Crowdsourcing in transition from emergency to everyday life
In emergency response situations, there is often a gap between what is thought to be needed and what is really needed. In a digitally connected world information overload is a real possibility, and allocation of resources becomes a challenge. In other words, too much help causes as many problems as too little help. This case study looks at Russian-fires.ru, a crowdsourced emergency response platform created in the wake of wildfires that struck western Russia in 2010, and its transformation from an ad-hoc to a post-ad-hoc network. What grew out of Russian-fires.ru was Virtual Rynda: an Atlas of Help, an online project to support and facilitate mutual aid and crowdsourced solutions to different types of problems, not only in emergencies but in everyday life. After more than a year of experimentation Rynda.org shows that effective crowdsourcing systems for mutual aid must simplify cooperation and reduce risks associated with helping unknown people. Therefore, to increase the likelihood of mutual aid, such a system must also decrease the transaction costs associated with mutual aid.
Finally, this paper suggests a critical assessment of the Rynda.org case study, and in particular, how it focused on exploration of challenges around deployment of crowdsourcing platforms. It also suggests that mutual aid can be approached as a form of everyday activism that can be supported by digital platforms.
Introduction: The two paradoxes
In September 2010, a group of people met at Masterskaya, a Moscow café popular among young Russian liberals, ironically close to Lubyanka Square where the Russian security services (FSB) compounds are located. There was another paradox in this situation: this group of people had worked together intensively on a project that enabled thousands of people to offer or receive help, but most of those around the table had never met face-to-face before.
The group sitting around that table was the team behind the “Help Map” project. It included people from different cities in Russia, as well a number of other countries.
The Story of Help Map
Help Map (Russian-fires.ru) was a crowdsourcing platform for facilitating emergency response to the unprecedented wildfires that took place in summer 2010 in the Western part of Russia. It was created using the “Ushahidi” crowdsourcing platform developed two years earlier in Kenya. The initial idea of using Ushahidi for a response to wildfires came from a blog, attracted the attention of the online community, and led to the development of the networked team that created the Help Map and managed the project. The Help Map was certainly not the only platform that was created then, and not the first online initiative, in response to the disaster, but it had a specific role within the citizen-based emergency response.
In the first days of the wildfires, the Runet (the name commonly used to designate the Russian Internet) became a major source of information about the disaster, while the traditional state-controlled media downgraded the scale of the emergency and framed the situation, saying everything was “under control” (Khokhlova 2010). Meanwhile the Russian capital, Moscow, was blanketed with smog and millions of people were directly exposed to the consequences of the wildfires.
A high point in the intervention of Russian social media into setting the agenda of wildfires media coverage was when the blogger top-lap, who lived in the rural area that was affected by wildfires, posted an emotional open letter to Prime Minister Putin, describing the lack of action by local authorities and emergency services. He demanded a return to an old tradition of self-organization in local communities as the major factor in emergency response. This type of village-based self-organization was supported by old technology—an emergency bell used to call people to come and help. One of the old Russian names for the emergency bell, used by the blogger, was “Rynda” (this comes originally from the sailor’s jargon: “Ring the bells”). The blogger’s demand, “bring back the Rynda!” became a meme during the Russian wildfires and a symbol of the failure of the formal system to provide an appropriate emergency response (Davydov 2010).
The activity of Internet users was not limited to sharing information about the fires and criticizing the government. Dozens of groups were launched across the blogosphere (Livejournal) and social networks (Facebook, Vkontakte). A number of bloggers, motivated by distrust in the government and its capacity to provide appropriate emergency response, took on leadership responsibilities in organizing emergency response operations. The large-scale emergency response of the Russian citizens, however, led to a new challenge—that of information overload and the difficulties of optimizing resource allocation. The more people were willing to help, the more difficult it was to coordinate the assistance and to match resources with needs.
The purpose of the Help Map was to address these challenges. In addition to mapping the wildfires, the major function of the project was facilitating “crowd-to-crowd” based assistance (Brannon 2010). Information posted was structured into two main categories: “Help requests” and “Help offers”. Internet users were able to submit offers and requests directly to the platform, but the Help Map moderators also aggregated information from different sources in order to achieve a better level of situational awareness and to optimize resource allocation.
