The Standby Task Force is a digital humanitarian group. Our mission is to hep to improve the understanding of the situation on the ground following significant disasters. We have hundreds of members in the network and an individual deployment can involve anywhere between 60-400 of them.
SBTF was launched in 2010 and from the very start it used Skype chatrooms. This wasn’t, I’m fairly sure, based on a detailed review of the the available platforms. It was based on the fact that the founders used Skype. Indeed Skype is still a vital communications tool in international humanitarian work. It’s flexible. It’s reasonably open and works across platform.
When you signed up for the Standby Task Force you were added to the General chatroom. This was a fairly low traffic room but allowed for announcements to be made.
When the SBTF deployed we would create a new chat room just for that deployment. When volunteers signed up for a deployment they would need to be added to the chatroom. This created a degree of friction in the process: you needed to be connected to someone already in the chat room to be added in. Which meant you had to shout in the general chat, accept a connection request and then be added in. Given timezone differences this could lead to significant delays.
We also, though this wasn’t transparent to everyone, had a chat room for volunteers playing a coordinator role.
The deployment chatroom was designed to encourage volunteers working on a deployment somewhere to ask for assistance “Does anyone here read French?” “I’ve just found this photo, what should i do with it?” “What are the priorities right now?”.
It also forged a sense of team and shared mission.
The actual work was done on individual’s PCs and recorded on Google Documents (it’s amazing what you can achieve with Skype and Google Docs).
In big deployments a single chatroom would become unwieldy and we would then break out into smaller chatrooms focused on particular tasks.
In any deployment we have volunteers undertaking coordinator and deployment lead roles. These are team leader type roles, encouraging and supporting volunteers but also answering technical questions and (in the case of leads) liasing with other groups and agencies in on the ground.
Good things/bad things
Chatrooms can be surprisingly satisfactory ways of interacting and the record of discussions really helped get a sense of the work that had been going on.
They didn’t work for anyone. In fact in my first deployment I did nothing because I was unsure of what to do and, as a Brit, was too diffident to speak (type) up and ask for help. I know I’m not alone in this. Some of this is personal, some cultural and some is familiarity and comfort with the technology.
Emoji use is massive in SBTF chats. I think this is really important. We have people from across the world many of whom are communicating in their second (or third or fifth) language. We’re working under pressure in a heightened environment. The risk of misunderstanding is high. Emoji really help to emphasise the intent behind the words. It took a bit of getting used to for me but now I couldn’t be without them. Indeed I work with a client on emergency exercises and we use Skype chat for exercise control. Emoji are banned in that chat room and it feels like I’m communicating under water.
Early on in the evolution of SBTF we recognised the real risk of stress for our volunteers and counsellors and an “empathy team” have always deployed with us. Coordinators work hard to spot signs of stress and to encourage volunteers to take breaks. It is amazing how you can get to know someone just through their typing and notice their mood change.
I think it was in the Nepal deployment when the empathy team set up a new chatroom badged as a cafe bar. It was inspired. People would spend time in that chatroom at the end of a shift. If you came across someone who seemed to be getting down in the deployment chat you could say “Let’s get a coffee (or a beer)” and start talking in the cafe chatroom. The mood would change instantly. I strongly recommend this approach to any groups working in similar circumstances.
We’ve moved to Slack. Slack is better for our purposes. It removes much of the friction that we encountered creating chatrooms and adding people (because our members can just join the channel). It also makes it easier to have chatrooms that persist between deployments (for specialist teams like GIS). We have a permanent cafe bar now. Slack works well because web are a defined team (thanks Slack for letting us use the full version for free).
We haven’t cracked the problem of dropping into a deployment chat being a bit like being dropped into a huge room of people shouting at each other (with emoji) but we’re working on it.
It’s not the perfect solution (there is no perfect solution). For people who don’t use Slack for anything else it is, in many ways, no different to the old Skype days: they have to remember their login details for Slack and then remember to check what’s happening. Because we deploy infrequently many of our volunteers don’t spend much time in our Slack team between deployments.
We often work with local communities affected by disasters. Typically they will use whatever platform they were already using for discussion. Facebook is very common along with WhatsApp and Telegram.
Lessons for others
I was prompted to write this because of a discussion on Twitter about using Slack for multi-agency comms in emergencies in the UK. I definitely agree that using a text chat platform is a good idea (I wrote about this yesterday). Personally I’m not totally persuaded that Slack is the right solution for that use case. Because it is not so much a permanent team as a lose network, some of whom may work together in a particular emergency. If I were in that situation, I’d look at Skype first. It’s become easier to join chatrooms without being invited and you can access Skype via a web browser (which can be very helpful in a public sector IT environment).