This.org Podcast feature on CrisisCommons

Graham Scott, editor of this.org, interviewed Brian Chick and myself about CrisisCommons.

This.org Podcast

“In this edition of Listen to This — the premiere of our second season of original interviews with Canada’s most fascinating activists, politicos, and artists! — we talk with Heather Leson and Brian Chick, two of the more senior Canadian coordinators of Crisis Commons, an international online community of people who use their technology skills to assist with disaster relief, crisis management, and humanitarian efforts around the world. Crisis commons was founded in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2009, but has quickly spread to more than a dozen cities around the world, including hubs in Montreal, Toronto, and Calgary. We talked about the role technology can play in disaster relief scenarios, the group’s shifting identity as it assumes a more prominent role in the aid community, and the limits of online activism.”

Thanks for chatting with us Graham! It is a honour to be featured in the same space as some of Canada’s greatest thought leaders.


Mapping Honduras Hospitals

Paul Jones believes that a map can change the world – starting with Honduras. A third year McMaster University medical student, Paul has taken two tours with the medical brigades in Honduras. In the past month, he has developed a unique Crowdmap providing visual story of Honduras hospitals and the rise of Dengue outbreak. I’m posting his story because he needs your help. Paul is a symbol of future mapper. Someday students around the world will follow his path by taking their discipline to crowdsource open source tools like Crowdmap.

Honduras Health Map

What is your Crowdmap project?
I originally started this project due to the lack of available information about the health system in Honduras and lack of collaboration between health-based Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). My only motivation is to accurately catalog the existing health infrastructure and resources in Honduras to better facilitate communication and collaboration. As one collaborator put it: “Here’s to a healthier, better educated Honduras”. Often, NGOs utilize teams or “brigades” of foreign medical personnel that have little knowledge of the Honduran health care system or existing projects so there is often duplication and redundancy. I wanted to try to break down these silos and provide easily accessible information for other projects, clinics, hospitals and medical teams.

The entire project is open source and information gathered through crowdsourcing and modeled after CrisisMappers. Crisismappers brings together practitioners, scholars and developers at the cutting edge of crisis mapping. They have developed deployments during the Haiti earthquake, Chilean earthquake and the recent floods in Pakistan by leveraging volunteers to map large quantities of data onto a single dynamic platform. Content is freely accessible to improve the overall effectiveness of the response.

What have you learned? Any obstacles?

My first priority has been to establish the exact location of hospitals (Public, Private and NGO). After this is complete, I’ll focus on mapping clinics and NGO projects. This is a labour intensive project, so it is heavily dependent on my free time or volunteer capacity.

I am in contact with a number of individuals working/living in Honduras and the USA/Canada who have an interest in this project. It is really in its infancy. I am open to suggestions as to how it can be improved and most effectively utilized to improve health for Hondurans as well as how it can be used to compliment and not duplicate existing efforts.

I’ve been following the ongoing Dengue outbreak in Honduras and thought that this might be worth incorporating into the existing map. My original slogan for the project is why wait for the next crisis. It appears that Honduras is now in the midst of a crisis. Thus, I’m attempting to gather information about both Honduran health structures as well as the recent Dengue outbreak. I would love to update this map to be more relevant and detailed about the current situation in Honduras.

How can we help?

I am the only one actively collecting the information, emailing NGOs, reading news reports and mapping for this project. I am also attempting to plug into the various crisis mapping communities, all while staying on top of my medical studies. I would love some more experienced and knowledgeable crisismappers involved in this project. I have recently made contact with the Medicine sans Frontieres (MSF) mission in Honduras and they have been providing me with copies of the epidemiological reports of the Dengue outbreak. I haven’t time to map this yet. I am hoping in the coming days to establish some contacts within the FrontlineSMS/SMSMedic community with individuals running SMS based health projects in Honduras to see if collaboration might be feasible. I’m on twitter hoping that this may attract the attention of some potential volunteers.

You can access and edit the working spreadsheet of Honduran Hospitals, Clinics, NGOs and Medical Brigades by using the Google spreadsheet.

More information about this project can be found by following these links.

Honduras Health Crowdmap
Paul on Twitter

More about Paul

My name is Paul Jones, I am 22 years old and in my 3rd year of Medicine at McMaster University (in Canada). I’ve been to Honduras twice with medical brigades and am active with a couple of NGOs which work in the health field in Honduras. I’m in my final year of Medicine at McMaster University. I plan to pursue a residency program in Family Medicine with potentially some additional training in Emergency Medicine as well as Travel/Tropical Medicine. Briefly, I flirted with the idea of pursuing specialization in Infectious Diseases, but have decided that Family Medicine would be a better fit for me. I am still really interested in Virology and Global Health. During medical school I have been writing articles for our student newsletter Placebo about neglected, infectious diseases and other Global Health topics. I’m also writing an article about the unprecedented outbreak of Dengue Fever and Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever in Honduras.

Update: (Tuesday, September 21, 2010)
Paul is now collaborating with a few volunteers from the CrisisMappers mailing list.

Update: (Monday, September 27 2010)
Ushahidi features Mapping Honduras.


Join the Global CrisisCamp Day of Learning

Global CrisisCamp Day of Discovery and Learning is about Preparedness. Our strengths are in crowdsourcing technology and information often using applied social media. We want to prepare our training materials, communications strategy and infrastructure to be more positioned to help. We also know many folks like to discuss policy. And, we want to provide an opportunity for folks to learn more about other Volunteer Technical Communities.

We will have three streams of activity:

1. CrisisCamp in a Box: create content and participate in activities and tasks to help groups and individuals contribute
2. Open Dialogue about Emergency Preparedness and World Bank Problem Definitions
3. Learn about other Volunteer Technical Communities and their tools.

We are also very fortunate to partner with the World Bank. The World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery Labs will provide Global CrisisCamp Day with a set of problem definitions for volunteers to explore ideas and provide innovative approaches to challenges related to flooding in Pakistan. Anyone can participate. Written and video submissions are welcome. Problem definitions will be released prior to the events on the CrisisCommons wiki.

We have CrisisCamps planned for Calgary, Toronto, Washington DC, London UK, Virtual Team and more.

Register for the Toronto CrisisCamp event or attend a virtual CrisisCamp.

More on the CrisisCommons.org blog.

CrisisCamp Day


My Ignite Toronto presentation: Brainsharing

I was honoured to join the O’Reilly Ignite family by presenting at Ignite Toronto on Thursday, September 2, 2010.

Brainsharing: How Crowdsharing your Brain Cells can Change the World


(Thanks Brian Chick for recording.)

Heather’s Ignite Slideshare:

It was a fantastic experience. I learned so much from preparing and presenting.

Please share. Hopefully this will inspire people to volunteer.


Heather Leson


Help Crowdsource SMS Reports for the Pakistan Floods

Cross-posted from the Crisiscommons.org blog.

SMS (Text messages) Reports + Your Brain + a search engine + google translate + basic map (long and lat coordinates)

Mobile phones are used in Pakistan. There is a text message (SMS) short code created to help people in Pakistan send reports. The SMS reports link to a tool called Crowdflower. Volunteers review and submit tasks which get mapped on Ushahidi. There is a virtual team of folks reviewing the reports for any urgent matters and appropriately redirecting to the NGOs on the ground. The Pakreport Ushahidi map tells a map story of what is needed and what is happening in the affected flood regions of Pakistan.

So far 100 reports have been filed. The short code may be communicated more throughout Pakistan. They are expecting an increase of reports in the coming days. We need your help.

Ushahidi is an open source tool that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Their goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating crowdsourced information from the public for use in crisis response. Crowdflower is a tool that helps people do quick, crowdsource tasks.

Read More »


World Humanitarian Day

Today is World Humanitarian Day. They honour us and the world with their self-less efforts to make the world a better place.

There are 9 main NGOs clusters that work in places of crisis
. These groups are designated by the United Nations via Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). I’ve met some amazing volunteers and staff who work on the various teams.

First, clusters dealing with service provision:
a) Logistics, chaired by the World Food Programme (WFP); and
b) Emergency Telecommunications, chaired by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as process owner, with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as the common data communications service provider and WFP as the common security telecommunications service provider.

Second, clusters dealing with relief and assistance to beneficiaries:

c) Emergency Shelter, chaired by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (for conflict-generated IDPs)
d) Health, chaired by the World Health Organisation (WHO);
e) Nutrition, chaired by UNICEF
f) Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene, chaired by UNICEF. (WASH)

Third, clusters covering cross-cutting issues:

g) Early Recovery, chaired by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP);
h) Camp Coordination and Camp Management, chaired by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (for conflict-generated Internally Displaced Persons [IDPs]) and by the International Organization for Migration (for natural disasters); and
i) Protection, chaired by UNHCR (for conflict-generated IDPs).

(Details from the OCHA website: Learn more.)

Thank you for being so inspiring.


Crowdsourcing Communities attempt to aid Pakistan

Crowdsourcing during a Crisis is evolving. Here are some of the amazing activities that you can volunteer your knowledge and technical skills to help manage information, maps, and development. We may not save people and the geopolitical situation is very uncertain, however, using our skills may make a difference. If not today, then someday.

Reading articles about the plight in Pakistan from the Telegraph (UK) really provide some context. The UN and World Bank are also providing great communications about their activities.

Think of these activities as modeling: ASCII art evolved to HD Games. Each layer of knowledge, development and information that we collaborate and crowdsource can build a new future of aid. Maybe, just, maybe we might be able to help someone now. This motivates us all to try.

Crowdsourcing with tools to CrisisCamp, Map, Wiki, Tweet, Sahana, Google and more

Join a virtual CrisisCamp

CrisisCommons is a global network of volunteers who help people in times and places of crisis. If you can use the Internet, a word processor, a cell phone or any other kind of technology, you can help. Right now virtually online or during one of our many CrisisCamps around the world!

CrisisCamp Cambridge and CrisisCamp London had their first CrisisCamp last weekend. They continue to spearhead efforts. There are talks about France and Australia. Folks from Canada and the US have been supporting our UK friends. CrisisCamp Calgary and CrisisCamp Montreal have also been fully engaged for the past two weeks.

CrisisCamp – Pakistan 2010 Floods


Mappers are waiting for Hi-res satellite maps of the affected regions. Folks are using existing maps, SMS notifications and amazing innovation.


Ushahidi wrote a great blog post on how to crowdmap and the situation in Pakistan.

If you want to learn more, join the CrisisMappers googleggroups or OpenStreetMap Forums. (OpenStreetMap’s Humanitarian OSM Team investigating a response). The mailing lists are very noisy, but the discussions about open source, humanitarian aid, “do no harm”, collaboration and more are very engaging.


Two great efforts to manage information with wiki:

(There is some talk about merging CrisisWiki and Pakistan.wikia.)


The Twitter hashtag is #pkfloods. Search #pkfloods and you will find a wealth of information and calls to action. Many of the organizations mentioned in this post are using twitter for volunteer outreach, education, and mapping reports.

NEW: CrisisCamp Paris set up a live tweet/liveblog for #PKfloods:

Live Tweet/Liveblog from Canalblog
Ch16.org combines tweets, blogs etc
Tweak the Tweet from University of Colorado focuses on refining the signal to noise ratio with veracity during crisis response. They are an amazing group.

Learn how to use Twitter to help manage crisisdata.


Sahana is a open source disaster management system. It is a web based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster from finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, tracking camps effectively between Government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves.

They have set up an instance
A new SitRep module has been built to manage:
* Flood Reports
* Assessments from World Food Program
* School Reports

Sahana is looking for data entry and Python help.


Google’s Crisis Response Team has released Person Finder and Resource Finder to provide help.

And more Social Media and Information Volunteering


Wouldn’t it be great if there was a YouTube channel dedicated Pakistan? It would be amazing if there was a channel dedicated to the humanitarian groups and their story to help. What about the diaspora in Canada, US, UK, and around the world?

Add any video links to the Crisis Commons wiki and please tweet them out with the #pkfloods tag.


Understanding Pakistan, her history and her people is really paramount. Knowledge is power.. I am looking for the best links on Pakistan to share with all the communities. Help us learn.

Add these to the Crisis Commons wiki and please tweet them out with the #pkfloods tag.


Please blog, tweet, map and wiki to collaborate. Every voice and action can count. Every volunteer can help with a computer. Maybe you will inspire someone else to volunteer.

My inbox is full and I am so proud to be engaged with such bright people. Unfortunately, I’m focused on a personal project and don’t have the bandwidth to create a CrisisCamp Pakistan right now. I would spend every waking hour doing all of the above. I can however blog and spread the word.

Change the world: You can too!


Canadians join First International Crisis Commons Congress

Crisis Commons Canada was born on January 12, 2010 precipitated by the earthquake in Haiti. After receiving a Facebook note call-to-action from Heather Blanchard, Crisis Commons co-founder, I joined the first global conference call on January 13, 2010 and began my efforts to build a Canadian contingent. Now, we have three strong Canadian cities: Calgary, Montreal and Toronto. Crisis Commons has grown from 250 people attending an unconference in June 2009 to over 2000 volunteers in 10 countries. Our coalitions of virtual and city volunteers acted to create software and manage information in response to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and the Oil Spill in the Gulf. There are approximately 100 Canadian volunteers so far across all the CrisisCamps this year.

On July 15 – 16, 2010, Crisis Commons is holding our First International Crisis Commons Congress in Washington, DC. Events sponsored by the World Bank, Mozilla Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Crisis Commons city leads from all the 10 countries are joining. We will also be holding an unconference on July 17, 2010 to discuss our strategic framework and build our community.

We invite not-for-profits, non-governmental organizations, private sector and academic institutions to participate in roundtable discussion to explore lessons learned from 2010 disasters such as the Haiti and Chile earthquakes and the Gulf Coast Oil Spill, collaboration opportunities and potential challenges with sustainability/engagement with volunteer technology communities. The Crisis Commons round tables are either sold out or close to sold out, however virtual attendees are welcome.

There are three Crisis Commons Congress Roundtable sessions:

The event in its entirety will be broadcast via webstream and archived on www.crisiscommons.org. A webstream link will be posted on the Eventbrite registration pages (see above links) and www.crisiscommons.org on Thursday at 7AM. The Webcast will begin promptly at 8:30AM.

Canadians attending the Congress in DC are:

Heather Leson, Crisis Commons Canada, Toronto City Lead and Community Working Group Co-Lead.
Lorraine Craig, Montreal City Lead
Kimberley Rouf, Haiti Amps Project Lead
Darlene Parker, Calgary City Lead
Brian Chick, Toronto Social Media Lead
Melania Gorka, Toronto Development Policy volunteer
John Saunders, Ontario Provincial Director, Canadian Red Cross

We also have a number of Toronto virtual attendees including Morgen Peers, Jackie Baker and Steve Kalaydjian. And, we are pleased to have another Canadian NGO virtually attend: Neal McCarthy, Oxfam Canada

We continue to build our Canadian Crisis Commons community and are really looking forward to the conversations with our partners and friends from all around the world.


All about the Uptime

Technical communications is a fine juggle. On a daily basis, I collaborate between customers, technical teams, and management to deliver complex projects, build customer partnerships, activate change, create concise content, document processes, and train staff. It is very fast paced and rewarding once you learn to negotiate all the moving parts.

For three years, I’ve written for the OpenSRS SaaS dashboard. My current position as technical communicator did not exist before I started. We created it from scratch and tailored it to meet the needs of our highly technical Internet customers. With a narrow field of expertise, I have few peers who focus solely on communicating uptime with real-time incident reports. I follow SaaS dashboard communications and industry blogs that discuss outages and uptime. Learning to be an Internet industry leader in technical communications requires constant comparison. I discovered Lenny Ratinsky’s blog Transparent Uptime and was happy to have my work featured as a successful model.

