Podcast: moving into fifth

This is the latest edition of the Natteron podcast I record with Helen Reynolds.

In this edition we were joined by Rose Rees Jones to talk about open data, anthropology, the Missing Maps project, the Big Pathwatch, Wales, Cornwall, and data.parliament.uk amongst other subjects.

Links referenced in this podcast

Stealing some time from the finest comms minds at #commscamp15

Room full of people some sitting some standing

My pitch at CommsCamp was a shameless request for help.

I asked people to come and help me write a communications plan for the Standby Task Force. Explaining what Standdy Task Force does from a standing start in 20 seconds turns out not to be that easy. So item one for the comms plan: we need an elevator pitch for SBTF.

This is what I should have said

Standby Task Force is a global network of crisis mappers. We mine social networks and public sources following natural disasters and provide maps and other resources to humanitarian agencies. Our aim is to help agencies understand what the situation is on the ground faster, so they can target support more efficiently and people more effectively, We have no paid staff, in fact up until the end of 2014 we had no funding whatsoever. I’ve been a volunteer since 2011 and I joined the core team this year.

One of my roles on the core team is to focus on communications and that, hopefully obviously, necessitates a comms plan / strategy. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to harness the collective wisdom of a bunch of communications professionals. It’s very easy to get too close to an organisation you are involved in and lose the objectivity you need to do a decent comms planning.

A great bunch of people did come. They quizzed me, they made helpful suggestions, and really helped me to reframe my thinking. Just spending 45 minutes explaining what SBTF does, what the strengths and weaknesses of the model are, what we’d like to do and what we worry about really helped me get some clarity. And I think they, maybe, got some insight into what SBTF and other digital humanitarian organisations get up to.

Here’s my current thinking on a comms plan after the discussion.


Relevant staff in humanitarian agencies globally know what SBTF capability is and activate us when we could assist.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved in between deployments.
SBTF volunteers feel motivated and involved enough to respond in large numbers when we do activate
People with relevant skills and interests know what SBTF is and continue to join us.

So this gives us three key audiences:

– humanitarian aid workers (working in disaster response)
– SBTF volunteers
– potential volunteers

And some broad approaches:

We need to make it easy to understand what our capabilities are.

This should help recruitment as well as helping humanitarian aid workers understand us a bit better. For example the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team builds maps of poorly mapped areas hit by disasters. That’s pretty easy to understand (and actually they do more than that).

SBTF has always innovated and tried new things. That’s a really important part of what we are, but it also may make it hard to get a handle on what it is that we offer. It may be time to list some specific products that we can provide to support humanitarian response. This wouldn’t stop us continuing to work at the cutting edge as well but it would make it easier for agencies to understand what value we can add in the current situation.

We do have a page which sort of describes what we get up to but it could be much clearer. http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/our-model/our-vision/

It might also help internally with training and engagement. If we can link the training and skills development for volunteers to the key products we provide it may help volunteers to see the value of investing their time and effort.

We need case studies.

And SBTF does have case studies, we’ve been around for five years this year and our volunteers have worked on a huge number of deployments. If you’ve heard of a natural disaster over the past few years it is likely that SBTF volunteers were supporting the humanitarian response.

We have some public outputs and some outputs that we can’t share in public. We’ve got blog posts, after action reviews and academic studies (and a book, not just about us but featuring us heavily).

But we don’t have the sort of case studies that comms people are after. They want 250 word, highly visual, tightly structured documents. We have all the raw materials to enable us to produce these (apart from maybe the visuals see next item).

If we develop a “menu” of products, it becomes easier to think about what case studies to work on. So one of the products we would be likely to list would be a “crisis map” showing all the images or reports relevant to the disaster accurately on a zoomable map. Ask any experienced volunteer “what’s a good case study to illustrate that”? and they’ll quickly be able to list several really good examples.

We need imaginative visuals

One thing the group was very clear on was the power of visuals. They are not wrong of course. Photographs create an emotional connection in a way almost nothing else does.

We struggle with photos of our work. Practically we are a bunch of people sitting at computers. We produce resources to help humanitarian agencies in disaster zones but even then the people we are directly helping are themselves sitting at desks trying to plan and coordinate humanitarian support in extraordinarily difficult situations. We can’t really ask them to nip out and take pictures of disasters.

