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.

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.

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:



New SBTF Deployment for Typhoon Yolanda

Disaster responders in the Philippines need your help!


The Standby Task Force is officially deploying in response to a Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) request from UN OCHA to assist with media monitoring and mapping for Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), a super typhoon due to make landfall in the Philippines at 01:00 UTC on Friday, November 8th.

Please consider contributing your time to this new deployment! You do not need to be a member of the SBTF, you simply need to follow the steps below and log into Skype.

Thank you very much for your time and we look forward to working with you!

Activator: UN OCHA via DHN

Deployment timeframe: 21:00 UTC, Thursday, November 7 – 22:00 UTC, Sunday, November 10.

Platform: The deployment will use the MicroMappers platform that the SBTF are testing and the Ushahidi map platform. Regarding MicroMappers, this deployment is open to anyone with an internet connection; no previous training or SBTF membership is required. Regarding the Ushahidi map, we will need SBTF volunteers with experience in using Ushahidi.

STEP 1: Please sign up for the deployment and indicate your availability here:

STEP 2: We will add you to the Skype chat window for the deployment called Typhoon Yolanda – Palau General Chat. Please check this Skype window for further instructions and link to the platform for the deployment.

Deployment Leads:

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.



Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally in the Philippines as Yolanda, is equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane, posing a major threat to people and property across the island nation.

Earlier on Thursday, local time, the winds with this exceptionally dangerous storm increased to 280 kph (nearly 175 mph), tying it with Super Typhoon Lekima for the strongest tropical system in the world for the 2013 season based on wind speed and central pressure. The strength of Haiyan (Yolanda) is equal to that of an extremely powerful Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic.

The typhoon is expected to make landfall at around 09:00 local time (01:00 UTC) on Friday between Samar and Leyte, two of the Visayan Islands in central Philippines. It is then forecast to move over to the South China Sea north of Palawan Island on Saturday, meteorologists say. Its anticipated path will take it directly over the Filipino region struck hardest by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in October. Around 12 million people live in the Manila metro area, where the storm is expected to hit Saturday, with another 10 million in the central Philippines, where the storm will likely hit hardest.

Accuweather warns rainfall along the storm’s path could measure over 8 inches (200 mm), with mudslides becoming an increasing concern at higher elevations. Making matters worse, a tropical cyclone has already drenched parts of the central Philippines, meaning the storm’s rainfall will likely lead to worse flooding and mudslides.

The typhoon can have a high humanitarian impact based on the maximum sustained wind speed and the affected population and their vulnerability. Schools and offices have already been closed in the region and thousands of people are being evacuated. The estimated population to be affected by Category 1 (120 km/h) wind speeds or higher is 14.2 million

Useful links:

Moving testimony on the damage that digital activism can wreak…on ourselves

I can’t add much to this powerful piece by Cameran Ashraf, but I think many of us will recognise what he describes – whether from our own experiences, or from seeing some of our own digital humanitarian friends and colleagues undergo varying degrees of this problem.

For Eliana…

People often think our online lives are not real, that our relationships there are somehow less meaningful and that what occurs to us personally online means nothing compared to the physical.  We believe our online lives and friendships have value, and that we owe respect to this magical, digital world.

The recent news of the passing (see of our dear comrade, Eliana Zemmer, was unexpected to say the least.  Eliana’s illness was sudden and tragically she did not survive.  No one from our online community was aware that she had become ill or been hospitalized.

A discussion grew in response to this sad event.  The fact that a community brought together to help others was so unaware that one of our own could leave this world without our knowing seemed unbelievable.  The sense of guilt and anger for not knowing has both magnified and stalled the “normal” grieving process.

To ensure this doesn’t happen again within our community, the Standby Task Force’s Empathy Team has designated the 4th of every month as Eliana Day and the 5th of December as annual Hug-a-Mapper Day.

Small groups of SBTF members, three or so, will be formed to look out for each other.  On Eliana Day, each member checks-in with their group via e-mail; tweet; Facebook update; text; phone call; or any 140-character post.  On Hug-a-Mapper Day, coined by Core Team member Sara Farmer, the HR team will check-in with “every mapper on the planet” (or at least all SBTF members) via a group-to-group communications tool.

These days of celebration will be opened to the crisismapping community at large via info4disasters and EMsafespace.  The beautiful image below was designed by ET member Rose Merritz as a logo and badge for signing-up with Hug-a-Mapper Day.

Remember Eliana by reaching out to your online friends and colleagues who have been out of touch.  Check-in with your extended online community.  “Hug-a-mapper”, Facebook friend or follower when you find them missing or for no reason at all.


Leesa, Christina, Donna & Rose @ ET”

Eliana Zemmer – SBTF mapper, friend to many of us

Dear SBTF members, mappers

to our great great sadness we discovered last night that Eliana Zemmer, a wonderful person and incredibly dedicated crisis mapper had died recently in hospital, after a sudden illness.  She was only 39.

Many of us have extremely fond memories of working on deployments with Eliana and a few of us who had known her through her online engagement wrote the following – to try and convey something of what we knew of her and how much we appreciated having got to know her even a little bit.

