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How Geeks Can Help In Disasters (San Diego Fire 2007)


Wow, it’s been a long few days. A sad and yet hopeful few days. Even though I went through a “100-year flood” in Washington, going through the so-called “Firestorm 2007” in San Diego, I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would about disasters and what people need.

This evening I was taking a break from the consistent twittering about the San Diego fire, watched the Red Sox dominate Game 1, and chatted with Erin and Ted over an awesome pour of Guinness. We discussed what has happened to my twitter feed. It blew up.

It didn’t blow up because I’m good looking (although my wife doesn’t complain), popular (never been that), or entertaining. It blew up because I have been providing an essential and steady stream of necessary information that any one major media source couldn’t.

Even though I was aggregating two TV channels, a radio station, a local newspaper, friends and even strangers’ eyewitness reports via a free phone number, email, the contact form on this blog, SMS, phone calls and other twitter feeds, it wasn’t enough. For three days straight I’ve been pushing this content out. It was a one-man communication station. And although it was helpful for many people (both locally and internationally), I am very glad the worst has come and gone — not only because of the disaster, but because I don’t know that I could continue. It’s been extremely tiring.

As we’re learning that mainstream media is unable to keep up with the demand necessary to distribute information, for whatever reasons, there is a major opportunity for us, the normal every day “Joe’s” to make a major difference.

The case for teams

After a few hours of updates people started creating Google maps mashups of all kinds of information. It was great. KPBS did one, a friend of a friend did one, and even a few people I didn’t know informed me of some. I even created one, but I couldn’t keep up with it. And that’s the problem.

Twitter is still a relatively geeky tool. I am going to make a reasonably generic statement that many of them are geeks. Many of those geeks could have been organized better to create those maps faster and more accurately than any other media source. Currently, that’s the only advantage large media outlets have over us, the people in the middle of the situation with first-hand knowledge — teams that work together.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t want or like mainstream media, but they just can’t compete with the detailed information we can provide. The one thing they can do is aggregate data into multiple methods of consumption like Google maps, Google earth overlays, video streaming, audio streaming, photographs, etc. Not one of those methods is out of reach of a small team of technophiles and eyewitnesses.

Ideas on how to help people in teams

Ok, tactically, how do we do that? Well, I have a few ideas based off of what has happened in the past few days.

collective aggregation idea1. Create one site for all data aggregation: Ideally, this would be created before the next disaster, and would be able to accompany internationalization. Usage of a subdomain would be great to allow for multiple collaboration on multiple issues at one time (it would be presumptuous to think only one disaster occurs at one time around the world).

Additionally, having spaces for 3 live video streaming feeds and 3 audio feeds allows people to tune in to what they think is important. The video would play continuously but the audio could be selected by the end user. A Google maps mashup would be cool, and a twitter feed (as I’ve experienced) essential. I forgot to add a space for a Flickr feed as well, but that would be good too. Obviously everything would be automatically refreshed, no extra page loads.

2. Organize and centralize quickly: Be sure this website url is disseminated all over the place. Every blog, every twitter feed, etc. Massive distributed marketing of this site would be the best.

3. Offer to be a tag-team: One thing that I wish people would have done is get together with another person and tag-team their particular technology. Video producers and videographers go in pairs, film from points of interest or places where you can get the big picture. Another video team head to get the details. Same with an audio streaming channel (or podcasts). Data can be relayed by “runners” if not transmitted via satellite internet feeds directly. Mainstream media aggregation can happen in pairs as well, and each team could take turns. And last, the technology mashup guys could make maps and other automatically updating visual components. This sounds like a lot of people, but even just a team of 5 would be be sufficient for a great amount of data that mainstream couldn’t do.

Conclusion: Just do it

Now, obviously I’ve been thinking about this for a little while but the ideas could be better. Even better than formulating a plan on what I might do differently in the future, simply aggregating data would be enough. I think simply bringing together a small team and just gathering information into one site, instead of the individual data streams would have worked better during these San Diego fires.

I would love your thoughts on this subject. Please, feel free to leave a comment below and let’s discuss what can be done. The information put out by my twitter feed was critical to thousands of people at any point in time, and I’m just one person. Think of what could be done with a team, and let’s help the next disaster area figure this stuff out before they need to.


[tags]sandiegofire, san diego fire, san diego, fire, fires, firestorm, 2007, emergency, disaster, mainstream media, citizen journalists[/tags]