The Dilemma of Response in a Time of Crisis

The Standby Task Force (SBTF) has developed clear guidelines for the kinds of disaster situations we activate for, whether natural or man-made.  The SBTF has provided crisis informatics and mapping support to “boots-on-the-ground” humanitarian relief organizations.  As highlighted by world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly currently taking place in New York City, the severity and frequency of both man-made and natural disasters have increased significantly over the past decade.

The year of 2014 has been a challenging year for both individuals and communities around the world.  The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has spread rapidly and is having multiple compounding effects on provision of medical services, health infrastructure, and commerce in a number of nations.  Forty-one ongoing-armed conflicts, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, create instability and insecurity in the lives of those caught in the crossfire.  Rape used as a weapon of war increases while the number of internally displaced persons and refugees continues to grow.  Prolonged floods in Pakistan complicate both World Food Programme and Pakistani government efforts to address an entrenched famine, affecting millions.  The impact of climate change has finally caught the attention of world leaders and made its way onto the Security Council agenda.

In consideration of this, Joyce Monsees, Volunteer Engagement Lead for the SBTF, recently guest lectured about SBTF for a university.  She received a timely question from one of the students that brings up an important issue facing organizations receiving a deployment request. Joyce’s response to this question strikes at the core of the difficult decision that responding organizations must make in determining when and where to commit their resources:

Q: As a global disaster information organization, have you ever had a situation where a few disasters were occurring in different places around the world and different disaster response agencies in each area has requested activation of your services?

A: This is a great question.  When the Standby Task Force is activated, we commit our efforts to that one disaster so we can produce the best possible results for those victims.  We regret having to turn down an organization’s request but spreading our resources will not be helpful to either set of victims, The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) will present that new activation request to another NGO (non-governmental organization) within our network.  Some of our members belong to these other NGOs too so if their other group takes the activation, those members may break from our current work, to assist them instead.  We are not a competitive network, but understand that those with certain skills may be more useful there.

Most of our activations have a set time period of 1-2 weeks so overlapping disasters is rare.  However, your question is timed well since the Ebola outbreak has changed that.  We are currently in a long-term activation to produce information reports for ground teams responding to the epidemic. There are multiple organizations helping since some have specific skill sets like technology support, statistics and translation.  It is also still hurricane season within an El Niño year so we may still have typhoons in the Pacific, unusual monsoonal rains in some areas and severe drought in others. With this long-term activation, we will need to strategize as a network to decide who assists if a new disaster occurs.

Ultimately, whenever a humanitarian organization provides relief services and support in a crisis setting, the single most important issue is the safety and security of the populations served.  The principle of “Do No Harm” or Primum Non Nocere is central to the work of the Standby Task Force in how we undertake our work.  Stay tuned for more updates soon.

SBTF Stands Down from Phase I of Ebola Activation

The Standby Task Force activated on August 20th, 2014 for a deployment with NetHope providing baseline data collection and communication coordination support to responding organizations on the ground and officially stepped down from engagement on Phase I of this activation as of Wednesday September 10th, 2014. Though the response to the Ebola outbreak is by no means over, the needs of our partners on the ground have evolved. We are currently preparing for Phase II of this deployment and will provide an update to our membership on Wednesday September 24th, 2014 about the nature of our engagement moving forward.

This most recent and severe epidemic began in Guecjedou, Guinea in December 2013 and was identified as Ebola in March of 2014. In July of 2014 the magnitude of the outbreak became clear as containment continued to elude humanitarian and medical responders. On August 12th, 2014 the SBTF received an activation request from NetHope to collect and synthesize situational information as coordinated response efforts got under way. The 15 member organizations of NetHope responding to the epidemic required assistance in centralizing their collective data stores and transforming this information into common operational maps to be hosted in the open geospatial repository. The product of our combined efforts is available to the public here:

We are happy to note that we were able to contribute information and resources to organizations responding formally in country and volunteer collaborative efforts online. In addition, this activation provides promising lessons on coordinating communications between these two disparate but connected effectors in future collaborations. Though the SBTF will no longer be updating their datasets for Phase I there are a number of individual members still engaged in different tasks to support the ongoing humanitarian response. All datasets in acceptable format for the public domain are hosted on the NetHope site. The underlying sketches and active internal Google sheets have been closed and are currently being archived. We would like to thank all of the volunteers who contributed to Phase I of this project. Our work has been recognized and is providing direct support to the relief efforts on the ground. We are pleased to announce that we will now shift the focus of our engagement as we enter Phase II of this deployment. More information to follow soon, stay tuned.

We’re A Non-Profit Organization! The Incorporation is Official!

Today we are excited to officially announce that the Standby Task Force is taking the next step in a large push within the crisis-mapping community to professionalize our field. For the SBTF that meant hammering down to the details of what we really do, and do well.

