Stepping away from the core

I just made some changes to the website of The Standby Task Force. Not, in itself, a very noteworthy action. But these particular changes are significant to me. Because today I removed myself from the Core Team page and added myself to the Coordinators page.
The Standby Task Force has what, in management speak, most people would call a “flat structure” in that it doesn’t really have much of a structure at all. Everyone is a volunteer and most of us do most of our volunteering when a significant disaster has occurred and we work together online to improve the picture that responders on the ground have of what is really happening. We use Slack to coordinate and Google Drive to collate data.
The Core Team is a small group of volunteers who try to keep the show on the road generally and take a lead in actual deployments. I’ve been a volunteer with the Task Force for some years but it was with some trepidation that I applied for a vacant position on the Core Team.
I joined at the start of 2015. Not long before we were activated for Vanuatu, then Federated States of Micronesia, then Nepal, then Refugees in Europe, then Refugees in Europe again.
2015 was a busy year.
I’ve struggled for some time to keep up my Core Team commitments. I’m trying to run a business and, increasingly, that has taken most of my time. But it is with great regret and some sadness that I have stepped down now.
I’m absolutely committed to the mission of Standby Task Force. I’m remaining a coordinator, I hope to play and active role in future deployments and I’ll be helping our with comms things where I can.
When I was thinking of writing this I imagined that I might make some sort of post outlining what I have learned and what I hope that people will learn from my experience. Maybe I will write that post one day. But now I am writing this I find that I really only want to do one thing.
I want to pay tribute to my colleagues on the Core Team.
The Core Team is a small collection of people from across the world. They have a range of backgrounds and experiences. They have a range of personalities. They have a range of skills and abilities.
And they have taken on a pretty tough volunteering role.
The Core Team often has to take significant decisions: whether to activate, what we should do if we do activate, when to stand down under enormous pressure whilst keeping volunteers supported and engaged, working with other humanitarian organisations and, lets face it, trying to earn money and be with their friends and families. Outside of deployments they are working to push forward the Standby Task Force, improve our training, keep volunteers engaged, build partnerships with other organisations across the world.
If you let it get to you it can be a frustrating and stressful role.
But, genuinely, I have found working in this team has never been frustrating and stressful. We have frequently disagreed but discussions have always been undertaken in a spirit of mutual respect. I cannot remember an occasion when we didn’t manage to reach a genuine consensus.
I’m sure sharing the values and mission of the SBTF have helped in building and supporting that team.
But honestly, trying to be objective about it, I think it’s really because they are all fundamentally good, decent, amazing people.
And I was proud to be part of their team.
And I am proud to be remain part of the organisation that they are the core of.

Six links for a blogpost

It’s Saturday. I’ve been doing nice things, seeing friends and walking dogs. I don’t really want to write much today but I must because I have an agreement with Dan Slee that we will blog every day in November.


What do we know about Brexit?

Not much according to the House of Commons Library.

Confused by the High Court decision on Article 50? Here’s an explanation in plain English.


Compare and contrast

Army on standby in case of flooding in the winter.

CFOA responses to announcement: Army on standby for winter flooding.


The Government and digital

Ann Kempster is ace. But she’s not happy.


So long and thanks for all the…cheese

She is not alone

The Government IT Self-Harm Playbook


Normal service will resume tomorrow


Social media and the bereaved

I’ve just returned from an excellent workshop run by Gwent LRF. They train professionals from the police and local authorities who might work with bereaved families after a major incident together. This workshop was focusing on issues relating to the media and the bereaved. I was talking, in particular, about social media. My slides are included at the bottom.

This is a great scheme Gwent are running and I think many other areas could learn from it.

It was a reminder of how many people from across the public sector will be called upon during and following an emergency. It’s becoming harder and harder to find the resource to train and exercise those people. But without training and exercising all you have are a list of names in a plan.

How we use Skype (and Slack) in the Standby Task Force

Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0
Chit chat by Dano used under CC BY 2.0

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.

Using Skype

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.

Advanced uses

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.

Using Slack

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 can’t ditch Skype completely. Skype is still widely used in humanitarian assistance and so liaison with other groups still happens largely in that environment. Skype chatrooms remain very useful for more diffuse communities where people may need to drop in and out of conversations and projects.

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).

Can we use slack for civil contingencies chat?

