Buoy: Coordinated Crisis Response and Community-based Mutual Aid, without a State

Buoy is a software-based communication tool used for improving community responses to distressing situations that affect one or more community members. It is built from the ground up to provide individuals and community organizations with an alternative to State- and corporate-run emergency response infrastructures, such as making a 112 or 911 phone call in Europe or the Sates. It offers a flexible and customizable, intake, dispatch, and field support toolkit for coordinating collective action in the event of crises, whether large or small.

Using a smartphone or laptop computer, a community member can assemble one or more crisis support Teams, alert their support Team(s) of where they are and what they need by pressing a single button, and communicate in real-time with their support Team. Importantly, Team members can also coordinate with one another, independent of any communication from the person in crisis.

Buoy is developed by a growing group of anti-capitalist, anti-racist, prison abolitionists calling themselves the Better Angels. We formed in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States, but are more inspired by movements of militant resistance against capitalist and nationalist domination such as the Zapatistas, and Rojavan Kurds abroad, and Black Lives Matter evictions of police occupation domestically.

Many people are engaged in parallel efforts to both abolish racist systems of social control such as police and simultaneously supplant them with new systems and structures that genuinely serve a community’s needs. As technologists, we recognize that technological advancement amplifies all existing power, which is why we focus technical development efforts to support pre-existing activist and community organization processes, rather than imposing new protocols or procedures. This also means we recognize that Buoy is useless for an individual without a pre-existing social support group, whether that be a Church group, family, or activist collective willing to use the tools together.

For this reason, Buoy is built so that it can be easily added to an existing community’s social service infrastructure. Rather than embarking on creating new services, caregiving groups can add Buoy as a layer atop their existing websites. So Buoy is not a traditional “app” that users download in the app store, but rather a means of adding crisis response, emergency dispatch, and coordination tools to the repertoire of any organization already providing caregiving support to their membership.

Inherent in this design is a decentralized architecture that more closely mirrors the way real-life social networks and grassroots organizations are dispersed. On a technological level, it’s also a practical return to the earlier days of the Internet before massive, centralized corporate services dominated the landscape of cyberspace. Nevertheless, Buoy makes use of state of the art mobile technology to provide highly accurate GPS-enabled mapping, live video, and other real-time communication tools that in many cases far exceed the meager capabilities of traditional State-run “First Responder” services. And we do it using strictly free software that adds no additional burden to a group’s budget.

Experience has demonstrated that there already exist a vast array of functioning alternatives to State-run care giving institutions and crisis response services. Moreover, for the vast majority of issues that people rely on State-run emergency services for, the State’s responses do more harm than good. In contrast, community-run services staffed by the friends and peers of people in need provide a quality of care far superior to the level of care provided by similarly-tasked State or corporate employees. This is most obvious in the case of calling 911 in the United States for issues such as “noise disturbances,” which too often end in the murder of a marginalized person at the hands of a police officer.

Ending such horrors requires, in part, providing ubiquitous access to equally-usable alternatives to existing corporate-State partnerships. Much of this alternative infrastructure already exists in certain areas, in the form of community health clinics and volunteer collectives. But one piece these groups are still missing is the technical “last mile” that connects community members in need with the resources that their community’s already-existing volunteer services provide when and where they need it.

That’s where Buoy fits in.

Building a community of users & contributors

Ping @Woodbinehealth, I think you guys should have a look at this.

One of the challenges of alternative care provision is evolving tools that enable it around the needs of communities that use them, and support those who develop them. I had a conversation with Amir Hannan, a GP working in the UK, about how chronic care requires patients to self-manage for good health outcomes (writeup coming soon). Over 15 years he has built a practice based website to encourage an support his patents gain a better understanding of their health to better enable automy and self-care. You can see the site itself here: www.htmc.co.uk (especially the “Common Problems you can solve yourself section - see menu on the left)”…

After reading both this post and @maymay above I started thinking about something that maybe we could build into the OPENandChange process.

What if the health resource centre you are building could have a distributed presence (and network of contributors) as a compliment to the physical space itself? And how could a community support the developers working on it?

