Thursday, 22 May 2014

Volunteer Technical Community support Balkan Flood operations

Ushahidi used to track May 2014 Balkan floods in Serbia
Governments and even some non-government organizations often criticize volunteers, regardless of where they are from, when trying to help during a disaster. In some cases, the criticism is warranted as these small groups often wind up needing help themselves in getting extracted from the location they went to help others. But this is not always the case and yet, many organizations still resist and are not convinced that some volunteer organization are of value to relief and recovery efforts. The challenge is how to overcome the lack of trust and gain credibility. The ability to collect information into a government emergency operation center is hard enough, even in advanced countries such as the U.S., U.K.,or Canada. When resources are further reduced as they are in eastern Europe, incident reporting from structured sources becomes even more valuable. But if it is to work, cooperation has to be setup and put into place for effective use.

Information technology is an effective tool during a crisis or disaster. Some more than others to be sure, but the gathering and curating of situation awareness data is a high priority as an event unfolds. As infrastructure collapses, the means to collect real-time data diminishes from government and official sources considered reliable. Other resistance points often raised, are the management and implementation of products and services that may or may not be compatible with existing IT services. The security of data and the collection of information may be in violation of local laws when actively collected by government agencies.

In 2008,  Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, Ory Okolloh, and David Kobia created Ushahidi originally designed to track election reporting in Kenya. It proved to be an effective means to monitor results in an era of political corruption in the region. In the 6 years since its development, the platform has expanded, offering new tools including integrating GIS and social media API's. it can be operated independently of existing infrastructure, locally or remotely.  There are no special technical requirements to operate Ushahidi. It can be implemented and installed on a off the shelf networked server. Its implementation is not exceedingly difficult to manage and operate. Some technical knowledge of different types of data management and API's is needed. But the good news is that support is available worldwide through disaster response volunteer groups like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), Crisis Mapper's Stand By Task Force (SBTF) and several others.

Since the Haitian earthquake, the use of Ushahidi has spread after successfully tracking and supporting humanitarian aid requirements of NGO's and government agencies, including local and internationally deployed military units. The platform offers plug-ins that scale to any size of disaster event. As indicated earlier, it can be implemented internally or externally of government networks and eliminate any security access risks. It can be hosted by any cloud provider desired.

With these challenges overcome, why has it not become automatic to use this easy to use technology? The quality of information along with accuracy has been a sore point to many within government circles. In some areas, even basic issues as to map accuracy has handicapped its use. This is particularly true if a region has not carried out recent geographic surveys of villages, towns, and its cities. This is where crowd sources volunteers have made an immense difference. Organizations like HOT and DHN have mapped out missing details of entire cities within a matter of days. These VTC's crowdsource effectively using volunteers worldwide, integrate an effected regions diaspora population to confirm and support areas of unknown status to build a fully operable map in which to plot incident reports submitted by affected populations, media reports and government reports, all in near real-time.

Another resistance point has been cultural barriers and concerns of just how many residence actually have access to modern technology like smart phones. That concern has been raised repeatedly throughout eastern Europe over the past 10 years, a region that endured significant post civil war conflict recovery and severe economic hardships after the depression of 2008. Early indications suggest these concerns should be swept away as Serbia and Bosnia's Ushahidi's implementations clearly illustrate with thousands of reports being submitted.

Ushahidi used to track May 2014 Balkan floods in Bosnia 

It is not all a bed of roses to be sure. Early implementation struggles have occurred in both deployments such as map detail, coordinates and the layering information. Local citizens have their own way to describe where they live which to outsiders, is hard to understand. But by using crowd sourcing as a technique and quality control mechanisms, issues can be resolved through scale of access to knowledge, something governments are constrained or limited in carrying out effectively.

The United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) has successfully used these Volunteer Technical Communities (VTC's) during several disasters including Typhoon Haiyan. Through continued research, development and inputs between NGO's, Government Emergency Operations Agencies, such tools can enhance recovery and disaster aid effectively. It requires cooperation by all NGO's and government institutions. There is no single group that stands out as the sole provider of support. Organizations like ours, Digital Disaster Support Relief (@DDRSNGO), Humanity Road, and others mentioned above, have built a suite of resources that can help affected communities directly and independently in addition to being fully open to government support agencies. As we continue to develop resources, relationships are developed between civilian and military disaster specialists through organizations like STAR-TIDES created by Dr. Lin Wells in Washington D.C. at Fort McNair.

You can view curated stories and our editorials covering the Balkan Floods in our Digital Crisis and Disaster Management Magazine -


Serbia Ushahidi Website:
Bosnia Ushahidi Website:

No comments:

Post a Comment