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  • Hacking for Resilience

last modified September 22, 2010 by strypey

Paper for FreeCulture2010

Hacking for Resilience

"Try to think international... You should feel guilty if you're just watching!" - Atari TeenageRiot, 'Destroy 2000 Years of Culture'

Given the choice, both geeks and greens projects lean away from 'crownsourcing' - "public" support via government departments, and state funding, which can have strings attached, and towards 'crowdsourcing' - public support via volunteer participation and direct donations. Crowdsourcing involves people in self-managing teams and networks, working together locally to help themselves, and collaborating with others from afar. Pragmatically, it enables experimental and unplannable projects, which could not happen if everyone involved was an employee on a wage, but it also connects with an intrinsic human desire to connect, and make a difference.

Ethan Zuckerman, blogging about the Hurricane Katrina PeopleFinder project says:

"I got dozens of emails thanking me for an opportunity to help out. I suspect a huge number of people were sitting at home in front of the TV this weekend, feeling helpless and were grateful for something they could do above and beyond writing a check that made them feel hopeful." [1]

The Humanitarian FOSS Project has been created to facilitate the involvement of computer science students in socially useful free code projects [2], and geeks across the planet have been using crowdsourcing strategies like this to respond to the needs of communities hit by natural disasters. Hours have been spent on code, and data management; from the Sahana (Sinhalese for 'relief') software, written by Sri Lankan hackers after the 2004 Tsunami hit  [3]; to the Ushahidi ('witness' in Swahili) platform, based on a website set up to monitor the post-election disturbances in Kenya in 2008 [4]; to the convening of the CrisisMappers Network [5] in 2009. The CrisisCommons was also founded in 2009, and their low-carbon 'remote aid' CrisisCamps began in January 2010 with the Haiti earthquake [6]. The 'camps' were inspired by the Hackfests, which came out of Linux User Groups (LUGs), and Barcamps, which also emerged from the free code software movement [7].

Greens are also becoming more involved in disaster relief and recovery. At the same time as Sahana was bring created, Earthship architect Michael Reynolds and his 'Biotecture' crews were helping people rebuild their Tsunami-flattened villages on the Andaman Islands [8]. Permaculture-inspired relief efforts go back at least as far as 1999, with permaculture designers and their crews helping communities across the world rebuild human habitats in crisis situations, including Alice Harrison in Palestine [9], Geoff Lawton in Macedonia, Robyn Francis in Cuba, and a team who added their skills to a village rebuild after the 2003 hurricane, initated by architect Eric Davenport, and Peace Corp worker David Docherty [10].

More recently in Haiti, following the devastating earthquake there in 2010, both the geeks and the greens have been involved in relief and rebuilding efforts. CrisisCommons set up their CrisiWiki, hosted by National Public Radio [11]. An instance of Sahana was deployed [12], "including a Situation Map, an Organizations Registry, and an Activities Report" [13]. CrisisMappers set up an Ushahidi implementation, using data from the Open Street Map project, where groups like InSTEDD helped them aggregate and map help requests SMS texted to 4636. Missing persons were tracked using a system based on the PeopleFinder code developed after Katrina [14]. Meanwhile, both PermaCorps International [15] and the Biotecture Institute [16] began to help survivors rebuild their homes and become more self-sufficient in the process.

There were also a number of case studies in the wake of the recent earthquake in Waitaha/ Canterbury [17], which destroyed a number of homes and businesses, especially in the city of Ootautahi/ Christchurch. CrisisCommons volunteers monitored the situation from afar, collecting information on a dedicated CrisisWiki page [18], and debriefing their response using PiratePad, a service run by the Swedish Pirate Party using the free code Etherpad software [19]. The regional council, Environment Canterbury, set up a site using the free code blogging engine Wordpress, to publish information on the quake and relief efforts as it came to hand [20]. A number of stories about the quake appeared on Aotearoa Indymedia (AIM), which runs on the free code Content Management System (CMS) Drupal, mainly focusing on the examples of spontanous mutual aid in communities around the city, and the plight of workers who faced loss of pay or loss of employment as a result of the quake [21].