Eliana was a crisismapper with the Standby Task Force. Everyone who worked alongside her knew Eliana as a consummate mapper – someone who put in her heart and soul, and was always there for the rest of us, helping, learning and supporting. What only a few of us knew ‘til recently was that she was quietly generous too, helping other mappers in need even though she didn’t have many resources herself.  Eliana worked on the Libya Crisis Map, Hurricane Irene Recovery Map and Somalia deployment, then coordinated the SBTF Reports Team for the Colombian Floods. A tireless volunteer and coordinator, the Libya deployment was a typical example of her work: she translated between multiple languages including French, Italian, Spanish, German and Portuguese, and was always available and keeping an eye on all the deployment volunteers.

Simply put, Eliana was a rock – patient, utterly dependable, an oasis of common sense when so many around her were losing perspective and over-reacting to the often admittedly terrible events we were covering – rare and priceless qualities. When things were especially stressful we could often release the tension by having little wry conversations in German on the side – where her gentle humour came to the fore. Eliana offered to assist with first aid and other translations. She felt deeply about the importance of global healthcare. Not only did she advocate for medical needs that came to her attention, she assisted personally whenever and wherever she could. In her “spare” time, Eliana was active in developing a ready-to-post collection of “tweets” in Italian for any disaster or first aid need.

Between deployments, Eliana regularly welcomed newcomers into the SBTF chatroom, posted in multiple languages, made little parties in the Skype chat-rooms and used the squirrel symbol. A lot. Eliana was one of us, and will be missed by us all.

Meanwhile, we’d like to remember Eliana in actions as well as words, so here’s a suggestion for each of us: find a mapper that you haven’t spoken to for a while (or ever), friend them on Facebook, Skype or GooglePlus and say “hi – how are you”?

A translation of Eliana’s German obituary and links to her pages are below.

Eliana’s Obituary

And forever somewhere in the world … are traces of your life.  With a sad heart we are saying goodbye to our beloved Eliana, 4th October 1973 † 5th December 2012, who after a short difficult illness passed away peacefully in the Lord. We will accompany our beloved Eliana today, Friday 7 December, at 14.30, starting from the cemetery chapel, then on to the funeral service in the parish church of Seis followed by our final farewell in the local cemetery.

Seis, 5 December 2012.

We will never forget you: your son Saber, your parents Francis and Tamara, your brother Dimitri, your godmother Waltraud and on behalf of all the other relatives and acquaintances, we would like to thank the physicians and nurses from Bozen Hospital for the loving care.

“Und immer irgendwo…  sind Spuren deines Lebens. Mit traurigem Herzen nehmen wir Abschied von unserer lieben Eliana Zemmer  4. 10. 1973 † 5. 12. 2012. Die nach kurzer schwerer Krankheit friedlich im Herrn entschlafen ist. Wir begleiten unsere liebe Eliana heute, Freitag, den 7. Dezember, um 14.30 Uhr von der Friedhofskapelle ausgehend, zur Trauerfeier in die Pfarrkirche von Seis mit anschließender Verabschiedung im Ortsfriedhof.  Seis, den 5. Dezember 2012

Wir werden dich nie vergessen: dein Sohn Saber, deine Eltern Franz und Tamara, dein Bruder Dimitri, deine Patin Waltraud, und im Namen aller übrigen Verwandten und Bekannten.

Danken möchten wir den behandelnden Ärzten und dem Pflegepersonal vom Krankenhaus Bozen für die liebevolle Betreuung.”

Eliana’s pages:

from the SBTF

Thank You from Us!

Kofi A. Annan: International Volunteer Day, 05.12.2003:

…At the heart of volunteerism are the ideals of service and solidarity and the belief that together we can make the world a better place.
…But far away from the spotlight, there are millions of generous individuals who, around the clock and around the world, roll up their sleeves and volunteer to help in any way they can.
…Volunteers do not ask, “why volunteer?”, but rather “when?”, “where?” and “how?”. These dedicated and courageous individuals are important partners in the quest for a better, fairer and safer world.

These volunteers are you, each and everyone of you. We cannot thank you enough for giving your time and skills to SBTF.

Some facts and figures.

In the last few weeks we sailed past the 1000 member mark . Totally outstanding considering SBTF has only been active since ICCM 2010. The SBTF googlegroup has 1466 members.

Each week, 10-15 members enter the SBTF. Our youngest member is 15 years and our eldest is an amazing 88 years. This just goes to show you can volunteer with SBTF at any age!

We have volunteers in 95 unique Countries, you can say we really are worldwide, speaking a total of 58 different languages.

107 members names begin with the letter “A”, (Thanks Svend-Jonas for this fact!)

Out of the 1013 members on the Ning page 521 have a Twitter account!

We have volunteers with various backgrounds making us multi skilled and knowledgeable on a vast amount of subjects. 34 members work with the UN, we also have an ex Airfield Manager and an ex “Hat” fashion model!!!! (Sorry Patrick!)

To celebrate all you do in the name of volunteering for Standby Task Force Jaro Valuch has created a fantastic video. Than you Jaro and Om for the work you have put into creating this celebration video.

…… and thank you all, each and everyone of you for being part of this wonderful family of volunteers.