This paper was deliv­ered at the Regional Senior Lead­ers Sem­i­nar in Cairns, Aus­tralia on 19 May 2011. A ref­er­enced ver­sion suit­able for print­ing is available.

Port-au-Prince Left Devastated by Quake

Only con­nect! That was the whole of her ser­mon. Only con­nect the prose and the pas­sion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in frag­ments no longer.

- EM Forster, Howard’s End

Engage­ment with con­nected net­works of vol­un­teers out­side the offi­cial civil-​​military sec­tor has the poten­tial to see a mea­sur­able increase in sit­u­a­tional aware­ness dur­ing ongo­ing and emer­gent cri­sis sit­u­a­tions. These net­works, their cul­ture and the tools they use offer civil-​​military actors a set of oppor­tu­ni­ties to improve con­flict and dis­as­ter man­age­ment only rarely taken advan­tage of in cur­rent responses.

In the 21st Cen­tury, active and ongo­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in a diverse and con­nected net­work, the use of social tools and a famil­iar­ity with the cul­ture of shar­ing and open­ness that accom­pa­nies them should be no less core skills for mem­bers of the civil-​​military com­mu­nity than use of email or the web; dig­i­tal lit­er­acy, active dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship and involve­ment with rel­e­vant net­worked com­mu­ni­ties is a key com­pe­tency for knowl­edge work­ers and field oper­a­tives alike.

A brief his­tory of hyperconnectivity

The term hyper­con­nec­tiv­ity refers to indi­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties and organ­i­sa­tions becom­ing a part of near-​​constantly con­nected net­works facil­i­tated by tools such as mobile tele­phony, email, the web as well as face-​​to-​​face pres­ence, where aware­ness of sit­u­a­tion and avail­abil­ity of infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge has reached a near-​​commodity state.

Hyper­con­nected indi­vid­u­als (in which I include the organ­i­sa­tion and com­mu­nity as iden­ti­fi­able indi­vid­u­als in their capac­ity as actors) rely deeply on their net­works of con­nec­tions — both close and weak — to ensure their aware­ness of the world around them is con­stant and per­va­sive, that they can con­tribute to and receive input from their net­works to solve prob­lems and that they are equipped with the capac­ity to actively par­tic­i­pate in a uni­ver­sal pub­lic sphere.

Hyper­con­nec­tiv­ity is exhibit­ing emer­gent effects we could not have been aware of before we had access to the net­work; its very exis­tence, and the con­nec­tions it affords, is chang­ing the way we do things. We now have the capac­ity to dis­trib­ute, share and lever­age infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge in ways and at a speed incon­ceiv­able only 10 years ago.

In his book, Cog­ni­tive Sur­plus, New York Uni­ver­sity aca­d­e­mic Clay Shirky states of our post-​​industrial world that we have spent a gen­er­a­tion soaked in a stu­por of pas­sive tele­vi­sion watching. He points out that the capac­ity for us to spend those idle hours pro­duc­ing some form of value was dimin­ished for nearly 50 years through the use of tele­vi­sion as social sur­ro­gate, replac­ing time per­form­ing active roles in our com­mu­ni­ties and with friends and fam­ily. He goes on to note that the avail­abil­ity, cer­tainly in the West, of per­va­sive fast Inter­net con­nec­tions has per­mit­ted us to emerge from that stu­por and spend those hours build­ing things of value to human­ity — things such as Wikipedia, the sin­gle great­est source of knowl­edge we have, the Eng­lish lan­guage ver­sion of which has been built on 100 mil­lion hours or there­abouts of human effort and is recog­nised as being as valid or more so than the gold stan­dard, the Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica.

Shar­ing infor­ma­tion is a quin­tes­sen­tially human act — a thing buried so deeply in us that we do it with­out think­ing, and often for­get that many of the struc­tures around us, espe­cially in recent times, are explic­itly built to pre­vent us from shar­ing. Those struc­tures — rules, poli­cies, organ­i­sa­tions, man­age­ment — per­pet­u­ate what is now a myth: that knowl­edge is power. In a world where access to fac­tual knowl­edge is approach­ing com­mod­ity sta­tus, shar­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion and mak­ing sense of knowl­edge is the true root of power.

