Sharing vs. the earthquake in northern Italy: a cause for hope

The Finale Emilia bell tower after the earthquakeI find it hard to concentrate on my work today. I am from Modena, Emilia Romagna, Italy, that just today has been hit by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake. I live in France, but my whole family and lots of friends are in hard-hit areas.

As I keep an eye on Twitter for news and updates, I realized that people are spontaneously mobilizing to create - apparently out of thin air - common resources that make a difference to the local people trying to cope with the earthquake’s aftermath. Let’s see:

  • first of all, there is Twitter itself. By now westerners have become accostumed to the uncanny speed with which online social networks, Twitter in particular, get on top of information and spread it as it happens. I know the math behind it (Twitter is a scale-free. multihub structure, extremely good for spreading information), but watching it happen is quite fascinating. In Modena today the cellular phone network went down: I learnt my own family was safe through a tweet by my sister. The hashtag \#terremoto has been used to pass news around and coordinate: bring water to village X,  parents of children taking part in sport event Y know that they are all safe, etc. It has even be kept free of non.operational stuff, like the emergency lane of a road closed to all traffic saved ambulances and fire trucks. As often before in comparable situations, professional journalists are reduced to updating their websites based on... Twitter.
  • second, as the phone network failed and the need for communication was very urgent, people quickly figured out they could create a rough-and-ready data communication network simply removing the passwords that prevent unauthorized users to connect to the wi-fi hotspots in their homes, shops and offices. Citizens, businesses, local authorities and at least two telecommunication company with a commercial wi-fi offer (TIM and Vodafone - here is the latter's instructions) all did this. The suggestion and the instructions to reconfigure hotspots is being spread through Twitter and Facebook as I am writing this. In densely populated cities like Modena, this means a more or less complete coverage. For free, and in minutes.
  • third, thousands of people were made temporarily (and in some cases, unfortunately, more than that) homeless, as their homes need to be checked for damages by technicians. The Couchsurfing network sprung into action, asking its members to post onto a specific web page whether they were willing to take on evacuees, and for how long. Immediately several pages of offers shot up. Many list a duration of "as long as they need to". For those who don't know it, Couchsurfing is a network of predominantly young adults who share their couches or guest rooms: it is a way to travel to a distant city  and not only save the money of a hotel room, but also have a local that they know.
So, these are three common resources that did not exist yesterday, and that today are helping to cope. There's probably others I am not aware of. It is too soon to draw any final conclusions, but at least tentatively I would like to attempt two:
  1. commons are in the eye of the beholder. All of those wi-fi routers were there before. It's just by looking at them in a new way and thinking "Hey, if I open  up my wi-fi my neighbor will be able to inform her family in a distant city that she's all right; plus, if we all do it, we will be able to compensate for the telephone network's failure." instead of  "I need to keep my wi-fi protected from free riders or, worse, pirates" that the common good is created.
  2. Internet culture is conducive to creating and maintaining commons. There is no going around it: all three phenomena (and many others) are intimately related to the Internet: enabled by its existence and consistent with hacker "do it yourself" ethics.
There may be a third one, but it is not very scientific: the seeming ease with which my countrymen and -women adopted such sharing behavior is a harbinger of hope. Looking forward to what comes next.

Really interesting stuff Alberto

First of all, I’m glad to hear your family and friends are ok. I went through a similar experience with the Madrid bombings (I was on the last train out of Atocha before the bombed trains) and back then we didn’t have many of the resources you mention above.

I’m really interested in this because I think that “hacker” do it yourself ethics have seeped into the mainstream, at least appearing in crisis situations and providing a go-to methodology. Whereas building communities around such blurry concepts as “innovation” is exhausting, I see people coming together to build tools and spread knowledge as much more scaleable - using hackathons around specific themes is just one example.

I think this conclusion is vital: “commons are in the eye of the beholder. All of those wi-fi routers were there before. It’s just by looking at them in a new way and thinking “Hey, if I open  up my wi-fi my neighbor will be able to inform her family in a distant city that she’s all right; plus, if we all do it,. will be able to compensate for the telephone network’s failure.””

tool wikification is happening fast, too

All this is happening, fast. If translations work well enough, they can be useful pretty much everywhere there’s connectivity.