An offline “situation room” was opened in order to coordinate the emergency response relying on the Help Map database, as well as to receive phone calls and to constantly moderate the messages that were submitted to the map. In the situation room, a number of volunteers were constantly analyzing data and doing their best to match needs with resources and to facilitate collaboration between various NGOs and individual volunteers. In addition, online moderators supported the work of the volunteers in the situation room. The activity of the teams was coordinated through Skype chat.
The map attracted more than 170,000 unique visitors. The platform received and aggregated more than one thousand messages in the first two weeks of its deployment. According to Eric Hersman, the founder of Ushahidi, Help Map was one of the most visited deployments of Ushahidi in the history of the platform (until 2011). It was also the first deployment of Ushahidi in Russia, inspiring many others. In November 2010, Help Map received the Runet Award, a national Russian Internet award, as the best Internet project of the year in the Government and Society category (Ushahidi 2010).
The bottom-up citizen awakening in the response to the wildfires can be considered a form of crisis-related citizen activism. The Help Map not only contributed to increasing transparency around the wildfires and to holding the traditional institutions accountable, but also provided efficient tools that to some extent allowed a bottom-up, self-organized substitute for unaccountable formal actors (Machleder and Asmolov 2011). One could argue that Help Map provided an infrastructure for the emergence of alternative forms of governance in emergency situations (Asmolov 2010).
Dilemma: The transformation from ad-hoc to post-ad-hoc network
Following the end of the wildfires crisis, the Help Map platform continued to receive messages of two types. One type of messages was related to the post-emergency situation and dealt with various types of recovery. The other type was related to other disasters (for example: floods that took place a few weeks after the wildfires). The Help Map team felt a sense of responsibility towards those who continued to ask for help using the platform.
The group around the table at the Masterskaya café faced an important strategic decision about the future of the project. Should it be closed down or at least “hibernated” until the next emergency, or should it remain available? If it remained alive, how should it operate and manage itself in a post-emergency situation? What was the role of Help Map in everyday life? Should we continue to focus only on post-emergency relief related to the wildfires or expand the range of our activities? Would it be a platform for responding to fires or something else? More generally, we had to discuss how to maintain a volunteer-based organization in the long term following the crisis. We needed to decide how the transition to a post-ad-hoc stage should be managed.
Until then, the Help Map team and Help Map users had been an ad-hoc community that self-organized in response to the crisis. If we decided to continue our project, it could no longer be an ad-hoc community. This suggested two types of challenges, both for the project team and for potential users of the platform. On the one hand, unlike in the case of ad-hoc self-organization in a crisis situation, long-term commitment would be required from the project team. On the other hand, the potential use of the platform by individuals would no longer be triggered by a crisis, which made audience engagement more challenging.
In order to conceptualize various types of Internet-mediated activism, Ethan Zuckerman introduces an analytical notion of the theory of change. This addresses a number of elements, including the type of a desired change, which has the power to make a change, and the strategies that can be used in order to influence the potential target audience to make a change. In the case of Help Map, we had focused on the mobilization of a wide audience to respond to an emergency, and in particular to fill the gaps created by the insufficient response of the authorities. In this case the assumption about the nature of change that can be supported by crowdsourcing platform suggests that in time of disaster people can do what official institutions cannot, and ICTs can help them to fulfill these functions. The continuation of Help Map as a post-emergency crowdsourcing platform required a new “theory of change,” that will suggest what problems need to be addressed and how ICTs can potentially facilitate and increase a particular form of social activism and collective action, that can contribute to the resolution of these problems.