Recently, Lenny presented about software-as-service (SaaS) dashboards at Velocity 2010. Here are some of his thoughts on being a successful technical communications organization:

I think we need to consider the next iteration of technical communications. As most of us know, technical staff on video is a new concept for most development and operations teams. Communications, development and documentation are all changing with agile software development. Customers demand that companies communicate the messages in a human, timely and accessible method. Screencasts and videos are often used for product launches. It follows that screencasts and video streaming will move to technical incident communications and be one offering of the next SaaS dashboard model. Internet customers are savvy and they want real-time technical details. Companies will add this to their communications suite allowing customers to receive their uptime reports via Twitter, blogs (RSS), video streaming and live chats. Incorporating video into technical incident, change and escalation processes will be very interesting. It will be the responsibility of technical communicators to manage, to train and to assist this exciting transition. Changing to meet the information and communication methods will be a new spin on transparency.

Thanks Lenny!



Task Turks Teaching Moment

Developers want to create from scratch. At Random Hacks of Kindness in Sydney,Australia, I was schooled by the Task Turks team. These very bright software developers created a tasking tool from scratch using Django, github, and some fierce project design thinking.

Task Turks team (Pamela Fox, Jared Wyles, Nathan Oehlman, Damon Oehlman,and Tom Jachimczak) created “Little Things” at the two day hackathon.

Task Turking

Task Turks Problem Definition:

During a crisis situation, a large number of tasks that are required for the commencement or resolution of relief efforts often stagnate as it is difficult to align specific tasks with people who are able to perform those tasks effectively. This may be due to specific skillsets being required or it may be a difficulty with aligning location specific tasks to people in the right area.

The Task Turking project aims to deliver a simple web interface to allow entry of tasks that are needed, specifying either specific skills, locations or additional information and then farm the jobs out to people performing the work based on the skills that they have. The project is adding smarts to the codebase, allowing for specific workflows of tasks dependent on user abilities and tasks themselves.

It was identified that users performing these tasks should also become rewarded through an achievement based system where performing tasks will lead to increased badges or achievements. These are also used to determine how a particular task will be performed – an example of this would be a task requiring translation. If a translator has not performed any work in the past, the task would then require a verification step either by the poster or by another user to ensure the quality of the translation is up to required standard, while a user who has done many translations in these languages would automatically be accepted as having performed a suitable job.

The code allows users to find jobs based on their specific skillset and allows search functionality to be saved for additional customization and ease of use. While being designed to be a simple intuitive interface, the project has included many flexibilities in the types of job requirements and skillsets that users have and tasks require.

Lead by Pamela Fox (a Google Wave team member by day) the team spent about 5 hours of the 1st day mapping out the project and building the requirements. Then, they taught themselves Github and started developing. The hardworking team even worked on the project up to the last seconds before the second day presentations. All the code and technical specifications can be found on the RHoK wiki.

Task Turk Project Team presenting “Little Things”:

Balancing innovation and problem definitions is never an easy job. With Crisis Commons work, we are concerned about duplicate software development projects. We simply don’t want to waste the time of keen, talented folks who want to contribute. I approached the Task Turk project as a duplicate effort. I was wrong. The more I consider the real-time use of this project, the more I become their advocate.

Development creativity at hackathons should be free to enthusiastically embrace a problem definition in the manner the developers see fit. As one person pointed out: “We are in development frames during our day jobs. We want to create from scratch.” Inspiring work can lead to more brilliant ideas. Change happens when people are free to innovate. I thought I was a believer before. Now, I am a drummer in their parade.

So, I am publicly thanking each of you for “Little Things”. Your teaching moment has made a big impact on my development in my volunteer time (as a lead for Community Development with Crisis Commons) and with my professional career. Oh, and for introducing me to the awesome Aussie candy: Whizz Fizz. Thank you!

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