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.