Notes from Lote4 session on the future of disaster response in hands of stewards

Transferring documentation from Lote4 hackpad, thanks to everyone who attended and helped by taking notes. The full session description is here.

Geeks without bounds

Burners without borders: It’s people “hardened” for infrastructure-scarce situations by the Burning Man festival, now going to disaster struck areas for disaster response.


I spent a couple of years working with UN on disaster. Most of the money is spent working with states; its efficiency is dismal. Not good enough.

The idea behind this session is that we are starting to have online inventories of what Robin Chase would call excess capacity: people in AirBnB have extra rooms; Uber has access to an army of people with cars; TaskRabbit etc.

Next year we at UNDP we would like to have an event in which to bring together sharing economy corporates but also “people helping people”; this concentrates investment in a very small segment of the society.

Active capacity: By encouraging people to take secondary role(s) that activate at need we increase resilience of the society.

Sensory capacity: Real time analysis of public (meta-)data to detect and track disruptions.

Online platforms are a way to map out the resources that we have. The idea is to how to have the communities work on disaster response without the state using online communities. Or to map the different infrastructure systems and what they provide, to be able to know what can be repurposed in case of disaster. For example, letting Coca Cola beverage suppliers to supermarkets use their supply infrastructure to deliver potable water instead.

This could be prototyped with a forward-looking mayor in 2015.

Leo Dearden

Communication breaks down in natural disasters. So I guess the enabling capacity is mesh networks and people who know how to run them: things like network servers in a box, solar powered or whatever. My advice is communication first; and make communication as independent as possible from any grid.


3 years ago a big earthquake hit Emilia Romagna, where I am from. Telecomms disruption happened in a patchy way: some of it went down, but not all. People reacted by opening their wifis and created a sort of better-than-nothing network in 2 hours.


AirBnB-like actors are actually in the way. They try to prevent “spokes” to connect to each other. When the disaster hits, they can not talk except by going through AirBnB.

What do people need to know?

What do people need? [Leo: SCIM / 6 ways to die]

On a political level create a context that seemingly are not for disaster but they help in this scenario; Encourage and incentivise the activities that contribute (as a secondary effect) to disaster preparedness and resilience.


Giving competent/skilled people (e.g. nurses) permission to deal with a situation “Deal with this by whatever (legal) means you think best”. Need to identify key skilled workers, ahead of time.

City of San Francisco has a website with disaster preparedness instructions to its citizens:

Leo Dearden

Example  for citizen-driven disaster preparedness: There is a local town in California of a local currency backed by beans and rice, used as a  preparedness means for potential disruption to food supply (there, up to  2 months due to one frightline through earthquake-affected area).

Fantastic story: a town in inland California is connected to logistics only by a rail and a road next to each other, both highly vulnerabeable to earthquake. It has only about five days of food. So they issued a local currency backed by beans. It’s just another local currency, it encourages local economic activity and all. But it does mean that you back them by silos fulls of beans. If disaster strikes, people empty the granaries and literally eat their cash. It also means people trust the currency more when the disaster has not hit!


There is a scene playing resilience games. They have a lot of knowledge about how to react to many kinds of disasters. Reading list here

And also, here is a future history of the Disaster Preparedness kit:

Two approaches in the room

One is more people-centered: just raise barns and, by doing so, they become more resilient (Burning Man is great at developing resilience skills. Check out Burners Without Borders.)

The other is more engineered: inventory the excess capacity, the shovels and the extra rooms, and the toolboxes and the drinkable water (but also the retired electrical engineers) and work it from there.

Another example…

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s latest book on climate action, and something reminded me of this session (sorry I missed it @ElaMi5!), although it’s one of many many stories. After the Sandy storm, in the Bronx communities living on the seaside shore, help from aid agencies was highly delayed. It was an ad hoc community structure  aka Occupy Sandy (notice the occupy brand) which helped provide blankets and food to people when power was off, and even set up a medical center in the area with collected supplies.

Communities are themselves excess capacity, but what struck me is that in this case they not only did the the public sector’s job. Turns out it made up for social inequality: the relief structures were delayed because they were busy catering to the wealthier side of the island. This goes beyond the issue of weak capacity… and has to do with politics and how incentives are aligned way before disaster strikes.