Tuesday, October 11, 2005

This Is What I Want, Maybe You Can Help Me? Recovery 2.0, Civil Society, and Geography

Last Thursday night, Scott and I went to the Recovery 2.0 inaugural meeting. We're not sure what form Recovery 2.0 efforts will take, but we know that at least a couple dozen people, from lowly bloggers like me to convener Jeff Jarvis to Yahoo! and Google representatives to Michael Powell, former chair of the FCC, to Brian Oberkirch, a survivor of Katrina, all wanted see how they could use the internet and technology to better serve disaster.

Scott and I were keen on getting two points out---that an ounce of prepardeness is worth a pound of relief and recovery, and that vulnerable populations need special help getting prepared and getting relief. Scott, of course, was representing for CARD. (I guess I was too, since I now volunteer for them.) But I'd like to think that I was also representing for desk-jockeys, pajama warriors, small-time volunteers and living-room charity poker players everywhere. People who would like to do more for their civil society in the odd hours of the day and night, or would like to know more surely that their volunteer work is fitting into a larger whole, or would like to get their small donation dollars to a needy and specific charity.

To that end I have just proposed a project on the Recovery 2.0 SocialText Wiki-like object. You can read the whole proposal here, but it basically sums up to this: I would like to have a database to volunteer for, a database I could, as a participant, enter information into and help fill. I want a database that I, as a user (in my capacities as a volunteer, donor, and blogger), could then search to find information and display it or print it or otherwise access it.

What kind of information? Geographically classified and searchable information about civil society organizations that are relevant to disaster relief. Shelters, clinics, schools, special-needs community centers, senior centers, TTD telephones, food banks, churches, etc.. Who they are, what they do, how they're funded, how efficient they are, what they need, where they are, how to get them money and stuff. I want to know that my effort to document and learn about my community is fitting into a larger effort, and I want to be able to quickly find, evaluate, and help civic groups at will. And I want to be able to create relevant maps fairly easily. (Note that if a database structure was created properly, and was sufficiently open source, there would be no reason for it to be restricted to being used for disaster preparedness and relief. )

Imagine, for instance, if such a database had been built and and the South Asian segment was being perpetually filled by volunteers all over South Asia. It would make the work of the South Asian Quake Help Blog so much easier. People could log on, grab a list of local NGOs with good reputations for giving food aid and not participating in local skirmishes. Money could be wired immediately. Imagine if it had existed for Katrina--evacuees could have taken advantage of the warning to line up shelters to stay at and clinics to get their prescriptions renewed by. We would immediately have been able to get a list of homeless shelters in the Houston area that we could immediately and directly send our money to, and maybe even contact them about showing up to volunteer.

Now I've never built such a thing. Really, I've never built anything much more computationally complicated than a counter of single-photons. I only recently started to get my wiki on. After many childhood and school years of volunteering, I spent most of my adult life volunteering for professional and academic-centered societies, and am only now really diving into local civil society. I haven't studied much geography. So this is really the ultimate bleg (blog beg.) If you can tell me where this database exists, fine. Please help me try to find it! Thank you! But in case we don't find it soon---please consider helping me make sure it happens. I think it would be cool and quite a bit of fun. I think we could even make it a lovable project.

Note--I know some of you are going to say, well, why not just use Google Maps? Answer: Maybe we will. I love Google Maps, and give them my fangirl praise whenever I see them. (The people, that is, not the maps.) But it's not necessarily visually flexible or GIS-like searchable enough to store and serve all this information.

Some blogs that gave me material to chew on while thinking about this: Ethan Zuckerman, in describing the aftermath of the KatrinaPeopleFinder, really blew me away with the possibilities of using parallelized labor to break down massive and tedious data entry tasks into bite size pieces. Hedgehog at Rhinocrisy reminded me of our need to trust those whom we are giving our money and time, and reasons for balancing donations to big centralized bureaucracies with direct-to-the-grassroots interaction. And Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson of Snarkmarket are always going on about maps.

My original Recovery 2.0 post. Technorati tag: