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Postcard From This Weekend’s “CrisisCamp”: No Swimming, Hiking Or S’Mores, But Progress On Improving Emergency Preparedness/Response…And A Lot Of Fun Too

June 15th, 2009 · 13 Comments

Though I am too old for summer camp, I did get to go away this weekend to CrisisCamp in Washington, D.C.. CrisisCamp was a gathering of about a hundred campers from all over the country and the world with an expertise or interest in crisis management/disaster preparation and response, especially in how new technology and communications applications can be brought to bear in this area. It was a really remarkable event in its content, format and spirit. Below is a postcard from Camp. (Though to get the most complete idea of what happened at CrisisCamp — and what will be happening going forward — I suggest you go to the CrisisCamp Ning page, the initial invitation, and the tweets with #CrisisCamp tag. Also, one of the outcomes of the event was the establishment of a CrisisCommons Wiki “to capture knowledge, information, best practices, and tools that support crisis preparedness, prevention, response, and rebuilding”; check it out and contribute.)

Crisis Camp

The idea for CrisisCamp developed out of a couple similar gatherings in the  “Barcamp” model, Transparency Camp 09 and Government 2.0 Camp:

“where several campers exchanged a host of ideas on the need to better connect people with their social networks and information through the use of technology, especially during times and places of crisis. For example, campers shared how mobile innovation on mobile health and alternative power supplies was happening in Africa. Others shared how citizens used their technical skills to aggregate data to help people (often in another part of the world) synthesize desperate pieces of information into something they could understand. We uncovered a dividing line between international humanitarian relief and domestic crisis response. We saw common themes across all efforts including: the use of mobility, the Internet as a common coordination platform, the need for volunteers and the ability to provide alternative community communications access areas. By the end of the tweet-up, we had 40 volunteers sitting around in a circle with an agreement that there should be a forum to exchange these ideas. And it was there, where a common goal brought government, NGOs, private sector, hackers and activists together to create CrisisCamp.”

This weekend’s Camp began on Friday evening at the World Bank’s headquarters with drinks and a series of presentations. The presenters followed the Ignite format which means each was allowed 20 slides and 15 seconds per slide. That’s just five minutes for the speakers to get through much of their life’s work. But it is a great format that moves things move briskly and gets through a lot of material (and also helps hold the audience’s attention on a Friday night when the open bar just outside remains open throughout). Videos of all the presentations can be found here. The slides are being collected here.

On Friday night, one of the presenters, Paul Berger, discusses the Emicus emergency response system which will be piloted this summer during hurricane season in Florida. (Photo: Erik Endress)

The next morning, campers reassembled in an auditorium at George Washington University’s Institute of Politics, Democracy & The Internet.  Heather Blanchard, one of the organizing team, put up a slide which explained:

“CrisisCamp DC is a global movement that is bringing together volunteers, academics, non profits, companies and lessons learned to advocate for further use of technology and telecommunications to assist citizens and communities during crisis.”

Heather told the campers that she was particularly interested in examining two major themes — 1) how to take some of the more advanced crisis preparedness and response tech applications being used around the world and bringing them to the U.S. 2) how to get the public more involved in the technology and communications being discussed at this camp. (I couldn’t have agreed more with both objectives as they have been frequent topics on this blog.)

We then went around the auditorium for introductions and giving three tags that would describe ourselves/interests. I had never been asked to do that and I kept on changing my three as I listened to others. I finally ended up with ‘emergency preparedness’, ’social media’ and ‘citizens’. Since CrisisCamp was an “unconference” , there was no preset topic agenda.

Silona Bonewald got up on the stage to solicit suggestions from the audience on the subjects we should cover in the next two days. After about 20 minutes or so of brainstorming, the topics began to take shape. Campers then began to discuss whether to merge some of the suggestions and who should lead the panels (though of course they were more interactive discussions than lectures). Then, the  ideas were placed on the wall creating a schedule for the five classrooms upstairs — aptly named Dirty Bomb, Flood, Earthquake, Last Supper/Armageddon, and Pandemic (as in “I think I’m going to attend the “Microsoft/Google/Yahoo Update” session in the Pandemic Room at 11:00am)

CrisisCamp schedule being assembled on building’s lobby window. (Photo: Erik Endress)

And, in fact, that update in the Pandemic room was quite a remarkable opening session. On the same ad hoc panel were representatives of Microsoft, Google and Yahoo talking about some of their work in this space and what the future could bring. Some of comments of twitterers in the audience expressed amazement (”microsoft, google and yahoo sitting together talking about what they do re:crisis. Freaking amazing” said one tweeter.) Here were fierce competitors who at least for this hour (and then throughout the Camp) were talking about shared goals and taking suggestions from the audience. Making things even more interesting is that while the discussion continued you could follow the Twitter stream of people in the crowd (and in remote locations) on your laptop commenting on what they were hearing and offering questions to the panel.


Representatives of Yahoo, Google and Microsoft in the Pandemic Room (Blurry Photo: Me)

After that session was finished, I moved across the floor to the Flood Room for a panel on “Using Mobile Technology In Emergency Communications.” This is a topic I know a little better so I contributed a couple of comments about the need to teach citizens how to use their mobile phones and social media in advance so they will know what to do in an emergency. There was some discussion about how much you could really train people before a crisis. (In fact, one of the questions that came up in this session and in other places during the weekend is how much will the public really prepare in advance of crisis or whether realistically most of the focus should be on response).

It’s a fair question but — as the proprietor of a citizen preparedness blog — I would argue it is worth doing. But I suggested in the session that being prepared is not necessarily knowing all the information on a ‘dirty bomb’ or ‘bioterrorism threat, but instead being familiar with how to use tools (ie. technology) beforehand so you can react to whatever happens. Personally, I think your cellphone/pda is the most important item anyone can have in their emergency kit for that very reason. In this session, there was further discussion on another major theme of the Camp: getting those who are not tech savvy or otherwise disconnected. There was also some talk about suggesting that the large wireless (and other communications) companies make an effort along with the government and Red Cross to promote the safety uses of their devices to the public (during, for example, National Preparedness Month in September).

Between sessions there were plenty of sidebar discussions among folks who may have known each other previously just though web communication and were meeting for the first time. Andrew Wilson from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s social media unit, including PandemicFlu.Gov which was useful during the H1N1 outbreak, and I had a discussion about the value of government official/experts twittering to complement the ‘official’ social media information.

In fact, a highlight for me was getting the opportunity to meet in person several people I have had email or Twitter relationships. David Stephenson of Stephenson Strategies has been a pal and advisor through the web for the last several years; others include Erik Endress of the Xpedite Network, and  Mark Prutsalis of  Sahana, Catherine Kane and Carrie Houseman from the Red Cross, and Tim Tinker and Michael Dumlao from Booz, Allen. Erik was one of the organizing group which did a tremendous job (and took the videos and many of the photos on the Ning page). David, Mark, Tim and Michael each gave fascinating presentations on Friday night.

IMG_1371 by joelogon.

Saturday’s Schedule. Some of the sessions included: “Crisis Mapping”; Risk Communication Where To Turn In A Crisis Risk Planning”; “Common Platforms Common Standards”; and “Tech Fails During Disasters”.

Many people who could not attend CrisisCamp in person did so remotely primarily either through Twitter (or Skype). I ended up doing that on Sunday as I had to return to New York for my parents 50th wedding anniversary. One of the remote participants throughout the weekend was Brian Humphrey from the Los Angeles Fire Department which utilizes social media as well as any governmental entity in the U.S. On the Camp’s Ning page, Brian offered a free LAFD t-shirt to the CrisisCamper who had come the farthest to attend. I knew a number of folks had travelled farther than the Big Apple but I entered anyway. And, Brian was kind enough to offer to send me a shirt whether I won or not.

I cannot say enough about CrisisCamp: the people, the format, the information and the ideas. Amazing. I have been following the disaster/crisis world closely for the past few years, and it just underscored how much there is still to know. (For example, I have been a big advocate of the role of personal technology and social media in emergency preparedness and response, but I am myself very much a tech neophyte with a lot to learn). That feeling of discovery seemed to be common among people there who are deeply involved in these subjects but still heard and saw things that they never knew about beforehand (There were many tweets of “OMG!” throughout the day during the sessions as campers learned about new innovations and ideas.)  The organizing team of Heather Blanchard, Erik Endress, Noel Dickover, Pete O’Dell and Andrew Turner deserve a huge amount of credit for making it happen.

There was a huge value in just bringing everyone together from all parts of the crisis/disaster field working in all parts of the world. That collaboration is sure to continue both remotely and in future CrisisCamps. (The collaboration included even the CrisisCamp logo beforehand. Here are some of the other possibilities.) So much ground was covered (Erik Endress tweeted on Saturday afternoon “I think I need another hard drive in my brain”). And, as the Iranian election aftermath heated up on Sunday, campers were watching how new technology and communications were having a huge impact on that crisis.

As I mentioned above, if you are interested in learning more about CrisisCamp in Washington and future camps, I would suggest going to the CrisisCamp’s Ning page, #CrisisCamp Twitter search feed, some notes on the sessions taken by campers, a messaging matrix that is being developed, and a “Where do we go from here” list. Also, there are reports from other campers including: Patrick Svenburg of the Gov Labs blog and Microsoft, Silona, and Gwynne On Dot -Gov, and Joe Loong of NetworkSolutions blog.

I spoke to Heather  who said there were initial plans to do CrisisCamps in the Western U.S. (probably San Francisco or Los Angeles where Brian Humphrey has already offered to co-host sometime in September) and possibly in London. She suggested I try to help organize a CrisisCamp NYC. Anyone interested here please get in touch. One of the major objectives going forward is getting the word out about CrisisCamp to decision makers in the field, the media and the public. That is definitely an area that this blog can play a constructive role in.

Towards the end of the weekend, Tech4Dev of the UN Foundation tweeted “CrisisCamp or ‘response-ability’” (which she later told me was actually the brainchild of Cherie Beck.) I thought that was a clever way to encapsulate both the event as well as disaster preparedness/response in general. I think I’m going to use that concept a lot and for that matter much of what I learned at camp this weekend.

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Tags: Preparedness 2.0 · Preparedness Events

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