Civil-​​military actors and hyperconnectedness

National and inter­na­tional responses to con­flict and dis­as­ter are highly inter­de­pen­dent and need to be con­nected. A com­bined civil-​​military response where gov­ern­ment and non-​​government organ­i­sa­tions across sev­eral sec­tors work col­lab­o­ra­tively in a whole-​​of-​​sector way in order to achieve the best pos­si­ble out­comes is crit­i­cal. Directly involv­ing the wider con­nected net­works of the vol­un­teer tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties (VTCs), lever­ag­ing the capac­ity, skills and avail­abil­ity of them, is an addi­tion to the mix still not widely under­stood or used.

Civil-​​military actors belong­ing to agen­cies in the gov­ern­ment, police, inter­na­tional organ­i­sa­tions such as the United Nations (UN) and in the non-​​government organ­i­sa­tion (NGO) sec­tor often have low famil­iar­ity with social tech­nolo­gies beyond per­sonal use of tools such as Face­book. These include a lack of skills; organ­i­sa­tional poli­cies with respect to access and per­mit­ted use; and over-​​zealous secu­rity (often about the per­ceived dan­ger of social tools); and unhelp­ful or mis­in­formed offi­cial or even infor­mal opin­ions about the value vol­un­teer and other com­mu­ni­ties with a tech­ni­cal bent bring to the dis­as­ter and con­flict man­age­ment sector.

There is a gen­eral lack of aware­ness of what ben­e­fits and advan­tages social tech­nolo­gies and engage­ment in their accom­pa­ny­ing net­works might bring and the famil­iar, path-​​dependent ways of oper­at­ing can pre­clude the more agile approach that is seen in the way hyper­con­nected net­works are able to respond in their operations.

Their organ­i­sa­tions are unaware of or not able to make full use of social tools in their business-​​as-​​usual work for a num­ber of reasons. In many cases, agen­cies are not, or do not, con­sider them­selves a part of a hyper­con­nected com­mu­nity that exists online. It is not appar­ently a delib­er­ate posi­tion, it sim­ply is a mat­ter of per­cep­tion. It is a per­cep­tion that would ben­e­fit from change.

Effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion means using any avail­able chan­nel that offers an oper­a­tional advan­tage. If civil-​​military per­son­nel and their agen­cies made an active effort to under­stand and become a part of this global, con­nected com­mu­nity, they could open them­selves to a world of infor­ma­tion, knowl­edge, tech­nol­ogy and skills that has the capac­ity to source, gather, iden­tify and val­i­date infor­ma­tion on a scale and with a rapid­ity pre­vi­ously not pos­si­ble. Cer­tainly, in rela­tion to con­flict and dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tions, the capac­ity to gather, fil­ter and act on emer­gent infor­ma­tion from a wide range of sources in what are inevitably dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances makes the work of first respon­ders more likely to be successful.

In recent US Sen­ate hear­ings before the Ad Hoc Sub­com­mit­tee on Dis­as­ter Recov­ery and Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Affairs, Admin­is­tra­tor Craig Fugate of the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency notes:

“Pre­vi­ously, we have had the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate AT the pub­lic — whether it is radio, TV, web pages and even bill­boards, but our abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with the pub­lic and have two way con­ver­sa­tions has been lim­ited.”#

He goes on to note that the ear­li­est and best reports in a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion come from the pub­lic, often before respon­ders have arrived and at times before they are aware of the event at all. In Fugate’s view “the pub­lic is a resource, not a liability”.

In the past sev­eral years, it has been an observ­able fact that news breaks first, and much detailed infor­ma­tion can be gleaned, through the net­work of indi­vid­u­als in our online social net­works; first via our con­nec­tions on ser­vices such as Twit­ter and Face­book, then out­ward, as more detail is col­lected through online analy­sis from sub­ject mat­ter experts and then, finally, via the tra­di­tional news media. While for most of us, it is rarely first– or second-​​order con­nec­tions that are the news break­ers, or sources of pri­mary infor­ma­tion, very often it is those strong ties from whom we hear news first, as they pass on infor­ma­tion from weaker ties fur­ther out in our net­works. This is a well-​​researched mat­ter of fact, most notably iden­ti­fied by Stan­ford University’s Mark Gra­novet­ter as far back as 1973 in his paper The Strength of Weak Ties and sub­se­quently through his later research and that of others.