And connectivity for really bad crises - defined as those that kill connectivity itself - is also getting better, with open devices that let people create “mesh networks” (whatever that is), etc.

Maybe someone, somewhere, is even creating a linux distribution that can be toasted in CDs and simply available as part of the home tool. That way, people would open their wi-fi still keeping some security. Such a CD would have information that would be partly open (borrowed from a global wiki) and partly local (and maybe even closed, such as family’s phone numbers etc). (I realise a CD can’t be personalised, but it can include a tool to let you write some data in a corner of your disk, available for some other time.)

We just need to be faster than the big one.

More common than we think?

You conclude on a note of ‘harbinger of hope’. Could altruism and solidarity be more common and natural that we think? What do catastrophes teach us? Can governments learn from community responses to catastrophes? How could preparedness response wisdom be applied to open government strategies?

Govts roles

Alberto, thanks for sharing this, which has been runing at the back of my mind these days. (Our share of volcanic activity in the Canary island of El Hierro was completely different: lots of media noise, loss of fishing and tourist activity, but no casualties or homelessness.)

Regarding the roles of governments …

I’ve done some work for my (regional) govt in resilience, very specifically regarding pandemic flu. I can’t talk about other people’s opinions, but mine are my own, and as such I offer them.

Bob Dylan said something in 1964 that still resonates: “Come mothers and fathers througout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command - your old road is rapidly agin’. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand - for the times they are a-changin’.”

Some parts of the govt are very specialised and may have resources (staff and stuff) and plans (to be used as resources = elements to improvise with, not rules to replace your thinking).

Much of the action is taken by citizens ourselves.

The role of the govt is (a) lend a hand, (b) get out of the way.

The nature of challenges is “rapidly changing”. Govts have taken their time to learn how to react to fires and road accidents - so much so, that there are specific bodies trained to deal with that kind of issues, and kids in school practice walking slowly out the door if there’s a fire alarm.

Here we’re talking about a disruptive earthquake in Europe, which is not such a frequent event. Or about the effects of economic hardship as in Greece, which is an event where the cause is still going on, and harm is still happening, and in which for part of the population part of the govt is part of the problem.

So what’s a govt to do? How can we citizens help govts do better for us? That’s what we’ll be exploring over at the Resilience Session. And of course has a lot to do with the commons, and with learning, and with this whole govts-citizens enchilada.

First lesson is people can do things that govts are not (yet) agile enough to even envision, much less facilitate.

So what govts can do is run a “lessons learnt” session, and humbly admit what has worked well. Please, someone tell the Italian govts to do that, and to say what is it that they may think about contributing next time. If the “lessons learnt” session is done openly, then citizens themselves can add to the learning, and participate in it.

Here’s a lesson for us small guys: don’t wait. Don’t expect the govt, a slow-working dinosaur, to be as agile as we can be. We need to grow a culture of taking at least part of the work in our own hands. Easier said than done, but my sad guess is there’ll be plenty of opportunities to practice.

Second thing is, govts can do things no-one else can. They have physical, personel and regulatory powers. Does the military count? They could do worse than look at for information on what can be used in a catastrophe. As citizens, we could look into what we demand from them: stuff that’s strictly in their power to do, and that they should be doing.

It’s not a matter of politics or elections. The state has (is?) a set of organisations. Some organisations can do things we citizens can’t do.

Third thing is, govts can do things they themselves didn’t even know they could do. They can facilitate the next one, open up conversations, put real risks on the table. Even when money becomes scarce, there are things govts can do. While on the “money” issue, we’ve identified four sets of actions:

  • Some that are very specific and costly. For a flu pandemic it was buying antiviral drugs, which are pretty useless in an earthquake.
  • Some that are widely useful, but still costly. Having an alternative communication network that's good for all emergencies is an example.
  • Some cost no money and are very specific. Get people to meet on what works and what doesn't work, and produce lively documentation that can be spread widely and save lives if and when needed. (An example with pandemic flu was looking at school closure. Not expensive to plan for, useful if needed.)
  • Finally, you guessed it, the low-cost, widely useful stuff. The key example we can think of is EdgeRyders, and in general facilitation, but there's also some regulations, and probably other actions - which we'll have to think about, unless you already have some ideas.
Fourth thing is, and that's a rule in good old "open space technology" (which we'll be using in the weekend after days 14-15 June), "if you're not learning or contributing, go somewhere else". How does a govt learn to "just freaking get out of the way" is probably an impossible task. So the kind way to suggest this is tell them to, well, focus. :-) But some examples of what _not_ to do might be, say, over-regulate, try to keep peace by force when nothing brings peace better than having food at the table, etc.

