Active Participation and Motivation of Professionalised Digital Volunteer Communities: Distributed Decision Making and its Impact on Disaster Management Organisations (DVCHA 2)

  • Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank Fiedrich
    Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank Fiedrich
  • Ramian Fathi
    Ramian Fathi
    University of Wuppertal Institute for Public Safety and Emergency Management

Summary of the project

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, disaster-related information from social media such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Digital 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 (VGI and Decision-Making in Disaster Management).

In parallel and in order to have better pre-established and functional links between formal disaster management agencies and digital volunteers, more and more disaster management 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 works directly in the emergency operation centre either (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.

The overall goal of this research project was to gain a better knowledge of the motivations and collaboration requirements between digital volunteers and established EOCs, as well as the impact of information products on the decision-making processes of emergency response agencies. Based on the results of the first phase, the project addressed several areas of interest:

  • motivational research related to the active participation of professionalised digital volunteer communities

  • organizational, procedural and technical requirements for the successful integration of the digital volunteer structures in formal response organisations

  • 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

  • VGI, biases and decision-making in the context of disaster management

To conduct this research, a mixed-method approach using quantitative surveys, interviews and workshops was applied.

Motivational research

By using digital collaboration and analysis tools, digital volunteers try to collect and map relevant disaster-related information from publicly accessible sources, process it and make it available to disaster management decision-makers. In doing so, the volunteers are dislocated from the actual disaster area, as they are mobile and do not need to be close to the site. Over time, numerous digital volunteer organizations, so-called Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs), have been founded and professionalized. In the past years, the academic discussion of this topic has mainly focused on technical and organizational aspects. Only few papers deal with organization-specific reasons for and barriers to participation of digital volunteers in disaster management. The paper contains a detailed analysis of motivational factors of operationally active digital volunteers. In a cross-organizational online survey, possible motives, individual organizational commitment, and potential incentive options were analysed. In addition, two experienced digital team leaders of V&TCs were interviewed in guided expert interviews about methods and measures for increasing motivation and organizational commitment. Based on the findings, explanatory patterns for the motivational factors of digital volunteers can be derived on the one hand; on the other hand, measures that are useful and create identification can be identified. Parts of this paper were presented on January 14, 2023, at the conference organized by the Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance at the World Conference Center in Bonn, Germany.

Research in the context of Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOST)

The amount and variety of available VGI in disaster management has been revolutionized with the emergence of social media. Today, crisis responders can find huge amounts of timely eyewitness accounts, on-site photos and videos, crowd-behavioural information and situation awareness insights by analysing these platforms. Of course, these novel data channels can only be utilized if the experts find ways to cope with their large, noisy, and uncertain nature in order to turn that information overload into actionable insights.

To address that challenge, a new form of collaborative digital volunteering effort, called the Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST), has recently emerged in various countries around the globe. A VOST consists of members who are not only experts in social media analytics, web technologies, and information processing, but who also have significant experience and background in disaster management and crisis response. The team usually works dislocated from the actual site. However, it is often tightly connected or even integrated with the traditional disaster management institutions and sends technical advisors and liaison officers to the emergency operation centre. VOST often utilize various data mining and data visualization tools in order to monitor the huge real-time streams of data, verify potentially relevant entities, and represent insights in the form of interactive crisis maps and interactive reports.

To understand the organizational, procedural and technical requirements for the successful integration of VOST in formal response organisations, a case study was conducted in a SPP-collaboration with the project “VA4VGI”. The paper is published under the title “VOST: A case study in voluntary digital participation for collaborative emergency management” in the journal “Information Processing and Management”.

In a further case study, the data collected during the 2021 flood in Wuppertal, Germany by 22 VOST analysts was processed and analysed. The paper is published under the title “Social Media Analytics by Virtual Operations Support Teams in disaster management: Situational awareness and actionable information for decision-makers” in the journal “Frontiers in Earth Science”. It was found that information from eight social media platforms could be classified into 23 distinct categories. The analysts’ prioritizations indicate differences in the formats of information and platforms. Disaster-related posts that pose a threat to the affected population’s health and safety (e.g., requests for help or false information) were more commonly prioritized than other posts. Image heavy content was also rated higher than text-heavy data. A subsequent survey of EOC decision-makers examined the impact of VOST information on situational awareness during this flood. It also asked how actionable information impacted decisions. It was found that VOST information contributes to expanded situational awareness of decision-makers and ensures people-centred risk and crisis communication. Based on the results from this case study, the paper discusses the need for future research in the area of integrating VOST analysts in decision-making processes in the field of time-critical disaster management.