With respect to the recent out­break of unrest in Libya, the UN Office for the Coor­di­na­tion of Human­i­tar­ian Affairs (OCHA) explic­itly requested that the Standby Task Force (SBTF), a vol­un­teer group with exper­tise in cri­sis map­ping and infor­ma­tion man­age­ment, be acti­vated. The SBTF raised a global team of more than 150 trained vol­un­teers and cre­ated the Libya Cri­sis Map to pro­vide live map­ping of emer­gent infor­ma­tion about the con­flict com­ing from the inter­na­tional news media, social net­works such as YouTube, Face­book and Twit­ter, blogs and other sources includ­ing tele­phone and SMS. This knowl­edge, val­i­dated and man­aged through SBTF’s well-​​understood processes, was then pro­vided back to OCHA to facil­i­tate knowl­edge gath­er­ing in a sit­u­a­tion where the UN had few feet on the ground. OCHA’s Andrej Ver­ity states:

“In addi­tion, we requested the SBTF to help with col­lec­tion of Who’s-doing-What-Where (3W) infor­ma­tion and base­line indi­ca­tors val­ues.  Within 48 hours, we had 100+ activ­i­ties col­lected and com­piled. Let’s put that in per­spec­tive: the same amount of data took about 4 weeks in the Philip­pines, 2 weeks in Haiti, and 2 weeks in Pak­istan to be made avail­able.  See an improve­ment? Com­bin­ing this data with Libya Cri­sis Map, we can now over­lay the reported health needs with the actual health response – gap analy­sis. In regards to the base­line indi­ca­tor com­pi­la­tion task, it had never been done before so I can­not even com­pare it to past expe­ri­ence. More future poten­tial.”#

Peo­ple involved in the con­nected com­mu­nity have for some time been aware of the power of social net­works to sup­port and inform action in times of dis­as­ter and con­flict. As early as the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the 2007 – 2008 post-​​election cri­sis in Kenya and the 2008 Sichuan earth­quake there are well-​​researched exam­ples of con­nected com­mu­ni­ties com­ing together to respond in what has been referred to by Har­vard aca­d­e­mic, Yochai Ben­kler as the “net­worked pub­lic sphere”.

Many of the net­work­ing tools cur­rently in use to assist in cri­sis man­age­ment such as Sahana, Ushahidi, SwiftRiver and Medic Mobile for example, have emerged not only from the crises they were built to help with, but also from indi­vid­u­als and groups who are a part of already exist­ing com­mu­ni­ties involved in the Free and Open Source Soft­ware (FOSS) sec­tor. It is for this rea­son that these tools remain open source and free of charge today and con­tinue to be built or improved thanks to the cog­ni­tive sur­plus of the com­mu­ni­ties around them, put to good use for the bet­ter­ment of humanity.

When shown the range of skills, infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge brought by the unof­fi­cial con­trib­u­tors to dis­as­ter and con­flict responses such as Haiti, the recent Japan­ese earth­quake and tsunami and the ongo­ing Libyan sit­u­a­tion and other events in the Mid­dle East, there is a ten­dency amongst many civil-​​military author­i­ties to accord lit­tle value and cre­dence to what has been gath­ered and made sense of by com­mu­ni­ties such as Cri­sis­Com­mons, Cri­sisMap­pers, the SBTF, and others. There remains a view that infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge from unof­fi­cial sources lacks valid­ity, despite the sub­stan­tial gov­er­nance effort sur­round­ing the man­ner in which it is col­lated, man­aged and ver­i­fied or attrib­uted. This view seems rooted in the pre­vi­ously noted lack of famil­iar­ity with net­worked cul­ture and tools and may be exac­er­bated by a lack of time avail­able to civil-​​military per­son­nel to pur­sue new ways of access­ing infor­ma­tion, even when away from deployments.

