Update: I’ve since posted my full thesis and a short summary.
My Media Lab Master’s thesis argues that information and communication technologies, and particularly the web, have expanded the range of ways the public can help in times of crisis, even (or especially) if we’re nowhere near said crisis. Or, to be more formal about it, participatory aid is mutual, peer-to-peer aid mediated or powered by information and communication technology. We’re building a platform to help coordinate participatory aid projects, but first, I wanted to share some examples.
Table of Contents:
A Framework for Considering Participatory Aid
Ways to help:
I. Help Prepare Before Crisis Occurs
II. Build technical platforms to facilitate peer-to-peer aid
III. Use Tech to Identify Crises
IV. Improve Situational Awareness of Aid Decisionmakers and Affected Populations
V. Crowd Cognition and Creativity
VI. Aid with technology expertise itself
VII. Improved Donation-making
VIII. Pro Bono Skills Donation
IX. Donate the Gift of Attention
X. Donate physical goods in new ways
XI. Help meet social and cultural needs
The collective response to a far-away crisis in the 20th century went something like this:
- Find out about a crisis happening far away (if it’s in the news)
- Want to do something to help (if you’re so motivated by the particular crisis, affected community, or other factors)
- Realize that the only things you can do to help are:
- Travel to the crisis location (which aid groups usually hate, because it means they now have to feed and shelter YOU, too)
- Send food or supplies to the crisis location (which aid groups usually hate, because then they need to figure out how to distribute this stuff, or worse, warehouse it like the Ark in Indiana Jones)
- Send money to aid groups (which aid groups are usually OK with, because they can figure out how to appropriately allocate this liquid asset)
As a result, one can imagine that citizens watching an endless parade of crises on the nightly news might eventually develop disaster fatigue, or develop the widespread belief that all of the news is negative (AP – A New Model for News).
But today, our radical connectivity lets us do things in new ways, and often without waiting for permission. The formal aid sector, for so many years the conduit between donors and victims, is facing tech-driven disintermediation not unlike the disruptive trends already experienced by the music, travel, and news industries. Technology increasingly allows us to provide this new form of aid directly to the community in need, or as part of newly emerging digital-volunteer-powered organizations, rather than routing everything through a few major aid groups. There are pros and cons to this development, as with anything. I’ll get into those in greater depth in my actual thesis. But the point of this post is to illustrate the range of ways we can help, and get your feedback on the model I’ve abstracted from the following examples.
When we really care about a community in crisis, there’s a lot more we can do than give money to an aid organization. I’m not arguing that everyone will be so motivated every time. That’s not how most of us work. But when that motivation is there, when it’s our friends’ community at stake, or our heartstrings have been sufficiently tugged by a powerful story, the range of activities we CAN do from far away is much greater and richer than it has ever been before.
I’ve collected numerous examples of participatory aid. I’ve also begun to develop a framework to organize the cases into broader buckets and abstracted goals. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Additional examples within the categories below are OK. But most useful would be the categories and buckets I’ve missed entirely.
Parameters: I’m looking for new ways people can help others in times of crisis (mutual aid) with information or communication technology as mediator / amplifier / conduit.
We can plot the spectrum of participatory aid projects on two defining axes.
The X axis asks who the project seeks to help.
At one end of the spectrum, a project may seek to directly aid the affected population, as we’ve seen with Occupy Sandy. At the other end of this spectrum, we have projects that exist to help formal aid actors and emergency response decisionmakers (and in doing so, indirectly help the affected population). An example of this type of project might include a crisis map created by the Volunteer Standby Taskforce, a group of volunteers that can only be activated by formal aid agencies. Some of their projects seek only to provide better information and situational awareness to help formal decisionmakers make better, more informed decisions. And in the middle of this axis, we have a number of projects that seek to help decisionmakers and the affected population simultaneously. A publicly-available crisis map maintained by Standby Taskforce or other crisismapping groups would be placed here.
The Y axis measures the sophistication of the skills a project demands or the degree of difficulty of the work it encourages from its volunteers.