That said, what we could do, is talk about the whole humanitarian response and point out how we were are a part of this. This is a subtle difference to how we tend to talk about things right now. We talk a lot about our specific work (which you would expect) and the specific agency that requested our support. We could probably think more about taking a step back and looking at the wider response, which we have been part of it.

But we also need to square the circle that we will never get that many images from the areas we are working to help but we need images to help all our audiences understand and connect with our work.

I think we need to find more ways to use visuals of our volunteers. One of the privileges of being on the core team is I get a really good view of how diverse and widespread our network really is. Most people don’t get that same sense. We can say “we’ve got 1600 volunteers from over 100 countries” but that’s not the same as showing you photos, videos or testimony from our volunteers (where they are happy to do that).

I keep returning to a fundamental truth about SBTF, we are 1600 volunteers, and our volunteers are amazing.

And we DO have maps and data and with a bit of creatibe input we could make these much more visually engaging.

We need a work plan

We’ve started a small comms team within the SBTF network and we hope to exapnd that a little. Assuming we agree on the broad approach the next step is to translate that into a sensible action plan. Instinctively I feel that this will need to be limited by the time our volunteers have available but does it? If we have a sensible, workable plan then could we apply for funding or pro-bono support from a PR/marketing agency?

That’s a genuine question. We need to make sure we protect the things that make SBTF uniquely flexible and effective. We are a volunteer network but we could, potentially, access funding for activities that will support the voluntary heart of our work.

What happens next?

I hope that this post will stimulate some discussion about whether this broad approach is sensible and what a work / action plan would look like.

We need to discuss that within the SBTF network as well as with the wider stakeholders.

I’d really value any comments in the comment field below or to ben@standbytaskforce.com or on skype:likeaword

Image credit: CommsCamp15-045 by W N Bishop, used under a creative commons NC-SA licence. 

What’s the difference between SBTF and VOST then?

It is possible that this is a question that has never occured to you. In fact I’d be willing to bet that the number of people who have ever asked this question is incredibly small. That said, if you are reading my blog I would say there is a high chance you have asked that question or something quite like it.

I must accept my share of responsibility for any confusion. I am on the core team of Standby Task Force and I’m part of a group trying to get VOST adopted in the UK. Sometimes (often) I conflate the two in talks.

In an attempt to help here is my, entirely personal, view about what the differences (and smilarities) are.

There is more about VOST on the vosg.us site and more about Standby Task Force over at www.standbytaskforce.com

The things we have in common

SBTF and VOST are not the same but there certainly are similarities. Indeed during the SBTF recent deployment to Nepal we worked closely with the VOST community and many VOST volunteers worked alongside SBTF volunteers and brought valuable skills and experience.

In both cases you have groups of people online monitoring social media in emergency situations and providing reports or maps to help responders on the ground get to the right place to help the right people.

The things that make us distinct.

SBTF is a global network of digital humanitarian volunteers. Essentially we offer to produce maps, databases or other information resources for humanitarian agencies following natural disasters. We can be activated by any humanitarian organisation and their request is tested against our activation criteria.

VOSTs are smaller and more focused teams. They typically exist to extend the capabilities of a local emergency management organisation. The organisation(s) they support will have a good understanding of the team members and will include them in training and exercising.

Though VOST team members are typically not paid for their work on VOST there is no reason why a VOST could not made up of paid team members. In fact one of the things we are exploring in the UK is the idea of training comms teams in the various organisations involved in emergency response to form VOSTs. In that model VOSTs could be formed entirely from paid staff.

There are no paid roles in SBTF and though it is possible that, one day, SBTF might employ a small support team. The strength of the SBTF is in the huge numbers of volunteers able to bring a wide range of skills and work around the clock around the globe it will always be a global volunteering endeavour.

Though each VOST is locally focused and (compared to SBTF) small, there is a global network of VOST teams. They try to follow a common framework and workflows. That makes it easy to scale the response with volunteers from other teams. The VOST(s) are always given tasks and directions for the emergency management organisation(s).

Scale of incident.

SBTF’s activation criteria starts with this statement:

SBTF typically activates in a humanitarian emergency declared under the International Charter Space & Major Disaster (disasterscharter.org), or in a political situation that may lead to a major humanitarian disaster.

