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New energies to help in humanitarian crisis

30 Jun

CrisisCamp, Paris

A room at the CrisisCamp, Elena Rapisardi presenting

A case study presentation (by Elena) at the Summit of CrisisCamps Europe, Paris

It was in Paris at the 2011 Summit of European CrisisCamps, that I felt, understood, the true power of  the Crisis Campers fast growing community: no tweet, blog post, article, or paper can replace the experience of being in person within that small crowd of extremely motivated, capable and genuinely devout people! (and yet I’m blogging in the hope that some reader will be inspired).

Crisis Camps are a special breed of barcamps, born to connect a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis. 

Senior information managers, developers, bloggers and journalists, project managers, designers from big NGOs to small non-profits, volunteers or professionals, very young and less young, the very diversity of the people gathered there was so powerful to me.

We spoke a lot about technology, sure, but the common ground for all people there is not to invent radically new tech (maybe sometimes) but how to use, mix and shake existing tools, to solve immediate problems.

This changes everything!

At a CrisisCamp you might find yourself developing an application to help refugees find their relatives, designing a system that processes Tweets to provide assistance after an earthquake, brainstorming around a mobile application, open data, transparency and security, and discussing a hundred new ways to volunteer and help, and build a more resilient world.

Among all wild ideas and new technologies, there is one central aspect that needs all of our attention:

people, the very people affected by a crisis are getting connected!

Not all of them, no, not everywhere, not all the time, but they are there. They might not have a pc, but they might access Twitter, and be on Facebook, and this changes everything!

Tools liberating new energies

people in Haiti working on the OpenStreetMap project

New energies in the fields (Haiti, OpenStreetMap) - (C) Kate Chapman

The opening case study of the CrisisCamp is the story of #CIVSOCIAL (slides here), a beautiful, immensely human story, of how a group of friends and volunteers reacted to save lives in recent Cote D’Ivoire crisis, using ordinary technology (Twitter, Skype, etc.) and leveraging the energies of extraordinary people. Thanks to Jean-Patrick (@ jpehouman) for sharing his great story.

Have you ever heard of Ushahidi? Per se, it’s a great idea: with it you can crowdsource geotegged information, provide visualization and interactive mapping… quite powerful. But you should listen to the stories of Anahi (@anahi_ayala) and others that have been using it, to really grasp the revolution that happens behind: hundreds and hundreds of people collaborating worldwide to create accurate maps, to translate messages, requests for help, reports, to harvest information from the Internet aggregate and validate it, and more. The output is information, rapid, often good and very valuable information, to inform people, coordinate, and act, in crisis: for the Haiti earthquake, Chile earthquake, Pakistan floods, Egypt, Lybia, Sudan, …

Other major projects presented, discussed and worth our attention are: OpenStreetMap and Global Voices, and there are many many others, and all of them share the goal to build a little piece of a better world, a more prepared, transparent, resilient, open and human world.

People in humanitarian crisis are getting connected: connected one to each other, connected to people in other countries and willing to help, connected to the rest of the world, when listening. The names of the tools that connects us all are not new: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, WordPress, …

Tools liberating new energies, the energies of:

  • volunteers across the globe translating, validating reports, spreading the information and spreading awarness,
  • geeks, mappers, developers, hackers, creating new and better tools,
  • and most of all, the energies of the people there!

Few have yet acknowledged such a big change and big opportunity.

The new paradigm in Crisis Management

Social, partecipatory web is liberating new energies, energies that have already shown their impact, so where do the well established agencies, NGOs and institutions stand?

An important debate that took place in Paris: “Civil Society & institutions in Crisis Management : New Paradigm of the Participatory Web.”, a roundtable on the current understanding and acceptance of the new paradigm from the Institutions. The main outcome of the debate was that not only the Institutions but also most humanitarian agencies and  large NGOs have not yet seen, understood, nor accepted the change. And it was great to have people from UN OCHA and the International Committee of the Red Cross at the table, OCHA in particular has already done much and is leading the effort of collaborating with the volunteers communities defining the new challenges.

