Proposal to form a Virtual Operations Support Team for the UK.

For discussion.

This is an idea that came out of ukgovcamp 2012 and was further discussed at bluelightcamp 2012.

We* are inspired by global online response organisations such as Crisis Commons, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Standby Taskforce as well as by the development of VOST in parts of the United States of America.

This slideshare introduces the VOST concept nicely

We hope to build a movement of digitally engaged citizens in the UK who will apply their skills to help mitigate the impact of emergencies and to enhance the recovery from emergencies.

The risks

Online communication tools play an important role in civil emergencies.
They can be used for warning and informing, for mobilisation of resources, as a source of intelligence around developing situations, as a collaboration tool between citizens and to coordinate actions between citizens, responders and other stakeholders.

The technology can be used for positive or malicious purposes.

Online traffic in emergencies increases dramatically. Authorities have limited tools available to monitor this large-scale traffic in real-time. Public sector organisations in the UK are not using social media effectively.

As internet and social media use grows the level of traffic will increase. The expectations citizens place on what can be delivered via the digital space will also grow rapidly.

The proposed mitigations

We propose to build a network of digitally engaged citizens.

They will receive training and development support to enhance their skills in a number of areas.

This network will be available to support category one responders and other relevant bodies where appropriate.

This is to be a free, volunteer-led service.

We propose to develop a portfolio of support offerings in partnership with responders, central government and other relevant organisations.

But we imagine that the following would be the sort of services we might be able to develop:

  • crisis mappingAn emerging practice evolving out of communities such as Ushahidi. This practice involves searching digital and conventional media for reports, verifying reports and placing them on a map.Purpose: to improve the responders’ information picture.
  • digital wardensReceiving tasking from responders (eg severe flood warning in X) and working to provide safety messages to citizens based in the affected areas as well as closely monitoring the streams of information emerging from the area.Purpose: to add value to warning and informing work in high-risk areas.
  • digital clearing houseReceiving non-restricted data about incidents from responders, combining this with social media intelligence and reflecting this back to all relevant responders.Purpose: to remove duplication of effort between responders and add value to responders’ resources.
  • quick response resourcesBuilding online resources (websites, social media profiles etc) at short notice. We would maintain a network of skilled designers, developers and others able to deploy new digital resources when requested.Purpose: to provide a back-up of responder websites and other tools.
  • assisting with exercisingWe could mobilise volunteers during exercises to simulate the high volumes of social media traffic found during emergencies.Purpose: to improve the planning and training of responders.
  • co-operating with international responseWe would hope to maintain links with existing global networks and to add value to their work. For example we might encourage members of our crisis mapping team to join the Standby Taskforce and provide UK co-ordination, if appropriate, during a SBTF deployment.

How we propose to develop this team
We will look recruit volunteers online. We hope to recruit hundreds of volunteers so that we are able to mobilise significant resource when called upon to assist.

We will reach out to existing networks to learn from their experience and to ensure we build a robust and flexible network from the start.

We will reach out to responders and to other relevant bodies to ensure that we provide a service that will integrate with their response and add value to their work.

We will look to develop forms of governance that maximise involvement, keep rules to a minimum but ensure that we can deliver a safe, reliable and responsive service.

This may be a solution to a problem responders don’t feel they currently have.

Not all emergencies are the same. VOST members may not want to provide the same services around public order that they would in floods (for example).

What can you do?

If you have comments, queries, questions or suggestions then please leave them in the comments or email

If you might be interested in volunteering in such a team then please sign up to be kept informed here.

If you work in an organisation that might be interested in making use of such a team then please sign up here.

If we’ve missed anything out then please let us know.

*a bunch of people have been involved in these discussions but Ben Proctor, Andy Mabbett and Sasha Taylor have undertaken to take it forward to the next phase. Ben, in particular, has volunteered to publish some thoughts and see if there is any interest. Which is why this post appears here

Likeaword logo GUEST POST Courtesy of: Ben Proctor

Could volunteers help out online in an emergency in the UK?

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