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.

 

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