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.
Continue reading 81 Ways Humanitarian Aid has Become Participatory