Data and Cognitive Bias in Crisis Information Management

To understand the interplay of data and cognitive bias in the context of using VGI in disaster management in more detail, this project and the Delft University of Technology jointly conducted the experimental workshop "Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and Decision-Making in Disaster Management" in 2020. The goal of this experimental workshop was to gain insights into and a deeper understanding of how virtual information flows and products can be designed to meet the requirements of decision-makers to therefore increase the use of information, which is provided virtually. Furthermore, it was analysed, how data and cognitive bias influence analysing VGI by digital volunteers and decision-making in disaster management.

The workshop used a scenario-based setup, where an epidemic disaster scenario served as the overarching case study. The data and information was created based on real data from an epidemic and were manipulated in such a way that no direct conclusion about the disease and affected places was possible. The sparse database was thus mapped realistically, whereas the countries in the scenario were fictitious. The findings where published under the title “On the Interplay of Data and Cognitive Bias in Crisis Information Management: An Exploratory Study on Epidemic Response” in the journal “Information Systems Frontiers”.

Privacy-aware Social Media Data Processing in Disaster Management

Another SPP internal collaboration with the projects “Privacy Aware” and “VA4VGI” has addressed as a Young Research Group the question of how VOST can process social media data with privacy-aware methods and algorithms. A focus group discussion with VOST members were developed and conducted, where challenges and opportunities of working with HLL were identified and compared with conventional techniques. Findings showed that deploying HLL in the data acquisition process of VOST operations would not distract their data analysis process. Instead, several benefits, such as improved working with huge datasets, may contribute to a more widespread use and adoption of the presented technique, which provides a basis for a better integration of privacy considerations in disaster management.

Practical implications

In addition to the academic contribution, numerous practical implications have been achieved and implemented from the project. Under the editorial of Ramian Fathi and Michael Lülf, “Kohlhammer Verlag” published a practice-oriented collection of articles in December 2022. In 23 articles, authors from science and operational practice discuss various aspects of the use of social media in emergency response. Differentiated in four categories, the contributions deal with fundamentals & concepts, methods and strategies of communication through social media by emergency responders, social media analytics and psychosocial emergency care in social media. The book can be purchased at the following link:

In addition, numerous (non-reviewed) publications have been published in disaster management journals (see publication list below). A paper written in collaboration with the Wuppertal Fire Department, among others, discussed the use of a VOST during the 2021 flood.


In addition, a number of media interviews were conducted to report on the project and the use of social media in disaster management.

  1. Interview (2023): „Katastrophen voraus” im Magazin für Sicherheitspolitik "loyal".

  2. Interview (2023): „Nach 2021: Der richtige Umgang mit Hochwasserwarnungen”.

  3. Interview (2021): Resiliente Frühwarnsysteme tun not. In: VDI nachrichten 75 (33-34), S. 17. DOI:

  4. Interview (2021): Katastrophen-Warnsystem. Hg. v. Riffreporter.

  5. Interview (2021): Soziale Medien in Katastrophen. Forschungsmagazin BUW.OUTPUT.

  6. Interview (2019). Interview im Feuerwehr-Magazin: Soziale Medien richtig nutzen. In Feuerwehr-Magazin (5/2019). Bremen.


  1. Editorial

    a. Michael Lülf & Ramian Fathi (eds.) (2022): Soziale Medien in der Gefahrenabwehr. Stuttgart. Kohlhammer Verlag. ISBN: 978-3-17-034913-1