Mutual aid as a form of activism
While sitting around the table and discussing potential scenarios for further development of the map, we had a few issues on our minds. First, we wanted a platform that could be used to address a variety of crisis situations. Second, we wanted to make this platform a tool that would increase the degree of preparedness of Russian Internet users for future crisis situations, one that would make the horizontal mobilization of citizens faster and more efficient. This, in our opinion, could be achieved in three ways:
- By developing a networked community of volunteers that could be mobilized in case of disaster
- By developing a mechanism that would increase efficiency through matching needs to available resources
- By extending our activity to non-emergency situations
The third point was especially important. What we had seen in the case of the Russian wildfires was that citizen-based mutual aid could to some extent provide a substitute for the lack of action on the part of the traditional institutions, and that, thanks to information technologies (for example: blogs, social networks and crowdsourcing platforms), this mutual aid could be made more efficient. We believed that in order to develop the capacity and resilience to respond to crisis situations we would have to develop the potential for mutual aid in everyday life. This would rely on an idea that emergency and everyday-life situations were interrelated. While people’s motivation to help one another is lower during non-emergency situations, if you facilitate mutual aid in everyday life and allow people to acquire skills in using Internet-based technologies to help one another or in asking for assistance, this will help to create an improved capacity to fulfill the potential of mutual aid the next time a disaster happens.Figure 1. The illustrations for this paper are taken from a presentation “Crisis Mapping & Crowdsourcing as a Tool of Mutual Aid “ that was prepared by Alexey Sidorenko and the author and presented at International Crisis Mapping conference 2011 in Geneva.
However, why would people help one another in a non-disaster situation? And what kinds of help could they provide? The basic idea of the project relied on a concept of mutual aid. This concept suggests an alternative to the notion of human nature as relying on permanent competition like in Hobbes’s Leviathan, and seeks to increase personal utility like the “invisible hand” concept of Adam Smith. In the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, the prominent Russian scientist and philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin (1902) argued that mutual aid is natural to a variety of species.
Relying on Kropotkin’s ideas, in his book The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest, Yochai Benkler (2011) discusses the role of ICTs in mutual aid and argues that “for decades we have been designing systems tailored to harness selfish tendencies, without regard to potential negative effects on the enormous potential for cooperation that pervades society” (Benkler, p. 26). Benkler continues, “My aim is not to depict some fantasy world in which we pretend to be completely self-sacrificing creatures. It is merely to show that people, in general, will react cooperatively in certain situations and selfishly in others, and to help us figure out how to design systems that encourage, foster, and sustain cooperation to the greatest extent possible.” (p. 27)
Benkler discusses a number of concepts that can be used to design better systems that support and facilitate mutual aid. These include the shift from a model of direct to indirect reciprocity, where providing assistance means not necessarily that a person will get something back, but that both parties will share a set of values suggesting that the person who was helped will help someone else in future. It also suggests the importance of trust and reputation as crucial factors in the facilitation of mutual aid.
The project that arose from the Help Map, which came to be called “Virtual Rynda: the Atlas of Help”. To some extent it was an experiment in order to see if ICTs can support and maximize the potential of mutual aid. Additionally, we suggested that the potential of mutual aid is especially important in socio-political environments where traditional institutions are not able and not willing to provide the basic needs of its citizens. In this context, mutual aid can be a form of activism that fills the gap created by inefficient government policy. This project can also be approached as a case study of transition from ad-hoc to post-ad-hoc community, as well as of the transformation of a spontaneous emergency tool into a post-emergency platform.
“Virtual Rynda: an Atlas of Help” concept
The purpose of the new project was to support and facilitate mutual aid and crowd-sourced solutions to different types of problem, not only in emergencies but also in everyday life. It relied on a hypothesis that people can take small actions that are effective at a given moment, but this can work only if people are aware of their potential role as a source of help and if coordination costs are lowered. Such awareness and decrease in costs could be achieved by relying on ICTs.
Additionally, it suggested that if requests for help could be personalized for the potential owner of a relevant resource, then the provision of help would be simplified and the transaction cost for the mediation of help and allocation of resources significantly decreased. The latter could, to some extent, compensate for a lower degree of motivation to invest resources in providing help in everyday-life situations.
Since the engagement of citizens in mutual aid was focused on the solution of diverse social problems, we suggested that the Atlas of Help project should be considered as a facilitation of social activism through reliance on crowdsourcing tools. As in the case of the wildfires, the new assumption about the change that can be supported through ICTs suggested that when the state could not provide aid, people might have more motivation to mobilize to fill this gap.
So the platform was named: “Virtual Rynda: an Atlas of Help in Emergency situations.” Rynda, we recall, comes from the meme from the time of the Russian wildfires, invoking the bell traditionally used to call people to help. The idea was that ICTs could expand the range within which the tolling of the emergency bell could be heard. Everyone could “ring” the “virtual rynda” when they needed help, and communication networks would magnify the sound until it reached those who could come and help.
