Volunteer and Technical Communities in Humanitarian Response

“Powered by cloud-, crowd-, and SMS-based technologies, individuals can now engage in disaster response at an unprecedented level. Traditional relief organizations, volunteers, and affected communities alike can, when working together, provide, aggregate and analyze information that speeds, targets and improves humanitarian relief.”
Ted Turner, Chairman of the United Nations Foundation, “Disaster Relief 2.0: the future of information sharing in humanitarian emergencies”.1

As the cost of information and communications technologies continues on its downward trajectory, we have increasingly seen a digital revolution that spurs change from within local populations to international agencies. The world is further connecting as masses go online to seek information and utilize tools to amplify their voices. Humanitarian organizations respond to the new opportunities afforded by the Internet and other digital technologies to navigate challenges and exploit innovative solutions amid this dynamic landscape. This was no more evident than when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013. The event offers a unique perspective on a situation in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) utilized new forms of engagement to improve humanitarian response through collaboration with Volunteer and Technical Communities (V&TCs).


The year 2010 was definitive in the history of humanitarian response. That year, an ad hoc group of online volunteers responded to the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, by creating a live Crisis Map2 that would eventually be widely used by responding organizations. This group demonstrated, for the first time, that V&TCs acting outside of the established humanitarian sector could play a key role in coordinating information during a natural disaster. As V&TCs began to evolve into more formal organizations with defined procedures and standards, the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) was formed to provide an interface between V&TCs and professional NGOs.3

The humanitarian community was in a state of evolution by 8 November 2013 when one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever recorded made landfall in the Philippines, affecting an estimated 14 million people. The response to Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) required an unprecedented level of coordination as local, governmental and international organizations worked amid a communications infrastructure severely damaged by the storm. As much as there was a need to deliver basic aid to affected populations, there was also a critical need to provide them with reliable information, which brought V&TCs into the response in record numbers.4


The first role V&TCs can play in a crisis response similar to the relief efforts that followed Typhoon Haiyan is to collect, filter, translate and verify information. As disaster strikes, affected communities turn to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to share statuses, pictures and the geolocation of events, all of which can be used as actionable information coming directly from affected areas. To better coordinate the response to Haiyan, a tech community from Cebu City, Philippines, launched the website #BangonPH,5 which used local media outlets to collect situational news in heavily damaged regions.

At the request of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), DHN mobilized a myriad of V&TCs to collect and make sense of the large swath of data available.6 It requested the activation of the skilled volunteers of the Standby Task Force7 to launch the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response platform, which used machine learning to gather tweets related to the crisis at hand.8

The next step was connecting filtered tweets to a MicroMappers session9 that allowed online volunteers to tag messages and images based on location, level of need, population displacement or infrastructure damage. The user-friendly platform received over 100,000 clicks to classify incoming messages during the Haiyan response.10


The launch of Google Earth in 2005 was revolutionary in the field of humanitarian response, providing aerial photography of the world. Mappers used this imagery to overlay multiple visualizations, adding layers and interactivity.

To make the incoming Typhoon Haiyan data meaningful and actionable, the Standby Task Force added the coded, relevant tweets into a live Crisis Map.11 The map contained additional layers, including satellite imagery and street-level data, as well as past, present and forecasted positions of tropical storms. OCHA, other humanitarian organizations, and even individuals with access to the Internet were able to use the map to coordinate relief efforts and better understand the situation in real time.

Another fruitful partnership arose from the American Red Cross collaboration with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)12  to offer field-based feedback on what areas in the Philippines the digital volunteers should be directed to map through the HOT tasking manager. These HOT volunteers then swarmed around the Wikipedia-style OpenStreetMap13 to add unprecedented details around the path of the typhoon. In total there were over 1,700 volunteers contributing 4.5 million edits to the map of the areas damaged by Typhoon Haiyan, further demonstrating the democratization of crisis response.14


The difference in structure and design of flat, ad hoc networks on the one hand, and the hierarchical nature of formal humanitarian organizations on the other, also presents unique challenges. A regular source of misunderstanding arises from the unique philosophies of the two groups. The organizational hierarchy and donation dependency of the latter can conflict with the open-source ideology and opt-in nature of the former. As a bridge between the groups, DHN has published excellent collaboration guides both for formal NGOs and for V&TCs15 to facilitate mutual understanding.