SBTF will not activate for a winter flood event in Herefordshire, UK. If we had a Herefordshire (or West Mercia) VOST it almost certainly would activate for a winter flood event.

VOSTs bring local knowledge and expertise which really enhances their ability to rapidly sift information and turn it into intelligence.

SBTF volunteers are typically working around an area they have limited experience of (though one of the many great things about the SBTF network is that we almost always do have some volunteers with local knowledge).

What do you think?

As I say, these are my personal opinions. I’d really like to hear from SBTF and VOST folk about whether I’ve missed things, misconstrued things or, even, hit the nail on the head.

Communicating in emergencies is part of managing emergencies

Man in waterproofs talking to a camera held by another man in waterproofsI have a well-rehearsed line whenever anyone suggests I shell out good money to attend a conference

“I no longer attend conferences unless I’m speaking at them”

This is mostly true. I’ve spent too many days spent listening to disappointing speakers who seem only to be there because they paid for the honour or because the conference organiser doesn’t actually understand what the state of the art is. Combine that with the discovery of different ways of meeting and learning (like unconferences) and it is a very rare programme of speaker after speaker that will get me to travel anywhere.

But the Emergency Planning Society Wales Branch proves that there is still a place for a bunch of people in a room watching some powerpoints.

I don’t think it’s rocket science. It’s an event for a very clear (if small) audience put together by people who understand that audience and really care.

Plus emergency planners in Wales seem to be a universally pleasant group of people.

Anyway we had a tour through evacuating students, the emergency planning aspects of taking action on modern slavery (that’s right, there are), considering the long term impacts on individuals affected by emergencies, interruptions to gas supply and much, much more.

Throughout all the talks, the importance of effective communications was stressed again and again. Communicating with affected communities, with the wider public and with journalists and the media is something that is increasing in importance.

And there seems little doubt that emergency planning professionals recognise the need to have trained communication professionals involved throughout emergencies and recovery.

Which, it won’t surprise you to learn, is a position I wholeheartedly support.

But I am also concerned. Comms teams are under considerable pressure as the public sector makes deeper and deeper cuts. That’s life right now in the public sector and it has to be managed. The temptation to cut back on training and exercising comms staff, on reducing rotas, on ending on-call payments must be strong. Maybe these things could seem like a luxury in a time of austerity.

One sensation that all emergency planners recognise is the feeling when an incident starts. The uncertainty about how bad things will get, who will be affected, what will need to be done to keep them safe coupled with the certainty that no-one else is coming to help.

We can’t magic money out of nowhere but we must not forget that communications is a fundamental part of emergency response and requires skilled, trained, experienced professionals to deliver.

This might seem slightly self interested since I run a company focused on training comms officers to work effectively in emergencies. But really it’s the other way around, I think you need effective communications to effectively manage emergencies. And I think I can help.

Photo is Morpeth Floods by John Dal used under a Creative Commons licence

Things we should sort out about using open sources in emergencies

Numbered cogs and metal buttons on a machine in close up

A problem

There’s a problem in the use of open source intelligence in emergencies.

Or perhaps more accurately there are a series of ineffectively managed risks.


I think that, at least in prinicple, there is widespread acceptance amongst category one and two responders and others that digital communications tools play a key role, possibly the primary role, in warning and informing the public. That was not the case even a small number of years ago. The risk that someone senior would turn up in an emergency and say

“we’re not doing any of that Facebook nonsense”

has diminished. There remain considerable differences in culture and capacity around digital between different organisations and this does create an area of some risk.

That’s not the risk I want to talk about here though.

As organisations get more used to using these tools in emergencies they are starting to notice that there are useful data being shared in social networks. Increasingly managers are asking for information about what is happening online.

This is all to the good of course and one of the reasons I am backing the plan to bring the VOST concept to the UK.

It’s also where the risks come in.

Who is watching social media?

Often when you pose these questions in multi-agency groups a police officer with plenty of stripes will bristle slightly and point out that it is self-evident that the police service does the intelligence gathering around here.

That’s fine, police forces are clearly equipped for such work and I guess the average citizen would expect police forces to be gathering data from open sources around, for example, a controversial protest march. Are they as skilled in gathering data relevant to surface water flooding? Or animal diseases?

The risk is that if we aren’t clear on whose job it is, it becomes no-ones job.

