Category Archives: Participatory Aid

TEDxAlbany: Activism Drives Attention Drives Aid

I was grateful to be able to share a chapter of my thesis on Participatory Aid at TEDxAlbany last month. The video’s online now. Thanks to Lisa Barone and the OverIt team for inviting me and doing such a great job producing the event. Thanks also to Ethan Zuckerman and everyone at MIT Center for Civic Media for connecting me to these ideas in the first place.

It’s been an extremely violent year. What makes a crisis worthy of our attention? It turns out that human suffering does not predict media coverage. How closely is disaster aid correlated to receiving public attention? And, if we’re newly able to use our networks creatively to drive attention, can our active participation improve these formulas?

#HackATTN @ SXSWi 2014

attn hack

The plane tickets are purchased and I’m getting closer to a place to sleep, so I can now announce that I’m going to SXSW for the first time since 2008 (that time I met Mark Zuckerberg at a Facebook nightclub event). I’ll speaking in a session with Josh Stearns of Free Press, Madeleine Bair of WITNESS, and Adaora Udoji of Syria Deeply. We’ll be sharing our experiences hacking global attention for the purposes of disasters and revolutions.

If you’re going to be in town, I’d love to see your face at the session (or over some incarnation of a taco).
Continue reading #HackATTN @ SXSWi 2014

Participatory Aid Marketplace: Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians

(a summary of my MIT Media Lab Master’s thesis)

Unlike my thesis readers, who may or may not have made it through all 244 pages, you get to experience the condensed version. The full PDF is here, if you’re into reading and citations.

Participatory Aid
People are using information and communication technologies (like the internet) to help each other in times of crisis (natural or man-made). This trend is the evolution of a concept known as “mutual aid”, introduced by Russian polymath Peter Kropotkin in 1902 in his argument that our natural sociable inclinations towards cooperation and mutual support are underserved by capitalism’s exclusive focus on the self-interested individual. My own reaction is to the bureaucracy’s underserving of informal and public-led solutions.

The practice of mutual aid has been greatly accelerated and extended by the internet’s global reach. I introduce the term “participatory aid” to describe the new reality where people all over the planet can participate in providing aid in various forms to their fellow humans. In many of these cases, that aid is mediated at least partially by technology, rather than exclusively by formal aid groups.

Formal aid groups like the UN and Red Cross are facing disintermediation not entirely unlike we’ve seen in the music, travel, and news industries. Members of the public are increasingly turning towards direct sources in crises rather than large, bureaucratic intermediaries. Information is increasingly likely to originate from people on the ground in those places rather than news companies, and there is a rich and growing number of ways to help, as well.

You are more than your bank account Continue reading Participatory Aid Marketplace: Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians

The Boston Marathon, Social Media, and the News

(cross-posted on Civic and PBS)

I met my baby niece yesterday, Sunday morning. She was born late Saturday night. I went to some news sites to grab some screenshots of the things that happened the day she was born, and stopped myself. There were some really bad things happening in the world, Saturday, and every day. Instead, I wrote down that the Red Sox beat the Rays, 2-1.

Today is Marathon Monday, Patriot’s Day, one of those wonderful Massachusets-only-and-why-do-they-get-an-extra-day-off days. My niece is home from the hospital, thank God. I had saved today, like most Bostonians, as a light at the end of the dark winter tunnel. The day I knew there’d be college cookouts and the largest crowd that assembles, anywhere, to watch distance runners go by. People work their asses off to qualify for Boston’s tough time limits. Others get into the race by raising large amounts of money for worthy charities. Runners of all speeds and shapes stream by wearing Team in Training and Dana Farber’s colors, in addition to an endless array of less formal causes, sick cousins and memoriams to those who have left us. The Red Sox are granted an exception by Major League Baseball to hold a home day game every year on this day, so that as the game finishes, another 40,000-strong may walk a couple of blocks and join the throngs already cheering on the waves of runners.

Today, we walked over to right near the finish line and cheered people in their last few blocks. We were impressed by how fresh everyone looked, how the crisp, sunny day had buoyed their spirits and helped them make running a marathon look easy. We tried to decide whether we should head to a bar at the finish line or out to Fenway. At the last minute we decided to hop on Hubway bikes, make use of the closed streets, and go over to watch the crowd pour out of Fenway.

After failing to navigate the Lansdowne Street crowds with bikes, we walked over to Kenmore Square, the 1-mile-left mark. We stood next to a jovial group of undergrad girls, who shouted out personal cheers based on whatever the runners had written on their shirts. We told the runners how good they looked, and to finish strong. And then the girl next to me said something about a bombing. “Where’d you see this? On the internet, or real news?”, I asked. We all whip out our smartphones and find the Globe and others reporting multiple explosions. No. Not here, too.

Continue reading The Boston Marathon, Social Media, and the News

81 Ways Humanitarian Aid has Become Participatory

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:

  1. Find out about a crisis happening far away (if it’s in the news)
  2. Want to do something to help (if you’re so motivated by the particular crisis, affected community, or other factors)
  3. 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