More about Sandy Response, and also cool presentation tools

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facilitated by Willow Brugh

About Geeks Without Bounds

  • Geeks Without Bounds links makers and hackers to humanitarian organizations.
  • It is not their policy to deploy employees and members directly to disasters, but some members do so on their own.

The GWOB Response to Sandy

  • Willow is one of these members who chose to go, and volunteered with the FEMA Innovation Team.
  • She was there with people from Health and Human Services, Burning Man infrastructure, along with Department of Homeland Security search and rescue and military assistance.
  • GWOB tends to think of the affected population as the "end users", as opposed to traditional response, which views the first responders as the end users.
  • FEMA has tons of oversight and is therefore clumsy.
  • Community resiliency = better connections with neighbors!
  • Putting people in weird, formal situations where they are required to stand in long lines = confusion.

After Sandy

  • Channels of communication were limited - in some places, cables were physically severed in the storm.
  • Many gas pipes were also busted, so people were without gas, electricity, phone, internet, t.v., etc.
  • People flock to success, which can actually result in too many people and resources in one place!
  • Once a response site is up and running smoothly, send successful people from that site to get a new site running somewhere else (coms, dispatchers, etc.)
  • Google docs were an essential tool.

Rules of thumb learned from the response

  1. People need predictability.
  2. Bring stuff to people, not people to stuff.
  3. Manage volunteers well. Know what is needed FIRST. Vet the volunteers first, then put them to work.
  4. The best and easiest online donation management tool was the Amazon wedding registry to keep track of needs and then be able to ship donations where needed. You "need a header file" for people and objects.

Volunteer cycle

  • Hear about response!
  • Go somewhere!
  • Get assigned!

What can go wrong in the cycle

  • A volunteer gets bum advice and gets misassigned.
  • A volunteer is otherwise confused about where they are supposed to go.
    • The task may already be complete, so they get pulled into a different set of efforts
  • After too many cycles of confusion, they burn out.

How to prevent burnout

  • Celebrate the hodgepodge nature of civil defense work!
  • Get good report backs from the people you've assigned work to.
  • Help everyone stay involved!
  • Celebrate the work of people, involve them in the celebration

How did Occupy Sandy come about?

  • Started on googledocs and Interoccupy
  • Based on the idea that Occupy is mutual aid, not just protests!
  • More a hippie feeling than the "black block hard heads".
  • They were able to mobilize more quickly than many other groups due to extensive experience in person-to-person interaction.
  • Faith-based orgs came later in some places, but fit in well.

Preparing for the next storm

  • Relationships with other NGOs are already in place for the next disaster!
  • The next disaster, they will be more ready to respond.
  • Moving from Word docs, Excel, pivot tables, etc., to Sahana, open source disaster response software.
  • Open sharing standards are needed so that different tools can be integrated and interact with each other.
  • The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) has started using HXL, a humanitarian markup language! There have been hackathons done on improving this language, and there is so much interest that it will be run into the ground (in a good way)!
  • Normally, people wait for the International Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or the International Organization of Standards (ISO) to set the standards.
  • However, in order to have agility, you need to be able to make up standards as you go!
  • Now is "ramp up time". Activists need to be planning ahead right now for the next storm or other disaster.
  • Scenario planning is happening at Camp Roberts Relief with support from STAR-TIDES at National Defense University.
    • It's like a trade show for defense people to practice disaster relief. But without the trade (no sales allowed).
    • They are now bringing in civilians and ad hoc groups as well.
  • Other crisis camps can also give you the chance to practice for disaster before it hits.
    • Pitch it as zombie planning!
    • Great place to get new ideas and information
  • Special hardware needed in a disaster:
    • Pirate Box
    • Chargers
    • Backup drives
    • MOSH networks
    • ASYNC networks

What place does activism have in disaster response?

  • This is the big, main, essential question!!!
  • Sometimes there is conflict between full-time pros and the occasional support people.
  • An analogy of why both are needed is a professional vs. volunteer fire department.
  • Don't replicate bad social relationships.

Where activists fit in

  • Ad hoc groups don't wait - they get there first.
  • They focus on helping the poor, not just the suburbs.
  • They fill in the gaps and deficiencies of government, military, and big NGO groups.
  • Make your activist tools capable of asynronous interactions and they'll work in disaster situations, too. Great opportunity to get more people on your platform.

Examples of activist achievements

  • National Guard and Occupy working together
  • Voter engagement concurrent with community and disaster response!
  • Getting info to "low-info" folks (important caveat, make sure you are receiving good information as well as transmitting it)

Why government and NGO response isn't enough

  • Since FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Security, it got fucked up under Bush.
  • Things like evacuation can't move quickly enough in a "top down" structure. Technically agile activists can get it done much faster.
  • In big NGOs, the top and bottom of the org is usually filled with good, hardworking people, but the middle management gets in the way.
  • It's good to come at a disaster with different languages, world views, etc., since the victims will be a cross section of cultures.

Helping people transmit info

  • Good design and infographics are essential to help people understand maps and charts.
  • On crisis maps, people need to know:
    • Where to get water and food
    • Where to charge their phones or other essential electronics
    • Where they can upload their own info
  • ASYNC transmission is very helpful on temporary networks.

More about Willow

  • College transhumanist
  • She "got tired of white privileged white kids sitting around talking about a future, so got involved with maker spaces so it was privileged white kids building a future."
  • Has been involved with Occupy, women's groups, etc.
  • Involved in Space Federation (, a hacker-maker coalition dealing with finances, law, zoning, etc.
  • Then joined Geeks Without Bounds (
  • Main skill set is organizing, facilitating, and public speaking.