The second part of the name symbolizes the fact that the project is the next stage in the Help Map’s development. However, unlike the original Help Map, which was dedicated to one specific situation, in this case the platform would address a variety of situations, serving as a hub for different types of “Help Maps”—an atlas. The mentioning of “emergency situations” in the title had a dual role. On the one hand it was a link to the original Help Map, suggesting that the “Atlas” could be particularly helpful during various types of disasters. On the other hand, it suggested that the Atlas was inviting us to reconsider the notion of “emergency,” as encompassing not only large-scale crises, but also incidents and problems that occur as part of everyday life and create personal or small-scale emergencies for those who experience them.
The architecture of the platform
In shifting the focus of social mobilization from large-scale emergencies to daily social problems, our major concern was with how to motivate people’s engagement. Our assumptions about the factors that motivate engagement in crowd-to-crowd aid during non-crisis situations can be summarized as follows:
- Decreasing the transaction costs of mutual aid by relying on ICT
- Re-framing the notion of crisis from national disasters to routine crises
- Personalizing requests and resource allocation
- Simplifying participation through messages sent by the platform to users
- Providing situational awareness through location, time and type of need
- Strengthening trust, security and reputation as a part of mutual aid facilitation
- Providing feedback to motivate future involvement
In order to implement these guidelines, the concept of the Atlas included four major features:
1. Matchmaking algorithm The platform suggested a structure that would allow the matching of requests for help with those who had the relevant resources. This required that every message requesting or offering help include the following information:
- What is the requested resource?
- Where does the request come from?
- When is resource requested?
On the basis of this data, computer-based algorithms and human moderators could match offers with requests and optimize the process of resource allocation.
2. A social network of volunteers In order to manage the resources of volunteers in the most efficient way, the platform offered every volunteer the ability to register and create a personal profile, in which they could specify:
- What kind of help they could provide (nature of resources)
- Where (geolocation)
- When (e.g. only in the evening, only at weekends or only on specific days)
In this way the network could not only optimize matchmaking, but also personalize the proliferation of help requests among target audiences. The personal profiles of volunteers could also provide them with an opportunity to develop an online reputation and increase trust between those needing help and those who could offer assistance. Every volunteer profile included not only personal information, but also a history of the individual’s previous activities within the platform.
3. Multi-map structure and categories The structure of Ushahidi allows only one map focused on a specific situation. The architecture of the “Atlas” as a hub for addressing a variety of situations requiring mutual aid suggested the option of having many different maps. Some of the maps could cover specific large-scale emergency situations (for example: wildfires, floods). Others could address everyday problems, for example: blood donation or missing children. The platform also allowed a specific request to be found through a number of categories, for example: type of situation, type of resources, location, and time. The purpose of a multi-map structure was to expand the definition of what could be approached as an emergency and to allow the coverage of large-scale national emergencies and local personal crisis situations within the same database, map and platform framework. This would allow us to put routine crises on the agenda or, literally, to “put them on the map.”
4. Feedback Under the map, the platform had three columns: “Help requests,” “Help offers,” and “Help provided”. The latter category is particularly important since the presence of feedback is important for the engagement and motivation of users. Once people who visit the platform can see that there are specific cases where the platform was able to help, and that the effect is visible, this may support their willingness to contribute their time and resources.
“Virtual Rynda” Platform Development
The transition from emergency to post-emergency period, with a shift from focusing on disaster response to the facilitation of mutual aid, required new features and functions from the online tools that would mediate this process. The existing Help Map platform, relying on Ushahidi, could suggest a limited functional scope. Ushahidi was definitely an excellent technology for the immediate deployment of an emergency-related platform, but it lacked a few crucial features that were required in order to allow the coordination of volunteer mobilization around a variety of non-emergency topics in everyday life, as well as the addressing of multiple situations, and the development of a permanent online community around the platform.
The dilemma over whether to develop a new platform from scratch or to use an existing platform like Ushahidi or WordPress to create the website is not rare for social activists. On the one hand, using existing platforms is less risky. It requires fewer resources and consumes less time. Moreover, using an existing framework makes the platform less dependent on a particular developer and can contribute to the sustainability of the development process in case of changes in the technology team. On the other hand, developing your own platform from scratch provides much more space for designing the specific project that you are interested in, and significantly increases the degree of flexibility.
