Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians

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* Thesis: Participatory Aid Marketplace. Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians. Matt Stempeck, 2013


Submitted to the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, School of Architecture and Planning, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Science in Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 2013


"Recent years have seen an increase in natural and man-made crises. Information and communication technologies are enabling citizens to contribute creative solutions and participate in crisis response in myriad new ways, but coordination of participatory aid projects remains an unsolved challenge. I present a wide-ranging case library of creative participatory aid responses and a framework to support investigation of this space. I then co-design a Marketplace platform with leading Volunteer & Technical Communities to aggregate participatory aid projects, connect skilled volunteers with relevant ways to help, and prevent fragmentation of efforts. The result is a prototype to support the growth of participatory aid, and a case library to improve understanding of the space. As the networked public takes a more active role in its recovery from crisis, this work will help guide the way forward with specific designs and general guidelines."

Thesis supervisor: Ethan Zuckerman


"This introduction will discuss my motivations and overview of my contributions.

Chapter 2 explains the spectrum of ways we, as a society, respond to crises. It dissects formal and mutual aid and introduces a new phrase, participatory aid, to describe the dramatic democratization of crisis response.

Chapter 3 offers a framework for understanding participatory aid projects and a deep case library of examples.

In Chapter 4, I review related work, introduce my technical intervention, the Participatory Aid Marketplace, and discuss how it seeks to support various actors in the participatory aid sector.

Chapter 5 discusses next steps for the Marketplace and additional research questions to investigate in participatory aid.

Finally, Chapter 6 concludes the work and summarizes the key findings and limitations of this thesis."


From the introduction:

"This thesis examines the many ways the public can contribute to help others in times of crises, be they man-made or natural disasters. I introduce the growing trend of participatory aid: mutual, peer-to-peer aid assisted by information and communication technologies like the World Wide Web and the smartphone. My inspirations are the many creative ways people have used the internet and related technologies to aid others in need. Remote online volunteers have used the internet to develop crowdsourced maps for decisionmakers and translate victims’ requests for aid, to give two successful examples.

The spectrum of what individuals and groups can achieve online is wider and richer than our conventional imagination allows. Technology's advance over time continues to expand the realm of the possible. Knowing -- and signaling -- what can be done, where to get involved, and, crucially, how such an effort maps to others’ needs are unsolved problems. A central clearinghouse of opportunities and active efforts could reduce barriers to communication and collaboration." (

On Ad Hoc Mutual Aid

Matt Stempeck:

"In recent decades, there has been significant sociological research into “helping networks” to investigate the power of informal social networks in our lives. Donald Warren’s 1980 book, Helping Networks, studies how these informal aid systems sit in society: “They are not groups. They often do not know each other. They are the combinations of people we turn to.”

There is also a wide collection of literature studying “pro-social behavior”, and the forces that drive individual and collective altruism.18 René Bekkers and Pamala Weipking completed a thorough and useful literature review of empirical studies of philanthropy and identified eight mechanisms that drive charitable giving. One of the most referenced works discussing pro-social behavior in society is Dynes’ 1970 book, Organized Behavior in Disaster.

The literature on “helping networks” and studies of offline social networks have analyzed how people solicit and receive aid from a wide range of others in their lives, in times of acute crisis as well as daily life. There are “[s]ystems of help, not simply those with which bureaucracy and professionalism are associated, but also a vast set of almost invisible threads of human contact used in times of crisis and need for everyday problems.”20 In the context of mental health, neighbors rely on one another naturally for social services and resources rather than seek professional intervention.21 Shirley Patterson’s exploration of “Natural Helping” found that social contacts provide mutual aid support to their neighbors out of altruism rather than expectations of future rewards.

Mutual aid is also a significant force in the context of acute crises. When there is a crisis, people want to help, and will often go to great lengths to provide meaningful aid themselves. Sarah Vieweg finds collective intelligence in the aftermath of the campus shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.23 In Facing the Unexpected: Disaster Preparedness and Response in the United States, Tierney, et al., analyze 25 years’ worth of disaster data and strongly support the finding that “disasters engender pro- social, altruistic, and adaptive responses rather than negative reactions like panic.”

Vieweg, et al. write, “Disaster situations, throughout history, have demonstrated that people rise to difficult challenges to help others, often through remarkable innovations and adaptations of their own abilities and resources to meet needs.”