Rebuilding after the earthquake comes with both risks and opportunities. Some of the stories on AIM, including one by the author, comment on a new Act of Parliament, which gives one government minister the power to make or suspend regulations, supposedly in the pursuit of rapid rebuilding. Reference is made to 'the Shock Doctine', a book by Naomi Klein which documents the use of crisis situations by politicans to ram through unpopular pro-corporate reforms, and the risk of futher deregulation and privatisation of the city's infrastructure under the Act. However, the work of the permaculture and biotecture designers shows that crisis situations can also be an opportunity to refactor, to borrow an Agile phrase, rebuilding with the benefit of experience of what works and does not work in the current built environment. As Richard Grevers puts it in his post on the Permaculture in New Zealand website, "If I were still living there, I think I would be asking myself how I could be less dependent upon fragile infrastructure." [22]

So how can more independent community structures help in the response to disasters? One example in Ootautahi was The Lyttelton Timebank, which helped to co-ordinate relief efforts in the part of the city surrounding the port, one of the city's essential supply lines [23]. The website of Lyttelton Timebank is hosted by a Transition-style initiative called Project Lyttelton, who describe their server as "...an e-commons project built using an Open Source Content Management System on a Virtual Server in Christchurch, all specificallly designed to support Community IT." [24] 

The rationale of Time Banking is a variation on the idea of Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) [25], also know as 'green dollars'. According to Global Ideas Bank, "The LETSystem is really only an information exchange, which uses a computer to keep track of account holders' green dollar trading transactions. Its objective is to stimulate trade, local economic activity, community relationships and personal self-confidence." [26] Whereas LETS currencies usually use units ('green dollars') of negotiable value to quantify transactions, Time Banking uses the work hour as a fixed unit. Essentially, it allows volunteers to 'bank' the hours they spend helping their neighbours, and exchange them for hours of other people's help when they need it, using the Time Banking member database to match up skills with needs. Community currencies are often the initiative of permaculturists and Transition groups, with the same goals as Slow Money; to increase exchange of goods and services within a neighbourhood or village, buildings relationships and resilience [27].

Looking into the future, our oil dependent industrial society is a long, slow disaster which will require massive relief efforts for the human species to survive. This disaster is made up of a strangling net of problems; fossil fuel dependence; climate change (anthropogenic or otherwise); overshoot of Earth's carrying-capacity; massive loss of biodiversity; toxic pollution; monetisation and proprietarisation of everything; overproduction and under-distribution; commercialisation of governance and education; expertisation of everyday life. Many of these problems are avoidable, but so far we have failed to avoid them. Chetan Dhruve argues that this is because we find ourselves enmeshed in workplace dictatorships that suppress both initiative and honesty about bad news [28]. Also, where a free flow of information that could help us to better adapt both our behaviour and our social systems to the changing world around us, we find ourselves in a "read-only society", to quote Lawrence Lessig [29], which is desperately damming up that flow, in the defence of out-dated and maladaptive economic models.

To the degree that the internet is a glowing, grandiose, virtual Dubai, dependent on this unsustainable society, the information revolution is part of the problem. A poignant posting by Christophe McKeon to a forum for developers of the Ruby language summed this up by saying, "I am writing today to say my goodbyes to Ruby but also to computers and everything else which we know is destroying our planet, yet which we continue doing in our denial and madness towards inevitable annihilation." [30]

Primitivists like Kirkpatrick Sale, author of Rebels Against the Future, also lament the expansion of the internet and the growing ubiquity of the computer [31]. However, the Luddites he valourises were not opposed to technology per se, but implementations of that forced freemen back into a state of serfdom, via micro-division of labour, and mechanisation of the workforce. Neither were pre-industrial societies models of ecological stewardship, as illustrated by his discussion of the clearing of forests for sheep farming, hundreds of years before the Luddites [32].

As Ken Wilber writes, "... the startling fact is that ecological wisdom does not consist in understanding how to live in accord with nature; it consists in understanding how to get humans to agree on how to live in accord with nature" [33]. The ability to democratically determine how the land they depend on is used, and how the tools they work with are shaped, distinguishes the freeman from the serf, and potentially, the ecological from the ecocidal. Similarly, whether activists against oil dependence must oppose the information revolution, or join in, depends entirely on how digital technologies are configured, and with whose interests at heart.