At the lower end of the axis, we plot microwork and strictly-defined crowdsourcing projects, like when the Humanitarian Open Street Map team invited the public to assess coastline damage in the many photos taken by the Civilian Air Patrol following Hurricane Sandy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have “megawork”, projects that ask volunteers to give larger amounts of time to complete far more complicated tasks. An example of this type of project is the creation and ongoing development of Google People Finder. Building this software has required years of meetings and software development, with new updates as new crises make use of the tool. It might also include pro bono projects, best represented by Catchafire and the Taproot Foundation, where a small team of professionals donate their time implementing sophisticated professional services. The task sophistication axis is also likely to communicate the number of volunteers involved in a project. Microwork projects are likely to be designed to leverage large numbers of people completing small tasks, whereas projects requiring complicated input and sophisticated labor rarely scale to include a large number of volunteers.
These two axes provide us with four quadrants with which to categorize most participatory aid projects.
Quadrant I: Helping affected population directly with megawork
The organizers of Occupy Sandy and Friends of the Rockaways went directly to the affected population, organizing in neighborhoods like the Rockaways long before the city or formal aid groups established a meaningful presence in these areas. Their work has been labor-intensive and has asked much of the organizers in terms of time, personal commitment, and energy.
Quadrant II: Helping decisionmakers help the affected population with megawork
The GIS professional volunteers at MapAction fly in to the disaster area itself on immediate notice to provide formal crisis response decisionmakers with regularly-updated information and maps.
Quadrant III: Helping formal decisionmakers with microwork
Many of the popular ‘crowdsourcing disaster relief’ projects belong in this quadrant. These include Humanitarian OpenStreetMap’s assessment of images, Konbit’s translation of SMSes written in Creole on behalf of aid workers on the ground, and the crowdsourced annotation of large volumes of tweets used in several projects, including Standby Taskforce’s use of the CrowdCrafting microwork platform in response to Typhoon Pablo.
Quadrant IV: Helping the affected population directly with microwork
Projects that attempt to crowdsource the matching of affected population’s needs with a broader database of offerings are representative of this quadrant. Recovers.org worked with teams of volunteers at NPower to match thousands of requests for help with many offers of aid. Projects like Need Mapper and Castaneed attempted to do this matching automatically and at scale. HopeMob regularly asks its hundreds of thousands of followers to make small donations that, when aggregated, will directly help the featured person or family or group in need.
Tech-driven community preparation efforts
- Recovers.org: licensed Software as a Service community preparation platform for towns, counties, and other communities. Pricing by population.
- NYC’s Code Corps program relies on tech volunteers from organizations like Twitter and Etsy, among others, to help the city recover from crises. Join, or set up something similar in your city.
Play and spread disaster simulation games to teach preparation
Assess risks before disaster happens
- The Standby Taskforce has activated for several crisis preparation deployments. They have deployed for disaster simulations in Columbia and Samoa and mapped for preparedness in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- An even more ambitious SBTF project were the 21 country profiles volunteers produced to develop deeper regional awareness ahead of disasters. Regional teams produced an emergency directory of disaster risk management organizations as well as a database of “pointers”, country-specific knowledge that might prove useful to volunteers unfamiliar with the country.
- UNICEF GIS program to engage youth in mapping disaster risks via mobile phones
Coordination platforms to establish Who’s Doing What, Where
- Sahana Software Foundation’s EDEN (Emergency Development ENvironment): modular open source project to manage large-scale humanitarian response. Register organizations, track projects and resources, manage on-the-ground inventories.
- Disaster Risk Reduction Project Portal for Asia and the Pacific: Who-what-where information-sharing portal for disaster risk and reduction projects in the Asia and Pacific region, to identify areas of cooperation or gaps between projects (powered by Sahana EDEN).
- HumanitarianResponse.info: web platform to organize information regarding humanitarian responses by crisis. Open source project by UN-OCHA.
Mapping and Crowdsourced Reporting platforms
- Ushahidi: open source crisis mapping and reporting platform. Future work includes crisis / activist check-ins.
- CrowdMap: Hosted cloud version of Ushahidi
- Google.org crisis maps: Google Maps with many layers of useful crisis information
- OpenIR: Media Lab project to improve access to map the ecological features and risks identified by infrared satellite data
- ArcGIS: powerful commercial mapping platform
- MapMill: Public Laboratory project that allows a community to process a large number of images (open source)
Mobile-specific crisis apps
- Taarifa: Mobile and web reporting platform and dashboard for service providers (open source, works offline)
- FrontlineSMS: Mobile (SMS) reporting platform (open source, works offline)
- Sukey mobile app helps student protesters in London avoid police kettling
Help Match Needs & Resources in a Crisis
A variety of projects have sought to help scale matching of the affected community’s needs with sympathizers’ offers to help. The matching logic behind these projects ranges between artificial intelligence and crowdsourced human matching and everything in between, with few successful examples. There are significant concerns with publicly mapping crisis needs, and in some crises, a variety of efforts risk fragmentation of reporting and aid delivery.
