What Digital Humanitarian Training Is and Isn’t

We want to be a free school, not a non-profit

Though I’ve been an activist for many years, I have only been involved in crisis mapping since Hurricane Sandy. So, I had a lot to learn, as far as where to fit into this new system. DHT doesn’t fit a traditional role in disaster relief. We are an open organization that teaches disaster relief tools, for free, even when there isn’t an immediate large-scale disaster. Here is how we tried to make sure that we didn’t try to squeeze ourselves into an existing category, while making sure we can play a supporting role to pre-existing organizations.

You can loosely break down organizing (including disaster relief) into three categories; on the ground organizations, outside groups that directly help on the ground organizations, and unaffiliated volunteers who can do some of either or both.

On the ground organizations would be organizations like FEMA, Red Cross or Rockaway Help. Outside groups would be groups like The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). DHN is a group that inspired much of what we’re trying to do at DHT.

Digital Humanitarian Training, on the other hand, certainly doesn’t fit into either of the first two. We aren’t directly involved with what’s happening on the ground during a disaster, either in person or digitally. DHT doesn’t even really fit into the unaffiliated volunteers categories either. We come a step before volunteering can even happen.

We’re here to show people new ways they can volunteer. Not everyone was able to go to Haiti or New Orleans to volunteer. Millions more wanted to than could. This is a profound failure to use available resources to help on the ground, and a failure to work with as many people as would like to. In a disaster, we need all hands on deck. We are here to show anyone who would like how they can still have a real impact, even without the means to actually be there in person. After we help provide that initial push, people who attend our meetups can help out or even join organizations that fit in that second category. Groups like DHN, Micro Mappers, and the Standby Task Force. That’s why we’d rather be seen as a free school, rather than an organization immediately focused on disaster relief. It’s also why it was easy (and a relief) to make the decision not to raise money, or become a more formal organization.

Many organizations have pressing financial needs, even when there is no immediate disaster. They need to build capacity, build tools, and have people trained and ready at a moment’s notice. For organizations where that’s the case, seeking grants or donations is absolutely necessary.

A group like ours only needs space, bandwidth, and people’s interest. The first two are abundant, often donated to a group like ours, and relatively non-variable. When we don’t have the last one, people’s interest, we don’t need to continue to keep our capacity up. We also want to be able to exist if even just a few people want a training, or want to host one for their organization. We can only do that if there is minimal or no overhead.

Finally, remaining a free organization will allow us to dive directly into the role that we are seeking. We want to be a support network and capacity builder for the great organizations that are already working in this space.

Working in disaster relief, and getting to meet people in some of the organizations mentioned above has had a profound impact on my life. My life and my outlook are far better for it. Hopefully, this new organizing model can be beneficial for those groups. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of what they’re doing.

Thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2014! Hopefully I’ll see you at our first meetup!

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