I think cracking this could unlock a lot of community knowledge and support, as well as free up resources for providing health and soccial care services to a currently underserved individuals/ communities. Plus it could care for the (far too few) people with deep tech skills that are dedicating themselves to building tools contributing towards fixing the kinds of community resilience challenges we are attempting to tackle…

Another member of the community who might be interested in this is @Eireann_Leverett who does information security and has experience with tech-related privacy/security issues which is a concern. And not just for high risk users e.g. activists…

Ping @Woodbinehealth, I think you guys should have a look at this.

I took a look at Woodbine Health’s challenge-response post and definitely see some complementary challenges with what I’ve written above and what they’re doing. I’ve reached out to them privately, as well, in the hopes of keeping more lines of communication open for collaboration.

What if the health resource centre you are building could have a distributed presence (and network of contributors) as a compliment to the physical space itself? And how could a community support the developers working on it?

I don’t know if this was directed at me, but I wanted to chime in anyway because it’s a great idea that showcases the best kind of melding between the Internet’s ability to cross geographical boundaries and the real need (often overlooked by head-in-the-clouds technologists) for having physical-world networks of people in close proximity to one another.

One of the things I would like to see Buoy as a project develop more of as time goes on are tools for getting knowledge/skill dissemination (similar to what the Woodbine folks spoke of) in a “point-of-need” manner. By this I mean being able to forward or relay calls for help that require particular skills to the people who have those skills even if those people are not immediately known by the person in crisis. This is actually one reason why I envision Buoy primarily as a logistical and coordination support tool for existing volunteer-run community health or support groups, rather than a kind of individualistic technological solutionism proferred by these “there’s an app for that!” product marketing campaigns.

There are already tickets in our issue tracker for allowing Buoy users to add things like skills listings to their profiles, but we have so far only prioritized the things that real users are actually telling us that they need. Since, for now, most users know one another and what their skills are well already, we haven’t done any of this. But it’s something to think about in terms of growing a user base across more geographically disperse regions.

Another thought with respect to a more “distributed presence” is that it’s also possible for a group (such as Woodbine) to host an instane of the Buoy software but invite other groups to make use of it, even if they are not near the Woodbine clinic itself. Buoy has no geographic limitations itself (it uses OpenStreetMaps for geographical data, which covers almost the entire planet), and a single instance’s use is only limited by who is actually using it.

On that note, I am already working in collaboration with the Glocal Coop as a contributor to their Activist Network Platform (ANP). This is a tool that allows larger organizations such as groups with national presence and individual regional chapters to produce a network of related websites. We are discussing the possibility of adding Buoy as a default or an optional add-on to that ANP. If this happens, it would offer opportunities for cross-Buoy technical integration that could be very valuable, too.

As for “how could a community support the developers working on it?” I hear this question as mostly asking about money and so on, but I’d like to point out that the most progress that has been made on Buoy happened during times when I was sleeping in a friend’s closet on my sleeping pad. If I am able to nurture friendships with fellow activists who are able to shelter and possibly feed me, who are willing to try experimenting with the tools I write, I make much more sustained progress on a tool. Money helps, of course, but ultimately I spent all money that I gete on food and shelter anyway, so if I can get reliable food and shelter directly, what use have I for money?

Another member of the community who might be interested in this is @Eireann Leverett who does information security and has experience with tech-related privacy/security issues which is a concern.

I took a look at Eireann’s profile and what piqued my interest was the line “He likes teaching the basics, and learning the obscure.” I feel similar, and I would love the opportunity to skillshare/collaborate with more folks with that mindset who have an interest in various infosec disciplines.

More please

@Nadia, your post is excellent and useful. I’ll have to check out and understand how to implement “Common Problems you can solve yourself section”. As you already know we look for a way to get in contact with local (Milano) people to demonstrate feasibility and then later “have a distributed presence as a compliment to the physical space itself”. Also because participants (living with disabilities) will have limited mobility and time. Any ideas of best ‘crack’?

