Crisis Camp: another face of humanitarian relief


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The room was deathly quiet apart from the tap-tap-tap of volunteers diligently clacking away at their keyboards. It could have been a library or students studying for exams but appearances are deceptive. It was a Crisis Camp—a gathering of volunteer tech heads who had pulled together for the weekend to build critical mapping data to help Pakistani flood victims.

Usually, when we think of humanitarian relief, images of food drops or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps first come to mind but there is a whole world of altruism that has emerged which is helping behind the scenes in times of crises. Detailed maps are critical to delivering humanitarian relief to the millions of Pakistanis that have been affected by flooding.

A Crisis Camp is a gathering of tech-savvy volunteers who aid in the relief efforts of major crises like earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes. Projects include: setting up social networks for people to locate missing friends and relatives, creating maps of affected areas so humanitarian supplies can be distributed according to needs, and creating inventories of urgently required provisions such as food and clothing.
The Pakistan Floods Crisis Camp was held in several locations simultaneously over the weekend: Sydney, Toronto, London Bangkok and Silicon Valley and brought together volunteers to help add much-needed data to the Ushahidi map. The camp brought together a diverse range of organizations including Crisis Commons, Mozilla Drumbeat, University of New South Wales (UNSW), Citibank, Open Street Map, just to mention a few. I visited the Sydney leg of the event, which was spear-headed by Mozilla Drumbeat, Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE-UNSW) and Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (UNSW). Volunteers like Vicky, Shoaib, Khiem, Sandy, Tolmie and Martin guided the technical side of the camp.

The Ushahidi map the volunteers were working on is being used by relief agencies to respond to requests from flood-affected Pakistani people who SMS urgent needs, such as food items, shelter, tents and medicine. It is used to report damages to homes, infrastructure and other facilities. During the camp volunteers worked to ensure that towns and up-to-date imagery was added to the map. Other volunteers focused on filling holes in information that were not given when people sms-ed their needs.

One participant, a Pakistani student at UNSW, decided to volunteer as he wanted to help his country. His job was to look at incomplete sms messages that had come from flood affected Pakistanis requesting assistance and decipher where these had come from in order to plot the coordinates on the map, so assistance could get to them. As he tirelessly plugged in longitudes and latitudes, markers would appear on the Ushahidi map pointing out people’s needs.  These are then picked up by relief agencies who can deliver supplies to people who are in dire need. It is a case of everyday people doing heroic things.

You can find out more about what was achieved at the Sydney event here

What do a Bangkok office, banker, barista, bureaucrat and tech buffs have in common?

They all contributed their time, efforts and energy to come together to create the Bangkok leg of the Crisis Camp in no time at all.

A Crisis Camp is a new world to me as I am not a technical specialist whatsoever but the whole thing more or less runs on love. It is an exercise in good will and brings together people from all walks of life—pulled together like a virtual patchwork quilt for a common goal, in this case Pakistani flood victims and developing mapping data that ensures that much needed supplies will get to those who are in need.

Take the Crisis camp in Bangkok, which was organized in only a few days but gathered momentum so quickly it took on a life of its own. When we sent around an email asking if any organizations would be interested in donating office space for the Crisis Camp, we were inundated with offers. Those that couldn’t volunteer space offered other things. Citibank in Bangkok put their hand up to host the event. Coffee Works donated a coffee cart and barista. The technical community of Crisis Commons mobilised their people to tweet, blog and mentor the new comers. Others got the word out. Sara Farmer from England appeared virtually to help chaperone the event and show the ropes to the newbies. Finally and most importantly volunteers mobilized over the weekend to input critical mapping data to ensure that humanitarian agencies are able to accurately see where food, shelter and assistance needs to be directed and can deliver it. Michael from Sahana, a free and open source disaster management system, and Gordon helped coordinate people on the day.  Even a representative from the Pakistani Embassy in Bangkok popped down to see how things were going.

The global camps created a huge amount of data that could be used by humanitarian agencies to help deliver essential supplies to people affected by the floods in Pakistan.

It was quite amazing to see the whole thing unfold in an almost chaotic but completely successful fashion and restores your faith in humanity that such a strange conglomeration of people can pull together for the common good.


Join the Conversation

Dr Meher Zaidi
September 09, 2010

It was heartening to see the world respond with great ability and gusto for the flood relief crises needs. It just shows that humanity is above all prejudices, race, colour or creed. I had the immense pleasure of bieng responded to in half an hour by Crises Camp volunteer on Sahana and U shahidi when they created the one response incident report and crises map for Pakistan on 4 rth August as I sat in Karachi . I posted the flood relief camps and IDP situation from Dadu, Sindh where initial camps with some 65,000 persons were formed.Today many areas were reflooded and the camp and relief work has evoolved and changed its face for example , in Johi town where some 400 families were initially kept inside schools and govt., buildings were relocated to open bunds in anticipation of town bieng flooded, without shelter and with massive unmet needs. I identify a real need for mapping and keeping records of an area on a real time basis with a focal person incharge of reporting. This can be then filtered into clusters and needs assessed and addressed by the relief organisations. The problem we are facing on ground right now is that the needy NGOs and the relief providers do not know how to approach each other.Also there is no slot of local television channels which have provided tremendous information as they have live call ins fro m all the flood affected areas. There is a need to establish some linkages and data inpt from their broadcasts which provide all information location wise especially in Sindh.

Abhas Jha
September 20, 2010

Professor Martins-my name is Abhas Jha and I am the World Bank's Program Leader on Disaster Risk Management for East Asia and the Pacific. I have been a development professional for over 21 years now and therefore have seen many development fads come and go.I share your concern about initiatives that are developed in relative isolation without linking into larger and older initiatives. At the same time I do feel that "crowdsourcing" of the kind described in the write-up on Crisis Commons is not a fad and has the potential to be scaled up. We saw the potential in Haiti where Port-au-Prince went from being one of the least mapped cities in the world to the equivalent mapping detail of Germany! A lot of the post-disaster needs assessment work was crowdsourced to a group of experts all over the globe who each surveyed 500X500 sq.m. grids of space and aerial data. Your comment does provide food for thought on two important fronts: First, the need for quality control in such bottom-up initiatives. We see this in efforts like SwiftRiver which uses subject matter experts to filter crowdsourced data and the WikiPatent methodology in the US which, again, uses subject matter experts for reviewing patent applications. Second, the need to have some of these intiatives in place before the disaster hits so as to link up with initiatives, engagements and relationships on the ground.

Professor Martins
September 19, 2010

A somewhat puzzling and uniformed article however props to the young folks trying to contribute. But the reality is organisations responding to disasters have experience and systems already in place to deal with logistics and informations management. Many of the leading organisations like I one I am running have responded to the majority if not all of the recent disasters and have built up strong systems and processed in order to effectively deal with all the challenges in delivering relief and emergency provisions.

Organisations like this develop something in relative isolation and are not useful to the current situation or have the ability to be 'transplanted' into small or large organisations assisting in the recovery. If they want to get involved I encourage them to get involved with organisations to help them improve and refine systems in place and contribute to more practical solutions.