Proposed by: Om
Contact (skype): okomaloko
Best way and times to contact is during RHoK 2.0 Dec 5 2010: 10am-3pm EST (GMT+5)
The "Crisis" community desperately needs a means to gather information, coordinate communications, centralize dissemination, and generally reduce the "distance" between the different communications streams during all phases of an event or exercise.
What typically emerges is a "spoke and hub" which really means that everything happens in the hub, and if you are not part of that inner circle, you hope to be in the right place to get some news out at the end of a spoke. The "hub" is tightly linked, conducts conference calls, phones, emails and tweets one another and generally makes decisions without much extraneous input. The "hub" is rarely able to provide clean useful information on the publicly facing resources because the situation is often too dynamic for meaningful updates. Other times the responsibility is overlooked or the group is too tired to undertake that task.
Some of the more specialized "spokes" are in front of their monitor constantly keeping abreast of IRC chat in order to follow a lengthy conversation about many topics.
Depending upon the situation, others may be searching through a river of data in order to glean useful details, relevant to the disaster, that will get shared with others and hopefully end up on a map or in a database somewhere that is visible to the rescue/recovery operation.
As for members of the general public, or those wishing to make a report, it is very definitely an effort to find information and communications channels that are sufficient to quickly gain situational awareness.
Crisis Commons, Crisis Mappers, various volunteer organizations and a wide diversity of other groups, clubs, affiliations and individuals all have a need to communicate and maintain situational awareness (during any disaster, afterwards and in preparation for future ones).
A single mechanism that includes the useful features of each communication means and provides for the actual coordination needs of the community.
This is obviously open to revision but the way I see it is like this:
A web based application that is distinct to the group or event at hand. So a theme generator would be necessary for the creation of new instances. (Drupal and WordPress have ample code to borrow for this)
Internal Dashboard: Communication 'Panels' that provide access to various services:
External Dashboard: On the public side, an integrated approach would be very helpful because the resource would be live and available. Hunting down links on a wiki that hasn't been updated, or trying to find a conversation that moved to another location is discouraging, to say the least. We are usually trying to attract talented volunteers not turn them away. A publicly facing situation monitor would be incredibly useful and also add visual interest. It would be as easy as providing editors with a "Place on front page" checkbox inside communications that they are already having rather than having to log into a wiki to make manual edits.
Data Exchange Dashboard:
We have a number of lessons learned in the past months and a number of shortcomings that are all communications based - ""but not necessarily recognized as such"" Rather than coming up with statements like "Learn how to use the wiki" or "It was posted, you should have seen it" or "Stop editing if it breaks the page" we could be using each of these examples to understand how participants would naturally like to communicate and designing the mechanism around that. It is a technical collaborative here, but that also means it will grow to include less technical people as well as those who like things to be easy to use.
A lot of this looks like it has already been done (Drupal and Drupal based projects particularly) but it actually hasn't been done yet.
Agencies and organizations have no central location to come to and affiliated organizations suffer greatly from lack of coordination.
Communication problems make people feel inadequate. I have heard often lately that people are tasked for time and can't update websites, while in the same breath lamenting the fact that volunteers are scarce.
To date, the one serious shortcoming of most of the current scenario is how patchy and discombobulated the communications mechanisms are.
During events, Twitter is used for realtime communications with a hashtag system for identification of messages within the stream. - This only works for those "in the know" who could just as easily use any other means. If the hashtag format can be advertised through other media, then the wider public can contribute meaningful, formatted information that can quickly be brought into display tools like Ushahidi. As yet, there is no standard implemented within Twitter tools or on the Twitter home page to assist in the formatting of hashtags for individuals with information about a disaster. These reports are subject to having any manner of arbitrary hashtags applied at random depending upon what the user thinks is a relevant term. This forces a natural language search be applied to the stream and/or many human hours spent searching. That said, Tweak the Tweet IS doing awesome work. The proposed system would highlight and maximize these efforts, not diminish them.
IRC is also a tool for those "in the know" and is essentially a private but very basic form of multiple user online chat where a new channel can be quickly set up and multiple participants can read, follow and contribute to the same conversation. These are often used during events by those involved with code development and typically occupy a window that is left open on the screen to passively participate through the course of an event. One may read through the entire log if they are away from the stream for any time, but the conversations are not threaded and unless watched diligently, the flow of conversation and side conversations are almost impossible to folllow. Rooms for small and individual conversations should be easily tracked and easy to set up.
Skype has been used to some degree of success with common pitfalls of conference call configuration and not knowing what room to actually enter. Skype also requires prior coordination in order for participants to be included in the conversation. As with any non visual conversation, a serious disconnect occurs between those who are already familiar with one another and have developed trust - and everyone 'else'. Situational awareness and focus are dependent upon the audience respecting ground rules or seeking opportunities to cut in to make their point or ask a question. It can work and it can be unruly. Once the call ends though, there is no place to go.
Email is the ubiquitous mechanism for most coordination and has been a robust means to create one to one connections. (here I'm also describing "one to many" which is still essentially one to one, repeated)
Pirate Pad/ Google Docs/ etc. - a number of online, single document-multiple editor tools exist. Pirate Pad has been used with some success but is severely limited by a 19 user max. Google Docs is proprietary :( and also suffers from number of user issues and random glitches that prevent editing by others although complete data loss is not common.