Professional emergency response managers like Pascal Schuback understand that the affected population itself begins responding to a new disaster long before “first-responders” from formal aid groups can arrive.26 The informal aid offered by citizens in these first hours can be critical to saving lives. One exemplary recent example is the unplanned evacuation of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. Kendra, et al. document how ships of all kinds, from tugboats to ferries to private pleasure boats materialized at the site of the most devastating terrorist attack in US history to help evacuate between 300,000 and 500,000 civilians stranded at the southern tip of the island with little direction from the Coast Guard.27 Writing about this type of ad hoc mutual aid in emergencies, Stallings and Quarantelli argue that formal aid actors should facilitate these “emergent citizen groups”, not just in crises that trigger a clear survival consensus, but also in divisive crises like riots.28 Mutual aid may be a natural inclination, but it is also at least partially driven by the limits of formal aid actors:

“Self-help or mutual-aid groups have developed, in part, as a reaction to various limitations of professional organizations. Such limitations included an “unwillingness of professionals to deal with certain problems, a limited reach with regard to various populations, an overly intellectual orientation, and monopolistic credentialism.”

One directly relevant example of mutual aid rising to meet a population’s needs when the formal aid system fails is Gregory Asmolov’s work launching the Russian Fires Map30 (which has evolved to become When wildfires consumed large areas of Russia in 2010, the ineptitude of the government response and paucity of state-influenced media coverage inspired citizen-driven aid efforts, coordinated through an Ushahidi map.

The mapping platform was repurposed to connect citizens in need and citizens seeking to help. Citizens used participatory media to hold the government accountable, but also to organize and collaborate on ways to respond to the fires to take the action that the formal state actors had failed to take. Asmolov has since launched, an 'atlas of help', to match peer donors and beneficiaries under the romantic symbol of the rynda, the bell Russian sailors would strike when they were in need of help. (For an extensive treatment of affected communities’ own abilities to respond to crisis, see Humanitarianism in the Network Age report by UNOCHA)." (

On Civic Groups-Based Mutual Aid

Matt Stempeck:

"In addition to the ad hoc aid found throughout human history, mutual aid includes semi-formal groups like religious congregations, citizen clubs, and other community groups. These civic groups often serve critical organizing roles in alerting and structuring mutual aid within a community.

Like many dichotomies, the distinction between formal and mutual aid has always been somewhat artificial. Formal and mutual aid are in no way mutually exclusive, except that we may sometimes focus on the former at the expense of developing the latter. Formal aid sector workers do the best they can to save as many lives as possible, but they do not pretend to have every answer, or the resources to sufficiently help every person in every crisis. Mutual aid is recognized within the formal aid space as a powerful force.

A community’s ability to manage crisis itself has been described as resilience. The concept has been popularized in recent years to describe “the capacity of the affected community to self-organize, learn from and vigorously recover from adverse situations stronger than it was before.” In Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery, Daniel Aldrich argues that the strength of (traditional) social networks themselves can predict a community’s resilience and ability to recover in times of crisis. He pulls together data from four different large-scale natural disasters to prove that “social resources, at least as much as material ones, prove to be the foundation for resilience and recovery.”36 A community with a more densely connected social network and deeper social capital may prove more adept at providing mutual aid to one another, because it can more quickly share critical information, aid resources, and better stem population losses due to migration away from the affected area. To illustrate his argument, Aldrich compares the stark difference in post-Katrina recovery between different neighborhoods in New Orleans. The Vietnamese community centered around the Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church is deeply interconnected and rich in social capital, and was able to recruit back 90% of homes and businesses within a year of the hurricane, in addition to establishing a charter school, urban farm, and medical clinics.37 The community was also able to organize itself to rally for official resources, like the restoration of electricity from the local utility. Other neighborhoods are still visibly suffering from the unemployment, poverty, and structural damages delivered by the storm years later. Aldrich argues that the great disparities in recovery between neighborhoods or cities are not the result of variation in official government recovery funding but rather the degree to which the responding community has information, collective action, and social connections." (

On Peer to Peer Aid

Matt Stempeck:

"In the crisis management world, Kropotkin’s term ‘mutual aid’ describes the acts of the affected populations in leading their own response and recovery. Participatory aid is the evolution of mutual aid, which can stand independently of formal aid systems, and which invites participation of people from all over the globe to have greater impact, thanks to ICT. We might even reimagine the role of the formal aid systems to support and inform participatory aid.