Furthermore, certain organizations will benefit from the establishment of rules of engagement and communication in advance of a crisis. The Code of Collaboration by Geeks Without Bounds is especially thoughtful.16 The best advice for collaborating organizations and individuals, however, is to establish relationships and trust before a crisis occurs. There is no perfect substitute for in-person interaction.

As with any group that works with information, there are concerns and risks present. These are specifically related to the issues of privacy, data ownership, liability and security, each of which carries enough details to merit its own article. What may be an appropriate response for a typhoon in the Philippines may not be appropriate for an armed conflict or a crisis that occurs in a country controlled by a repressive regime.

A final concern prevalent in V&TCs is volunteer trauma and burnout. Remote responders are still affected by exposure to graphic information and the stress that results from working with affected populations. This can lead to a sense of isolation if there is no nearby peer support or effective counselling available to meet the specific needs of the remote volunteer. Members of V&TCs are beginning to understand that negative sentiments associated with their work are natural and may merit professional help.


Despite the valuable achievements that may come from professional NGOs working with V&TCs, there are many lessons still to be learned and then put in place as best practices. Similarly, the continued changes in information and communication technologies indicate that the field will remain dynamic as partnerships continue to evolve. The new scale of collaboration that arose during Typhoon Haiyan, however, offers optimism that the growing relationships between diverse actors can lead to a more rapid response and improved outcomes for affected populations, in part because the information largely emerges from and in collaboration with the affected population itself. 


1       Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and others, “Disaster relief 2.0: the future of information sharing in humanitarian emergencies”, (Washington, D.C., Berkshire, UK, UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology partnership, 2011), p. 7. Available from http://www.unfoundation.org/assets/pdf/disaster-relief-20-report.pdf.

2       See Patrick Meier, “How crisis mapping saved lives in Haiti”, National Geographic Voices: Ideas and Insight from Explorers, 2 July 2012. Available from http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/07/02/crisis-mapping-haiti/.

3       For further information, see Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) website. Available from http://digitalhumanitarians.com/.

4       See Declan Butler, “Crowdsourcing goes mainstream in typhoon response”, Nature (20 November 2013). Available from


5       For further information, see #Bangonph website. Available from http://www.bangonph.com/.

6       See Katie Collins, “How AI, Twitter and digital volunteers are transforming humanitarian disaster response”, Wired (30 September 2013). Available from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-09/30/digital-humanitarianism.

7       For further information, see Standby Task Force website. Available from http://www.standbytaskforce.org/.

8       See Patrick Meier, “AIDR: Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response”, iRevolutions, 1 October 2013. Available from https://irevolutions.org/2013/10/01/aidr-artificial-intelligence-for-dis....

9       For further information, see MicroMappers website. Available from https://micromappers.wordpress.com/.

10     See Patrick Meier, “Early results of MicroMappers response to Typhoon Yolanda (Updated)”, iRevolutions, 13 November 2013. Available from https://irevolutions.org/2013/11/13/early-results-micromappers-yolanda/.

11     The live Crisis Map of Yolanda Typhoon is available from http://tinyurl.com/z musb6a.

12     For further information, see The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team website. Available from https://hotosm.org/about.

13     OpenStreetMap is available from http://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=7/50.868/-1.110.

14     See American Red Cross, “OpenStreetMap Damage Assessment Review”, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) Interim Report. Available from


15     The guides for both formal NGOs and for V&TCs are available from DHN website at http://digitalhumanitarians.com/content/guidance-collaborating-volunteer... and

http://digitalhumanitarians.com/content/guidance-collaborating-formal-humanitarian-organizations respectively.

16     The Code of Collaboration is available from the geeks Without Bounds website at http://gwob.org/about/code-of-collaboration/.