Blogs to the rescue!
Proposal calls for web community to help professionals in disaster relief.
The US government should use the power of the Internet to engage citizens directly in relief operations, say two computer scientists. Use of wikis, blogs and other 'community' tools could help to coordinate responses to natural or man-made emergencies.
Alongside the professional emergency response to events such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes or flu pandemics, would sit an online community of millions of eyes and ears — reporting on situations, sharing information and coordinating aid.
The idea, put forward by Ben Schneiderman and Jennifer Preece of the University of Maryland, calls for the creation of community-based grids, nicknamed "911.gov". The researchers set out their proposal in a policy paper published today in Science1, echoing a call in Nature2 for a broad web-based community approach to dealing with disasters.
Citizen disaster relief made a spectacular entry after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Within hours, a volunteer blog, called the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog, was set up. It quickly became the main way to coordinate damage assessment and relief and the volunteers flowing in from all over the world.
When Hurricane Katrina hit a year later, the swiftest relief response came not from the US federal or state government, but from Google and a network of volunteer scientists and other civilians, who mapped the zone using Web tools such as Google Earth and Maps. Other amateurs created websites that combines maps with citizen reporting to track missing people, coordinate shelters, and distribute aid.
Scheiderman and Preece argue that the US government should formalize such systems. They point out that online reporting and networking by citizens is absent in both the Homeland Security's new Information Network for disaster response, and their citizenscorps.gov, which is a forum for local volunteer groups for emergency responses.
"If such systems were formalized in whole or in part, the impact could indeed be enormous," agrees Lars Bromley, who heads the mapping and human rights project at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But he is sceptical about the wisdom of government leadership: "It's entirely possible that [the plan] is simply too decentralized and technically advanced for the relatively moribund .gov sector, unless significant change occurs."
Learning from the past
Non-governmental organizations could be better placed to start up such collaborations, which governments can then participate in, says Vic Gundotra, an official at Instedd — a project to build a decentralized global reporting system for disease outbreaks. One possible model to follow is Flu Wiki, which collates information about the spread of avian flu.
Preece acknowledges that there is "no single solution" to getting the balance right between central government coordination, and distributed volunteer efforts. "A sympathetic balance between local and central will be necessary to deal with each type of disaster and provide optimal responses," she says.
Governments and international agencies could already help simply by providing better up-to-date data to volunteers, says Jishnu Das, a World Bank official, and a leader of RisePak, a volunteer Web effort that coordinated information for relief efforts after the Pakistan earthquake in 2005.
"The United Nations couldn't tell us which villages they sent relief to, only that it sent 'X number of blankets to Z district'", he says, "Not very useful." Relief organizations are also so busy during a disaster that providing information often gets neglected, he says.
Web-based volunteer efforts can have drawbacks, Das adds. The initial enthusiasm of volunteers often wears off after the initial relief operation moves on to the slower rehabilitation phase. "Its hard to keep up virtual interest in reporting over the long periods of time required. Volunteers can keep their spirits and energy levels high for a month, but not for three years."
Das's experience during the Pakistan earthquake has convinced him that although volunteer efforts are useful, they need to be built on the back of professional full-time efforts that do the heavy lifting. "My suspicion is that in the long-run, dedicated teams may be a better bet, supplemented with wiki type reporting from the field."
- Shneiderman B.& Preece J., Science, 315 . 944 (2007).
- Nourbakhsh I., et al. Nature, 439. 787 - 788 (2006).