Finally, a note on Lyne’s “open” word. We need to have an open-content, commons, wiki for this. For pandemic flu there was (a structured information space with a conversation space on the side, called - a forum, really). For flu and other things there’s (with David Nabarro of the United Nations). Is taken?

“Old gov” at the core

Well, somewhere at the core of all this is old government. Italy has an agency (Protezione civile: here is its website for Emilia Romagna) that was created in the aftermath of an older and much more deadly earthquake in the 1970s. They have contingency plans, staff, trained volunteers, vehicles, equipment such as tents, canned food and water tanks, dogs to sniff out survivors trapped below the debris. It works, sort of. Of course, they have a hard time: with 13,000 (mostly temporary) homeless it is difficult to cope.

What I’m seeing is a civil society effort to self organize in two ways. One is completely independent from the old-gov core - like the opening of the wi-fi. This seems to be super-responsive and working really well really fast, but it can’t dig a wounded out of the ruoins of a fallen building.

The other one is a civil society effort to augment the old-gov core. This is more the Couchsurfing case: the CS people tried to get in touch with protezione civile to offer their hospitality so that it could be accounted for alongside the PC’s own tents and other emergency shelters. But they are finding it difficult to get attention from the PC brass: they have contingency plans and protocols, know they feel their job is to roll them out, not to tweak them to take advantage of new opportunities. So, this second effort is not going very well.

As I remarked elsewhere, Weberian bureaucracies and networks have a very hard time interfacing. I wonder if there were an organizational hack: something like an “organized chaos office” with five people in PC (with a senior manager as their head) with the task of liaising with the civil society’s spontaneous mobilization and - only when it is really worth it - pester the top people in PC in changing their course.


Organised Chaos Office!

What a great idea, Alberto …

As part of my work for “a bad one”, I’ve looked into OODA and SCIM. Let me tell you about them briefly and then you all help me look at the limitations and how to close those gaps? Please?

Ok, SCIM. Simple Critical Infrastructure Maps. That’s Vinay Gupta’s tool for modelling a crisis situation. You look at needs, not systems, because some systems are broken. So, homes have been turned into debris by the earthquake, but you still need protection from the weather.

Vinay has identified 18 essential needs, starting with those of the individual. This is a “hard resiliency” approach, so only “death” is accounted for. For individuals, death in a crisis can come from - sing along with me - “too hot, too cold, hunger, thirst, disease (inside the skin) and injury (breaks the skin)”.

Groups need what individuals need, plus transport, communication, workplace and resource-control (usually carried out as simple sharing, as with the wi-fi superb example). Organisations need what the previous levels need, plus shared maps, plans and succession. Each state is basically a bunch of organisations.

So it’s a fast-scan tool, to look at what has been broken by the crisis, in order to prioritise real fast.

Then, each “need” is solved by looking at “levels and substitutions”. Say water came from the tap and the tap is broken? You can bring in water in trucks. Phone lines are cut? Use walkie-talkies, satellite phones or whatever. Extreme weather has killed your local food? Import it from the international level. Conflict has killed the boats that brought your food? Grow your own food.

OODA, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, is John Boyd’s “loop tool” to quickly gather data about what’s going on, look at implications and values etc, decide what to do next, do it, and back to observation.

So, can we imagine this kind of extremely flexible approach being used by the hard-headed commanders in “civil protection”? I have no problem. Just as we can learn somewhat rigid tools to, guess what, produce creative ideas. Or just like silicon computers have random-number generators.

I’m betting it can be done.

Now … the limitations.

This is a “hard resilience” approach.

What about “feelings”, good and bad? What about hope? Wait - do firemen deal with that? No. But others do.

What about “governance”, “voluntary cooperation”, or whatever we want to call it? I don’t know, and it’s not in the SCIM/OODA tools. Each person or group or organisation or state (each of them an agent in the crisis) can use the tools, make up their mind about what’s broken and some alternatives for solving it, and get going. Conversations among said agents can use the language to cooperate.