In our case, the eventual decision was to create a new platform. Obviously, this meant that the implementation of the project required the mobilization of more resources for platform development, and also that it would take more time.
To collaborate or not to collaborate?
The decision to create a new platform was not made that evening at the Masterskaya café. Moreover, for some time we were inclined to focus more on a different kind of project that would use Ushahidi to monitor different types of violations of social and citizen rights, as well as Internet users’ complaints against the authorities. However, we later received an invitation from the Institute for Contemporary Development (INSOR) to develop a project as a follow-up to the Help Map platform. The invitation included some financial and organizational support that allowed us to recruit two programmers and a web designer to develop a new platform.
The decision to collaborate with INSOR was not an obvious one for us. On the one hand, INSOR had supported a number of liberal innovations in the field of e-government, including the development of the first Russian platform for open data and open budgets. On the other hand, INSOR was considered to be a think tank affiliated with the administration of President Medvedev.
This was not the first time that state-affiliated institutions had tried to approach us. A few weeks after the end of the wildfires, we were invited by the Russian Civic Chamber to a discussion about the role of volunteers in emergency response. We were asked why we would not consider choosing an organizational form of post-emergency transformation and registering an NGO that would continue to develop the idea of Internet-based facilitation of citizens’ response. In response, we argued that the power of our project was its informal, networked organization. Once we transferred to a traditional structure this might create a variety of bureaucratic burdens, as well as making us more vulnerable to prosecution by the authorities.
Later, after the Help Map received the “Premiya Runeta,” a state-sponsored Internet Award, we were invited to a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. At this meeting, I argued that Russian officials were not sufficiently open enough to collaboration with online citizen projects. Instead of collaborating, officials had tried to make their own expensive platforms and ignored authentic bottom-up initiatives by citizens.
Medvedev replied, “…. You know, this is a problem of the people who work for the government. [...] I think it’s a question of the people growing up, in general. The only thing that I can promise [is] that I will continue to provide a personal example. But eventually it is a question of how the ministers and heads of department feel. If they don’t want to find yourself at the dumping ground [in Russian this refers to being irrelevant or losing your job], they should react in this regard” (Asmolov 2011).
One may suggest that the offer from INSOR can be considered an example of a state-affiliated institution’s support for a citizen project and a follow-up to Medvedev’s argument about the importance of cooperation. However, deciding whether to agree to this offer was challenging.
There are a number of significant risks in every type of collaboration between citizen projects and state-affiliated structures, especially when we are talking about a country like Russia. The obvious risk is that the government will try to interfere and influence the agenda of the project. We can also see that in some non-liberal countries, where the authorities adopt a strategy of co-opting citizen projects in order to control them and present their successes as government success.
Any example of citizens’ capacity to self-organize, even if it has no political goals, can be deemed a political threat by state institutions. Therefore, we can witness efforts by non-liberal states to control any form of horizontal or bottom-up self-organization, including volunteer-based initiatives. Additionally, affiliation with state authorities could lead to reputation damage and have a negative impact on the ability to mobilize crowd resources, especially if this mobilization is a response to failures on the part of the authorities.
On the other hand, our project had no political agenda and was focused not on opposition to government, but on helping people. From this point of view, any type of actor, whether citizen-based or government-affiliated, was to be welcomed if it wanted to help. Moreover, a synergy of citizen-based and government-based resources is essential in order to address social problems. Therefore, this type of project cannot only help to solve specific problems, but also facilitate collaboration between formal and informal structures. Last, but not least, INSOR was considered a relatively liberal structure despite its affiliation with the state, and therefore we felt more open to this type of partnership.
Eventually, we decided to accept the invitation to collaborate on the condition that the institution would not interfere in the content of the project. This offer provided an opportunity to transform some of the members of the ad-hoc network into a post-ad-hoc network around the Rynda project. The grant served primarily as a trigger. Eventually the funding ended, but the group continued to work. Later, the project was supported by a Russian IT company, I-Teco. As part of their social responsibility policy, I-Teco suggested that they hire our programmer and allow him to work on the development of the platform under their support and supervision.