  2. Journal-Paper (peer-reviewed)

    b. Fathi, R. & Fiedrich, F. (2022). Social Media Analytics by Virtual Operations Support Teams in Disaster Management: Situational Awareness and Actionable Information for Decision-Makers. Frontiers in Earth Science. DOI:

    c. Fathi, R., Thom, D., Koch, S., Ertl, T., & Fiedrich, F. (2020). VOST: A case study in voluntary digital participation for collaborative emergency management. Information Processing & Management, 57(1). DOI:

    d. Paulus, D., Fathi, R., Fiedrich, F., van de Walle, B., and Comes, T. (2022). On the Interplay of Data and Cognitive Bias in Crisis Information Management. An Exploratory Study on Epidemic Response. Information Systems Frontiers. DOI:

    e. Löchner, M., Fathi, R., Schmid, D., Dunkel, A., Burghardt, D., Fiedrich, F., Koch, S. (2020). Case Study on Privacy-aware Social Media Data Processing in Disaster Management. International Journal of Geo-Information (ISPRS)., 9, 709. DOI: 

  3. Conference-Paper (peer-reviewed)

    f. Fathi, R. & Fiedrich, F., (2020). Digital Freiwillige in der Katastrophenhilfe - Motivationsfaktoren und Herausforderungen der Partizipation. In: Hansen, C., Nürnberger, A. & Preim, B. (Hrsg.), Mensch und Computer 2020 - Workshopband. Bonn: Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V. DOI:

    g. Sonntag, F., Fathi, R. & Fiedrich, F., (2021). Digitale Lageerkundung bei Großveranstaltungen: Erweiterung des Lagebildes durch Erkenntnisse aus sozialen Medien. In: Wienrich, C., Wintersberger, P. & Weyers, B. (Hrsg.), Mensch und Computer 2021 - Workshopband. Bonn: Gesellschaft für Informatik e.V.. DOI:

    h. Fathi, R., Fiedrich, F. (2017). Motivation and Participation of Digital Volunteer Communities in Humanitarian Assistance. Conference: Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response And Management (pp. 412-419). Albi, France. ISSN: 2411-3387

  4. Book-Chapter

    h. Sonntag, F., Fathi, R. & Fiedrich, F. (2022): KI-gestützte Lagebilder in der Pandemiebekämpfung – Möglichkeiten und Grenzen in einer digitalisierten Gesellschaft. In: Karsten, A. & Voßschmidt, S. (Eds), Resilienz und Pandemie – Handlungsempfehlungen anhand von Erfahrungen mit COVID-19. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag. ISBN: 978-3-17-039930-3

    i. Fiedrich, F. & Fathi, R. (2021). Humanitäre Hilfe und Konzepte der digitalen Hilfeleistung. In: Reuter, C. (eds) Sicherheitskritische Mensch-Computer-Interaktion. Springer Vieweg, Wiesbaden.

    j. Tackenberg, B., Fathi, R., Schütte, P., & Fiedrich, F. (2020). Resilienz durch Partizipation: Herausforderungen auf zivilgesellschaftlicher und organisationaler Ebene. In S. Voßschmidt & A. Karsten (Eds.), Resilienz und kritische Infrastrukturen. Aufrechterhaltung von Versorgungstrukturen im Krisenfall. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. ISBN: 978-3-17-035433-3

    k. Fathi R., Brixy AM., Fiedrich F. (2019) Desinformationen und Fake-News in der Lage: Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST) und Digital Volunteers im Einsatz. In: Lange HJ., Wendekamm M. (eds) Postfaktische Sicherheitspolitik. Studien zur Inneren Sicherheit, vol 23. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. DOI:

    l. Fathi R., Martini S., Fiedrich F. (2019) Eine veränderte Kommunikationskultur: Risiko- und Krisenkommunikation und Monitoring mittels sozialer Medien bei Großveranstaltungen. In: Groneberg C. (eds) Veranstaltungskommunikation. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. DOI:

    m. Fathi, R., & Fiedrich, F. (2019). Exkurs: Das Virtual Operations Support Team (VOST). In Deutsches Rotes Kreuz (Ed.), Schriftenreihe der Forschung: Web 2.0 und Soziale Medien im Bevölkerungsschutz. Teil 2: Die Rolle von Digital Volunteers bei der Bewältigung von Krisen- und Katastrophenlagen. (pp. 23-25). Berlin.

    n. Fiedrich, F. & Fathi, R. (2018). Humanitäre Hilfe und Konzepte der digitalen Hilfeleistung. Sicherheitskritische Mensch-Computer-Interaktion: Interaktive Technologien und Soziale Medien im Krisen- und Sicherheitsmanagement, pp. 509-528. Springer Vieweg. DOI:

    o. Fathi, R., Tonn, C., Schulte, Y., Spang, A., Gründler, D., Kletti, M., Fiedrich, F., Fekete, A., Martini, S. (2016). „Untersuchung der Motivationsfaktoren von Spontanhelfern”. Schriften der Sicherheitsforschung – Band 1. Deutsches Rotes Kreuz: Die Rolle von ungebundenen HelferInnen bei der Bewältigung von Schadensereignissen. Teil 3: Handlungs- und Umsetzungsempfehlungen für den Einsatz ungebundener HelferInnen. Berlin. 