- Simple needs collection forms, like this Google Form managed by NY Tech Meetup and New Work City following Hurricane Sandy, asked for Needs the group was capable of fulfilling. They hosted a similar form to recruit Skills. These forms echo similar efforts conducted by formal needs assessment programs.
- Recovers.org hosted a similar form combination with their well-designed Need / Have collection. Form data went into a database where matching was completed manually by volunteers from nPower.
- Castaneed, which is no longer online, attempted to map and actively broadcast emerging needs on Twitter.
- Sandy Need Mapper, a crisis hackathon project, which allowed needs to be posted by SMS and marked complete with a simple SMS saying ‘Done’.
- In the broader participatory aid space, HopeMob harnesses the power of individual story and a more approachable scale, with one story per day. Their Twitter followers (@hope) provide help in a many-to-one model of participatory aid.
The field of ‘infoveillance‘ monitors the large amounts of data we create in our daily connected lives to improve awareness, identify new events, and measure trends.
- Google.org Flu Trends: measures query trends across Google Search to identify and predict patterns in global health
- Twitter flu monitoring
- Twitter bird flu monitoring
Social Media Crisis Detection
Improving crisis detection with actual sensors as well as social media sensors:
(The US Congressional Research Service defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of an incident or situation” which can “help officials determine where people are located, assess victim needs, and alert citizens and first responders to changing conditions and new threats”).
A significant number of projects in the participatory aid sector consist of collecting, cleaning, standardizing, translating, plotting, and visualizing data to benefit decisionmakers and/or members of the affected community. Some of these efforts work explicitly to improve traditional crisis responders’ situational awareness. Others take advantage of our increased connectivity — even in a crisis — to help deliver critical information to affected populations. Many of these examples end up serving both audiences.
Assigning geocoordinates to a data to produce maps and layers is an early and oft-cited example of participatory aid. Although maps are often the primary visual artifacts, their production can require teams of digital volunteers to collect, clean, analyze, translate, distribute, and visualize crisis data in addition to applying geocoordinates.
- International Network of Crisis Mappers: community of 5,000+ crisismappers and convener of International Conference on Crisis Mapping, one of the most prominent conferences in the participatory aid space.
- Join Standby Task Force. They are activated by formal aid organizations. Their goal is to support existing humanitarian (and other) aid organizations with mapping (and many other information management services, to follow).
- MapAction immediately flies in GIS professionals to produce maps and collect information from within the crisis area itself.
- Spread awareness of Google.org‘s crisis apps, including public alerts that go to smartphones and humanitarian information layers on top of its own mapping platform
- Help displaced businesses get up and running again. Sandy Coworking Map, powered by the CrowdMap platform, is an example of a community-led effort. Noel Hidalgo launched this map to allow New Yorkers to post offers of donated commercial real estate to startups and other businesses left without power or connectivity. The community-led effort was eventually supported by officials at the NYC economic development committee, which provided verified listings.
- There are 39 additional crowd mapping projects in Humanity Road’s map directory
Mapping a crisis is rarely as simple as adding geocoordinates. Groups like Standby Task Force organize volunteers into teams to manage information at various stages of usability:
- Collect data by monitoring traditional media
- Collect data by monitoring social media
- Translate data
- Verify data
- Analyze and visualize data to improve legibility
- Generate reports to communicate data
- Coordinate volunteer teams for each of these steps
You can help the teams, tools, and processes to support each of these processes.
Microwork is the distribution of a large job into many small, discrete parts, structured to leverage the labor (paid or volunteer, skilled or unskilled) of a pool of human microworkers. This term is often conflated with the broader ‘crowdsourcing’, which Jeff Howe defined to include efforts where the crowd itself can lead, as seen elsewhere on this list.
- Remote microworkers on Amazon Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower (a service built on top of Mechanical Turk and other online labor pools) have been used by groups like Standby Task Force to sort large amounts of crisis information
- Mission 4636 used CrowdFlower workers to tag and translate SMSes from the affected population in Haiti
- Sanasource organizes a similar labor pool of microworkers, but adds an explicitly social mission to train and employ women and youth living in poverty in nine countries.
