Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Speaking at New Communications Forum, Friday

Along with Brian Oberkirch of Slidell Hurricane blog and Evelyn Rodriguez of Crossroads Dispatches, I would be participating in a panel discussion about "A New Voice: Citizen Journalism and Disasters" on Friday, March 3, 11:30 a.m in Palo Alto, CA. I am representing the World Wide Help group and hoping to share our Tsunamihelp and other related experience. We are also planning to bring up for discussion some interesting issues that we think are important to the disaster relief community. I am going to be using this post as my repository for talking points.

A New Voice: Citizen Journalism and Disasters
Talking Points

Lessons Learned

Blogs can make a difference

That blogs can be more than the medium of choice of the self-obsessed. That the linking and research that the better bloggers all do, the ethics that guide them, when powered by a huge need to make a difference, to just reach out and help, can make for a pretty powerful vehicle.

Collaboration does wonders

That a group of people with common cause can do bigger things together than they could do separately, even in a world as staunchly individualistic as the blogosphere.

Bloggers are creative

Even without inventing anything new, the team made some pretty damn innovative use of existing technology. Not just the “blog as collaborative disaster relief tool” bit. Stuff like using Yahoo IM chat as a war room cum conference room, SMS as an information system when other communication is shot to hell, Flickr tags as missing persons notifiers, a Skype number staffed by people in three continents as a virtual call centre. Obvious in hindsight, like so many of the best solutions are, but hey, we did it first.

People are essentially good

People are essentially good, though it can take a disaster to make that clear.

Technology with Heart

One of the key drivers of this effort was the speed of viral communication, and the availability of accessible, simple tools that could facilitate this. This perhaps explains why we got so many people from all over the world writing in to us asking if they could volunteer in any way. It explains the push-factor, the desire and drive to help, in the knowledge that here was an opportunity to actually make a difference, in a personal way. We had so many people who had never blogged before, and still took the plunge and made their invaluable contributions.

Cooperation and interdependence

We experienced a near-magical interdependence as we were setting up and establishing this blog. Its not just about the people who were blogging. There were a whole lot of volunteers who fed us with links, sent us letters from affected people reaching out for help, still others quietly contributing by buying up bandwidth and applications and offering up mirror servers, that made the blog more effective.

The taskforce grew rapidly, each feeding the other. Unrelentingly people put their lives on hold. Even trousseau shopping.

Breaking global borders

Unlike main stream media, you don’t need a vast infrastructure with a lot of circulation to get out what you want to say. Also, during times of disaster, the outpouring of help comes from all quarters of the world – be it Uganda or Sweden. Blogging is the perfect medium where anyone with a computer and an internet connection could become a reporter/journalist. We witnessed this during Tsunami & Katrina days as we had volunteers from all continents of the world – Trinidad and Tobago, Bahrain & Ireland are few of notable countries from which we had volunteers from.

A Decentralized Self-Organizing System

There was no formal organization, no CEO or CTO or COO. We adopted roles depending on our experience and skills. We made commitments voluntarily. We rounded up people who we felt would help us in performing our roles better. As with any decentralized system, there were challenges. Different levels of tech savvy-ness, sagging spirits when the wiki pages crashed for 24 hours, for many lack of sleep for ten days at a stretch, often just a need to be heard (most of the group was very young)

Blogs widen the audience and participants

Particularly during times of disaster relief, you’d need as much as first hand information as you can get without the censor of either the government or the main stream media. Social media facilitates that easily. With just a mobile, even people who don’t know what a blog is, could become a citizen journalist and provide crucial updates that get worldwide circulation and attention.

Challenges Ahead

  1. In disasters like Tsunami & Kashmir Earthquake, people often forget about the victims after 6 months or one year. It’s either because people have short memories or they have other things they move on to. I think social media / blogs can be more effective in medium & long term disaster relief, not just the short term / immediate relief. The question is how?
  2. There have been some efforts in the disaster relief community to bring all the disaster relief communities together. Global Voices Online is trying to mobilize both the online & main stream media to find out how they can work together better during the disaster relief times. They have identified the following issue thems:
    1. Create a structure of respondents and stakeholders during an active disaster/emergency relief effort/operation
    2. Identify the obstacles to information flow. Listing various types of obstacles.
    3. Examine relief response scenarios. These scenarios can be generated along various factors such as "developed/developing", "geography", "extent of damage", etc.
    4. The availability of a potential application would be achieved once the following are identified:

i. The way information IS flowing (Info Flow Currently)
ii. The way information SHOULD flow (Info Flow Theoretically)
iii. The way information CAN flow given the various systems in effect and their limits (Info Flow Practically)

  1. Funds. Even though most of the tools that citizen journalists use are free or open source, they do require funds to host websites, register domains. Currently, most of these communities either for volunteer funds (which always brings up the question of credibility and transparency) or they pitch in themselves. Could there be Online Disaster Relief Fund maintained by some credible organization like AlertNet, Redcross etc that can be awarded on a case-to-case basis to such efforts?
  2. Scattered efforts. Many a times, we see that there are just too many scattered efforts trying to provide same set of information. The typical example is the ongoing Avian Flu Help relief efforts, where there are just too many scattered efforts to provide same kind of information. How do we bring them together under one collaboration effort?
  3. Keeping it open source. We think that all the disaster relief tools and creative ideas that the relief community comes up should remain in the open community for everybody’s use (Creative Commons License). This does not mean, commercial-for-profit companies cannot participate but it means when they do, they are doing it under these guidelines.
  4. Most of the time, blogging is adding context, analysis to the main stream media stories and reports. What about stories that MSM just ignore? How do you bring attention to such blog-originated stories?
  5. So what can businesses & PR folks can learn from these experiences? Self organizing aspect of these journalism efforts points to a way marketers could use organic outreach for their own communities with an overarching theme of story, story, story.
Credits: Most of these talking points are prepared from the works of Peter Griffin, Dina Mehta, Angelo Embuldeniya, Neha Viswanathan, Evelyn Rodriguez & Brian Oberkirch (from the chat)

1 comment:

  1. Hey Bala! Good luck with the conference! Pics - we want pics! maybe some audio clips too would be nice! any live podcast interviews maybe? poke Scoble a bit for us!