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Russia: Post-Emergency Sustainability of Crowdsourcing Projects

The Help Map [ENG] was the first use of Ushahidi in Russia to coordinate assistance between victims of this summer’s wildfires and citizens who wished to help them. Almost 200,000 people visited the platform and left more than 1,600 messages. When the emergency situation passed and the wildfires were stopped (rather by rains than by firefighters), the interest in the platform significantly decreased. The motivation of its participants decreased as well. Everyone was back to normal life.

This brought a number of questions. Do we need Ushahidi at all after the situation has normalized and, if yes, how to make Ushahidi-based projects sustainable in the post-emergency period? And, more generally, how to maintain a volunteer-based organization in the long term?

Ethan Zuckerman suggests a Virtual-Person to Person-Virtual (VPV – “virtual, person to person, then virtual again”) model for development of networked projects:

People discover the community online, and connect based on their sense of shared identity and values with the people already participating. They come together, face to face, either at the biennial meetings we run or at the other people’s conferences  That, in turn, builds the trust and relationships we need to survive working together for the next months or years until we see each other face to face.

Most of the people who joined to the Help Map project knew each other only from Google Groups and Skype discussions. At the end of September 2010, a meeting took place in the center of Moscow. The meeting was a move from the first “V” to “P” in expectation of further “V”-based cooperation. The participants discussed the past and the future of the platform and brainstormed ideas about continuation of Help Map, as well as about other possible uses of Ushahidi that the core team could support.

Help Map team meeting. Photo by Gregory Asmolov

At the same time, it was clear that Ushahidi-based projects could not be sustainable based only on the core team of Help Map. Therefore, meeting the colleagues in person was only the first step. The second step was looking for new partners by introducing the project to new audiences and engaging them.

One of the best partners could be students and universities. A lectures about social and political aspects of crowdsourcing and Help Map as a case study were presented at the political science departments of Moscow universities – the Moscow State University and the Higher School of Economics. The discussion was focused on a question of whether ICT could create new platforms for governance and civil society. Another type of discussion about Help Map took place at the Department of Psychology of the Moscow State University. This time the lecture was focused on the evolutionary role of ICT and crowdsourcing as tools that can facilitate network cooperation and mutual aid.

Lectures at the universities were not only the opportunity for a discussion but also for finding partners for future projects, both on an institutional level and among students. Universities can be a place for creating experimental platforms that will make possible the students’ engagement in crowdsourcing projects and research.

Not only universities expressed interest in Ushahidi and Help Map. The Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a governmental body that incorporates leaders of various civil society organizations, held a special meeting devoted to “options for coordination of volunteer activities based on the case study of an Internet project Help Map.” Representatives of the chamber, leaders of NGOs who took part in firefighting and volunteers attended the meeting.

One of the major questions that was asked at the Civic Chamber meeting was if Help Map would like to create its own non-profit organization that would continue to work on crowdsourcing platforms for facilitation of volunteer activities. The issue of whether a network-based project could be facilitated through the creation of an organizational structure is controversial. Projects such as Help Map are powerful because they are based on self-organized networks, and trying to transform them into organized structures might threaten their networked nature. Another threat that could be caused by this type of transformation is the bureaucracy that every non-profit organization in Russia has to deal with.

Later on, another aspect of this question was raised during meetings with people from the e-government community. Should the government support development of crowdsourcing projects for emergency situations? Can the resources, cooperation with government structures, and outreach assistance make projects like Help Map more efficient? Or, the other way around, will it threaten the independent self-organized people-to-people nature and reduce the motivation of volunteers to take part in it? There are no evident answers to these questions so far. It’s clear, however, that it depends on a political context and the degree of trust between the government and its citizens.

Meetings such as the one at the Civic Chamber contributed to raising awareness of the role of IT in general and crowdsourcing in particular in emergency situations. The official summary of the discussion that was published by the Civic Chamber was titled “Help Map will continue to develop”.

Another channel for cooperation are local NGOs. The Help Map team met with the local environmental groups. The discussion was focused on the possible transformation of Help Map for wildfires into a map that would collect information about any forest-related issues (e.g., monitoring of violations, coordination of restoration). At the same time, it would improve preparedness to provide help in emergency situation in the future (according to forecasts of the Russian environmentalists, wildfires next summer can be even worse than the ones this year).

Ushahidi has already caused some chain effect in Russia. A prominent Russian blogger Alexey Navalny is working on a project aimed at monitoring problems with the roads and forcing the authorities to fix these problems. One of the NGOs is considering launching a platform that would monitor violations in regard to military service in Russia. Another group is working on a platform that would collect information about various types of citizens’ rights violations.

Yet another possible direction is the incorporation of crowdsourcing practices within e-government. Despite some concerns and skepticism, we may still hope that platforms such as Ushahidi can play a role in bridging the gap between the government and citizens. The Russian e-gov efforts have already showed a few interesting and inspiring projects like rosspending.ru, which, in a user-friendly way, tell people about the public procurement and main government contractors.

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