Open Source Disaster Recovery: Case Studies of networked collaboration

A new article on First Monday explores the use of two open source frameworks in the tsunami response. I found the article rather simplistic and ignorant of initiatives such as Sahana – though to be fair, the emphasis is on collaboration as opposed to disaster relief systems per se. The abstract states:

Volunteers eager to help disaster victims have begun to draw on open source models of organization to mobilize and coordinate vast resources from around the world. This paper investigates two such groundbreaking efforts, involving responses to Hurricane Katrina and to the South East Asian tsunami. The study sheds light on how these organizations evolve so rapidly, how leaders emerge and confront challenges, and how interactions with traditional, more hierarchical disaster recovery efforts unfold. Lessons from these early efforts show how they can be improved, and also point to the need for more research on networked non–state actors that are playing increasingly prominent roles.

The paper also highlights the element of trust in networked collaboration that I’ve written about here. In sum, the difficultly in the use of blogs for disaster relief was that they were an unreliable means of ensuring that actions, as promised virtually, actually took place on the ground.

Even though the blog may have enabled this kind of matchmaking, however, it is not clear how often it actually took place. The proliferation of online hoaxes related to disaster relief donation demonstrates one potential problem with this matchmaking — the degree of trust among participants, and the absence of a mechanism to convey the credibility of posts. Also, two people who posted offers to assist reported that their offers were never answered, and that posting their e–mail addresses on the site invited spammers to flood their in–boxes. Their emphasis on their posts having not been answered suggests another potential problem, a disconnect in how people understood the blog’s coordinating function.

My own thoughts on humanitarian relief systems and disaster management are penned down in Thoughts of technology in the wake of tragedy and Tsunamis, Disaster Response and Info Share. The latter in particular looks into the technologies used by InfoShare in the tsunami recovery effort, while the former seeks to explore more general uses of technology in humanitarian relief.

Promoting the need for open standards over the debates between open source (FOSS) and proprietary code, I came up with 10 ideas for Microsoft Humanitarian Systems Group that envisions the use of technology in future scenarios of disaster relief.

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