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Collaboration in Times of Crisis: Technology FTW

The problem with most sorts of planning and organization, is that if they're not ingrained into you, at the first hint of a crisis, it all goes out the window. This is particularly true about the use of technology. As the technologist for disaster-driven nonprofits, I found that technology, for many nonprofits, is much like the umbrella, most needed when it rains suddenly, but somehow always left at home.

What do I mean by disaster response? I am not referring to the colloquial use of the phrase. I mean not only the direct application of aid, but handling media and political strategy around campaigns.

Project management has improved dramatically throughout the years, aided by online technologies that can create timelines linked to to-do lists, wikis, forums, all motored by automatic email subscriptions and collaborative documenting. Why is it that nonprofits aren't using these technologies for coordinated response to disasters?

During a disaster, people are at their worst. Many disaster-responders have been through crises in their lives, and disasters can trigger either mild or severe PTSD. This can make the always difficult work of coalition-building, particularly around a unified platform, even more difficult than in peaceful times. The tendency can be towards a splintering of will and purpose, with replication of effort and disunity of message. It is precisely at this time that strategy and calm unity of purpose could serve as Archimedes' lever for the world.

Not only is it difficult to collaborate, but those without an aptitude for technology can find their difficulties magnified. An online project management tool may seem like an unnecessary "bureaucracy" for interaction, a hindrance rather than a help.

But this is not the end of the online project management tool for disaster response. No, it is not. I believe that technologies can moderate interactions, create action out of discussion, make interactions transparent and centralized, and clearly designate responsibility along well-planned timelines. So nonprofits, in not taking advantage of these technologies, are scratching a living from the dirt outside a well-apportioned Garden of Eden.

What will it take to expect the unexpected, to plan for disasters that have not struck? I advocate for the pre-emptive use of technologies: coalitions would increase their potential for collaboration and concerted response to crises if they would, in peace-time, agree upon and begin to use a set of online tools.

I believe that something as simple as Google Docs, or online spreadsheets, can be effective as an organizing tool. Sometimes the simpler the tool, the more likely groups will be to use them. A solution like collaborative Google Docs can be multi-purposed and can offer a low barrier of entry. Google Wave might have some potential.

Basecamp is a (for limited accounts) free service with full-on project management offerings. Basecamp is used by professionals and will not let you down. However, Basecamp is not open source and therefore cannot be altered or customized except through Basecamp itself. Congenial folks, I'm sure.

However, if you are planning a long-term strategy for project management and have a clear idea of your needs and desires, that is, you want a platform customized to your elaborate needs, you can use Open Atrium, a Drupal distribution put out by the good folks at Development Seed. Open Atrium, however, is a full-on open-source content management system that has, built on top of it, a set of tools that can be used in much the same way as Basecamp, but can be customized as heavily as needed by a seasoned developer. At EchoDitto, we also offer Open Atrium installations and customization.

The key is to agree on a platform and to dig in, the sooner the better. Remember, whatever you do poorly in peacetime, you will do even worse in times of crisis.

Thanks to Jessica Duda for many of the ideas here.

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