- CrowdCrafting is an open source microwork platform to distribute work amongst volunteers, rather than paid workers. SBTF used CrowdCrafting to respond to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines.
- The Zooniverse online platform has also been used to organize crowdsourced image assessments, like CycloneCenter.org, which asked volunteers to analyze intensities of previous tropical cyclones.
- In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Humanitarian Open Street Map organized crowdsourced tagging of Civilian Air Patrol images of damage along the New Jersey coastline. The massive number of images were quickly rated for degree of storm damage using Public Laboratory’s MapMill.
- Sparked modifies pro bono skills donations by breaking jobs into microtasks that allow volunteers with busy schedules to help social organizations in their spare time
- Konbit recruited Creole-speaking volunteers in Boston to translate voice messages from the affected populace in Haiti
Communications with Affected Community
We are far more connected today than we were when we designed shrieking television alerts. But, as an audience, we’re also fragmented across more media. Two-way communication with the affected populace saves lives and helps determine needs, and can enable mass collaboration rather than broadcasting.
- Disaster-affected communities have traditionally been left in the dark regarding the developing situation, even when they were given supplies like food and water. The Communicating with Disaster Affected Communities Network (CDAC) convened formal crisis responders to change this norm.
- InfoAsAid was also created to help humanitarian groups better communicate with affected populations. The site includes country-specific media guides and a message library.
- That most basic of needs — reuniting with loved ones — has been addressed by a variety digital projects. Fear of fragmentation of duplicate efforts across a variety of organizational lists led Google to adopt the PFIF data standard when they built a searchable missing person database, Person Finder, in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. The project has been open-sourced and has been used following earthquakes in Chile, Yushu, and Japan.
- Recovers.org helps US communities navigate the recovery bureaucracy following a disaster.
- GeoLoqi, acquired by Esri, allows smartphone apps to push alerts based on location
- Humanity Road‘s mission is to educate the public to “survive, sustain, and reunite”. An example of this mission in action might include transcribing official emergency radio and TV broadcasts to social media (if you’ve lost power or left your home, it’s unlikely you have an emergency radio or portable TV, but quite likely, in the immediate aftermath, that you have your smartphone and access to social media). The group focuses on disaster prepardnes and education, disaster response, and process improvement (Kate Starbird, Working & Sustaining the “Disaster Desk”).
- Google.org’s Public Alerts bring emergency broadcasts into the smartphone age by posting updates across Google Search, Maps, and Google Now (the intelligent notifications system for Android devices).
Technology-Mediated Needs Assessment
Via SMS and phone
- In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Misson 4636 crowd-translated and -tagged SMSes to the 4636 shortcode using CrowdFlower microworkers (ACM paper on the project).
- As mentioned earlier, Konbit recruited Creole-speaking volunteers in Boston to translate voice messages left by the affected populace in Haiti so aid workers could better help
Via social media
An emerging class of technologies and methods are being employed to parse huge numbers of tweets to assess the needs of the affected population in new ways. Unlike the reporting platforms already covered, these efforts attempt to extract findings from large volumes of organic social media messages, rather than manually-submitted reports. While there are clear issues with representation, a 2010 Red Cross survey found that “more web users say they get their emergency information from social media than from a NOAA weather radio, government website or emergency text message system. One in five social media users also report posting eyewitness accounts of emergency events to their accounts.”
- Patrick Meier, a reader on this thesis, is working at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute to extract actionable information from large corpora of tweets. See, for example, Extracting Information Nuggets from Disaster Related Messages in Social Media.
- The Social Computing team at QCRI is also building a Twitter Dashboard for crises that will combine automatic machine classification with microtasks performed by humans.
- Researchers at Madeira University, IBM Research and University of Ouluhe are building the CrisisTracker platform, which “mines Twitter for reports, clusters them, and supports curation of report clusters” by volunteers to improve situational awareness for on-the-ground disaster responders.
- Sarah Vieweg wrote her doctoral dissertation on the use of Natural Language Processing libraries to extract situational awareness from Twitter during crises (under 10% of tweets contained immediately actionable information). See also, Microblogging during two natural hazards events: what Twitter may contribute to situational awareness and Organization of social network messages to improve understanding of an evolving crisis.
- Ushahidi-based projects like SwiftRiver and Matrix allow annotation of incoming data with weighted trust scores to facilitate verification of social media data.
