The informal groups that constitute participatory aid efforts may actually be better suited to address the social and cultural needs a community has in the aftermath of a crisis. For example, few traditional aid groups predicted the need for coworking spots in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York until the Sandy Coworking map was launched. The map served a real community need, and never would have happened if the community members themselves weren’t newly empowered to organize themselves to fulfill local needs (building on the shoulders of an earlier participatory aid effort with Ushahidi’s Crowdmap platform).
The closer relationship communications technologies allow between those in need and those able to offer help broadens the spectrum of what we might consider aid, well beyond the UN Cluster system’s official categories. Direct communication with local groups, when properly coordinated, allows for an improved feedback loop.
It would be unrealistic to expect formal aid organizations to identify and deliver the entire range of human needs following a crisis. The rise of participatory aid allows the rest of us to fill less critical needs that are also less easily delivered in a formal aid convoy, such as forming shared memories of the traumatic event or helping with wedding relocations. Mutual aid shines in the gaps created by formal aid structures, not entirely unrelated to Hakim Bey’s Autonomous Zones of creative spaces found within and throughout hierarchical systems.
The Hurricane Hackers hackathon produced Remembers, a crowdsourced memorial platform for those who lost their lives in a crisis. A simple spreadsheet of information automatically generates a beautiful crowdsourced memorial gallery to remember and share the stories of the deceased.
Hurricane Sandy also displaced thousands of wedding parties. As happy couples and thousands of wedding industry professionals alike scrambled to reschedule and meet commitments, wedding website TheKnot.com launched dedicated Facebook Pages to help reschedule and connect wedding professionals in need of business support.
Storytelling is important to bringing attention to under-reported crises, as discussed earlier, but it also plays a role in long-term cultural recovery and understanding of major events. Community narratives can reframe history and instill new knowledge around response and recovery. In addition to aforementioned documentary projects like 18 Days in Egypt, a number of participatory archiving projects are underway to remember Japan’s March 11 disasters. Expect participatory aid efforts to continue inventing new ways to help the affected population solve a growing number of the wide range of challenges that emerge following a crisis.