The 6th deployment of the SBTF: Alabama Recovery

On May 1st we received an email from Heather Blanchard of CrisisCommons. The project request and preliminary assessment was from the American Red Cross who was also representing the Alabama Emergency Operations Center. Crisis Commons had already created a wiki for the project. The potential was there for a volunteer team to explore the initial requirements and create a recommendation on a way ahead to map the Alabama Recovery. A second volunteer team would coordinate the implementation of the map.

Within the same time frame the Tuscaloosa News team created a CrowdMap for the Alabama Recovery and was anticipating an upgrade to a full Ushahidi instance.

The structure of this deployment was clearly going to be a multi-organization one:

  • Humanity Road explored the initial requirements and recommended way ahead
  • The SBTF offered to take the lead in managing the platform and help with the creation of categories, activating two teams and training volunteers
  • Crisis Commons offered to create a Tech Team to help out with the transition to the Ushahidi instance
  • GIS Corps offered to create KML layers for the platform and to work on creating static maps useful for responders on the ground
  • Tuscaloosa News was to begin administrative control of the Crowdmap and the DNS authorities.
  • Univerisity of Alabama entered the picture a bit later to take on the project as Local Team.

The Team was formed on May 4th and the SBTF was activated. Almost 40 volunteers replied immediately and the teams started working on the map. By the end of the first day almost 100 reports were already mapped and categorized.  At the same time the conversation on email between the team was ongoing and GIS corps created KML files for the  important infrastructures in the area (schools, fire stations, police stations, etc.).  Helena Puig Larrauri and Diana Stinton from the SBTF Analysis Team supported the creation of the KML files with members of GIS corps.

The CrisisCommons team started working on the migration to a Ushahidi instance which was hosted by University of California, LA (UCLA). The same night we (Kirk Morris and Anahi Ayala) started working on updating the categories, migrating the reports attempting to see if the platform would accept the migration of records and categories. Of course it wouldn’t be that simple.  Transporting of data via csv file from Crowdmap to a Ushahidi platform was impossible. The only effective way was a complete data dump and database transfer. Finally with the support of Brian Herbert from Crowdmap and Nigel McNie of the CrisiCommons team the migration was completed a day later.

Chris Roberts from the University of Alabama  accepted responsibility to recruit some volunteers to take over the processing of information and reports once the SBTF volunteers withdrew. The volunteers were added to the Skype chats and trained and on May 10th, as agreed, the SBTF withdrew from the deployment handing off to the University of Alabama. Nearly 300 reports had been mapped and a full Ushahidi instance was up and running.


There were a lot of firsts for the SBTF in this deployment:

1. It was the first time much of the core team did not work on the deployment.  Our tech and verification teams were not requested and we didn’t have direct communication with the activators of the deployment.

2. We had few SBTF Coordinators available for the initial part of the deployment due to our commitment with the Libya Deployment.

3. It was the first time that the SBTF was going to do one part of the deployment and collaborate with other organizations including the decision-making process

How did it go? What went well and what needs to be refined?

1. On point one, we could not be happier than this: one of the goals of the core team of the SBTF is that one day we will be able to send out an email for an activation and feel confident that everything will go smoothly. The volunteers know what to do and there will be less of need for the core team to be on line 24/7. This is what we call empowerment. Becoming superfluous is the goal of the core team  and if we are not be able to do this we will not be able to fulfill the goal of the SBTF: creating a space of empowerment where people learn how to work together and can do it independent of the core team. In this deployment we saw that this is not only possible, but that we are going in the right directions. The volunteers were helping each other in the skype chat so  they were up and running nearly immediately . They set up the twitter account for the deployment by themselves, they coordinated the two teams with minimal use of the coordination chat.

2. On point 2, very similar observations: lots of new SBTF volunteers got on board and showed their passion, their motivation and their willingness to help. Kudos have to go to some of the Coordinators that are still working on the Libya Deployment and finding the time to assist Jeannine Lemaire, Marta Phobet and Eliana Zimmer, Nicole Hoffman, Estella Reed – thanks for you incredible support girls! Other kudos to Kate and Melissa, who were really too busy to be able to support the team, but then got in to the Skype chats as soon as they had a free second and ended up working. Again, you are awesome!

