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CrisisCamp Haiti: Mobilizing Expectations of Participation, Beyond the Digital Bake Sale

by Joe Loong on January 29, 2010

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["Too-long; didn't read" summary: Find ways to get more non-technical people to help out on technical projects that can do good that goes way past the digital bake sale.]

In my earlier post about CrisisCamp Haiti, I talked about how organizers were able to put together a project-driven, goal-directed event by building on the social infrastructure established by the original, more loosely-focused CrisisCamp unconference.

Because that network of interested folks was in place, when the Haiti earthquake happened and a broader audience of people wanted to use their skills to help, there was a self-identified community to serve as a core for other valuable activities to coalesece around.

Expectations of Participation

Now, a lot of the things that make tech events like BarCamps “techy” aren’t, strictly speaking, technical. Sure, specific topics and themes may be tied to specialized knowledge, but perhaps the biggest differentiators is cultural — camps rely on the self-starter, hands-on, do-it-yourself, willing-to-learn, participatory ethos that largely defines the tech community.

So what about people outside that community? There’s an example in an article about a 10-year-old boy in NJ who set up a Haiti blog to encourage people to make donations. In one sense, it’s the modern, digital version of the lemonade stand or local bake sale (it helps when mom is a PR person), but it also shows that there’s the idea and expectation that people can do good from behind their computers, even if they’re not really techy.

This is often derided as “slacktivism” (including by yours truly), typically because it involves really easy tasks like joining a public Facebook group, signing a petition, changing your Twitter icon, or other things that are equally worthless if they’re not followed up by real-world action. So how do you harness people’s desire to help, to go beyond sentiment to produce things that are actually useful?

Harnessing the Non-Technical Masses in Meaningful Ways

Now, here’s the thing with the current state of technology: As long as there are a few technically-minded folks to help manage projects and run the show (coders and architects and such), useful participation isn’t limited to just techy folks. As we saw with some of the CrisisCamp Haiti projects, even people who don’t have specialized technical skills (I count myself among them) but who do have typical human brains can have an impact, as long as they know how to perform a search or can be trained quickly to help with Open Mapping projects, or any number of other tasks that benefit from human perception and judgment.

For my own particular example, I researched and gathered regional disaster resources link for the CrisisWiki project. While I’m not sure of the ultimate usefulness of what I did, it’s an example of how anyone can participate. More importantly, my participation (such as it was) didn’t take a spot from someone else who might have been more useful.

Getting Beyond the Digital Bake Sale

So how do you mobilize that desire to help? In the context of tech and social media participation, it just doesn’t occur to people that they might want to go to a camp or unconference-style event (even if they hear of it) to help build a tool that goes way beyond the digital bake sale.

This is largely by design; existing cultural and skills barriers are two-edged: They’re useful filters to keep things focused to people with technical skills, though it also serves to shut out the broader mass of interested people who still might be able to contribute. (The CrisisCamp Haiti DC event listing made it clear that non-coders were welcome, though some level of tech savvy was implied. Saying one could be useful just by bringing a power strip and a laptop helped to allay that.)

At this stage, the problem of too many “unskilled” participants would be a good one to have. At the very least, in its current size and state, the participation of any one person isn’t pre-empting the involvement of someone who might be more useful (in terms of having a more specialized and relevant skillset, perhaps).

This is not to say that every camp should be thrown open to the masses. It’s okay to be a little elitist, as long as that elitism is focused on getting the people who have intellectual curiosity, a willingness to learn, a desire to help, etc.  And these events are still self-selective, just as lots of people read books, but relatively few people join book clubs.

It’s a matter of identifying which efforts would benefit form broader participation, and how to expand the current circle and mobilize those folks who might be able to help out.

Anyone have examples of tech help projects (for Haiti specifically or in general)  that would benefit from broader, non-coder participation? Are there sound crowdsourcing techniques that can be used? Anything else? Leave a comment.

p.s. DC folks, don’t forget about the third CrisisCamp Haiti DC, Saturday, 1/30. People in other cities, check out the CrisisCommons.org site for camps in other cities, as well as other ways you can help.

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