Namely we:

  1. Assist communities affected by disaster through online support and cooperation with local and international responders.
  2. Recruit and train volunteers to assist communities affected by crisis
  3. Coordinate with other agencies, organizations, and crisis mapping volunteers to maximize positive impacts in communities affected by crisis
  4. Provide sustainable and predictable crisis mapping and data informatics services to first responders in crisis situations

In order to achieve these efforts we will be accepting donations and contributions to further these objectives and engage in activities that are within our charitable and educational objectives. We are happy to announce that as of August 21st, 2014 the Standby Task Force is now a recognized Not-for-Profit in the state of Delaware and are in the process of application for Federal tax exemption as a recognized charitable and educational 501 (c)3 organization. The Officers and Directors of the SBTF are listed below. On behalf of all the Directors we want to say thanks to all our members for making this possible by sustaining us with your dedication over the years and to our partners who have pushed us to be better and learn with each deployment we have been activated for.

We have a training coming up next week on September 10th, 2014 from 02:00 pm (14:00) – 08:00 pm (20:00) Eastern Standard Time that will provide members with a practical guide to creating base layers and chloropleth maps utilizing a data set on sexual & gender based violence, trafficking & various human/social development indicators. More information is available here for those interested in participating in this joint training with Development Services International.

How Did We Get Here?

Well, it’s been nearly four years since the Standby Task Force began providing data mapping and crisis informatics services to communities affected by disasters. What started off as a discussion between four individuals at the First Annual International Conference of Crisis-Mapping (ICCM) has grow into a vibrant international community of 1,313 members that represent 79 countries. We have provided direct crisis-mapping, data analytic and crisis communication informatics in 29 official and 33 side deployments. Our partners range from a handful of concerned citizen to large multi-lateral development agencies and our members have continued to demonstrate a dedication to serving directly the individuals and communities affected by both sudden on-set and man-made disasters.

The past four years have transformed our organization and we continue to learn and grow as individual members through this process. Having tested a number of management and decision making structures over the past years we learned by trial and fire what was practical for a loose collaborative of crisis-mapping professional hacking together across time and space. We’ve had challenges and there have been breakdowns. We’ve also achieved incredible success and learned from our mistakes.

Elected Officers of the Board

Justine Mackinnon – Chairwoman of the Board

Per Aarvik – Vice Chairman of the Board

Joyce Monsees – Treasury

Hilary Nicole Ervin – Secretary

Board of Directors

Keera Morrish

Jeannine Lemaire

Helena Puig Larrauri

Patrick Meier

Jaroslav Valuch

Melissa Dawn Elliot

When it came time to elect an initial Board the decision was difficult more so in determining who not to include, because our list was long. In the end it came down to Founders and effective Officers. In the beginning of the year when the SBTF was restricted following a lengthy internal dialogue on structure, decision-making and mission, we elected a 22-member Core Team with a vision of working out the details of how we manage and accomplish our work into an organizational framework that would allow us to professionalize the critical services we provide to the international community in general and those affected by disasters in specific.

We’re all getting excited for the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2014) in New York City this year that runs from November 6th-9th with pre-training sessions and a plethora of community networking and education opportunities. This years conference will spotlight the communities affected by disasters, and our leadership is excited to have the populations we serve at the forefront of our communities discussion on how we carry out this work.

Standby Task Force activates to support NetHope during the Ebola outbreak

Standby Task Force have been activated by NetHope to assist in collection and management of information in connection with the West African Ebola outbreak.

–Urgent assistance is needed to support the 15+ NetHope member organizations that are actively involved in the response to the outbreak in the four countries in West Africa where cases have been confirmed: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, says Gisli Olafsson, Emergency Response Director in NetHope.

Standby Task Force will help collect openly available baseline data about the countries involved and collect openly available, yet reliable data about the outbreak into the open geospatial repository.
–Our digital volunteers are able to re-format and visualize data needed by the member organizations of NetHope. This is also a type of work that our communities do, says Justine Mackinnon, president of the Standby Task Force.
See also the blogpost at NetHope.

Enduring the world’s loss – July 2014

Our world endured a dramatic amount of suffering and loss of life this week. We offer our condolences to those who lost countrymen, colleagues, loved ones and friends. Through it all, we continue to believe that compassion and generosity is the strength of mankind and will prevail.

We stand with you during this difficult time and honor those who lost their lives by persevering in our efforts to help those in need.

Warmest regards,

The Standby Task Force Core Team

Update on SBTF #balkanfloods activation

Standby Task Force has been activated by UNOCHA via the Digital Humanitarian Network.

