Active Participation and Motivation of Professionalised Digital Volunteer Communities: Distributed Decision Making and its Impact on Disaster Management Organisations

Professor Dr.-Ing. Frank Fiedrich
Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Fakultät für Maschinenbau und Sicherheitstechnik, Lehrstuhl für Bevölkerungsschutz, Katastrophenhilfe und Objektsicherheit, Gaußstraße 20, 42119 Wuppertal

Ramian Fathi, M.Sc.
Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Fakultät für Maschinenbau und Sicherheitstechnik, Lehrstuhl für Bevölkerungsschutz, Katastrophenhilfe und Objektsicherheit, Gaußstraße 20, 42119 Wuppertal

In recent years, Social Media data and especially Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) played a novel and increasingly important role in the disaster management domain. Digital volunteers, who network virtually and collaborate with each other, have a high potential to improve decision making processes by collecting, assessing, analysing and verifying valuable, crisis-related information from services such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. VGI volunteers have grown together over time and formed specialised digital volunteer communities, like for example the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). Because of their open community and rather low barriers for entering and exiting those communities, these VGI communities can be characterised as “loosely coupled communities”. In the first phases we investigated these volunteers in more depth and conducted a final workshop with V&TCs and decision makers from humanitarian organizations.

In parallel and in order to have better pre-established and functional links between formal disaster management agencies and digital volunteers, more and more response agencies established so-called Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOST). Frequently the team members have practical experience in disaster management operations. Due to these characteristics, the above-mentioned teams can be characterised as “professionalised digital volunteer communities”.The team itself often works geographically dispersed at different locations and has a liaison officer, who either works directly in the emergency operation center (EOC) or close-by. The volunteers create actionable information for the disaster managers by detecting unusual events, creating crisis maps or aggregating image analysis.

To perform these tasks the team may also collaborate with the more traditional, loosely coupled VGI communities or other VOST-like teams. Due to the real-time character of the operational work, the distributed decision making of the professionalised digital volunteers is typically performed in a time-critical environment. In cooperation with the project VA4VGI we were able to conduct an extensive case study in the first phases of the SPP in which we analyzed a VOST and decision makers of an Emergency Operation Center.

The overall objective of the proposed research is to better understand the implications of these volunteers for the efficiency of disaster management operations. Based on the result of previous work, the proposed research addresses three fields of interest:

  1. motivational research related to the active participation of these professionalised digital volunteer communities
  2. the required organisational change and organisational success factors related to the successful implementation of the new volunteer structures in formal response organisations
  3. the improvement of time-critical and distributed decision making processes of these teams at the interface of loosely coupled VGI communities and formal disaster management organisations

To conduct this research, a mixed-method approach using quantitative surveys, interviews and workshops is applied. The distributed decision making process is analysed via observational field studies during real-world deployments and exercises. The research results will also include implications for future decision support systems.