Phil Rumens was looking for examples of using Slack for cross-agency team chat.

Its sparked a nice discussion including examples of the use of WhatsApp and Microsoft Lync  I’m also familiar with the use of Skype by VOST teams and Skype (and more recently Slack) by The Standby Task Force.

Why do we need anything?


First. Let’s talk about the problem.

There is a beautifully simple and flexible framework across the UK for dealing with emergencies (everything from floods to terrorism to zombie-apocalypse). Essentially all the bits of the public sector are required to work together in a series of interlocking committees. It works really very well.

And for many people it means spending a lot of an emergency on a phone or glued to email.

As a comms professional in local government (not right now, but often) I have been one of those people. And as a geek I have always felt that there must be a better way.

Illustrate through analogy

Let’s take a hypothetical emergency: there’s a massive fire in a factory in a big city.

Clearly there will be a lot of firefighters at the scene, fighting the fire. There will also be some police officers. They’ll be setting up a cordon to make sure people don’t come into the factory. A crime may have been committed so the police will also want to make sure no-one walks off with crucial evidence. People may be injured so there will be paramedics and ambulances. They may have to evacuate surrounding areas in which case the local authority will be looking for places for people to stay temporarily. The Environment Agency will be there to help minimise pollution from the event. Other local authority staff might be called in to provide specialist advice on things like the structural integrity of the building.

You get the idea.

And that’s just the start. There’s the health service making sure people get treated and that the health of the general public is protected, what if a care home is affected, what about a school and so on…

This quickly involves a lot of people and a lot of organisations.

And from a comms point of view there’s a lot to keep on top of. The public need good, fast, information on what’s going on (and advice on what they should do). Journalists will have questions about what’s going on. Staff within organisations will want (and probably need) to know what’s going on.

And the managers of the people at the scene will be talking. They’ll be trying to work out what might happen next. What if the fire spreads? What if the wind shifts? Do we have enough fire tenders? Will we have to close roads to traffic and so on. And those people also need communications input.

Coordinate those cats

The good news is that, even in these straitened times, there should be quite a lot of comms people (or at least some) able to help between all the organisations involved. The bad news is that they will be in different parts of the country, probably dealing with lots of other things as well and they will have specialist knowledge of their organisations.

So as the situation evolves different people need to be consulted, need to be brought up to speed or to hand over their thoughts to people coming on shift.

And typically this involves emailing ever changing lists of people and sitting on telephone conferences. It typically leaves out organisations that have less direct involvement (even if that organisation might have valuable insight) and makes it very easy to lose track of where the situation has got to and where the comms messages stand.

If only there were a better way.

Well there is.

The situation I’ve just described is exactly the one faced by digital humanitarian groups like The Standby Task Force or VOST and they use Skype and Slack. Really successfully.


Text chat systems like this have some real advantages. When you come on shift you can read up the chat and quickly get updated not just on what’s happened but why some choices have been made. You can also leave links to latest documents and more structured updates in chatrooms for people to refer to. And you can talk in real time to the people who are online right then. Different chat rooms can focus on different aspects of the task to avoid overwhelming the main discussion. But people who are less involved in that area but are interested or might have things to contribute can monitor and chip in when necessary. In The Standby Task Force we can coordinate the work of hundreds of people in all timezones using Skype (or Slack) and Google Docs.

It’s not for us though

So why don’t we use these in civil contingencies in the UK?

Well (as the WhatsApp example shows, sometimes we do). I think there are several reasons:

  • insufficient clarity on security. In fact on Twitter my instant reaction was that Slack would be unsuitable for this use because of operational security, Matt Hogan (who frankly knows an awful lot more about this sort of thing than me) thought this probably isn’t a barrier. Someone must know for sure…
  • operational friction. Email and phone conferences are extremely flexible and use extremely widely understood protocols. You can ask for a phone number and an email address with absolute confidence that everyone will have one. Ask for a Skype handle and you may be disappointed. And even if people use Skype, will it get through the Firewall? Exercise Watermark in 2010 highlighted that technical issues like Agency A not being able to use the WiFi in Agency B’s headquarters were a significant problem. I am aware this continue to be a problem in 2016. How many agencies not being able to take part in the chatroom would it take before the whole thing falls over.
  • innate conservatism. Emergency planning isn’t an area that encourages risk taking. When I was trained in emergency control centre operation (a few years ago I confess) we were shown how to run a control centre on pens and paper. That’s sensible because pens and paper work in power cuts and don’t suffer from WiFi incompatibility. But most of the time there isn’t a power cut and there are much better tools.
  • the LRF problem. Planning for emergencies is tasked to a partnership at police force level called the Local Resilience Forum. Each LRF is different but it can be hard to get new ideas adopted by the partnership bodies and, even if they are, to get each partner to implement them. No-one is in charge. This leads to flexibility in emergency response and, often, inaction outside of the response phase.