“While different assessment are being carried out, OCHA Coordinated Assessment Support Section (CASS) based in Geneva are carrying out rapid secondary data analysis to support the United Nations Resident Coordinators in the affected countries.
While country team is channeling information from the ground, CASS would also like to tap in other information sources and collect as much information as possible”

Please try the new apps and start clicking to help the response.

FYI: Text and image clicker app is up and running
iOS :

BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory (UK) May 5th

Everyone at the Standby Task Force is thrilled by the overwhelming positive reaction to BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory feature on crisis mapping and humanitarian technology tonight! We are eagerly waiting to share the complete feature once the BBC makes it available online.

If you are interested in contributing to digital humanitarian responses, please join us!

If you have any questions about what we do or how we work, please check out the information on our site and feel free to email any questions to:



SBTF Needs You: Rewriting our FAQs, Your Input Needed

It is a great feeling when you are down to those final pieces of a puzzle.  A triumphant buzz runs through you when you understand how something works.  Those moments when the light-bulb shines bright are some of the most satisfying.  We need your help to keep those lights burning.

We have been working hard behind the scenes to bring you the best that being a digital volunteer has to offer. New tools, new training opportunities, updated web content, and refined teams.  As a part of this, we are rewriting our Frequently Asked Questions.

The field we work in is a dynamic and changing space; for which there is no clearly defined step by step guide on how we get to the future.

We turn to you, our great team of friends and volunteers.

We invite you to please help by telling us which questions would help you, and others, most as volunteers. Lingering questions that you had but did not ask during your last deployment?  Have you been a member, but not volunteered yet? Want to learn more about a specific team or the tools we use?  Ask, ask, ask away.

Our previous Frequently Asked Questions document contains outdated questions, teams, and tools.  We will leave it live while we rewrite the new FAQ section.  The link below is to the GoogleDocument spreadsheet where you can anonymously ask the deep dark questions that you have always wondered, but never dared ask.

On the spreadsheet, we have broken down a few example questions into  suggested categories, including an ‘Other’ section.  Feel free to add more categories and as many questions as you feel relevant. We will leave the document open for a little over a week so that you have time to dig deep and remember any searing questions that you may have had when joining through now.

We are excited to collaborate with you to update this key resource.  Thank you and Happy Helping!



The Story of Crisis Mapping

Patrick Meier and Justine Mackinnon from SBTF are interviewed in a recent programme aired on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service.

From their programme description:

Dr Kat Arney meets the people trying to change the world one map at a time. These are volunteers who use their free time to map the world’s unmapped places and people.

She sees how being on a map affects people’s work, education and rights. And in extreme weather or after a natural disaster, she hears how mappers might help us to find the people who have fallen off the maps. She also hears from crisis mappers, people who source any information they can after tragedies to document what is happening on the ground as fast as possible.

This story starts in January 2010, when a huge earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti. Thousands of miles away, a group of American students heard about the damage, logged onto their laptops and started mapping any post-disaster information they could find online. Their aim was to help the rescue and relief services save as many lives as possible.

Four years on, international contingents of cartographers now deploy after every natural disaster, and in areas of political unrest and civil war. They scour the internet for cries for help on social media, then mark them on maps to try to get help to people who need it most.

There’s also a project making a continual effort to make the most accurate physical map of the globe. Contributing could mean joining a mapping party in London. Or cycling around rural Uganda with a GPS device.

Thousands of volunteers are now spending their spare time contributing to these efforts. Some of those who started it all have become internationally recognised in a new area of expertise. As volunteers assemble around the world, Dr Kat Arney asks how powerful these maps can be and also assesses the problems that come with them.

Standby Task Force Update – April 2014

It has been a busy few months remodelling SBTF to become flexible for what the future in digital humanitarianism holds.
Some major changes have taken place. From new core team, new teams, new directions, new tools etc. All these things have one thing in common…. They are new!
The field we work in is a dynamic and changing space; for which there is no clearly defined step by step guide on how we get to the future. The SBTF is actively engaged in assisting development of best practices based on years of experience, to expand the knowledge base available to digital humanitarian in general and SBTF in specific. Collaboration is critical to the way we determine our future as a humanitarian actors. Though learning is always a dynamic process; the frustrations, ideas and efforts are well worth it.
During the last few months we have talked to volunteers, Coreteam, Advisory Board, tech groups, UN departments, disaster response field workers, NGOs and partners within DHN to see how we are best to move forward into the next phase of SBTF.

“Into the future”

What does this all mean though? Standby Task Force are leading the way with Geo location and Verification techniques. By exploring and testing new ways, we aim to achieve the highest of standards.
Also SBTF actively seeks to extend volunteer skill sets to encompass emerging technology by training. A dedicated podcast series also seeks to provide volunteers with a better understanding of the humanitarian field with speakers presenting on various subjects.