Moderation and the human factor: social mediators
Beyond the tool itself, the crucial part of the platform was a team of moderators who would verify every message and approve it before it appeared on the platform. In fact, rather than moderators, these were social mediators. Despite the efforts to create a tool that would automatically match a request with a potential help provider, the capacity of the algorithm to optimize the allocation of resources was very limited. As a core member of development team and a co-founder of the “Help Map” Alexey Sidorenko says, “The first year, the team couldn’t create the algorithms of matching therefore most of the matchmaking was on human moderators. I’d say there was no algorithm except mere category matching. It was ‘human moderators and category matching.’”
Social mediation is a form of expertise based on skills and a capacity to link people and resources, as well as to develop and mobilize various forms of social capital in order to facilitate and accelerate the process of social help and mutual aid. The mediator plays a bridging role between various sectors of society in order to enhance the development of various forms of collaboration, and allow the achievement of social goals. Social mediation is particularly important in situations where traditional institutions and authorities fail to provide social help.
The Rynda case has demonstrated that social meditation cannot work by relying primarily on automation and algorithms. First, in some cases the nature of the requests was complicated and it was difficult to find a perfect match. It is also important to point out that development of successful algorithm for allocation of resources was a challenging task that was probably beyond the capacity of our small team.
But even if the algorithm is good, it might be not be good enough. In some cases, people need help but do not know what resources they need and who potentially can help them—they only know that they are generally in need. Additionally, in many cases, there were no matches with those requesting help due to the nature of the request and the limited number of users who had registered for and were using the platform. In such a case, the moderators had to fill this gap and look beyond the Rynda database for the required resources.
The Atlas of Help team was centered on a small group of moderators (3–4 people) who had all worked previously with the Help Map for the Russian wildfires. Every day they went online and checked the new messages on the platform. They used Skype chat to coordinate their work, divide moderation responsibilities, and consult one another. Once a request or an offer of help had been received, they usually contacted the person behind the message to obtain more data. In many cases of requests for help, they started to approach various relevant NGOs and used their own social capital to find a solution.
No matter what technology Rynda involved, it was clear that during the first years of platform development its success would depend primarily on the human factor, and in particular on the group of social mediators who used Rynda as a tool to facilitate mutual aid. One can imagine that technological development of a project like “Rynda” could potentially reach a point when the algorithms are so powerful and efficient that they will significantly reduce the necessity for human involvement. In the case of Rynda, however, the capacity of technology was limited, and the human factor had a crucial role.
There are two additional important factors, beyond the technology, for the performance of the platform—media outreach and the development of partnerships. Outreach is crucial to any crowdsourcing platform, since its success relies on the capacity to engage a crowd. What is different, and can vary for every project, is the definition of the critical number of people who need to know about the platform, and the minimum threshold of engagement required in order to fulfill the project’s goal. Even the most advanced and innovative crowdsourcing tool will not be worth anything if it does not attract people’s attention and mobilize them around a specific purpose.
Every crowdsourcing project has potentially its own “minimum engagement threshold.” If this threshold is not crossed, the project won’t work. The nature of engagement, that is the immediacy of participation and the geographical scope of response, also matters. Alexey Sidorenko suggests that the degree of engagement can be also conceptualized as a “network effect,” when the more people use a particular type of innovation, the more they can benefit from it. Accordingly, any civic application that seeks to promote social change can start to fulfill its purpose, as well as to provide value for its users, only when the network effect crosses a critical point. Therefore, every project should have its own estimation of the desired network to be engaged.
In the case of a large-scale emergency situation outreach is easier because the problem is on the agenda of the media and the citizenry, consequently the network effect is more significant. In the case of the Help Map, the Russian news media were happy to report on the project. Even the Russian state-owned “First” TV channel reported on Help Map. Russia’s leading search engine “Yandex” also approached Help Map with a number of offers of collaboration around the wildfires, which helped to promote it and to attract more attention.
Outreach in non-emergency situations is much more challenging, since it does not fit the news agenda. Moreover, one of the goals of Rynda was to challenge the definition of crisis, which made collaboration with the media particularly difficult since the topics covered by the Virtual Rynda had no news value. The project used a variety of strategies to raise awareness, including media outreach as well as the distribution of information through social networks and the blogosphere. Another form of outreach was giving public talks at various conferences and public events. Nonetheless, outreach and awareness were relatively limited.