Slack may not be the best solution. I mean I love it but really it is designed for teams, it is not so good, to my mind, in the more ad-hoc situation of an emerging multiagency response. Skype probably would be my favourite solution. I can see why people might use WhatsApp (and I have used it myself in an event management role) but it’s a bit to mobile device -specific for me.

What do we need?

What we could do with is:

  • some nice clear guidance on what you can and can’t do in terms of emergency management on, let’s say, Skype, Slack and WhatsApp
  • some nice clear advice on how to make it work “we suggest you set up a chat room for the comms team” type stuff. There’s plenty of experience out there. Maybe I’ll write up how it works for us at the Standby Task Force.
  • a couple of LRFs to pilot it to reassure everyone else it’s a good plan
Any volunteers?

What should define a Multi Agency Information Cell?

Why the gripping headline?

I’m not sure I’m getting the hang of writing click-bait headlines. But this is a significant question for some people. And some of those people read this blog.

What’s it all about?

Version 2 of the JESIP doctrine has been published for consultation. JESIP is the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme and the JESIP Doctrine lays out how the emergency services should work together around major incidents.

Though JESIP is about the emergency services the doctrine actually affects hundreds more organisations because they (local authorities, heath bodies, utility companies and so on) have a duty to work with the emergency services (and each other) to sort out emergencies.

The original JESIP doctrine was pretty clear and sensible. Version 2 builds on these pragmatic and sensible foundations but adds in a couple of years of learning since the original. You can see the draft JESIP Doctrine here.

Get to the point Ben

Section 5 of the draft doctrine covers Information Assessment and Management. It touches on a range of things that will be of interest to people in my network (like essentially recommending ResilienceDirect as the way you should exchange data).

Section 5.4 issues a “Framework for Information Assessment” which is really saying “let’s be consistent in when talking about how reliable information is”. The question of how you assess the reliability of publicly available information (like reports on social media) is something VOST and Digital Humanitarian groups have some considerable expertise in.

Most exciting is section 5.5 which mandates a Multi-Agency Information Cell. This is a dashed good idea. In fact many people might think it sounds rather like a Virtual Operational Support Team (or VOST). In the current draft though the MAIC does seem a bit inward looking, pooling the geographic data that agencies have.

This sparked a bit of a discussion on Twitter and I said I would fire something up to see if we can get some sort of consensus from the VOST/BlueLight and possible CrisisMapping community.


The consultation is open to anyone to respond. responses have to be sent in a fairly structured way (using an Excel spreadsheet – I’ll park the discussion on the use of open formats for a more appropriate time). So anyone can (and probably should) respond in their own right.


I’d really appreciate the insight of the wider digital and emergencies community specifically on the sections about the Framework for Information Assessment and the Multi-Agency Information Cell. I’ve pulled those sections (and only those sections) into a Google Doc.


My initial reactions to Techfugees


Image was lifted from @asalvaire ‘s Twitter stream I hope they don’t mind.

I spent 2 December 2015 at the Techfugees conference in London, UK. I was wearing my Standby Task Force hat (mostly).

These are my instant reactions on the train back home.

1. Wow.

There is a lot going on. Amazing energy, talent and thought going into all sorts of innovative solutions. It was an amazing, invigorating, mind-numbing day.

2. This is a complex situation.

Now I know that’s a statement of the blindingly obvious but we have very fluid flows of refugees from a range of different countries entering Europe by very changeable routes and then making their way around in countries they know little about before claiming asylum in potentially other countries. Each country has its own state and civil society structures, cultural attitudes and legal complexities. As well as languages. And then there’s the politics. And this is just to get people to the stage of claiming asylum. If they are accepted as refugees they face, potentially, years of challenges such as dealing with trauma, learning a new language, understanding a new culture, integrating into their new communities on top of the usual stuff people want to to, falling in love, raising familes, earning money, having a laugh.