The mutual aid school of thought has gained new currency in recent years with the success of technology-mediated peer-production movements38 like open source software, Wikipedia, and other digital projects where non-market forces drive individuals’ contributions to the common good. Collaborative projects have exposed the productive roles peer reputation and cooperation can play in driving meaningful participation.

Proponents of the peer-production trend, such as Stephen Johnson, argue that the continued debate over the appropriate role for the market and the state in society must also now include the third pole of networks of individuals. Mutual aid has evolved and grown stronger alongside our advances in information and communication technology. Johnson’s book, Future Perfect, describes ‘peer progressives’ who organize in a decentralized manner and can actually surpass the efficacy of traditional hierarchical (and market-driven) approaches.39 The descriptor ‘peer’ works, Johnson argues, on the civic level (“a jury of our peers”) as well as the technical level (peer-to peer networks).40 These broad shifts in the agency of networked individuals are changing the crisis response industry just as they have disrupted the music, travel, and countless other industries before it.

Industry after industry has been disrupted by the rise of connective technical platforms like the internet, which has enabled end consumers (or citizens) to source their books, news, music, travel, and, increasingly, their response to crisis, directly. In the 20th century, record labels gained control of many of the stages involved in the production and distribution of music. Peer to peer filesharing dramatically disrupted the labels’ 20th century distribution model, but also other stages, such as artist discovery, promotion, production, and the revenue models behind each process. In the travel industry, the middlemen known as travel agents have been replaced by more efficient web platforms that aggregate and filter numerous options for end consumers. Airbnb has further disrupted the travel industry by making private residences available to travelers, introducing serious competition to the hotel industry.

In each case, technology has brought producers and consumers closer together, or in some cases, blurred the lines beyond recognition. This creates a diminished role for mediator middlemen like retail stores, distributors, travel agents, and large crisis response NGOs. Cultural and business factors play an important role in timing, but one of the key independent variables in ICT disruption of consumer-facing industries is the introduction of intermediary platforms that supplant the human- or bureaucracy-organized options presented to consumers. These platforms usually accomplish this feat by simultaneously expanding the range of available options and improving customized filtering of these options to prevent overload and reduce friction (such as time or cost required for the consumer to take action).

Information and Communication Technologies like the World Wide Web and smartphones have not only connected us, but also digitized many of our professions.

Information workers, from lawyers to designers to cartographers, now use digital tools extensively in their labor. This development has opened up the opportunity to donate one’s time, and with it one’s professional skills and abilities, to assist in recovery efforts. Our networked, digitized workplace allows professionals to make significant pro bono contributions from anywhere in the world. Properly allocated, the time of an individual with valuable skills could quickly surpass the value of the small donation they may (or may not) represent as a traditional donor. The range of potential ways to help has also greatly expanded. Online, the simple act of bringing attention to a crisis has emerged as an important, if lightweight, contribution. Well-structured crowdsourcing allows even unskilled volunteers to contribute en masse.

Thus far, the participatory aid movement is small relative to the percentage of citizens that might give a donation during a telethon. One reason this is the case is that awareness of available ways to help is low (identified by Bekkers and Wiepking as a key factor in successful philanthropy). Another barrier to public involvement in participatory aid is the lack of a popular, central, and trans-crisis intermediary platform to connect those who seek to help with projects and organizations that can channel this energy.

We might expect fewer citizens to get involved in participatory aid projects relative to the number that take the simple act of making a donation. But we should also expect more people, in absolute terms, to contribute to participatory aid efforts, and in a wider range of ways than we’ve previously seen. This work seeks to encourage meaningful participation by producing a volunteer-friendly intermediary platform to increase awareness of channels accepting volunteer contributions and to reduce the friction of finding and joining such efforts.

The Humanitarian Horizons report predicts “the emergence of a “new humanitarianism” that will be part of neither the humanitarian nor development systems.”

Just as participatory media opens the power of communication to the audience, participatory aid invites the involvement of the people formerly known as beneficiaries, and their peers, to respond to and even drive recovery efforts themselves.

Information technology has driven participatory models of interaction forward and disrupted the companies, institutions, and societal expectations built, over decades, around the broadcast model. Macro trends independent of any specific players in the aid industry have shifted the roles and relative abilities of donors, recipients, and mediating organizations in ways we do not yet fully understand. In many ways, this shift echoes similar technology-driven disruption in other fields. Participatory aid does not outright replace formal aid, but if supported, could greatly augment it. This connection between disparate sectors requires facilitation." (

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