- The Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University has developed a Social Media Tracking and Analysis System to filter and study Twitter for specific phrases, locations, and user attributes (like language and Klout score).
- Arizona State University has built TweetTracker to monitor crisis tweets “with near real-time trending, data reduction, historical review, and integrated data mining tools.” An analysis of its use tracking cholera in Haiti.
- It’s also worth noting here that the American Red Cross has stayed abreast of developments in social media. In 2012, they partnered with Dell Computer to launch a Digital Operations Center to interact with the public on social media during disasters.
As mentioned above, not all crowd labor is rote labor. Kate Starbird has written about how volunteers converge on social media following a crisis to improvise creative solutions. “The crowd” can rapidly decide on and execute complicated issues, and not merely by providing a corpus of opinions for someone else to average, as described by the phrase “wisdom of the crowd”. Communications technology allows mass collaboration.
- Crisis-specific hackathons were an early fora for creative solutions to needs. CrisisCommons has coordinated crisis response events since 2009, convening over 3,000 people in over 30 cities around the globe.
- Similarly, Random Hacks of Kindness runs two software hackathons a year and inventories the resulting projects in their Solutions section.
- Geeks Without Bounds hosts humanitarian hackathons around the world, and also accelerates the most promising projects that emerge.
And two examples of crowd cognition from the world of political technology:
- MoveOn.org recently launched a petition site, SignOn.org, for its millions of progressive members. The tool is available for anyone to use, but abuse of the tool by the group’s conservative opposition is prevented by crowd curation. According to MoveOn employees, the group’s membership has proven quite adept at determining which petitions belong on the site, even when there are deep nuances to the cause.
- Similar crowd research and cognition has been witnessed in the comments sections of blogs and news articles around the web. I referenced political blogger Mickey Kaus in my 2006 undergraduate thesis on the disruptive role of political blogs, where he notes that the cooperative audience can outpace any news team: “You can post something and provoke a quick response and counter-response, as well as research by readers. The collective brain works faster, firing with more synapses” (source).
It’s probably not surprising that technical expertise travels well online. Examples:
- Humanitarian Toolbox is a project supported by Microsoft to leverage the expertise of the software development community to help in the humanitarian space.
- NY Tech Responds activated the strong technical and startup community in New York to provide help recovering data and re-establishing servers and connectivity, among other tasks.
- NetHope focuses on the developing world, where it provides connectivity, capacity-building, and ICT support for crisis responders.
Although the focus of this post it to illustrate the wide range of things we can do, and their value relative to the small donations we may or may not have given, there have been tech-driven innovations in donationmaking that are worth mentioning, particularly given the peer-to-peer nature of some of these examples. The examples break into two main buckets:
Innovations in Donations to Traditional Aid Groups
The friction of making a donation has been reduced with new technologies like:
- The Red Cross raised over $21 million for Haiti relief over SMS. Donors simply texted ‘Haiti’ to the 90999 shortcode to give $10. The Red Cross also experimented with Amazon Payments and donations via Chase ATMs.
- Blue State Digital built Quick Donate for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. The feature saved donors’ payment information across devices and made subsequent donations a one-click process. It also allowed donors to contribute by SMS for the first time. Donors could respond to SMS campaigns with the amount they would like to donate. Obama for America enrolled 1.5 million supporters in Quick Donate. These supporters gave four times more frequently and three times as much money as supporters without Quick Donate, totaling $115 million by the end of the campaign.
The rise of Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms led to new avenues for aid money following Hurricane Sandy.
- Sites like HelpersUnite waived fees to help Sandy victims.
- Fundly successfully raised over $25,000 for a family without flood insurance.
- The SmallKnot crowd investing platform waived fees to encourage donors to invest in locally-owned businesses following Sandy.
Law firms have offered pro bono legal services since President John F. Kennedy’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The basic premise is that rather than volunteer your unskilled labor, you instead give your time doing what you’re best at. This donation of services can prove incredibly value to recipient organizations, and technology promises to help significantly scale this win/win formula.