Connecting people with people?

Hey @Rune sorry for the slow response, somehow I had managed to miss this. So Amir mentioned two things which may be helpful.  You reminded me I have to post the notes from the conversation withwith him. Doing it now!! will post a link to it here later today.

Way to go!

Buoy makes a ton of sense, @maymay . Congratulations on the idea. By the way, you can spin it either way: it works as politically loaded displacement of state activities, but it also works as “social innovation”; people helping each other as a complement to public sector service. The police can be out fighting crime, but if you are being bullied in school you probably won’t call the cops. And this is without even considering that, in some circumstances, response has to be fast to be at all useful!

Question: would it make any sense to prototype this on Edgeryders? Probably not, we are too geographically sparse… any brilliant idea?

By the way: I love the 200 anarchist-led refugees centres in Greece. I would love to see a writeup of that under opencare. @Pavlos , do we know anyone? I see two of them are in Thessaloniki…

Thanks, Alberto.

You’re right, we can describe Buoy a number of ways. In fact, depending on our audience, we have described Buoy and what it does very differently at different times. If this interests you, I encourage you to watch our interview on FLOSS Weekly, a technology show where we were interviewed about Buoy. Since the show’s audience and the culture of Silicon Valley to which it caters is primarily infested with cishet white men, many of whom do not want to accept the obvious truth that the police are government-funded domestic terrorist organizations, I softed my language considerably and spoke of Buoy as primarily a form of social innovation exactly in the way you describe.

So while I think you’re absolutely right, Buoy can be described as and is genuinely useful as a kind of social complement to existing policing services, I am adamant in my militant stance advocating for the abolition of all police, all prisons, and all Nation States in order to preempt any confusion about whether or not I will willingly collaborate with efforts to, for instance, “integrate 911 as an optional feature for Buoy, too.” I have been asked to do this many times, but I will never agree to do it.

You might also want to read our Frequently Asked Questions page, which includes a question called “What if people send alerts in situations that aren’t “real” emergencies?” which also talks about the “social innovation” angle for Buoy in contrast to a police abolition approach. Ultimately, the two can work together, but only if Buoy and its developers remain committed to the principle of non-cooperation with entirely evil militarized occupying armies, such as police forces.

Question: would it make any sense to prototype this on Edgeryders? Probably not, we are too geographically sparse… any brilliant idea?

For what it’s worth, I answered a portion of this in my comment above when I wrote that “it’s also possible for a group (such as Woodbine) to host an instane of the Buoy software but invite other groups to make use of it, even if they are not near the Woodbine clinic itself.” So it’s possible that Edgeryders could install Buoy and try making use of it. I would be happy to assist with that.

Right now, what geographically sparse communities of interest like Edgeryders can do to help (as individual community members) more is to join me and my fellow collaborators in improving the software by contributing suggestions, bug reports, better documentation, and so on. We have a public chat room where we talk about this and help one another get familiar with the software. You are welcome to join anytime: https://gitter.im/betterangels/buoy

We are also big on technical skill share, so if you want to learn how to become more proficient with your technology, we offer a very friendly atmosphere where we teach one another more tech skills as part of working on Buoy together.

+1 to different ways of explaining what you do

Hi and needless to say seeing the super response you’re getting already, you guys rock.

Just to agree that finding a common language might go a long way with groups that may not be as radical/ adamant in their approaches to not cooperate with state led operations, but rather expose them as irrelevant. I find this quite strong and while some edgeryders will resonate immediately, the rest of us may not know just how to engage even if they resonate with the premises (and keep a different view on the ways, for example me, I got the most out of the FLOSS vanilla interview).

