Humanity Road: A Virtual Volunteer Organization in Disaster Response

Digital volunteerism is quickly establishing itself as a consistent feature of crisis events. In previous research, we examined an emergent group of digital volunteers, the self-termed voluntweeters, who came together after the Haiti earthquake to assist in response efforts. This study expands that work, following a subgroup of the voluntweeters as they organize into a formal response agency.

Humanity Road is a first-of-its-kind, formal non-profit in the domain of digital disaster response. The organization is almost entirely virtual, bringing together volunteers from all over the world with a mission that includes educating the public on how to survive disaster events and assisting in response efforts during events by filtering, verifying, and routing crisis-related information.

Appropriating Available Tools
Humanity Road appropriates available ICT for all of its work.

  • Twitter: To send out educational messages; to find information during disasters; and to recruit new members.
  • Skype: To coordinate internally, to collaborate with other groups; to train volunteers; to organize between events; and as a backchannel all the time where volunteers can go to relax and to strengthen relationships with each other.
  • Google Docs: To coordinate their information gathering activities during disaster events.

Technology and Action Shape the Organization
Taking a perspective based on Gidden’s theory of structuration and Orlikowski’s description of the duality of technology, this paper examines how Humanity Road’s evolving work practices, mission, and position within the ecosystem of emergency response are shaped by the tools volunteers appropriate and the actions that volunteers take with these tools.

Sustaining the Organization Through Episodic Volunteering
With a mission of responding to disasters all over the world, all the time, volunteers can quickly become exhausted. Our research shows how Humanity Road has adapted to possibilities and constraints of their tools, as well as the subtleties of disaster volunteerism, to sustain. This includes actively shaping their mission and work practices to recruit and accommodate spontaneous and episodic volunteers, enabling them to increase their work capacity when they really need to—during crisis events.

Humanity Road as Stewards of the Commons
Looking at the nascent organization’s impact, and building off Hess and Ostrom’s concept of a “knowledge commons,” we view Humanity Road acting—in both their educational role and through their consistent work to shape the information space after disaster events into a usable resource—as stewards of the commons.

For more, see our full paper, Working and Sustaining the Virtual Disaster Desk.
Kate Starbird, University of Washington
Leysia Palen, University of Colorado

2 thoughts on “Humanity Road: A Virtual Volunteer Organization in Disaster Response

    • Paulus, you should contact the folks at Humanity Road if you’re interesting in joining their organization. Follow them on Twitter at @HumanityRoad or check out their website at humanityroad.org.

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