Catchafire is a social business based in New York. The company charges social organizations a small percentage of the market value of the donated pro bono services, and in exchange, hires program managers to keep projects organized and on-track. The company’s project menu illustrates the impressive range of professional skills which can be provided as aid:
|Accounting and FinanceBookkeepingFinancial modelingInvestment Advice
Microsoft Excel Training
Art and Illustration
Brochure Graphic Design
Letterhead & Business Card
Donor Relations Strategy
Fundraising Plan Review
|Grant Proposal BudgetHuman ResourcesHR SystemsHR Talent Plan
Leadership and Culture
Annual report writing
Branding Tune Up
1-3 minute video (editing only)
1-3 minute video (filming & editing)
Motion graphics video
|Photo essayPublic Relations & CommunicationsCommunications Materials ReviewCommunications Plan
Press Kit & Distribution
Social media campaign and execution
Social media starter plan
Board structure strategy
Business plan development
Google Office Suite (Google Apps) Setup
Salesforce Database Customization
The organization’s most requested roles are public relations, marketing, social media, and design (including web design).
The Taproot Foundation also offers pro bono professional aid to qualified social organizations. Their model is different from Catchafire’s in that they offer the services for free, but on a longer project cycle and only in five US cities (face to face meetings have proven critical to project success). Project teams are assembled by a professional team lead from a skillsbank of many potential pro bono volunteers.
The organization’s most popular roles are legal counsel, marketing, human resources, and financial and administrative support.
Digital Humanitarians Network
The Digital Humanitarians Network is a confederation of organizations, many of which are featured elsewhere in this list. They’re worth noting here because several of these organizations provide specific professional skills to help crisis responders and affected communities. For example:
- GISCorps is a great example of an “expert crowd.” This volunteer group is comprised of hundreds of GIS professionals with an average of 8 years’ experience. 40% of the volunteers have taught GIS. The group’s 113 projects have supported humanitarian and social organizations alike.
- Statistics Without Borders is a group of 500 professional statisticians within AAAS eager to provide pro bono expertise to humanitarian actors. They can scope and solve statistical challenges.
- Translators Without Borders provides similar pro bono services to translate between languages (with over 8 million words translated so far).
- DataKind “connects researchers with social organizations through three programs: the DataFellows fellowship, which assigns data scientists to work with a particular organization, DataCorps, a distributed network of volunteers, and city-specific weekend DataDives.” (Paul Davis)
UNVolunteers, VolunteerMatch, and Idealist are three popular examples of volunteer opportunity platforms. They list an impressive range of volunteer opportunities, and include tools to help filter by geography, time commitment, and skillset. The listings are not as curated as the pro bono examples listed above, and are not managed by professional program managers, but do let you distinguish between in-person volunteering and online volunteering opportunities.
One of the most interesting peer aid categories I have identified is the act of bringing attention to a cause, crisis, or event. We know that attention has a large impact on the amount and duration of disaster relief, as measured by aid money, volunteers, and other metrics. But professional media attention to crises can be quite fickle, depending on where in the world you are, the type of crisis you face, and what other events have occurred in the same news cycle. For every person killed in a volcano eruption, 40,000 must die from drought to receive the same probability of media coverage. Similarly, 40 times more people must die in an African disaster to achieve the same expected media coverage as one eastern European (News Droughts, News Floods, and U. S. Disaster Relief).
Given the large amount of information vying for our attention, attention itself becomes a scarce and thereby valuable commodity (see Herbert Simon). The rise of participatory media has allowed many people to build their own audiences independent of broadcast media, and broadcast media itself has adjusted by mining social media for stories. In this environment, the ability to drive attention itself can be as valuable and donate-able a skill as many other volunteer activities.
Here are five ways we can give attention as aid:
1. We can marshal the attention of the broadcast media
2. We can donate the attention of our own audience via social media
3. We can pressure the new gatekeepers
4. We can ride pre-existing waves of attention
5. We can donate our visual and storytelling skills
- The proliferation of cameras, especially on cellphones, has drastically increased the chances that a person with a camera is among the witnesses of an event (See WITNESS’s Cameras Everywhere report). We can create and share usable original footage and documentation of events at exponentially greater rates than the analog film era. This global trend has increased the pool of available photos and videos of events for every communications channel, from social media to advocacy groups to broadcast media outlets, the latter of which can license the citizen footage and broadcast it to far larger audiences (this is the media strategy of Human Rights Watch).