Another group with which you guys could click immediately is the Tbilisi activists led by @Nick_Davitashvili, who broke new ground in their own way of enabling flood relief efforts or stopping the construction in their largest city park. There could be potential for new tech  - they had to make up a process for coordination, so they enabled coordination through an emergency twitter account texting to dumbphones and worked exceptionally well, as Nick’s explained in his tedx. But this wasn’t p2p, only for broadcasting as far as I understood…


More power to you, @maymay . This is a very well-thought through service. What I love most is your response team concept: it works even at the level of, say, 10 friends that live in a 2 km radius from each other. Then, like the best networks, it can be scale-free: suppose I am using Buoy here in Brussels, I have my little response team etc. Next up, I visit my friend in Milano; suddenly I am detached from my response team, but if my friend is also using Buoy, she and I can be on each other’s response team. Also, she can ask her own response team to opt in in my own, and viceversa I will be part of theirs. Voilà: everyone in my friend’s response team now has skeletal Buoy coverage should they ever come to Brussels – and of course I can ask my response team to add them, too. The scale-freedom there is that my friend and I become hubs, stringing together my local network in Brussels and hers in Milano. I can’t emphasize how powerful this is: Buoy is viable at a small scale.

I am definitely intrigued by the idea of trying it out when we next deploy in a geographically defined space: this could be Galway, actually. I see in your FAQs that you have already thought of Buoy as a suicide prevention tool. This meets a pressing need in Galway and the West of Ireland in general. Ping @Thom_Stewart and @Finbar247 – I think Bernard McGlinchey is also on Edgeryders, but I cannot find his handle.

I would never presume to undermine your militant stance. Whatever your reasons, they led you this far, and this is more than good enough as far as I am concerned.

Scale was a consideration from very early on, and indeed the current state of Buoy’s implementation reflects a rejection of the typical technocapitalist approach of creating a single, highly-scalable centralized service endpoint for all interaction. It’s really encouraging to me that you seem to have immediately understood the importance of smaller-scale yet socially-proximous user connections. Most people with a tech background instantly reject this design, because it does not match what they are used to seeing Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other large corporate networks do. Of course, those networks are not interested in user empowerment, but rather control over users (user domination), so the model is clearly different.

With regards to trying Buoy out with Edgeryder’s community and its possible use cases, two things come to mind.

First, yes, Buoy as a suicide prevention tool was one of the use cases we designed for early on. You can have a look at some more use cases along with preliminary Personas we had started to document on our wiki. These are two areas where people who do not want or do not know how to write program code can really help the project out by contributing their own ideas in a manner that will be useful to fellow developers.

Second, I noticed that Edgeryders.eu is built on the Drupal CMS. Right now, the only implementation of Buoy is as a WordPress plugin, but I have been wanting to create a Drupal module for it, too. I am not as familiar with Drupal as I am with WordPress, but I have wanted a reason to get back into Drupal development for a while. Also, in my experience, Drupal is the second most popular Web-based platform for the kinds of small- to medium-sized organizations and community groups that Buoy is meant to serve (second only to WordPress). Implementing the existing Buoy functionality as a Drupal module could be really help broaden the reach of the project to more groups, as well as offer an opportunity to rework (“refactor”) some of the Buoy code itself.

I don’t really want to embark on this myself since it’s a pretty big task, but if there’s interest from other developers in doing such a thing, I would be happy to collaborate on that work with someone (or a group of people) from the Edgeryders community. To anyone reading this, the best and easier way to express an interest in this is to hop into our public chat room and ping me there. (I’m @meitar)

Keep an eye out for opportunities

With a bit of luck we might be doing stuff in Ireland in 2017. This might be a chance to scrape off some resources for a Buoy prototype, with would probably include a Drupal module. Let’s stay alert.

Drupal to buoy, maybe the other way around?

I know someone in the community produced a wordpress plugin from Edgesense, a piece of software which was only available as a drupal module. So they must have looked into the drupal-wordpress differences. @Alberto you know who this is, can you remember the handle?

It would be wonderful to have someone else’s experience to lean on, but if not, I am confident that I can build a version of Buoy for Drupal within a few months, much as I did for WordPress. All it will take is having reliable shelter and food for the duration. That’s the much harder part. Writing code is easy for me, by comparison. Unfortunately, my current situation does not include reliable housing.