Google Spreadsheet has been used with great success because it is not being edited massively by lots of people simultaneously and can be interacted with via other mechanisms (e.g. lat lon information can be taken directly and reused in a mapping application without user intervention, for instance.
Wiki - probably the best in terms of potential, but it is often not used to good effect. A limited editing capacity and the ease of creating new pages leads to cluttered documents that go out of date quickly when new pages are created to handle a new set of information rather than taking the time to edit the original document. Searching is simple and useful if you know what terms to look for. Categorization is an effective organizational tool but relies upon users to know the proper syntax for creating and accessing the categories. Also it is important to know beforehand what the category names are in order to use them in a page.
SMS is the new wonder of the communications stream and fast becoming the ubiquitous mechanism for real world reports. It is available for low cost on many carriers, handles traffic without severely impacting cellular networks, lightweight and 'data cheap' in terms of bandwidth and standardization. SMS has been used alongside forms that exist on a phone device to transmit highly structured data easily and securely. Interplay between SMS and web based platforms have really changed what is possible in terms of disaster management and critical resource allocation from blankets and water to physician reports and patient management.
Cell phone conversation is entirely private and useful for individual collaboration only. It is hard to record or make use of if it is recorded.
iPhone, Android etc. are devices that may have proprietary communications mechanisms installed which may be of some help to the owners of these devices but the wider world does not have access and these devices are generally not capable of talking directly to one another.
WiFi is an useful standard that enables wireless communications apart from Cell service with more limited range but infinitely more flexibility. Hardware is readily available and many devices already use this format in a wide variety of implementations to transfer packet based communications.
Yi Lin is on the translating team and this is her second time working with the Crisis community, the first time with this new Framework.
Yi Lin speaks English, Malay and Mandarin. She grew up on mainland China and has personal knowledge of the central region.
In the Framework, she
When Yi Lin logs in, she has configured her browser to show
She sees a series of items in a column that need to be translated. Clicking one opens a text box under it where she is able to type in her own translation or make edits to an existing one. She can see that Juan Pablo made a previous attempt at translating and did a good job. She changes the name of a city and then endorses the first translation. It falls from her queue into a list of completed tasks.
Noticing that the location field is empty, and that there was no accompanying dot on the regional map when she opened the item, she decides to look for the proper location to add to this item.
Using her web browser in another tab, she is able to get a nearby city reference and then zooms in to that location on her Framework page. Double clicking the map when the item is in edit mode puts the lat/lon data into the item and she clicks save.
Someone on the mapping team has requested a doublecheck and the item is placed at the top of her queue.
In her chat window someone has posted a note to say that a new press release is going out to major media and asking if someone can translate for Chinese media. Yi Lin doesn't have time at this moment but suggests some main pointers for the final version.
Jennifer Wallace is an excellent coder and wants to contribute to the effort to help with the Chinese earthquake and flood.
Coming to the Framework page, she checks the open project needs list that was available on the front page, she decides to help out with the Automated Flood Monitor and Early Warning project.
Jennifer creates a login and profile briefly and enters the project discussion.
She is able to see code that has been created so far and can read through the forum threads discussing progress.
She also can look through grouped IRC chat logs on that specific topic. Within, she notices that one of the major components of the Flood Early Warning System is an electronic sensor housing that has been giving the developer team some problems with grounding and power supply.
One of her colleagues, Jim, is a mechanical engineer and she is able to send Jim a copy of the conversation topic by email.
After introducing herself, she is able to enter the conference call with Texas team who just took on progress.
In about three hours they will hand off to California and there are already questions coming from Singapore.
Each group is identified by their location and side conversations are indicated by branch icons and she can click to see those if she wants to.
Max Winston works for AMFAC, an organization that has been working in Central China for over twenty years. AMFAC assists refugees in the US and also works to provide material assistance to mainland Chinese. They have a good working relationship with government and local officials. After hearing about the Crisis Framework, Max decides to visit the website. He is unfamiliar with the community but heard some things in the news regarding the Haiti earthquake.
Max creates a login and profile for his organization. Using checkboxes, he indicates that his organization is interested to know about appeals for food and water as well as missing persons in the specific location where his regional coordinator is currently located.
Translated messages and mapped items that are associated with food, water, missing persons for the indicated region are forwarded to the AMFAC profile page.
Max also entered contact information for three other workers in his organization and they can log in to manage requests, but they generally receive emailed notices of each request. Responding to the system email or checking a box with each request will indicate to the system that AMFAC has taken responsibility for that particular item. Other organizations will see that AMFAC has 'taken' the item.
Using the quickstart and some FAQ posts, Max was able to subscribe to a feed of the chosen items via his RSS reader.
He hopes that other agencies will adopt the interchange format standard so that they may coordinate amongst themselves to manage collection and shipping of supplies.
The main challenge that I can see is that the 'community' won't deem this an important priority and make the assumption that everyone's individual configuration should be left alone. Others may reject the idea of centralizing or forcing people to use a certain tool.
On closer examination, I think it is obvious that the existing collection of comms methodology is not effective comprehensively. As isolated elements, each tool works fine, but there is a breakdown when trying to share with any broader audience.
Updating and editing the various wiki, Twitter, GoogleDocs, Skype, IRC, PiratePad, GoogleSpreadsheet (etc!) is taking significant effort from main organizers that detracts from other important activities.
Volunteers without coherent guidance or well developed project specs have been leaving at great detriment to the community.
Media organizations and campaigns that could have been more effectively managed also would benefit from a central mechanism.