- As with other professions, publicists sometimes donate their professional attention-driving powers to undernoticed causes. The most interesting case I’ve found is that of Ryan Julison. Julison regularly donates his professional abilities to news stories that did not receive sufficient media attention. When he took on the story of slain teenager Trayvon Martin (on a pro bono basis), Julison was able to elevate the already-forgotten story to the national stage. Within one day of joining the effort, Julison got coverage in a syndicated Reuters article and on the national televised CBS Morning News. From here, the story went on to become one of the most-covered stories of 2012. The Reuters article itself inspired a reader to start a Change.org petition which eventually garnered over 2 million signatures calling for George Zimmerman’s arrest.
- The Ad Council itself was established in 1942 to “marshal pro bono talent from the advertising and communications industries to deliver critical messages to the American public.”
Crowdsourced ad-buying platforms likeLouder offer groups of people the ability to take a page from the government and countless corporations by banding together and placing their own commercials and billboards within traditional broadcast media.
Outside of the mainstream media, peer-to-peer attention tactics have become more viable thanks to larger trends in where we look for information. The act of liking a piece of content on Facebook or retweeting something on Twitter is the most criticized action of all the slacktivist strawmen. But those who attack the act of sharing as meaningless presuppose three things:
- sharing the message accomplishes nothing
- sharing is all this individual is has done, or will ever do
- this individual would be doing more to help, were it not for such an easy outlet
I haven’t seen any of these three points sufficiently proven. If anything, it’s possible that sharing is the first (and yes, easiest) step that can lead to more serious action as an individual begins to identify with the story. But sharing online can also have actual impact in its own right, despite representing a thin type of participation.
Ryan Julison, the publicist that launched the Trayvon Martin story, is not an avid user of social media, but he sees amplifying a message through online sharing as one of the more important things an activist can do: “If someone goes out and does a march, that’s a one-time news story, that’s it. Somebody forwards stories, and engages in propelling information, that leads to so many other things. That continues – it doesn’t just stop with the forward. That forward leads to other forwards, and people share with their friends, and post and tweet about it. I would put online activism, or even just online information-sharing as a pretty high profile way to be an activist.” Activists agree, and have developed a variety of tools and methods designed to derive value from the simple fact that many of us have grown and nurtured an audience of people who pay attention to what we share, despite living in an attention-scarce society:
- Campaigns like FactSpreaders and Reality Drop leverage grassroots supporters to spread empirically accurate information in the face of rumor propagators and climate deniers, respectively. This includes not only tweets and Facebook shares, but also pushing back against trolls in the comments of news articles and elsewhere online.
- Prior to the 2012 election, a research team at University of California Berkeley developed Proposition 30 tracker. The researchers created a custom affiliate code, share link, and leaderboard to encourage citizens to spread awareness of the ballot proposition to increase sales and income tax or significantly cut state education funding. 889 citizens signed up to participate.
- The Thunderclap platform recognizes that Twitter is a noisy stream where individual messages are easily lost. The service coordinates as many supporters of a cause as can be recruited, and then times their tweets to send simultaenously, with the goal to create a notable moment in their followers’ streams.
- Diaspora populations have proven adept at distributing information when the home community is out of reach because of political or natural crises. The Kenyans on Twitter hashtag #KOT, for example, is a common forum for the diaspora to spread news.
If we each have an audience online, imagine how many people Justin Bieber can reach. Prior to the web, news companies were often described as gatekeepers to mainstream awareness. Technology has drastically altered this landscape, with many more places and ways to be heard online. A new breed of attention gatekeeper has emerged: the individual who amasses a large following on digital communication platforms. This includes web-native celebrities, like bloggers and YouTube stars, but also mainstream celebrities newly empowered to speak directly to their millions of fans without the help of the press. Celebrities on Twitter create an alluring combination for activists: they garner large amounts of attention but offer relatively lower barriers to access. But keep in mind that celebrities and online influentials are people, too, and there are ethics you should consider before bombarding someone on behalf of a campaign (see Ethan Zuckerman’s post, The Tweetbomb and the Ethics of Attention).
- In March, 2012, the producers of the aforementioned KONY video teased the film to supporters for weeks before launch, and then shepherded “a network of 5,000 teenage campaigners to bombard celebrities with demands for support” on Twitter and Facebook, reaching 100 million views in six days (the Guardian).
- Organizers like Tim Newman at Change.org routinely target celebrities on Twitter to ask them to spread the word about various campaigns and petitions. This tactic was wildly successful in the case of the Trayvon Martin petition, when Newman elicited supportive tweets from Talib Kweli, Wyclef Jean, Spike Lee, Mia Farrow, and Chad Ochocinco, creating a 900% spike in social media traffic to the petition in one day. Later that week, supportive tweets were successfully solicited from John Legend, Cher, and MC Hammer, the latter of whom had 2.6 million followers at the time.