3. On point 3 we need to reflect some more and make sure we’ll avoid the same mistakes in the future and apply the best lessons learned from this deployment.

3a. There needs to be a clear divisions of tasks and those tasks need to be well-defined. Each organization involved in a project needs to have its own set of specific tasks and responsibilities with the ability to deliver on those tasks. If these obligations are not met it leads to confusion on who is doing what. Others may get stuck in the chain waiting for a missing element or worst being slowed by a lack of professionalism of other partners. The result being all or some activities come to a dead stop. In this deployment most organizations had their own tasks and were able to deliver, but not all. As of today we still don’t know what role was played by some members of the team. On this issue the SBTF needs to define in a better way to define what their deliverables are and how it’s to be achieved.

3b. There has to be no space for people that “coordinate” without doing and without having the experience to be able to coordinate. Organizations that want to collaborate with others need to do their part. Their part can’t be to coordinate what others are doing if they don’t have long standing experience in doing so.  they need to bring something in the pot. Not simply telling other what to do but knowing what needs to be done. Again, some in this project decided their role was to coordinate and their total lack of understanding of what they were coordinating was not only confusing, but also an obstacle for those working diligently to get things done. Being volunteers does not means that there should be no professionalism. The SBTF is open to have others coordinating the overall project but this will not lead to micromanagement of the teams or of the volunteers. On this deployment people were often confused on who was to tell them what to do and how.

3c. Respect should be the base of a collaborative project. Lecturing people, deciding to do things unilaterally, without coordination and assuming that one knows better than others leads to failure in communication. For these reasons you can’t teach others what they need to do. It is disrespectful and will undermine any future collaboration with partners and organizations. True collaboration is based on mutual respect and mutual trust that that everyone will be able to do what they commit to do: this is very important not to step on others people feet. Disdain, arrogance, protectiveness and a lack of respect by some in the management of the project caused several SBTF members to ask not to have any association with these specific partners in the future. In this deployment we made the mistake of working with people we knew we didn’t trust. This led to the involvement of other partners in “cat fights” that were a shame for us and for everyone else.

3d. Going forward, the SBTF will not accept any project where the responder or activator is not fully engaged in the response effort. Creating a map just for the sake of mapping is not our goal. We want to do things because they are useful and because the people activating our teams need the information we collect to organize and create a better response mechanism for their locality. In this deployment this part was very confusing and as of today we have no idea if anyone is using the information we provided and if so how?  If the deployment had or has any impact in terms of response and the responders we’re unaware. Overall communication with the principals didn’t exist or access was blocked by lack of communication.

Questions remained to be clarified for us as to whether the deployment was done for the Tuscaloosa news or the Alabama Recovery Center; no clear purpose was clarified for the creation of the recovery map;  if the plan was to launch the map first and than try to look for a specific need then this specific need was not clarified in the first week of the deployment. If someone was to be responsible for identifying, addressing and coordinating with responders this was not done in a transparent way or just not done at all. We, SBTF, were completely unaware of the contacts with local reponders.

This was the first time that the SBTF did a deployment with so many actors involved and with little direct contact with the activators. We think that all of the problems that have emerged in the deployment have been good lessons for us to learn and will be very useful as we move forward. The SBTF will continue to collaborate with organizations that have shown their ability to commit and to work towards a common goal and hope to refine those relationships in order to achieve more efficient and effective deployments in the future.

Recommendation for future deployment:

1. Clear and transparent dialogue in between all the partners and all the activators on goals and objectives of the deployment

2. No collaboration to be started with organization that are clearly only looking for self promotion and publicity

3. Clearer coordination structure for the entire deployment to be decided at the beginning

4. More discussion at the beginning of the deployment on what is the right tool to be used for the goal identified

5. Creation of a wiki or common platform to keep everyone updated on the development of the project from all the partners involved with clear divisions of tasks and deadlines

Overall we are happy that this collaboration started and we are looking forward to others in the future, and we will keep very clear in mind the lessons learned not to repeat the same mistakes in the future.


