(Draft ~1 year ago) There’s been a lot of conversation around what is the true impact of digital humanitarians.
I believe we’re getting closer to understanding the different types of chain of events that link digital humanitarian volunteerism and related outcomes on field operations.
A good place to start is to begin to look at individual scenarios and to trace the chain of events so that we can really see what’s under the hood of how this great remote work can link to humanitarian operations.
Here’s a story that I want to share about an experience we had at NetHope with one digital volunteer group, the SBTF for our response operations in West Africa for the Ebola crisis. We also had been working with GISCorps for months creating maps for our ongoing work.
It began with a great idea from an emergency response director. The idea was that we were having field staff going to different locations in Sierra Leone to determine and assess opportunities for identifying organizations with needs for internet connectivity. This was part of a larger operational project already in motion. But the idea was…could we engage with volunteers and co-design a feasible way for an organization with experience with searching for information on the internet could identify other potential NGOs in the same area that needed support. Information including organization names, the location, latitudes and longitude, and contact information could be collected and organized by a group of online volunteers. And that the data collected could help complement the organization’s field assessments.
In a matter of less than a week this experienced digital humanitarian volunteer group identified over 200 locations in Sierra Leone.
This data was then taken by an incredibly dedicated GIS expert at NetHope and myself and transformed with various other streams of data (including the amazing work of GISCorps) to fit the specific need and timeline of the field team. This last mile was crucial… transforming volunteer efforts into an operational product. The 2 page document included a map and a table with many organizations and their contact information. The document was sent via email.
Example Field Map
Days later, one of our amazing field staff shared an assessment report which identified these 2 volunteer-identified sites as eligible sites for connectivity. In collaboration with a few other organizations with highly technical experience they have now connect these 2 organizations to improved Internet.
And in brief, this is the theory of the chain of events
- There was a trusted and pre-existing relationship between the requester and a volunteer digital humanitarian group.
- An opportunity was identified for which digital remote humanitarians could support field operations, and an ask with a linked anticipated outcome.
- An organized and skilled group of standby volunteers searched the Internet for specific information with the goal of being able to provide contact information and location-based information for field staff. To help them identify organizations who would benefit from connectivity during the west Africa Ebola crisis.
- The digital humanitarian volunteer group is contacted and agrees to be activated.
- The design of the project is implemented with creative iterative adjustments.
- The resulting data set is filtered and transformed by the NGO team into a format for a series of maps and tables that are sent via email to the field staff over days based upon their travel itinerary. Some are sent via a 2 page PDF document which shows a map of locations and a table with contact information. Among all of this information are 2 volunteer identified locations, one in Makeni and one in Bo.
- The field team replies after their assessment that this organization is eligible site for connectivity, and provides additional field on site information to support the potential decision to connect this organization to improve Internet services.
- Weeks later a collaboration of organizations working together in this project setup and install the necessary equipment to connect this organization to the internet.
There are now two sites just like this and we anticipate more to be connected everyday. This is a story of the outcomes of volunteer efforts. The impact on the lives of those affected by the crisis and the lives of those in recovery is still unknown. But this is a great start.
From an academic standpoint there is certainly a fair number of assumptions that go into this chain of events and to be sure many will begin to calculate numbers to see if this was “worth it”.
But this is a compelling story. And it is more than just story because it happened
And I can tell you that as one of the managers of this project, I believe it was worth it. And we thank you for your support, because in the end, if we can take as many steps as we can to support either directly or indirectly those affected by the Ebola crisis, and now support the hard work that needs to be done towards recovery— this is a great contribution, and we are grateful for your efforts, and your dedication to helping those affected by this crisis.