CrisisCamps collect the enthusiasm, the appeal, the dream of the many that have experienced the change: volunteers, humanitarian geeks and technoutopists, a movement born from the bottom, very young, and unexperienced. On the other side the institutions and international organizations that have been working in humanitarian crisis for decades, with their experience and knowledge (and rules and procedures) aimed to ensure quality, safe, transparent and effective action.


Participatory web, and notably the direct participation of the affected communites, will have a growing impact on the information, knowledge sharing, privacy and security, and action before, during and after a crisis.

As Anahi puts it:

“people have access to these tools and they will use them, anyway!”

and also:

“people are now in the information loop and can provide and will also benefit a lot from information.”

I urge all international organizations, NGOs and Institutions to look at, explore and embrace the new paradigm: the debate is open, while communities are growing and social web spreading more and more.

And only these organisations only can provide the experience, the training, the wisdom and the resources needed.  And I’m sure the “new energies” will listen, learn from them, and organize, develop new tools, practices and continue to innovate.

I really hope that in the next years international organizations will foster and help accelerate such change, fully understanding that the social web is an everyday tool to fulfill their very mission.

What’s next?

The Paris Summit of CrisisCamps has motivated me more than enough to move forward and start bringing such new powerful ideas and tools into my everyday work in Reflab, and engaging in the community: together with Elena Rapisardi (@erapisardi) and Marco Boscolo (ogdabaum) we have kickstarted an Italian group. Thanks to Header (@poplifegirl) and CrisisCommons for the support. Huge thanks to LaCantine for giving us a great location, wi-fi, food and everything we needed and to Claire (@ClaireInParis) for leading and guiding us all.

Related resources
Disaster Relief 2.0 (report)
Volunteer Technology Communities (paper)

Dunia ni maarifa (the world is knowledge)

16 Nov My understanding of the big picture of knowledge flows in development

This post is about my personal experience, leanings, humanity and wisdom from the wonderful Sharefair, held in Addis Ababa a few weeks ago.

First of all, a few words to what it has meant to me:

The wonder of my first trip to Africa, the discovery of such a positive, engaging, passionate and friendly community around KM for development and Africa agricultural development.

The fun with the other somewhat crazy folks of the social media group: not only learning, discussing, meeting and networking as everyone else but also tweeting, blogging, podcasting, photographing and in general “on-duty”: the mission? capturing as much as possible from the Sharefair and document it, spread it, make it worth outside the event itself.

The challenge of so many intersting things to learn, to meditate upon and to bring in my everyday work and the joy of meeting such great and nice people.

This has been the sfaddis to me. But what was it about, really? What where the main outcomes, the original thoughs and discussions that matured there?

The big (rich) picture

My understanding of the big picture of knowledge flows in development

Filippo, my son, helped me drawing a rich picture of the Sharefair, he is only 7… next time I’ll ask him also to help me writing the post, he’s very smart.

Now, the picture tries to capture the “big picture” of what have been the discussions, sessions and actors at the Sharefair, from my point of view and understanding. In particular the picture came to my mind during the Make knowledge travel session where all main discussions and themes have been connected one to each other. I would recommend reading this post by Nadia and watching the video reconding of the session.

Research (1)

One of the pillars of the Sharefair, research was presented and discussed in Learning PathwaysClimate change, Land, Livestock and Water. Interestingly the learning pathways were not about the outcomes of research but on how to increase cooperation, sharing, dissemination of results, and transformation of research into action! (Check out the oucomes from pathways.)

Is worth mentioning that the entire event was organized not as a classic talks/powerpoint thing, but as a series of different sessions, focus groups, open spaces, advanced trainings, and more…

Among researchers coordination and sharing seems still not very “popular”, it was said, but I believe the Sharefair has been an important factor of change in this respect. I found particularly interesting and successful the session on Climate change, which I attended with great pleasure, where an important outcome has been reached right away: mapping of existing initiatives related to climate change in Africa, first, then a speed dating (this is the official name of the technique) ending with all participants frantically exchanging information about their projects, giving their business cards and shaking hands in the perspective of future collaborations.

