Lending a Digital Hand: An Overview of Digital Humanitarianism and How to Get Involved

So… What is a digital humanitarian? 

Digital humanitarians use technology to provide “…aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies”. Organized into global networks called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs), similar to online communities like Wikipedia, they congregate to provide skills in areas including information technology, emergency management (EM), mapping and communications during emergencies to facilitate response. They create maps, assess building damage, build missing person lists, monitor and aggregate data around crisis, among a plethora of other services. Offering the opportunity to volunteer prior to, during, or post a crisis, from the comfort of our your home, a time commitment to fit any schedule, and a cause and initiative for almost any skill set, digital humanitarianism is lowering the barriers to entry in the humanitarian space and sparking a movement on a global scale.

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What is their impact? 

The impacts of VTCs are profound. As demonstrated in Haiti, for example, the crisis mapper community coordinated imagery and mapping activities. The disaster response portal, Sahana  geolocated 100 hospitals in 24 hours, and served as an organization registry, food cluster & request portal. Ushahidi  a crowdsourced crisis mapping platform, geolocated incoming messages e.g. trapped individuals, they developed an SMS shortcode for aid in collaboration with local telecom providers, and developed a translation and micro-tasking platform in creole. Humanity Road, developed the first online first aid reference material in Creole, mapped the cholera outbreak and disseminated educational materials through social media. And Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT), deployed and trained over 500 Haitians on mapping and assessing techniques’

When is the best time to get involved?

The time is NOW! There is a misperception that the best time to volunteer is DURING an emergency. This is when we perceive the greatest sense of immediacy and find it easier to prioritize our latent desires to offer a helping hand. Unfortunately, this is the WORST time to volunteer. From under-resourced and overwhelmed organizations combined with competing priorities and sensitive timelines, there is often little to no time assign roles, responsibilities, train and integrate volunteers. In many cases, volunteers risk becoming a burden themselves. Instead, volunteer before the crisis hits. With enough time to get trained and integrated into an organization, volunteering before facilitates a smooth transition and more efficient emergency response. OR volunteer after an emergency during recovery. The timeline is often much longer, and the need for more resources coupled with a lowered sense of immediacy and media coverage proves difficult to solicit volunteer support during these times.

So, how do I get involved?

From crisis mapping services, to social media monitoring, to translation services, to social innovation, there are plenty of organizations that mobilize online around a crisis. And this list is constantly growing. Take some time to learn about the different opportunities out there and choose the initiative that best suits you.
For other volunteering opportunities, see the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) site.

5 Comments

  1. Dwight Baer January 28, 2015 at 8:45 pm #

    Love the relieftorecovery.ca website, and this article in particular. So much possibility, potential. So much need that digital humanitarianism can/will help to address.

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