The second factor that can increase the degrees of engagement and awareness is partnership with other organizations working in the same field. The Atlas of Help was not itself an organization, but a hub, an aggregator and facilitator; therefore the development of partnerships was natural and essential. The platform indeed developed a number of partnerships around specific maps, but the impact of these partnerships was relatively limited.
One of the major challenges that remained was that of regional outreach. The site visitor statistics demonstrated that the majority of users came from Moscow or Saint Petersburg, while the platform was used in other regions of Russia to a very limited degree. This can be associated not only with limited outreach, but also with a lack of regional moderators able to mediate and to facilitate mutual aid at the regional level.
Rynda at One Year of Work
According the data from April 2013, Rynda.org had by then received more than 2,300 requests for and offers of help. During the first year of its activity (from April 2012 to April 2013) the platform had 25,850 unique visitors, 37,139 visits, and 80,906 page views (in the second part of the year the platform usually had around 100 visitors per day). 479 people registered personal profiles in the social network of volunteers. Most of the visitors were from Moscow (35.9%) or Saint Petersburg (12.3%). Many fewer were from a number of regional centers (Nizhniy Novgorod 2%; Novosibirsk 1.8%; Lipetsk 1.7%; Yaroslavl 1.5%).
The list of specific maps on the Atlas of Help included:
- “Maps of floods,” a response to floods in Krymsk in summer 2012
- “Social map,” a map that aggregated a variety of requests for social help
- “Map of wildfires,” an embedding of the initial Help Map)
- “Map of missing people,” a collaboration with several networked organizations that search for people who are lost
- “Map of donors,” an aggregation of requests for blood donation and mapping of stations where one can donate blood
Most of the messages deal with requests for various types of social help, like clothing and medical equipment for children, homes for orphans, people with limited capabilities, or families in need. Some people talked how their houses had burned down; others requested legal assistance. The platform was also used to ask for blood donations for a specific individual. Some requests from environmental NGOs were related to the mobilization of volunteers to fight against deforestation or to fight wildfires.
In one case a disabled person wrote about his dream of getting a second-hand laptop in order to use the Internet. After his message was published on Rynda, one couple contributed a laptop, and someone else helped to take it to the city where he lived. In another case, a volunteer who responded to a request on the platform helped to transport resources to a family with many children living far from a big city. The situation where there is something that can satisfy a need, but is located far from the person who needs it, is frequently encountered. In many cases, the most needed resource is not the thing itself, but the capacity to take it to the person who needs it. Transportation becomes a crucial resource, especially in a country as big as Russia.
One could imagine that if the audience of the Atlas was big enough it would be able to find people who could go anywhere they were required. However in most cases, due to the limited audience, the transportation issue is solved through the identification of volunteers in a relatively close region who are ready to go somewhere, especially to take help from one person and bring it to the one who needs help. This is a field where social mediation skills are particularly in demand and effective.
One of the moderators, Glafira Parinos, recalls a story of when Rynda received a request for a wheelchair for a person in the Saint Petersburg region. Someone else offered to donate a chair, but this person was in Kazan (a city relatively far from Saint Petersburg). The Rynda moderators tried to find a wheelchair in other location, since transporting a chair from Kazan to Saint Petersburg was a major challenge. Another chair, however, was never found and Rynda organized a complicated logistical operation, transporting the wheelchair first from Kazan to Moscow, and then from Moscow to Saint Petersburg.
“I am quite sure that one could find people in Saint Petersburg who would be happy to help, but since not too many people know about our platform, we had to construct a complicated logistical chain in order to accomplish this mission,” said Parinos. According to Glafira, “many stories help us know more about the lives of disabled people in small provincial cities.” She concluded, “It helps us to believe that our work is not a waste of time, despite the fact that sometimes it’s difficult to find help, and what is required is financial assistance.”