Grassroot communities (2)

An important point made during Sharefair: bring more attention and focus to the local african communities. Having people like Flora Nzambuli (ALIN, Kenya), there, whose contributions where always so valuable and valued by everyone clearly showed that there is a need for better and wider representation from these communities. And the special Focus on farmers session with memorable quotes such as “farmers are our number one researchers” was inspiring to teach us all to listen more.

Communication and sharing between communities was also higlighted and brought to everyone attention, as the need for adequate methods and techniques such as workshops, practical trainings, “look what the neightbour has done” and singing and dancing! (check out the beautuful post by Camille on “understanding with the body“).

Knowledge Management Specialists (3)

The never referred as such during the conference, nor where any talk about them, but they where everywhere as the engine powering the whole idea of Sharefair and working hard everyday in their organizations to make knowledge travel.

The fact is that some enlightened researchers (really they are), project managers, and communication specialists in important organizations are true believer of the role of knowledge, the need to share it and transform it in action, opportunities and solutions. These people also embraced the web (version 1, 2 , 3 or better), mobile and spacial data technologies, all giving ample new possibilities and opening new scenarios for collaboration and sharing.

During the Sharefair special training on social media and advanced social tools were given and really appreciated by everyone.

Last but not least: if you are interested in these topics there is a worldwide community open to everyone to join: KM4Dev.

Face2face, radio, mobile, online platforms, social media, spacial data and more (4)

My speciality: techniques and technology for knowledge, communication and collaboration. Many techniques have been explored and explained at the Sharefair, many cases and solutions presented. One I particularly liked is a mobile (SMS-based) platform providing daily prices of livestock markets in Ethiopia. But also online platforms (such as TECA, KDID and the FSN Forum) and interesting discussions on community building as well as the social media / social networks rise in Africa and general “mobile power”.

Everyone asking: how to engage more? how to get to the grassroot comunities? how to overcome limitations and remove barriers?

Advisory services (5)

Rural extension and advisory services, who meet the immediate needs of farmers and other rural people as they change their production and livelihood systems” where described as very important actors for change, but where almost absent from the Sharefair: another lesson learned for the next Sharefair and other knowledge sharing initiative: more of those are  needed, both from local and international NGOs.

The feedback loop (6)

Now, this was a little new: first of all research and academy are usually put “above” the grassroot in a diagram and the arrows will “by tradition” go from research to grassroot. In Addis there have been a lot of discussion around more listening and more inclusion.

Moreover “reaching” these communities has been an important point in almost every session: language, local culture, technology availability, openness and accessibility all have been brought to attention in Addis.

But the nicest and brightest moment for me on the “feedback loop” was for sure the Sharefair marketplace, where local rural and veterinary knowledge was shared and exchanged for other knowledge: seeds and leaflets, honeys and paper, donkeys and websites, alltogether.

a crowd exchanging knowledge at the marketplace

Sharing more, better and with more actors (7)

The opening session by Owen Barder seems to have  really inspired some important discussions held later during the event: the role of knowledge in development, reaching grassroot audiences and involving them (the feedback loop) and the strong need for ideas to shuffle, connect, mix and “make love with each other” (he said sex, to be honest).

The starting point: the analysis and understanding of all channels of communication, with the Web in the forefront: open access, open data, but also open standard to exchange information and connect people. Then, during the other days of the event hundreds of conversations took place eventually shaping new ideas and bringing  new challenges.

During the last day the overall picture started to emerge during the Make Knowledge travel session: the growing willingness to share more, and better and the absolute need to involve more and different actors in the process: the Media, Technology experts, the Private Sector and of course the Policy Makers.

Will we be able to bring this to our everyday work?

Final thoughs

The picture, far from being accurate or complete, is something I’d like to improve so please step forward if you have something to add or improve (some drawing skills, incidentally, will also be highly appreciated).

People under a tree discussing

Photo by: ILRI/GRenard

Sharefair has been a respectful and deep conversation under the beautiful sun of Addis; I’m back with some new tools & techniques, new concepts and insignts to think about, mind-opening encounters and point of views, and many new great people to keep in touch with, possibily some friends.

The world is knowledge: knowledge is everywhere and in everyone and it is key to future of the world: let’s continue the conversation and see you next year in Rome for the Sharefair 2011!