Dur­ing the US Sen­ate hear­ing men­tioned before, Heather Blan­chard, co-​​founder of Cri­sis­Com­mons made the obser­va­tion that:

“We were… dis­mayed to find that many agen­cies have strin­gent secu­rity poli­cies block­ing their work­force from using social media tools for oper­a­tional pur­poses.  With­out this capa­bil­ity emer­gency man­agers could be miss­ing crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion in their oper­a­tional pic­ture. We rec­om­mend that emer­gency man­age­ment infra­struc­ture be fully mod­ern­ized. We also rec­om­mend that pol­icy and inci­dent man­age­ment doc­trine be mod­i­fied to allow emer­gency man­age­ment per­son­nel to engage out­side of their own orga­ni­za­tional net­works to take advan­tage of social media tools and capa­bil­i­ties.”#

This is not uni­ver­sally the case; the Libya Cri­sis Map and OCHA’s involve­ment has already been men­tioned, FEMA in the US is an increas­ingly mature user of social tools, and in the case of the recent Japan tsunami and earth­quake, the ini­tial Ushahidi map cre­ated by Open­StreetMap vol­un­teers, is now a recog­nised tool in use by the Japan­ese government. Similarly, the flood map cre­ated by the Aus­tralian national broad­caster, the ABC, has been recog­nised by author­i­ties includ­ing the Queens­land Police Ser­vice (QPS) as an invalu­able resource.

Oddly enough, or per­haps not, there is more than a pass­ing rela­tion­ship to the way in which knowl­edge and infor­ma­tion is aggre­gated and under­stood by VTCs using tools such as Ushahidi and the well-​​understood con­cepts of network-​​centric oper­a­tions. Infor­ma­tion gath­er­ing is pushed to the edge of the net­work, right where the action is, and aggre­gated and under­stood through the use of net­worked tools to sig­nif­i­cantly enhance sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. The Aus­tralian Defence Force (ADF) stated explic­itly in its Force 2020 paper that:

“Network-​​enabled oper­a­tions will pro­vide us with a new type of advan­tage. This advan­tage will enable our com­man­ders to achieve ‘deci­sion superiority’ – the abil­ity to make bet­ter, faster deci­sions, based upon more com­plete information…”

The low level of aware­ness of the VTCs, the cul­ture of hyper­con­nect­ed­ness, the power and capac­ity of net­worked com­mu­ni­ties to add sig­nif­i­cant value to efforts in many endeav­ours, and the gen­er­ally low level of skill asso­ci­ated with use of social tech­nolo­gies are glar­ing gaps in the offi­cial civil-​​military com­mu­nity. While there are cer­tainly many indi­vid­u­als with strong skills and gen­eral dig­i­tal lit­er­acy, involve­ment with rel­e­vant online com­mu­ni­ties is anec­do­tally low amongst civil-​​military offi­cials in gov­ern­ment organ­i­sa­tions, in polic­ing, and in NGOs. It is a mat­ter that requires rem­edy.  And it is a rem­edy that is not overly dif­fi­cult to implement.

A report in Fast­Com­pany mag­a­zine in early May 2011 out­lines actions by the US State Depart­ment to embrace the cul­ture, tools and com­mu­ni­ties work­ing with and around con­flict and dis­as­ter map­ping in an effort to ensure that the US Gov­ern­ment is in the best pos­si­ble posi­tion to lever­age knowl­edge held by pro­fes­sional civil-​​military offi­cials and the tech­ni­cal skills, knowl­edge and will­ing­ness to act in the var­i­ous VTCs.

After run­ning a test event, The State Depart­ment  is adopt­ing what is known as the Bar­Camp model — a col­lab­o­ra­tive “uncon­fer­ence” where any attendee may con­tribute a talk up to 20 minutes. The State Depart­ment will run sev­eral events around the world in order to bring together offi­cials and vol­un­teers as well as organ­i­sa­tions such as the World Bank and USAID in order to try to find the next Ushahidi or Sahana. Only this time, they intend to do so out­side the pres­sure cooker of an emer­gent dis­as­ter — the cat­a­lyst for the cre­ation of many of the exist­ing tools.

State’s Direc­tor of eDiplo­macy, Richard Boly notes of this effort:

“We saw the abil­ity of dig­i­tal natives and the net­worked world, using light­weight and eas­ily iter­ated tools, to do some­thing rapidly that a big orga­ni­za­tion or gov­ern­ment would find dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, to do. The ques­tion is: Can we get that same magic to hap­pen when peo­ple aren’t dying?”