  5. Journal-Paper (non-reviewed)

    p. Bier, M., Fathi, R., Fiedrich, F., Kahl, A., Peschelt, H. & Schlubeck, B. (2022): Integration von Spontanhelfenden durch interorganisationale Zusammenarbeit - Erkenntnisse aus der Hochwasserlage 2021 in Wuppertal. In: BRANDSCHUTZ, 12/2022, Kohlhammer Verlag. ISSN 0006-9094

    q. Sonntag, F., Fathi, R. & Emrich, C. (2022): VOST: die Entwicklung der Einheit und ihr Einsatz beim G7-Gipfel. In: BRANDSCHUTZ, 10/2022, Kohlhammer Verlag. ISSN 0006-9094

    r. Fathi, Ramian (2021): Soziale Medien in Katastrophen. Herausforderungen und Lösungsansätze in einer hochvernetzten Gesellschaft. In: BUW Output (25), S. 24–30.

    s. Fathi, R., Hugenbusch, D. (2021). VOST: Digitale Einsatzunterstützung in Deutschland. Crisis Prevention, 1/2021. Beta Verlag. ISSN: 2198-0527

    t. Tackenberg, B., Fathi, R., Lukas, T. (2020) Partizipation im digitalen Zeitalter - Sozialer Zusammenhalt in der Corona-Krise. Stadtpunkte Thema , 1/2020, pp. 8-9. Hamburgische Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Gesundheitsförderung e.V. (HAG). ISSN: 1860-7276

    u. Fathi, R., Kleinebrahn, A., Voßschmidt, S., Polan, F., Karsten, A. (2020). Social Media und die Corona-Pandemie. In: Notfallvorsorge, 03/2020, pp. 16-19. Walhalla-Verlag. ISSN: 0948-7913

    v. Fathi, R.; Schulte, Y.; Fiedrich, F. (2019). Kritische Infrastrukturen und grenzüberschreitende Herausforderungen einer vernetzten Gesellschaft. Notfallvorsorge, 1/2019, pp. 07-13. Walhalla-Verlag. ISSN: 0948-7913

    w. Fathi, R.; Schulte, Y.; Schütte P.; Tondorf V.; Fiedrich, F. (2018). Lageinformationen aus den sozialen Netzwerken: Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOST) international im Einsatz. Notfallvorsorge, 2/2018, pp. 01-09. Walhalla-Verlag. ISSN: 0948-7913.

    x. Fathi, R., Kleinebrahn, A., Schulte, Y., Martini, S. (2017). Desinformationen in der Lage – oder die Suche nach dem Koch der Gerüchteküche. Crisis Prevention, 4/2017, pp. 38-41. Beta Verlag. ISSN: 2198-0527

    y. Fathi, R., Polan, F., Fiedrich, F. (2017). Digitale Hilfeleistung und das Digital Humanitarian Network. Notfallvorsorge, 3/2017, pp. 4-10. Walhalla-Verlag. ISBN: 978-3-8029-4875-6

    z. Fathi, R., Rummeny, D., Fiedrich, F. (2017). Organisation von Spontanhelfern am Beispiel des Starkregenereignisses vom 28.07.2014 in Münster. Notfallvorsorge, 2/2017, pp. 27-34. Walhalla-Verlag. ISBN: 978-3-8029-4845-9

    aa. Fathi, R., Martini, S., Kleinebrahn, A., Voßschmidt, S. (2017). Fathi, R., Rummeny, D., Fiedrich, F. (2017). Spontanhelfer im Bevölkerungsschutz: Rahmenempfehlungen für den Einsatz von Social Media. Notfallvorsorge, 1/2017, pp. 08-14. Walhalla-Verlag. ISBN:978-3-8029-4844-2