Managing the Medium
The Haiti earthquake and its aftermath made heroes of crisis-map developers like Patrick Meier and his peers in the Ushahidi Project. More importantly, their efforts showed the power and potential of virtual volunteerism. “People converge on a disaster and want to help, now they’re converging digitally,” Starbird says.
But just as with volunteers who come physically to a scene, the contributions of virtual volunteers present a mixed bag for event managers. Tery Spataro, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Boulder-area digital communications firm Orange Insights, closely monitored and analyzed the digital response to the Fourmile Canyon fire in Boulder. She found that unlike in Haiti, where one crisis map emerged as a primary resource, 12 online crisis maps were produced by volunteers addressing the fire. “It was a race to see whose map went up first,” Spataro says.
Moreover, where the Ushahidi map was used by emergency managers and relief organizations amid a void of domestic governance in Haiti, the 12 volunteer-developed Boulder maps appear to have been used primarily by members of the community, most of them not directly affected by the disaster.
Having all those competing resources made it “incredibly difficult” for officials to coordinate information leads and to control the quality of information being disseminated, Spataro notes.
Mike Chard, executive director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management and other government stakeholders—who must exhaustively vet and verify information before releasing it—echoed the view that the multiple crisis maps complicated their jobs, especially because those maps might have data points that were not sufficiently vetted, which would then cause confusion among the general population. “People in the community were calling and saying, ‘I’m looking at it on a map, and you don’t have the information?’” he explains.
Conversely, Boulder’s crisis mappers felt the government failed to take advantage of the wealth of data aggregated in their work.
Amanda Pingel, a recent MBA graduate from Regis University in Denver, followed the Fourmile Canyon fire on Twitter but couldn’t visualize it’s spread, so she created her own map in Google Maps and opened it to public view and to editing by trusted peers. The latter started populating the map with crisis data.
“It never occurred to me that people would start putting emergency shelters on it. But I’m glad that they did,” Pingel says. “I’m surprised by how much it took off and how far it went.”
In the mappers’ view, the government could have used that type of aggregated data and shared it with people in the community who might not have known it was online or who might not have had Internet access.
The phenomenon of volunteer crisis mapping—and the online volunteer community’s persistent requests for new information—were a new experience for Barb Halpin, a public information officer (PIO) with the Boulder County Board of Commissioners.
Emergency management needs to move into the 21st century, Halpin says. “We’re dealing with a new reality, and I would say that the current external affairs structure under the Incident Command System is not working. I just took a course in ‘advanced’ PIO, and it was advanced for the 1990s: two press conferences a day and on-camera interviews,” she says.
Officials are trying to learn from the Boulder wildfire experience. After the fire, area emergency management and public affairs personnel met with area crisis mappers to share their perspectives and possibly foster better lines of communication going forward. But, Halpin noted, “The next disaster could be an entirely different group of people.”
Colorado state officials, meanwhile, intend to develop plans that incorporate social media, says Brandon Williams, a PIO with the Colorado Division of Emergency Management. “It’s something that we’re not only going to have to draw from but also start playing into,” he says.
Boulder volunteer crisis mapper Starbird agrees with that view. “Should it be the only source of information? Absolutely not,” she says. “But if it’s there, why not use the information?”
@ For the reports mentioned in this story, please go to "Beyond Print."
Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.