Or the person who everyone looks to do it in an emergency gets made redundant.

You lot know about Twitter

And my experience  is that in many organisations communications (media / PR / digital) teams are being asked to play this sort of role. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly.

On one level, again, that’s fine. Comms teams usually have the technical skill and familiarity with social networks.

Comms teams are trained for a different task. Mining data from social networks (as I do in my voluntary role with Standby Task Force) is a skill. It requires judgements to be made based on a set of incomplete understandings. Just like other forms of intelligence gathering (or research).

I’m not saying comms professionals aren’t capable of doing this, but are they being trained to make sure they are analysing the data objectively and presenting reports with accurate confidence weighting?

Reasonable searches

And I’m not convinced we’ve got the issues around what level of data we should be mining sorted yet. Running a search for mentions of place names in case people are telling each other (but not the council) of flooding sounds reasonable (doesn’t it?).

What about when I see a report from an account I’m not familiar with, how do I work out whether I can trust that report. I’d probably have a look down their social media profile, to see if they have sent messages about that location before. I might Google their name (or their user name) to see if I can find out more about them on other social media platforms.

Is this reasonable and proportionate?

That citizen has a right to privacy but it’s not an absolute right. The state (including, presumably, local authority comms officers) can infringe people’s privacy if it is lawful, reasonable and proportionate to do so. And the fact that people have put information about themselves in places where it can be seen does not, of itself, mean it is reasonable for me to go and look for it, in this context, at this time.

These feel like risks we should be talking about. They are all highly manageable through the key tools of emergency management: planning, training and exercising.

It’s certainly something we hope to build into the VOST model for the UK.

It’s just ignoring them that is risky.

Podcast: second album syndrome

Against all expectation Helen Reynolds and I have managed to produce a second podcast. The sound quality isn’t perfect as we were wrestling with flaky hotel internet.

But we did manage to cover NATO, the joys of the Economist, a smart NHS marketing campaign, encryption and loads of other stuff.

Hope you enjoy it

If you really like it, why not subscribe on iTunes?

VOST in the UK: an actual plan

Day two at BlueLightCamp was a hack day.

But we encouraged everyone to think a bit beyond the usual conception of hackdays (lots of dev, lots of code, lots of visualisations) to focus on getting useful work done in any medium.

So a group of us foregathered to carry on the VOST discussion that had kicked off on day one and move it into an action plan.

A photo record of the flipcharts we threw out is available.

Got to start somewhere

We started on from the assumption that having VOST available in the UK would be a good thing, which is not to say that we believe the argument has been won (or even had) but you’ve got to start somewhere.

Then we imagined a hypothetical police officer chairing a tactical meeting. They get to the item in the checklist that says “consider activating VOST”.

What do they need to know to make that decision? we wondered and suggested these sort of things

A well understood set of terms of reference.

Realistically, the nature of the UK approach to emergency management means clarity on this point is very important. One model suggested to emulate is the casualty bureau. Police forces maintain this capability, make it available to other agencies in emergencies and the scope and capability is widely understood.

One distinct feature of VOST is it is agency neutral. That potential means no agency owns it but also means it can be nimble and responsive.

Is VOST appropriate for all incidents? Would you activate a VOST in a suspected terrorism incident? Would it be activated in a public health emergency?

Clarity on the outputs from VOST.

Is VOST a filter finding the items that look relevant or will it apply intelligence. If the latter, how will the certainty in each item be communicated. Will VOST provide written sitreps or map overlays or something else (live access to a spreadsheet for example). There was a lot of excitement around the idea that we could produce mapping layers with different colours or coding for different reports and confidence. This pleased me as it seemed we were reinventing Ushahidi.

How often will VOST report. In a presenting incident a “battle-rhythm” (I don’t like these military allusions myself) of hourly updates was considered a good target. Which raises the question of what level of resource is necessary to provide that with no notice for a couple of weeks. Then there is the recovery phase, where a slower rhythm is probably appropriate but that could go on for a long, long time.

Where it fits into multi-agency response.

Actually we went round this quite a bit. In terms of where cat one responders seem to be building their capacity VOST would link to comms / media cells. There are other attractions to this from my point of view… comms cells are multi-agency and tightly integrated into the tactical layer.

