It used to be that disaster response meant gathering a group of people to donate food, clothing, and other items necessary after a catastrophic event. Some of us may have done penny drives with your scout troop after a hurricane. Maybe you did a clothing drive for the homeless. Perhaps you were able to organize a canned food drive to support families forced out of their homes after a fire. The drawbacks to these types of these drives is that they are often slow and may not necessarily meet the immediate needs of those that need to be served.
The internet: Changing the role of disaster response
The internet has forever changed the way people are able to respond to a disaster. Now, a person, business, or organization can create a call to action that generates millions of dollars’ worth of donations in money, food, and even volunteer power in a matter of minutes. This can happen via an email, a button on a website, or a YouTube video that goes viral. We have seen this during disastrous events like Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or the recent typhoon in the Philippines. This phenomenon is called crowdsourcing. The word, "crowdsourcing," is a combination of two words, crowd and outsourcing. Thus crowdsourcing, as it applies to disaster response, is the process of gathering work or funding via the internet to benefit a particular person, organization, or event.
Why crowdsourcing is so important
What makes crowdsourcing so important is the belief that more heads are better than one. Using the canned food drive as an example, if you were to do the work without the internet, you would have to run around town to various homes and businesses and ask individuals if they would like to participate. This would take up too much time and man power on my part. If you used the internet, you may be able to send an email to your friends, who would then pass the word on to their friends. You can create an online donation campaign where you can make a short video as to why people should donate to your cause.
The recent typhoon in the Philippines has seen an exciting change in how crowdsourcing can assist in disaster response. Rather than sit and wait for heads of organizations and governments to dictate what is needed on the ground, people are able to assist first responders in the very work of saving lives, both directly and indirectly. Through the use of powerful technology, people are able to track weather patterns that are more accurate than anything you will find on the evening news. Geography buffs are able to use satellite imaging technology to create maps and locate where people are stranded and in desperate need of food and water. There are even examples of people who have been able to locate others who were buried under debris. This kind of response is a much more aggressive response to a disaster.
In past years, this kind of response was haphazard, disorganized, and not always reliable. Now the technology has gotten so sophisticated that organizations like the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). OCHA hired ten digital volunteer groups to support their efforts on the ground. The group, OpenStreetMap, was able to galvanize the assistance of one thousand volunteer digital map makers from over 80 countries to create maps that were continuously updated.
Use of social media tools for disaster response
Traditional social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, traditionally looked upon as a game for kids has been useful to relief workers as well. The group, Standby Task Force, has been able to gather over a million tweets, text messages, and other social media updates to track the extent of the damage as it happened. They were able to create a map using the assistance of hashtags that allowed them to gather the information much quicker than if relief workers just ran into the Philippines with no preparation or information.
The same kind of innovation that was used in the Philippines can be galvanized to create innovation within your own business or organization. Think about how you can utilize crowdsourcing to improve your services. How can you utilize the public to tell you what your target market needs to make better use of your services? Rather than continue to look at yourself as a provider of services, think about how you can partner with your audience to improve what it is you do on a daily basis.