[This is a guest blog post by Gregory Asmolov, an intern at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, contributing editor to “Runet Echo” and a Russian language blogger. He and Alexey Sidorenko deployed the Ushahidi platform Russian Fires.ru].
I landed in Moscow in the end of October. It was still relatively warm, but already nothing reminded the unprecedented wave of heat and smog caused by wildfires that affected lives of entire population of Russian capital and many Russian regions. The primarily goal of my visit was meeting my friends and relatives. My visit, however, turned to be extremely intense due to the “Help Map” project that Alexey Sidorenko and I launched last summer.
The “Help Map” (Russian-fires.ru) was the first use of Ushahidi in Russia to coordinate assistance between victims of this summer’s wildfires in Russia, and citizens who wished to help them. Shortly after the platform was launched, hundreds of citizens wrote in with appeals for help, hundreds of people wrote in offering help, the site had several thousand unique users within a very short span of time, receiving extensive coverage in Russia’s media. A “situation room” that was set up in Moscow coordinated and delivered aid, based on information that “Help map” received and accumulated. The peak of the unique visitors per one day was more than 17 thousand. The total number of unique visitors is more than 187 thousand. We received more than 1600 messages. When the emergency situation passed and wildfires were stopped if not by firefighters then by the rains, the interest in platform significantly decreased. Once the emergence situation has passed, the motivation of its participants decreased as well. Everyone is back to normal life with common concerns about jobs and families.
This brought to a number of situations, every Ushahidi team once experienced. What should we do with the platform that we already have? Should we focus on the further development of “Help Map” or initiate new projects? How to make Ushahidi-based projects sustainable in post-emergency period? Do we need Ushahidi at all, after situation has normalized?? Who can be our partner? Should we find any local organization that will lead the issue?
All these questions turned to be one of the major issues on the agenda of my visit to Moscow.
First of all the visit to Moscow was opportunity to meet the virtual colleagues. I haven’t met ever most of the people who joined to the “Help map” project, and knew the names only from Google group mailing list and Skype discussions.
We met close to Lubyanka Square, a symbol of Soviet power where KGB/FSB headquarters are placed. Unfortunately, the forum was not full without some important people – Alexey Sidorenko, Warsaw-based co-founder of the project, among others. The good news was that Elena Kobyakova, one of the “Help Map” activists, came from Saint Petersburg especially for our meeting. Getting together was important not only for discussion of various issues, but for the fact of the meeting itself.
Ethan Zuckerman suggests Virtual-Person to Person-Virtual (VPV) model for development of networked projects:
People discover the community online, and connect based on their sense of shared identity and values with the people already participating. They come together, face to face, either at the biennial meetings we run or at the other people’s conferences That, in turn, builds the trust and relationships we need to survive working together for the next months or years until we see each other face to face.
The meeting in Moscow was a move from first V to P in expectations of further V-based cooperation.
The meeting discussed the past and the future of platform and raised ideas about continuation of “Help map” as well as about other possible usage of “Ushahidi” that our core team can support and move forward. At the same time it was also clear that the “Ushahidi” based projects can’t be sustainable based only on core team of “Help Map”. Therefore the visit was not only meeting the old colleagues but also an opportunity to introduce the project to new audience and engage it.
In my opinion, one of the best partners could be students and university programs that focus on research of information technologies. I was glad for any request to talk about the project and Ushahidi. Giving lectures about social and political aspects of crowdsourcing and “Help map” as a case study at political science departments of Moscow universities –Moscow State University and Higher School of Economics was a wonderful opportunity for introduction of Ushahidi as well as discussion if ICT can create new platforms for governance and civil society.
Another type of discussion about “Help Map” took place at Department of Psychology of Moscow State University. This time the lecture was focused on the evolutionary role of ICT and crowdsourcing as tools that can facilitate network cooperation and mutual aid. Lectures at universities were not only the opportunity to discuss but to find partners for future projects, both on institutional level and among the students. It’s too early to talk about any results, but the idea of creating experimental platform that will make possible engaging students in managing crowdsourcing projects and doing research is currently under consideration. Some of the students also expressed their interest in writing papers about Ushahidi and taking part in future projects.
Not only universities expressed interest in “Ushahidi” and “Help map” project. The Civic Chamber of Russian Federation, a governmental body that incorporates leaders of various civil society organizations, held a special meeting “About options for coordination of volunteer activities based on case study of Internet-project “Help Map”. The meeting was attended by representatives of the chamber, leaders of NGO organizations that took part in firefighting and volunteers.