Under­stand­ing the var­i­ous unof­fi­cial actors

The UN’s Dis­as­ter 2.0 report and oth­ers such as that by the World Bank’s research facil­ity, the Global Facil­ity for Dis­as­ter Reduc­tion and Recov­ery (GFDRR), gather the var­i­ous groups act­ing in net­worked cri­sis man­age­ment as “vol­un­teer and tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties”. While VTC is use­ful as a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion, it is no more than that. Each of the iden­ti­fi­able com­mu­ni­ties is quite dif­fer­ent and ful­fils equally dif­fer­ent roles.

In a response to the Dis­as­ter 2.0 report, Ushahidi Direc­tor of Cri­sis Map­ping and Part­ner­ships, Patrick Meier notes this con­fla­tion, seek­ing to clar­ify the confusion:

“Cri­sisMap­pers is a hor­i­zon­tal net­work of human­i­tar­ian prac­ti­tion­ers, tech­nol­o­gists, researchers and vol­un­teers. Ushahidi is a 501c3 orga­ni­za­tion that describes itself as a non-​​profit tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Open­StreetMap is a vol­un­teer project, while Sahana is a soft­ware com­pany that cre­ates a Free and Open Source Dis­as­ter Man­age­ment sys­tem. Cri­sis­Com­mons is a tech­ni­cal com­mu­nity of vol­un­teers and so on. Plac­ing all these actors in the same bas­ket is not par­tic­u­larly appro­pri­ate since some of these organizations/​networks are not vol­un­teers.”#

As noted, OCHA has recog­nised that in the case of the Libya Cri­sis Map, actively col­lab­o­rat­ing with the vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ties offers them the capac­ity to build intel­li­gence and respond sig­nif­i­cantly faster than was ever pre­vi­ously pos­si­ble. In this and other exam­ples includ­ing Haiti, the Pak­istan floods, floods in Queens­land, the Japan­ese earth­quake and tsunami and sev­eral con­flicts includ­ing the Kenyan elec­tions and the 2011 Arab Spring upris­ings through­out the Mid­dle East, the VTCs have proven capa­ble of gath­er­ing large amounts of data, fil­ter­ing and val­i­dat­ing it and mak­ing it avail­able both to cri­sis respon­ders and to the public.

There are sig­nif­i­cant oppor­tu­ni­ties to be realised and much to be learned if offi­cial civil-​​military actors build famil­iar­ity and col­lab­o­ra­tions with these com­mu­ni­ties — they are well-​​trained, highly moti­vated and have a notable skill set that respon­ders can utilise to mea­sur­ably increase the effec­tive­ness of responses. Heather Leson, a Toronto based cri­sis map­per and vol­un­teer leader with both Cri­sis­Com­mons and the SBTF notes:

“Vol­un­teers exhibit respect for exist­ing insti­tu­tions, they fol­low pro­to­cols and hier­ar­chy (essen­tially, they want to work within the sys­tems to share their knowledge).”

The tools of cri­sis coordination

So too, the var­i­ous tools of net­worked cri­sis response are very dif­fer­ent to each other, though many of them will inter­op­er­ate, enhanc­ing each other and ensur­ing that respon­ders are in a strong posi­tion when gath­er­ing, analysing and inter­pret­ing the rapidly emerg­ing and fre­quently chang­ing infor­ma­tion inher­ent in con­flict and disasters.

While already richly used by the net­worked com­mu­ni­ties, and in increas­ing use by OCHA, the US State Depart­ment and oth­ers, there is far too lit­tle knowl­edge and lit­tle to no use of these tools amongst Aus­tralian civil-​​military offi­cials. More than any­thing, this rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant missed oppor­tu­nity; we could be build­ing real tech­ni­cal skills in the use of these tools, and in con­cert with the inter­ac­tion with the vol­un­teer com­mu­ni­ties already men­tioned, mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains in civil-​​military intel­li­gence gath­er­ing and data man­age­ment capacity.

Bring­ing the civil-​​military com­mu­nity into the net­worked world

It is crit­i­cal that the indi­vid­u­als and agen­cies in the civil-​​military sec­tor become mature users of these tech­nolo­gies, famil­iar with the con­comi­tant cul­ture and active par­tic­i­pants in the var­i­ous VTC net­works. There are a num­ber of  rel­a­tively well-​​known indi­vid­u­als and agen­cies who are or are becom­ing highly com­pe­tent, but they remain isolated.

