Tech volunteers and disasters

27 Sep

Ethan Zuckerman, a researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote an interesting post on tech volunteers in crises. Talking specifically about CrisisCommons, he made several good points about opportunities and obstacles for technology professionals volunteering on disaster relief projects. I believe his observations apply to the broader area of technologist focusing their attentions on “social good” as well.

He observes what I also noticed, but in other, non-disaster relief, areas of the non-profit sector:

It’s genuinely very difficult for tech volunteers to know what problems to work on… and hard for relief organizations under tremendous pressure to learn how to use these new tools.

he toughest job is defining problems and matching geeks to [them].

… this requires relief organizations to know what solutions are already out there and what are reasonable requests to make of volunteers. And volunteer organizations need to understand the processes CROs have and how to work within them.

Starting from the seemingly simple but often overlooked problem of geek-nongeek communication through requirements definition and formulation to usability and appropriateness, the marriage between software developers and aid/humanitarian/non-profit organizations is front-loaded with obstacles. However, in my opinion, this is no more or no less difficult than getting work done in an organization where teams with various competencies work on a mutual goal, such as a tech company with its developers, designers, marketing, sales, business development, customer support, etc. I may be biased by my professional background, but I think product/project management can be part of the solution to inter-field problems like this. It seems that Ethan has a simmilar (and more thought-out idea):

I ended up suggesting that Crisis Commons act as:

– a consultant to relief organizations, helping them define their technical needs, understand what was already available commercially and non-commercially and to frame needs to volunteer communities who could assist them
– a matchmaking service that connected volunteer orgs to short term and long term tech needs, preferably ones that had been clearly defined through a collaborative process
– a repository for best practices, collective knowledge about what works in this collaboration.

It would be exciting to see this kind of leadership emerge out of CrisisCommons. I also wonder what other organizations provide this kind of a bridge between the tech and non-profit worlds (I suspect a post on that coming soon).

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