Anahi & Kirk

SBTF Volunteers Coordinators

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Posted May 17 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Hello Anahi and Kirk,

    Many thanks for sharing these important lessons learned and recommendations. Every activation of the Task Force provides us with really important insights on how we can improve in the future. So many thanks to you and all Task Force volunteers who rallied to help Alabama, bravo!


  2. Posted May 17 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kirk and Anahi,

    I think that your analysis of the response effort is spot on. The GISCorps volunteers were similarly confused because of the number of players/coordinators. We were eager to provide analytical support and felt underutilized. We have made several recommendations in the after action report that we hope will strengthen future deployments. We look forward to working with SBTF in the future.

    Best regards,

  3. Posted May 17 at 9:28 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the comment. Given the interaction we had it was a pleasure working with you. I know there is much we can do together in the future and much we can learn. I look forward to the future and your ideas as how we move forward.

    Thanks for your effort,


  4. Posted May 17 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Great working with SBTF! There were several challenges and some great opportunities too. Perhaps a friendly reminder we are all learning and constructive critique lifts all boats.

    The Alabama After Action Review is open for comment - I look forward to seeing these comments and others added.

    Also if you volunteered for this effort take the survey!

  5. Posted May 17 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    “No collaboration to be started with organization that are clearly only looking for self promotion and publicity”

    Excellent decision! I was busy with other deployments but am glad to hear lessons are being learned and we are moving forward now.. Onwards and upwards as they say :)

    I am as a coordinator solidly behind and proud of the work that we all have done together and are doing at the SBTF and thank all of you for being apart of this and all your hard work. Yes, you have to work hard with perseverance not just talk about it on conference calls to get things accomplished and i have seen the “get it done” capability with SBTF over and over again.

    Thank you to Anahi & Kirk for your spirited and straight forward approach to blogging your issues, concerns, lessons learned and for your continued commitment to our global taskforce!

  6. Posted May 18 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Hey Heather, absolutely agree re: we are all learning and constructive critique lifts all boats!
    We already send out the survey form to all the SBTF volunteers and I am looking forward for the result. As per the after-action report we will definitely add all our comments to it and make sure that we highlight the step forward and what we can learn from this deployment. It has been a pleasure to work with Crisis Commons, and looking forward to develop a more robust cooperation system in the future.

  7. Posted May 19 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Reading the critiques, it sounds like this movement is at a similar place as conventional emergency response prior to the development of the incident command system. Having various entities stepping on each others’ feet and vying for recognition or turf is the last thing that on-the-ground responders and people in crisis need.

    The crisis mapping movement is so new that these sorts of growing pain is to be expected. On the other hand, while it took decades (or centuries, depending on how far back you want to go) for conventional emergency managers to get it together, the agile nature of a horizontal, crowdsourced, networked system should make this a comparatively fast evolution. Quite exciting to watch and be part of.

  8. Posted May 23 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    This is a great post and completely sums up my personal experience on this deployment. As a coordinator working closely with the volunteers for hours (and hours and hours :) on end, one of the most discouraging things is not knowing how our work is being used, if at all. Being able to feed positive reinforcement to the teams in this regard is huge, and it absolutely was not possible in this deployment. If there are attempts to control information, control individuals and bolster personal egos, then crowdsourcing and working with the SBTF is not going to end well.
    Many many thanks to both Anahi & Kirk who led the teams beautifully while many of us were either on the Libya or working with George on the 4636 testing (or just trying to do our “real” day jobs .
    The SBTF is comprised of some of the hardest working people I know. Volunteers dedicated to helping others and advancing an incredible tool we’ve been given. It’s a true honor to be associated with these incredible people.

    Till next time… :)