Supporting the humanitarian effort during disasters: Opportunities for LIS students as digital volunteers


Published: October 20, 2014 by Dr. Chris Hagar

I was excited to present a paper at the recent Library 2.014 conference with two former students from my crisis /disaster health informatics class, Joyce Monsees and April Anderson. The title of our paper was “Supporting the humanitarian effort during disasters: Opportunities for LIS students as digital volunteers.” In this class we explore the inter-connectedness of information, people, and technologies in a crisis and examines how information is created, accessed, organized, coordinated and disseminated during a disaster. Topics that we cover include information seeking and information behavior during disasters, information systems, the impact of social media, issues of trust, health information in humanitarian crises, and more. We also discuss the multiple roles that librarians and information professionals can play in crises preparedness and response.

Crisis informatics research by Starbird & Palen (2011) highlighted the ways in which emergent groups of digital volunteers have mobilized during disaster events to support information management efforts. Historically volunteers needed to be in a physical space, to be on the ground at the point of the disaster to help. This is no longer the case – internet access, mobile communication and global interaction give people the tools to mobilize “digital volunteers” to support crisis response and humanitarian efforts. Volunteers do not travel to the site, but collect and use information through online resources. Different terms are used for this type of group – “digital volunteers”, “virtual teams” and “volunteer technical communities.” Volunteers situated all over the globe, who could be thousands of miles away from the location of the disaster, gather, aggregate and process information to solve real-world crisis problems (Starbird, 2012). They provide “collective intelligence” that is useful on the ground to local responders – this could be, for example, identifying the location of shelters, medical help, food and water, and open transportation routes.

Joyce and April aid the humanitarian effort in disasters in their key roles as digital volunteers. At the Library 2.014 conference, Joyce talked about her work with the Standby Taskforce (SBTF). The SBTF organizes digital volunteers into a “flexible, trained and prepared network ready to deploy in crises” ( Joyce leads the Volunteer Engagement Team at SBTF. Earlier this year when the Malaysia Flight 370 disappeared, she was one of the volunteers who took part in the digital search and rescue effort that followed. Currently, the SBTF is compiling a dataset of healthcare facilities in West African countries affected by Ebola.

April talked about her role as a SitCell analyst with the Red Cross San Diego/ Imperial Counties chapter where she works in the situation room of the Disaster Operations Center to search for, organize, analyze and disseminate information to build situational awareness. This year April collected data during the American Samoa flooding and landslide disaster and the San Diego wildfires.

The crisis informatics course plus many other courses offered in the MLIS program equipped both students with the knowledge and skills to enable them to be key players in disaster response. In particular, skills in: online searching, information retrieval, information organization and management, verifying data, using social networking tools, and knowledge about information services and geographic information systems. You can view the Library 2.014 presentation here.

Starbird, K. (2012). Digital volunteerism: Examining connected crowd work
during mass disruption events. Proceedings of the Computer Human Interaction Conference 2012, May 5-10, 2012, Austin, TX.

Starbird, K. & Palen, L. (2011). “Voluntweeters”: Self-organizing by digital volunteers in times of crisis. Proceedings of the ACM 2011 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2011), Vancouver, CA, pp. 1071-1080.


Post new comment