In Aus­tralia, the QPS remains the sole agency with a sig­nif­i­cant role in the civil-​​military sec­tor that has exhib­ited any real com­pe­tence and expe­ri­ence with, and trust of, social tech­nol­ogy. Their response to the recent Queens­land floods, actively using social media such as Twit­ter and Face­book to both dis­sem­i­nate and gather intel­li­gence about a rapidly chang­ing dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tion, is a text­book exam­ple of how an offi­cial agency can effec­tively use social media to engage a com­mu­nity. Indeed, use of social tools is now the first point of call for the QPS with respect to “get­ting the infor­ma­tion out there”, to quote the Head of QPS Media, Kym Charl­ton, a self-​​admitted for­mer social media skep­tic. Equally, Charl­ton notes that QPS rely heav­ily on incom­ing mes­sages from social media and the diverse com­mu­nity con­nected to them through social net­works in order to make bet­ter sense of rapidly chang­ing events such as the recent Queens­land floods.

Anec­do­tal evi­dence sug­gests that the inter­na­tional civil-​​military com­mu­nity would ben­e­fit from the capac­ity to col­lab­o­rate and inter­act beyond the bounds of meet­ing phys­i­cally around the world sev­eral times each year. An online com­mu­nity, let’s call it CivMil­Net, would enable civil-​​military offi­cials from across the var­i­ous sec­tors involved to come together and dis­cuss issues and ideas out­side the lim­its of phys­i­cal meet­ings. The tech­nol­ogy to do this already exists and is in place, oper­at­ing glob­ally and real­is­ing real ben­e­fits for a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ties includ­ing NGOs and pub­lic ser­vants. Out­side offi­cial civil-​​military actors, the var­i­ous VTCs already have active and func­tional com­mu­ni­ties that coor­di­nate and analyse their work online.

Such a com­mu­nity has been pro­posed by sev­eral civil-​​military offi­cials in Aus­tralia and else­where. As an exam­ple,  the Cana­dian Asso­ci­a­tion of Fire Chiefs has an active and func­tion­ing social net­work, PTSC-​​Online, used for sec­tor collaboration.

Should it be realised, CivMil­Net has the poten­tial to over­come the gap between being good at col­lab­o­rat­ing while on deploy­ments and writ­ing up post-​​action reports and the imple­men­ta­tion of lessons learned. In par­tic­u­lar, it poten­tially pro­vides an ongo­ing place for issues to be argued and new ideas to be mooted as a com­ple­ment to the for­mal exer­cise and conference/​roundtable approaches that are cur­rent prac­tice before lessons learned are folded into doctrine.

Such a com­mu­nity should not be formed with­out actively seek­ing to involve the var­i­ous vol­un­teer tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties such as Cri­sis­Com­mons and Cri­sisMap­pers, Open­StreetMap, and the Standby Task Force as well as the organ­i­sa­tions devel­op­ing cri­sis man­age­ment tools such as Ushahidi. Beyond Aus­tralia, these organ­i­sa­tions are already inter­act­ing closely with gov­ern­ment and NGOs and have built strong trust relationships.

Link­ages with Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment pol­icy agenda

Engag­ing with the net­worked cri­sis man­age­ment com­mu­ni­ties and build­ing capac­ity in the use of the tools used by these com­mu­ni­ties has strong link­ages with many of the reforms cur­rently under­way in the Aus­tralian defence and pub­lic sec­tors. The Asia Pacific Civil-​​Military Cen­tre of Excellence’s own con­cep­tual frame­work notes the need to adopt flex­i­ble and col­lab­o­ra­tive approaches, tying such activ­i­ties into the wider inno­va­tion reforms pro­posed in the Moran Review of the Aus­tralian pub­lic sec­tor, Ahead of the Game. So too, devel­op­ments and fore­casts for change in Aus­tralian defence capa­bil­ity in doc­u­ments such as Force 2020 and the Defence White Paper 2009 high­light the need for increased net­work­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion capac­ity within Defence and between Defence and its partners.