The app that fixes that is going to be very impressive.

3. There is an urgent need to make it easy for people (and let;s just start with refugee agencies) to be able to work out what support and help is available to whom and where. This is not really a technical issue it just needs a bunch of people to focus on gathering and presenting the data (well not just that but that is a necessary task).

4. Facebook and WhatsApp are already being used for an amazing amount of coordination by refugees (and their friends and family) themselves. Let’s not reinvent the wheel. Let’s add gears and steering.

5. In the UK let’s not lose sight of the fact that one fundamental underlying problem is the shortage of affordable housing. Let’s build more houses.

6. From a Standby Task Force perspective Google Hub Info looks utterly awesome. It goes on the long list of things I want to play with (but very near the top).

7. We frame refugees as a problem (it’s a crisis haven’t you heard?). And by definition refugees are people fleeing persecution. We heard from the excellent Hassan today that he would never have left Syria if it was safe. But refugees are also an opportunity, people with skills, ideas, energy. Imagine if we could see them as an opportunity for our communities, and our economies.


8. I really like spending time with geeks and looking at these problems as service design issues. I think that’s a useful way to think about things.

But the politics matters too.

9. There are many potential users of the potential and actual projects that are spinning out here. We need to make sure we stay close to the users. Which is easier said than done when so many of them are constantly moving.

10. People are amazing.

That is all.

the 5 most important things I learned about comms in an emergency

(I forgot to add this at the time, I’ve put it here for completeness, apologies if it is clogging up your RSS feed)


I published a piece over on Comms2Point0 looking at some of the key things I have learned about delivering comms in an emergency for a category one responder.

Read The five most important things I learned about comms in an emergency now.


Don’t turn an emergency into a crisis

(this is cross-posted from LinkedIn for completeness)

Diagram shows crisis in a circle and emergency in a circle. The circles overlap but only partly.

I tell people that I work in emergency communications and, to be honest, most of them suddenly find they have an urgent appointment.

The vast majority of those that are too slow to make a convincing excuse will almost immediately say

“So, you work in crisis comms do you?” and I will almost certainly say

Yes” because I don’t want them to leave and, really, what does it matter?

Actually I think it matters quite a lot.

Crisis comms and emergency comms are not indistinguishable and being skilled in crisis comms won’t, of itself, help you when an emergency calls for your communication expertise.

It’s like this.

Crisis comms is concerned with the health of the organisation. Emergency comms is concerned with public safety.

Embarrassing tweets, chief executive suddenly resigning, and a leak of customer data all fall into the bucket marked crisis communications.

Floods, fires, and terror attacks all fall into the bucket marked emergency comms.

And there is great potential for overlap. If your business is producing food, and you accidentally introduce food pathogens into delicious cooked things, this is both a crisis and an emergency. But frankly any sensible crisis comms practitioner will tell to to do everything you can to keep people safe before you start worrying about the reputational fall out (so it’s an emergency).

Many of the practical approaches will be the same too. If you have a team ready, willing and capable you can call upon at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning to help warn people about impending dangers they’re probably going to be pretty good in a crisis too.

But there are differences. At the top of your emergency comms plan will be written your default strategic aims:

  • protect life
  • keep people safe
  • protect the environment
  • support the affected
  • protect property
  • return life to normal where and when possible

At the top of your crisis comms plan will be written:

  • do the right thing
  • behave like a human
  • don’t hide or run away from the crisis
  • reassure and inform stakeholders

Your tactical decision making in an emergency should be driven by a simple cycle:

  • who needs to know what?
  • how will I let them know?
  • how will I find out they have heard?
  • how will I find out they have responded as a result?
  • who needs to know what, now?

Something similar wouldn’t go amiss in a crisis too. In an emergency though the situation is complicated because in a whole set of organisations there are other comms professionals going through the same cycle. And some of them are also in a crisis as well.

To make sure people are effectively warned and informed in an emergency requires the coordination and sychronisation of a whole set of organisations with the same goals in common but not the same tasks at hand.

Both practices need senior and experienced communications professionals, they need trained and practiced comms staff throughout the process and they need good quality and effective leadership within organisations.

But they are not the same thing. And one of them is more important that the other.