The argument against this is that VOST (certainly as we conceptualised it) is primarily an information gathering/processing function so that would seem to place it in the intelligence cell which would bring a whole set of complications.

Or there could be a distinct VOST cell. As I understand it this is essentially the model used by VOSTs in some other countries. Personally I’m quite attracted by this model but I think, practically, it would mean VOST would be left out more frequently.

And this led us into some slightly wider questions.

Is any LRF / RRP already doing this sort of thing well?

This seems like a good question for the CCS, or the internet generally.

What are the practical and operational limits of VOST?

And related to this what are the technical requirements. Personally I feel that porting the VOST workbook to Resilience Direct would be a great place to start but that would make it hard to collaborate with non UK VOSTs. Which raises the question…

What should be the link in terms of interoperability with VOST volunteers around the world?

How directly applicable is the global / US model to the UK?

This is a genuine question. On the face of it if it works in the USA you would have thought it would work in the UK but we do have a very different concept of emergency management and some very different organisational cultures. So we feel we need to test this

And then towards some actual proposals:

To develop a “product” that can be offered to LRFs to plug in at tactical level.

There are some prerequisites that we see to this some of which are listed above (sorting out the TOR, the capability, the limits and the outputs).

We need to nail the data protection and Article 8 (of the European Convention on Human Rights) issues too.

And we need to do something so we can show people what we are talking about.

To run a live exercise analysing data and producing outputs based around a non-emergency situation.

We’ve been calling this a “stress test”.

We started with the idea of Eurovision but we’d have to wait until next May to do that and we’d like to do something sooner. So we were thinking of a big cycling event or similar. We hope to recruit and train a bunch of volunteers just for that single event. This should help us test whether the USA model works in the UK and will give us something more tangible to show to LRFs.

We’d like to find a friendly academic who would like to provide some independent evaluation of this process. If you know anyone, point them our way.

Provide a competency framework and role profile for VOST team members.

There are potentially existing  frameworks and structures we could tap into for this. But we want to make it really easy for an LRF to get this capability up and working without having to do re-work.

We’re running a Trello board to coordinate this, it’s private for the moment but drop me a line if you’d like to be added in.

All comments, improvements, suggestions or, really, anything on this really welcomed.


Discussions on VOST at BlueLightCamp

BlueLightCamp took place in Birmingham last weekend (6 and 7 June). I expected there to be some discussion on VOST* and there was.

I wasn’t expecting there to be so much discussion, and planning, but there was.

@Rubonist pitched a session on VOST on Saturday and several of us who think the idea has merit for the UK got together with some who are unconvinced and some who had never heard of the idea.

I thought this was a really useful discussion. It crystallised some thinking for me, especially the fact that we need to separate out the way of working: the VOST mission as it were, from the staffing (volunteers or paid staff). We need to recognise that actually there are several conceptual leaps that people need to make if they are to get their heads around what we are proposing:

  • there is useful data in social networks
  • that data is not currently available to decision makers in emergencies in the UK
  • if it were available they would make better decisions
  • processing that data requires specially trained people able to work together
  • they don’t need to be in the same location
  • those people could be specially trained volunteers (or specially trained employees)

I think I tend to jump straight to the end without checking everyone is with me through all the stages.

What was particularly significant about this for me was that (@mtthwhgn‘s point) we can talk about VOST as a process within multi-agency response without getting bogged down in the question of volunteers. So we might say it is a task for the comms/media cell, train comms officers and make sure that they have the ability (and technology) to operate a VOST.

I suspect (as I imagine most comms professionals in cat ones will) that comms teams won’t have the capacity to do that on top of their warning and informing tasks.

Which is why we keep talking about volunteers.

Not all of those who started the discussion unconvinced by the need left it with their minds transformed but I do think most people felt that there was a potentially useful role here which would fill a gap to some extent.

I went to an earlier workshop pitched by Neil Beet about, essentially, open source intelligence gathering (in terms of legal and social limits). This is a particular interest of mine. I think it would be useful to nail this issue in terms of VOST sooner rather than later.

I felt pretty positive about the engagement on VOST after day one, but there was more, much more, to come on day two.

*Virtual Operational Support Team. The very good idea that you can improve your information picture if you get a team dedicated to reviewing relevant social media stuff and telling you what is happening out there. They do it in other countries already.