The Need for Inter-Galactic Travellers in Disasters

The title of this blog post is taken from an IGNITE talk that Akiko Harayma gave at the International Crisis Mappers Conference 2010 in Boston. In her talk she used the analogy of the humanitarian workers and the crowd-based volunteers being from two different planets speaking two different languages. She pointed out in a great way how we need to figure out ways to bridge that gap, through increased dialog between the two.

The truth is that what the humanitarian workers need during a disaster is not yet another source of information. We already have information overload in the field.  What we need is the ability to “outsource” some of the information management process to the volunteer based crisis information managers out there.

But in order to achieve this, we need to have people that can translate the needs from the humanitarian community into requirements that the crowds understand. Those of us who have done software development know that one of the trickiest things we face is actually understanding what the end user needs. The number of software projects that have attempted to improve efficiency and simplify life for end users, but have in fact created more work for them is staggering. A good colleague David Platt has written a book on the subject called Why Software Sucks.

The truth is that what you need is to be able to “translate” those needs into requirements that the the “techies” understand. The best way to do that is of course to bring those techies into the world of the end users. However in the case of disaster response, we definitely don’t need more people to arrive in the field.

What we need are people who know both worlds. People who are bi-lingual and can explain to the techies what the humanitarians really need. Preferably we need at least one of those in the field to help gather the needs and someone in the crowd-space that can help translate those. In worst case we should have someone in the crowd space who can help act as the interface/link between those two different planets.

I do see myself as an inter-galactic bi-lingual traveller, but I want to find others that can help us play that role during times of crisis. If you are one – send me a line so that we can make sure we play this important role together next time a disaster strikes.

Published October 3rd 2010 at DisasterExpert