Volunteerism For Solidarity Or Social Capital

Clay Shirky opens the evening on stage, explaining that Ushahidi is a system that shows a community what it already knows. What’s interesting about the volunteer effort that developed around in response to the recent earthquake in Haiti is that it soon became something entirely different.

A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of representing the effort and http://haiti.ushahidi.com as part of Re:Group: Beyond Models of Consensus, an exhibition at Eyebeam. Speaking about our efforts through an artistic lens was an interesting departure from the usual tech for humanitarian speech and a welcome abstraction. Surrounded by some of my personal heroes certainly helped – Bre was there with Makerbot, Douglas Rushkoff and I discussed his newest book through the lens of my Future Now project with the NYC Department of Education (check out his PBS special if you haven’t), Mushon of shiftspace and others.

The exhibition presents the Haiti response as a rebel effort, which it certainly was. Punk kids thinking they can save the world (yes, there was even a youth brigade t-shirt worn by one of the Tufts students). Humanitarian professionals who have spent decades perfecting the craft need some help. Our rebel effort grew into a project without permission or mandate. Soon enough, messages were flowing in that lives were being saved due to these collective efforts.

Especially when lives are at stake, it’s important to understand responsibility. In a country without a 9-1-1 emergency response system, that system had been set up on the fly, hundreds of miles away, by volunteers. Sending messages into the ether can be dangerous if noone responds. If I called 9-1-1, spoke with a rep, and never got a response in reality, I wouldn’t use the system again. This is just one potential consequence of lofty ideals

The reality is that with the death count as high as it was (is) in Haiti, no traditional system could respond. As we New Yorkers know all too well, these systems get overwhelmed. And how does a skilled and prepared police and fire force deal with devastation that numbers in hundreds of thousands killed. A community response might be the best solution – ie telling them what they already know – and knowing that they know enough and are able to actually repond.

The collective effort that came together to respond to this scenario makes this hard. Telling the Haitian community, meant receiving texts in Kreyol, having them translated by Haitian diaspora into English, plotting them on a map by volunteers around the world who for the most part had never been to Haiti, then having English speakers on the ground respond to the alerts.

A problem with feeding the info in from abroad is news cycle solidarity. People can get excited about doing data entry for free, which is what volunteering really boils down to, if people are benefiting with social capital. Although students prefer to use Facebook, I definitely became foursquare mayor of the Boston situation room. Being seen by their community as contributing something more than money, was certainly a driving factor that kept people coming back. But for something less real time, like human rights abuses, and contrary to Clay’s example of Handheld Human Rights in Wired, or even with Chile, volunteers are harder to come by and harder still to sustain. The small grants for food that teams receivedreminds us that they’re not “free” either. Without glory, how can the work be sustained.

Thankfully, with the earthquake in Chile, the feedback loop didn’t require as much translation and the handover to the local community was almost immediate as they were a crucial partner, meaning that the community really was telling itself what it already knew. Volunteers at the local universities, many already trained in GIS helped this process along. But this won’t always be the case.

Does Ushahidi need gaming mechanics to sustain long-term volunteer commitment versus payment. If people were getting points as they entered more information, or were given badges, could that help to add the necessary incentives to make this type of a volunteer effort sustainable? The problem is that no other event will have the same outpouring of support that we had in Haiti. The exponential drop-off in support and interest for endeavors like Crisis Camp has been really unfortunate. Yet I think that it’s possible to add the dynamic feedback that led to an incredible response.

One aspect that really strikes me about this concept is the departure from traditional solidarity. It’s not that the group is so committed to an ideal that it reaches consensus on methods and progress, but rather that each actor is an individual whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But to convey this in real-time, perhaps a gaming system is the best way to create that connection. The Extraordinaries is an early and interesting exploration into micro-volunteerism via mobiles, but doesn’t yet have a gaming feedback loop.

If this system is built, it could even become easier to develop reputation metrics. Scaled into this federated environment it can be crucial as we start really looking at the benefits of crowdsourcing, the reliability of information, and the real-world impact. It can even help in more repressive environments where there is a need for real-time information gathering, as well as maintaining privacy. Persistent anonymity as a tool in this scenario becomes easier to produce. And as the system already has indicators, it’s easy to imagine how we can then sort reputation by knowledge domains. If someone knows a lot about on specific geo-location and tries to mention something about a place across the country, that information might be suspect. Add a layer of social network analysis to see where that person might be getting their information from and if they have significant connections from said location, perhaps that explanation can counteract the flag that would otherwise go up when their data is presented.

In a federated emergency response, it seems to me that the influences and the volunteers are crucial to identify and difficult to maintain. Streamlining the system and adding numbers to it might help to maintain it in the end.

Special thanks to Chris Blow for his beautiful first entre into offline interaction design and to the Not an Alternative for curating the show. Anyone in the NYC area should definitely go see the exhibit.

Re:Group: Beyond Models of Consensus

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