What now?

In Aus­tralia, the US, the UK and else­where, includ­ing on a multinational/​UN basis, there are painfully few exam­ples of truly skilled indi­vid­u­als and agen­cies with an offi­cial civil-​​military remit using social and col­lab­o­ra­tive tech­nolo­gies in either dis­as­ter or con­flict man­age­ment. Nor are they actively par­tic­i­pat­ing in net­works of exper­tise and col­lab­o­rat­ing with them in order to improve their capac­ity to act.

A num­ber of events are already tak­ing place around the region; events the civil-​​military com­mu­nity are not engag­ing with. These include Bridg­ing the Gap Think Tank, in Syd­ney on 21 May and the global Ran­dom Hacks of Kind­ness (RHoK) in 16 loca­tions around the world in early June. Not actively par­tic­i­pat­ing in these events rep­re­sents a sin­gu­lar missed oppor­tu­nity for the civil-​​military sector.

Many Aus­tralian organ­i­sa­tions across the con­flict and dis­as­ter man­age­ment com­mu­nity are now increas­ingly aware of the value of the use of social tech­nolo­gies and hyper­con­nec­tiv­ity to improve the way they work, includ­ing dur­ing times of cri­sis. Sev­eral agen­cies, includ­ing the Attorney-General’s Depart­ment  have sig­nalled they intend to inves­ti­gate these approaches and a num­ber of events to dis­cuss expe­ri­ences, research and views have been held.

Inves­ti­ga­tion, how­ever, is not enough.

There is more than ade­quate aca­d­e­mic and organ­i­sa­tional research and use-​​in-​​practice evi­dence to show that organ­i­sa­tions involved in offi­cial civil-​​military response gain mea­sur­able insight and response capa­bil­ity, even in the face of emer­gent, rapidly chang­ing and sig­nif­i­cantly com­plex events when they engaged and work­ing with tech­no­log­i­cally adept net­worked com­mu­ni­ties such as Cri­sisMap­pers and SBTF. In the words of GFDRR man­ager, Saroj Kumar Jha:

“The use of Vol­un­teer Tech­nol­ogy Com­mu­ni­ties (VTCs) made pos­si­ble by new Web 2.0 tech­nolo­gies present a fun­da­men­tal shift in how we can sup­port Dis­as­ter Risk Man­age­ment pro­grams and inter­vene in dis­as­ter sit­u­a­tions. We are only at the begin­ning of this story. The seeds planted through ini­tia­tives like the Cri­sis Com­mons and Ran­dom Hacks of Kind­ness hold great promise for the future.”#

Aus­tralian civil-​​military agen­cies, and in all like­li­hood their equiv­a­lents else­where need to act to improve their capac­ity to engage with net­worked com­mu­ni­ties around cri­sis and dis­as­ter management.

To build skills and knowl­edge, as the US State Depart­ment is doing in at home and glob­ally, so too DFAT, the Depart­ment of Defence and AusAID could actively engage with the vol­un­teer tech­ni­cal com­mu­ni­ties, build­ing rela­tion­ships and exper­tise on both sides.

An inter­na­tional research effort as well as events akin to RHoK and Cri­sis­Camp, should be spon­sored by civil-​​military organ­i­sa­tions such as the Asia-​​Pacific Civil-​​Military Cen­tre of Excel­lence and their inter­na­tional peers. This activ­ity would explic­itly seek to involve the var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties — VTCs, acad­e­mia, the inno­va­tion sec­tor, Cri­sis­Com­mons, The Standby Task Force and oth­ers — with an aim of fos­ter­ing good work­ing rela­tion­ships and incor­po­rat­ing cul­ture change, tools and prac­tices and lessons learned with respect to the inclu­sion of net­worked com­mu­ni­ties in dis­as­ter and con­flict response into civil-​​military doc­trine by July 2012.

Build­ing trust and strong rela­tion­ships is an impor­tant first step. These actions could facil­i­tate col­lab­o­ra­tion between the offi­cial and vol­un­teer actors in the civil-​​military, dis­as­ter man­age­ment and cri­sis response sec­tors, would improve knowl­edge amongst all involved and would cer­tainly improve the capac­ity to respond effec­tively and effi­ciently to events in the future.