Nevertheless, in whatever moments I do have the wherewithal to do so, I think it’d be helpful for me to refamiliarize myself with Drupal and update my understand of its internals using tasks that are smaller than porting Buoy from one platform to another. To that end, I’ve been looking at the tasks in the Edgeryders Dev and Testing and will hopefully start contributing some smaller pieces of work to Edgeryder’s own infrastructure. I see this as a way to create a win-win-win situation.

ok thinking about the shelter bit

I have a couple of ideas, will get back to you after fleshing them out a bit more.

“Map of emergence”

I do remember. The person in question is @MoE aka Stefano.

The social contract, self care etc

Am checking out the links you shared above for where and how to contribute to buoy. Code is not possible for me. But I can try to keep a lookout for use cases and useful information/articles etc. Maybe also do some advocacy for it by including it in public presentations (do you want me to mention your name when I do btw? Didn’t at re:publica - @Mike_Gogulski had just pinged me about it ).

So two things.

  1. I had a chat with the Woodbine crew about setting up an event at Woodbine around autonomy, health and interdependency. A convening, but not just for talking. A combination of showcasing/discovering some relevant OS tools, aggregating information resources and working out some social contract/model for supporting work on their further development. I am up for putting time into making it happen.

  2. I came across an article which you/me/others may find useful. One of the comments had a link to an information resource that @Woodbinehealth might want to include in their resource centre:  “a page called ThereIsHelp with pointers and resources for people worldwide dealing with suicidal feelings or a variety of other complicated mental health issues”. I also found it useful for unpacking questions relebant to Boy and community driven care in general…In Wikipedia is not therapy,  the author decribes the emergency response system the Wikipedia foundation has put in place for dealing with signals of distress amongst editors:

"This emergency response system was established in 2010 by Philippe Beaudette, the former director of community advocacy who recently left the Foundation to work at Reddit. On his LinkedIn profile, Beaudette notes that during his seven years overseeing the various Wikimedia communities, he and his team responded to almost 500 threats of suicide and other imminent harm to people and property. A recent report from the Foundation’s talent and culture team noted that, in one quarter, they handled five suicide cases that were escalated through the emergency email address.

“It’s a stressful thing, for sure,” Earley says. “My blood pressure goes up. It can catch me at any hour of the day. I do feel the weight of dealing with that. But it’s definitely something that feels like it’s important to do. We have the technical infrastructure in place to make it as painless as possible on our end.”

How do we effectively deal with the additional preassure, or emotional stress, that this kind of commitment brings into our lives?

do you want me to mention your name when I do btw?

I believe that memesis is more important than attribution. A more thorough explanation can be found on the Rolequeer Theory and Practice wiki, for those curious, but the takeaway point is that I hope your priority will effectively conveying the message and purpose of the tool. Attribution is nice and can often even be beneficial, but not always, and when that’s not so, mentioning names should be a very distant second priority.

I can try to keep a lookout for use cases and useful information/articles etc. Maybe also do some advocacy for it by including it in public presentations

That’s cool. Thanks. You can also join up in the public developer’s chat on Gitter. You don’t have to stay there all time, important announcements will get emailed to you. Just having more people in there makes it at least look like the project is growing. :slight_smile:

I had a chat with the Woodbine crew about setting up an event at Woodbine around autonomy, health and interdependency. A convening, but not just for talking.

That sounds fun. If by “at Woodbine” you mean in NYC, then with enough advance warning I might be able to attend personally. Keep me in the loop about this?

Signed up and yes re NYC

Let me know if/when you will be heading there and we can try to work around that. I think I’ll be in the US around last two weeks of september. Might be later though.

I’ll let you know my travel plans over a private channel. :slight_smile: Thanks, again.

Oh, @Nadia I should also mention that the developer’s chat room is also helpful because I often ask for specific kinds of testing help (that often does not include writing code) in that channel. Most recently was this ask for people to send test txt messages to a certain recipient so I could see the output from different telco providers’ gateways. So even if you don’t fancy yourself a “developer” the developer’s chat is still a good place to be if you have any free cycles an wanna use them to help Buoy development along. shrug