently delegated out to local volunteers or non-local friends of a region. But the breakup has to be consistent to be efficient. It should also be keyed to Google Maps in someway so that people can use tools like this census mapping (from Snarkmarket) to do their work. What kind of work? Glad you asked--
  • 2) Local maps that are crisis oriented. Where are the hardware stores and drygood stores? The hospitals? The payphones? The police precincts? The bomb shelters and homeless shelters? The factories to be avoided? If organizations like CARD could hand community based organizations like deaf community centers or homeless shelters local maps, and those groups could in turn distribute them to their clientele and keep them ready in hard copy for disasters, that would be an enormous service. The after-the-fact updating Katrina wiki is incredibly cool, but it's not helpful to people without computer access and it's a bit late. If people could be assinged chunks of Google Maps to annotate, and have a very consistent, fool-proof set of directions of how to annotate them, I think this could be done much faster than if one person just took it on by themself. And then in a crisis, they can be dynamically annotated--"Look, that Target is flooded. You'll have to go to the one up the hill."
  • 3) National, dynamic maps of urgent needs in poverty services. Currently we have a very list-oriented way of looking at disparate crime rates, poverty rates, hunger rates, etc. It makes it hard to hold the whole picture in our heads. That's what maps are for. Say we have a hunger-map---a dynamic map of county foodbanks where each foodbank's color is indicative of how well its able to meet local needs. If local volunteers take responsibility for continually keeping the national map informed of what's going on, donors should be able to just glance at the map and get a sense of what's needed where, and send their donations accordingly. And if enough people look at the map, constantly, and donate, constantly, people should actually be able to see the problem getting better on the national scale. Same for domestic abuse shelters. Free clinics that could use three weeks of some doctor's time. Let's stick to the very basic, very important things for now, and if the model works it can be extended.
  • 4) A registry of Available Neighborhood Preparedness leaders. Maybe they should be certified. Type in your address and find out which person on the street is willing to give you locally specific tips on how to prepare yourself for disaster or be an additional in case of emergency contact for your family. When they've dealt with whatever number of families they're comfortable dealing with, they'll take their name of the list and start recruiting for someone else to step up. If the order comes to evacuate, they'll call around and make sure everyone's good to go, and if someone's not, they'll have some idea of who to notify. When you move someplace new, you check this list.
These are mostly spontaneous ideas of mine. I'm sure that better ones are available from the preparedness community. My real goal is to try and inspire the digiterati to get in deep touch with the preparedness community on an ongoing level. I hope to do the same as well, and I hope you will to.

I'd like to close with a couple more quotes from Ethan's post. First, he writes,
In a perfect world, I would sit down with a couple of good developers and develop a workflow management system for the next time we need to get a thousand volunteers together to enter some data. It would have a simple, web-based interface that logged users in, assigned them a task, nagged them via email until they completed it, and provided a comprehensive view of what was and wasn’t assigned to administrators.
Well, I'm not any kind of developer. But creating such a system, open source like wiki--especially one that's particularly sensitive to dividing up tasks along geographic lines--would be an invaluable service to activists and social workers everywhere. You'll never know when you'll want to use such a system, and it's better to build it now then after the next hurricane.

Secondly, he wrote,
Basically, when net people try to solve a problem, they bring their posse with them. For me, one of the lessons of the weekend was discovering what a powerful force my posse can be, and how effective the network of posses around the net can be
Posses do rock, and I think one of the most wonderful thing about blogs is how they are, slowly but surely, creating true virtual posses. Community is built on goofiness and laughter as well as hardwork. I paid attention to Katrina a lot sooner than I would have b/c I've had a damn good time hanging out at Maitri's blog back when all was well. So reach out and meet someone--you'll enjoy yourself now and be thankful later.

(technorati tag.)