Now, this hasn’t been tested. And probably many elements of that are being used already by “civil protection” guys all over the place, so it will be recognised by them really fast.

This brings me back to your (Alberto’s) point: Organised Chaos Office. Maybe there’s need for such an office. But if it doesn’t exist … what can citizens do? I hope SCIM-OODA tools (with the improvements and deletions brought in by experience) [I mean SCIM-OODA _or better_, as usual, not saying this is the end-all of this matters, of course not] might help.

Of course, transparency

Breaking news: I am in a small NGO called Wikitalia. We are discussing, in a very preliminary fashion,a massive open data operation on reconstruction (and the money spent therein). We have a couple of brilliant geohackers working on the idea to crowdsource a damage inventory as well as spending and project management data. It would work like this: suppose that some money is allocated to repairing a school, and - after a competitive tendering phase - a contractor wins the tender. That contractor has to submit several documents which would all be accessible in open and machine-readable form on the web. This includes a timeline of the completion of the project: coupled with the crowdsourced monitoring, a citizen could walk past the school, check if - say the roof is supposed to have been repaired by now and then check that it really is. She could then confirm the state of advamancement of the work - a powerful and cheap monitoring of the contractor, as well as a generator of trust.

I was very “fascinated” too by how the internet has been (and is) used as a powerfull and very helpfull resource for people hitted by the earthquake.

In extraordinary situation like that people tend to be more kind and involved in other persons misfortunes, and internet is a very easy and effective way to find out how to help, and this is a great thing.

It would be amazing if the same care and interest in others could exist also in “normal” situations.

Watch what happens

Betta, Ginevra: my hypothesis is this: at least some people are not going to lock back down their wi-fi after the emergency is over. They tried it; it felt good; nothing bad has happened. Why should they fix it if it ain’t broken?

Time will tell if I am right.

it makes sense

Actually…it makes sense, you might be right! One they have de-locked their wifi there  is no reason to think that at least someone will decide not to lock it back!  Hope so…

let’s see…

Because it might expose their computer?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s exposed anyway, even if they think it’s closed.

If this is the case, then people telling others how to open up their wifi should of course give the full instructions to protect the sharer’s data etc.

I hope that was the case here?

Aw, come on :slight_smile:

Sharing your wi-fi is not the same as giving people access to your files :slight_smile:

I know,

but I wouldn’t know how to do either.

My friends do. :slight_smile:

I’d trust a place like or similar.

internet, other commons (and Cicero)

First of all Alberto I am happy to know that your family and friends are fine (I have a lot of friends there around and I have been sending text messages and fb posts for a day!)

Two quick things: I had already remarked this message spreading around about opening wifi networks in the occasion of the flood  in Genova. What I think is that emergencies make a changement in approach happening: I would say that on side people involved  become more “possessive” because they are afraid for their close community (friends, family…) but on the other hand they try to support how they can (if it has not high costs).

This is the cas for wifi: once you pay for internet it doesn’t matter how many pc are connected (except maybe for the speed of your connection…but we are talking here of hundreds of pc).

Cicero (yes the Roman Cicero) used to write that there are things in commons (communia) which are not to be denied to other people becase these things are offered by Nature and they are iis qui recipiunt utilia, danti non molesta (useful for the ones who receive them and not a problem for the ones who give them). And, more over, sharing these goods doesn’t affect one’s possibility to keep being generous towards his familiy or community.

Altough Internet is not offered by nature I think that mutatis mutandis the example is pretty close.

Unfortunately I am not convinced that what has happened with wifi would necessary happend for other goods.

One could ask. but if people open their wifi during the emergency why they cannot do it in normal life. I am afraid that the reason is, as always, in a lack of trust in the others (I think I wrote about it somewher) which, in some cases even makes sense. An example? An internet connection might be shared among three  or for appartments but it implies that all the users agree on “how” to use it, so for ex. they have to agree a policy about “illegal” downloading, and except in case of cohousing your neighbour might have a competely different idea! Of course none thinks such a thing during an earthquake…

Sharing a wifi connection has much more implications than sharing a washing machine (it happens in France) even if it is definitely easier.