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Tufts Crisis Mapping Class » Crisis Mapping, Disaster Management, Headline » Group Dynamics, Volunteer Management, and Crisis Mapping

Group Dynamics, Volunteer Management, and Crisis Mapping

Moroccan Red Crescent

The inherent collaborative nature of crisis mapping and its reliance on a network of both professional and civilian workers has both its benefits and its challenges.  From our practical experiences working on class assignments and our crisis simulation, as well as from accounts drawn from the blogs of more established crisis mappers, we have quickly become familiar with the advantages, as well as the drawbacks, of a multi-member response team.

One advantage of the cooperative nature of crisis mapping is the efficiency that results from the ability to mobilize a mass of volunteers, sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, who can respond to crises immediately.  In his blog post, Patrick Meier describes this massive force:

…in the wake of the Haiti earthquake…more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti.

The thousands of volunteers that Patrick describes here are only those who aided in translations—many more participated in other stages of crisis mapping.  This massive manpower can accomplish much more than a mere team of five or six trained crisis mappers can, although neither the untrained volunteers, nor the trained crisis mappers can function without the other.

Patrick Meier video chatting with a group of crisis mappers (source: NY Times)

The collaborative nature of crisis mapping is also enhanced by the fact that it is an online cooperative activity that can span the globe.  As Patrick mentions, volunteers from all over the world can contribute to crisis mapping efforts—all they need is a computer and an internet connection.  Citizens on the ground during crises also are important elements in the crisis mapping teams, as they provide local knowledge, and information submitted to crisis mapping teams via text messages and other technologies is essential in monitoring situations on the ground.  The most effective crisis mapping teams will integrate all of these elements—trained crisis mappers, volunteers at least minimally trained in mapping technology and translation, as well as untrained civilians—into successful responses to crises.

At the same time, as more and more parties get involved with the project and the response team grows, communication, work flow, accuracy, and group dynamics become more difficult to deal with.  Different individuals may have different ideas on how to best react to the situation, and it may not always be clear who is in charge of each level of the project.  According to crisis mapper Anahi Ayala Iacucci in a blog post on October 9, 2010:

The secret of managing a Ushahidi platform is to have a good work flow in place, instant communication and shared information between all the members. if you have those characteristic, then you don’t even need to be all in the same place.

Anahi highlights here the importance of clear ideas and task management, both of which are priorities that we have identified in our group interactions.  Anahi goes on to describe how group members of her PakReport project from England to Cairo are in constant dialogue with each other through Skype Chat and a Google Group.  Our Moroccan Red Crescent team similarly keeps in contact continuously via e-mail, and we collaborate on group assignments by sharing Google Docs and by editing each other’s work in this way.  Delegating tasks has also sometimes been a challenge for us, but it is nowhere near as big as a challenge as it would be if we were a team the size of one of Anahi’s projects.

It is important, however, in teams as small as our own, as well as in teams the size of Ushahidi, to have some kind of stopgap measures to ensure that tasks are delegated efficiently across all levels of the crisis mapping program, to streamline the process, to maintain order, and to ensure that the final products are cohesive and make sense.  For example, when we first began our group project, we occasionally skipped over having someone delegated to check over our work, and as a result, the project reports that we produced were not completely cohesive because they came as a result of the work of several different individuals.  Thus, it became evident that someone to check over the final product—a stopgap—was necessary.  In our team of only four members, one group leader suffices, yet in larger projects, a team of individuals (Anahi mentions several pivotal roles, such as a director, a crisis mappers coordinator, a verification coordinator, an emergency team, a tech person, etc.) is needed.

Crisis Mappers at work (source: venturebeat.com)

We have also learned that every good Crisis Mapping team should consist of a variety of people and talents. In Ushahidi, for example, there are more than just the technical developers–there are also website designers, content and branding experts, and a larger community of volunteers who input the information.  In such a team, not everyone will be experienced with technology or humanitarian aid, not everyone will have the same education, and not everyone will speak the same languages. A system of collaboration that creates fluid group work and that enables everyone to apply his or her specialties in the group is therefore necessary.

Current major Crisis Mapping initiatives are structured around “the collaboration between large established organizations and new decentralized volunteer networks.”  During the crisis in Libya, Ushahidi has been able to cooperate with and win the support of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has requested the launching of a Task Force. This trust has helped to expand capabilities and learn from experiences.

Screenshot of Libya Deployment (source: libyacrisismap.net)

The structure of the Task Force in this particular instance may be a good source of inspiration for future Crisis Mapping teams. The group was divided into several teams with specific tasks, so that each of the volunteers can fully use their expertise to contribute to the goal. Such examples include the Tech Team, the Media Monitoring Team, the Geolocation Team, and the Reports Team.  This type of specific identification of skills may help organize a diverse group of people from all over the world, and make the most use of their potential. In our group, although we are not as diverse as the entire Ushahidi community, we certainly are from different areas, and were not familiar with each other before the start of this project. Thus, taking time to get to know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and delegating specific tasks according to the project, is a potential strategy to lead to better results.

Patrick Meier mentions an alternative form of group collaboration on his blog, which he refers to as “collaborative analysis.” Researched and proven to be effective by the “Polymath Project,” this is a system which surpasses the end user system to allow an “end network” to think together and solve complex problems.  In essence, it abolishes the hierarchical system of organization employed by Crisis Mapping groups and most other organizations, and it opens up information to all the other members in the network—various individuals can contribute to solve one problem together. While the structure of open source mapping certainly moves towards this direction, most projects like Ushahidi are, as mentioned above, divided into specific groups. But perhaps we should also open the information up to the wider community and collectively try to tackle big problems. As Meier suggests, the positive effects of collaborative analysis are “precisely why Crisis Mappers should design platforms that encourage mass collaborative analysis to identify patterns in humanitarian crises.”  This is also a potential direction in which we can guide our collaborative process in our small Red Crescent group. We recognize the potential difficulties of working as a large collaborative without having a large hierarchical system of leadership. However, it does lead to the benefits of allowing everyone in the group to contribute their ideas in a fair and equal manner. This method of collaborative analysis also does not necessarily have to contradict the aforementioned method of delegating specific tasks: the two methods can be used interchangeably depending on the project we are working on.

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D. Rosalind Sewell (Roz) is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she is studying Security Studies and Islamic Civilizations. She is the primary teacher for Crisis Mapping: Technology, Resources, and Disaster Relief

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