After presentation of the project that we made with my colleague, a head of “Help Map” coordination center Anastasia Severina, a long discussion took place. We were asked if we would like to create our own non-profit organization “Help Map” that will continue working on the project and launch new crowdsourcing platform for facilitation of volunteer activities. The issue if network based project can be facilitated through creation of organizational structure is complicated and controversial. I tried to claim that the power of the project is being based on self-organized networks, and once you try to transform it to organizational structure, it might threaten its networked nature. Another threat that might be caused by this type of transformation is bureaucratic responsibilities that have any non-profit organization.
Later on, another aspect of this question was raised during the meetings with people from e-government community. Should government support development of crowdsourcing projects for emergency situations? Can the resources, cooperation with government structures, and outreach assistance make projects like “Help map” more effective? Or, vice versa, will it threaten the independent self-organized people-to-people nature and will reduce the motivation of volunteers to take part in it? The answer to this question is not easy and ambivalent. It’s clear though that it depends on a political context and a degree of trust between government and its citizens.
At the Civic Chamber we claimed that the most effective way of further development is finding new partners among NGOs and academic community. One of our requests was to support university-based projects for crowdsourcing experimental platforms. On one hand it might create some institutional platform. On the other hand, the non-partisan status of universities can reduce the threat to networked organization. Moreover, it can create new research options and engage students in social responsible activity. There is a doubt if a type of meeting as we had at “Civic chamber” can lead to any significant results, however the main effect of it is raising awareness about role of IT in general and crowdsourcing in particular in emergency situations. Therefore, even the title of the official summary of the discussion that was published by the Civic Chamber “Help map will be developed” might be approached as an achievement.
Another channel for cooperation is local NGOs. Following the discussion in Civic Chamber we had meetings with local environmental groups. We discussed the possible transformation of “Help map” for wildfires to a map that will collect information about any forest-related issues (e.g. monitoring of violations, coordination of restoration). At the same time we will be prepared to provide help again in emergency situation (according to forecasting of Russian environmentalists, the wildfires next summer can be even worse). The Russian environmentalists emphasized the role of crowdsourcing in early warning and prevention of fires. According to their data, most of the fires that destroyed villages started few days earlier in the deep forest, and slowly moved forward towards populated areas. Local authorities, however, were not ready to take any measures before the fire reached the villages. Therefore, monitoring the wildfires should use crowdsourcing together with the analysis of satellite images (Russian NGO “The transparent world” provides alternative source of satellite images). This solution will not only help to coordinate the response to wildfires, but would also show the real degree of the disaster and make pressure on the authorities to start providing early response.
As a small group of volunteers “Help map” team is not able to create or support many projects. But as those who had an experience of launching and managing crowdsourcing platform, we can make any effort and be as open as possible to share our experience with others. We already received many requests for lectures and presentations about “Help map” including a conference for regional journalists and conference about the role of IT in improving the life in Saint Petersburg. In November “Help Map” and “Ushahidi” will be presented at big e-government conference in Moscow and new media readings at Moscow State University. At the same time “Help Map” example makes possible to raise awareness about role of information technologies for solution of social problems within software developers’ community. Pavel Sutyrin, one of “Help Map” leading programmers, already held a seminar dedicated to this issue. We also consider idea of writing a guide of how to use Ushahidi in Russian that will include the story of “Help map” as a case study for launching crowdsourcing projects.
Raising awareness about crowdsourcing is as important as supporting the next projects. We can see some “Ushahidi” chain effect in Russia. A prominent Russian blogger Alexey Navalny works on project for monitoring problems with roads and forcing the authorities to fix it. One of NGOs considering launching a platform that will monitor violations in regard to military service in Russian and provide an option for soldiers to send an SMS if their right were violated. Other group is working on a platform that will collect information about various types of right violations. And certainly another project is the further development of russian-fires.ru as an environmental platform that can also provide response in emergency situations.
Another possible direction of further development is incorporation of crowdsourcing practices within e-government. Despite some concerns and skepticism, we may still hope that platforms as Ushahidi can play a role in bridging the gap between government and citizens. The Russian e-gov efforts already showed few interesting and inspiring projects like rosspending.ru , that in a user-friendly way tell people about the public procurement and main government contractors. Maybe at some point we will be able to see if Haitian Noula model can work in Russia.
A lot of questions about dynamics of crowdsourcing development are still open… However, we may conclude with a high degree of confidence that after having a significant experience this summer Russia is ready to join to international crowdsourcing and mapping community.