- The original Rolling Jubilee page design (an extension of the Occupy movement) explicitly asked users to target celebrities like Oprah, Bruce Springsteen, and Louis C.K. with their tweets.
- Memejacking, culturejacking, and newsjacking tactics siphon off attention from wildly popular memes to their causes, with varying degrees of success. Groups like the Harry Potter Alliance use not only fandom of fictional works, but can also leverage huge media events like Hollywood film premieres to divert some attention towards their issues. Political organizers have long worked to prepare for and ride waves of attention as they come up in the news cycle.
Graphic designers hold valuable skills in an attention economy.
- Designers can contribute their professional skills on pro bono platforms like Catchafire, where design is one of the top-requested services from social organizations.
- Designers Aaron Perry-Zucker and Max Slavkin started the Design for Obama platform in a dorm room to collect poster submissions from designers around the world. The platform was repurposed to allow designers to contribute their work on behalf of the earthquake in Haiti (Design for Haiti, including a partnership with GOOD Magazine) and the tsunami in Japan (Design for Japan), with hundreds of posters submitted and all sales benefitting aid efforts. The community of designers has evolved into the Creative Action Network.
- Occupy Design helps brand and communicate a protest movement.
- Iconathons bring together designers to create public domain icons to improve communication and wayfaring in disaster relief, clean water, investigative journalism, recycling, neighborhood revitalization, energy efficiency, civic hacking, and the American Red Cross.
Documentarians, reporters, and other storytellers are also well-positioned to drive broader attention to a crisis or the needs of a population, even without a traditional distribution model. See, for example:
- KONY2012, which used social media to produce and distribute the fastest-spreading viral video of all time.
- 18 Days in Egypt, a crowdsourced documentary capturing Egypt’s revolution through many perspectives.
- Sandy Storyline collects stories from the affected community, built with Vojo, a tool that allows people with non-smartphones to call in and record their tales.
- The hundreds of volunteer writers and translators that make up the Global Voices community not only capture stories in places that the professional international media barely covers, but also translate and contextualize these events to make them relevant to broader audiences in other countries around the world. This act of translating, contextualizing, and amplifying stories may well be the reason the protests in Tunisia were able to spread, topple Ben Ali, and ignite the Arab Spring (Center for International Media Assistance via Ethan Zuckerman).
X. Donate physical goods in new ways
Even that most analog of crisis needs, that most heretical of donations, physical items, is not immune to advancements in ICT that have cut out middlemen and improved distribution.
- Volunteers in New York had attempted to help at a shelter, but found there was nothing that needed doing. They went to fetch food supplies for a church shelter, and in the process, had the inspiration to redesign crisis inventory management by repurposing Amazon.com’s wedding registry tool to create a wishlist of goods like medical supplies and cold medicine. By using Amazon’s service, donors benefitted from Amazon’s stored payment information, one-click purchasing, and free Prime shipping plan, making it much easier to donate physical goods to Occupy Sandy’s relief efforts. Organizers were able to adjust the list as necessary, preventing the pileup of unwanted goods so many formal aid organizations fear.
Hurricane Sandy’s devastating impact also encouraged people to give in-kind goods and services of all kinds, much of which was coordinated and scaled online:
- The Sandy Coworking Map, mentioned earlier, coordinated commercial real estate donations
- Consumer goods site Soap.com donated toiletries, medical supplies, and diapers
- Apartment rental site Airbnb coordinated at-cost and donated rooms listings for displaced residents
- A wide variety of efforts sought to donate food from farms and keep the restaurant industry afloat by tipping big
It would be unrealistic to expect formal aid organizations to identify and deliver the entire range of human needs following a crisis. The rise of participatory aid allows the rest of us to fill less critical needs that are also less easily delivered in an aid convoy, such as forming shared memories of the traumatic event and helping with wedding relocation.
- The development of a crowdsourced memorial platform for those who lost lives
- Participatory archives (see earlier mention of 18 Days in Egypt)
- Wedding website TheKnot.com created Facebook Pages to help thousands of wedding parties reschedule and others stay on track. They also created a Page to help connect wedding professionals in need of replacements and other professional help.
This collection is a work in progress, and very much a living document, so let me know what you think!