Many requests concern children or disabled people. In one case, Rynda found a volunteer who helped a young woman leave her flat for walks, something she could not do alone. In some cases, the platform helped to provide medicine. We also see responses from the business community. For instance, following a request for books from a children’s hospice in Saint Petersburg, a Russian financial company contributed many books for a library. In fact, what can be seen from many specific cases is that, while a help request comes from an individual, the response relies not only on individuals, but also on charity organizations, networked communities of volunteers, or NGOs. In these cases, Rynda has played the role of mediator, helping those requesting help to find the address of those who can help them.
Virtual Rynda and the evaluation of crowdsourcing projects
Crowdsourcing can be defined as the “mobilization of resources of individuals in order to achieve particular goal/s that is enabled by and facilitated through Information communication technologies (ICTs).” In a context of mutual aid, the purpose is to design a crowdsourcing system that can enable the ICT-mediated mobilization and allocation of the resources of Internet users in response to a variety of social problems. Therefore, “Virtual Rynda” can be approached as a crowdsourcing project. Generally, the evaluation of a crowdsourcing project’s success has three major dimensions:
- The capacity to engage and mobilize people around a specific purpose
- The capacity to achieve specific mobilization goals
- The capacity to satisfy the needs of potential users
These dimensions are interrelated. From the point of view of the developers of the project, the purpose of the crowdsourcing project can’t be fulfilled without a certain degree of engagement. However, the desired engagement can be reached only if the project also provides a value for users, and makes it better than other tools with similar functionalities. As Alexey Sidorenko points out, “the value, produced by the project has to be high enough in order to win in the situation of the competition for user’s attention.” In the case of mutual aid, that means that the tool should satisfy two types of needs. First, those who need help can find the relevant resources in a fast and simple way. Second, those who are interested in helping can find opportunities to share their resources without spending resources on the search and exposing themselves to any kind of risk.
Failure or limited success may suggest either that the theory of how the project can support a particular change was wrong, or that the implementation of the project was not good enough. We would argue that in case of “Virtual Rynda” the limited success had to deal more with the implementation of the project than the fundamental idea behind it. There are a number of specific factors for evaluating crowdsourcing projects that can be applied to Virtual Rynda:
- Engagement of target audience: This can be evaluated in terms of both absolute and relative numbers (relative numbers are defined by the definition of a critical threshold for participation in specific projects).
- Specific cases related to the aim of mobilization: Was the platform able to provide real solutions to the problems addressed?
- The scope of the project: This can involve looking a number of factors, including geographical scope (territory covered), scope of issues (broad/narrow/specific), and time (timeframe addressed by the project).
- Is there a relative balance between problems and solutions on the platform? (One of the problems that can lead to a crisis of trust is when many problems are collected by the platform, but very few solutions are found.)
- Balance between technical and human factors: How technologically advanced is the platform and how permanent, professional and dedicated is the team working with the platform? Is the platform capable of functioning without moderation? How sustainable is the team? And to what extent can the technical capacity bridge human resource gaps and vice-versa?
- Credibility: How reliable is the information on the platform, and how viable are its verification protocols?
- Degree of activity: This is the scale of daily activity on the platform. (Is it updated frequently? How many messages does it receive every day?)
- Degree of awareness and media outreach
- Partnerships: Do these exist with other organizations and platforms?
- Multi-platform presence: Can the platform function beyond the computer screen, for example: through mobile applications and/or by relying on social networks/blogosphere?
There are a few positive outcomes to the Virtual Rynda: Atlas of Help project. The first is the development of a new platform that introduced an innovative model and a number of new mechanisms for facilitating mutual aid, such as linking crowdsourcing to personal profiles, multi-map structure, and personalization by relying on location/time/topic.
The second is related to the human dimension of the project. One can argue that what we see in the case of Rynda is the emergence of a new type of social institution that relies on the informational system provided by the platform. It is an institution of social mediators who mediate between those who need help and those who can help, and optimize the allocation of resources in order to increase the efficiency and sustainability of mutual aid. We could also witness that following the “Help Map” and the “Virtual Rynda” project a number of other online projects copied the same structure “need help—can provide help.” “This means that the idea was very simple, understandable and influential,” said Alexey Sidorenko. One can argue that social mediation is a fundamental form of activism, since it connects people in order to make cooperation and help possible.
However, probably the most important impact can be seen in the list of cases where help was provided for specific people with specific needs. On the one hand, one can argue that every case is important. On the other hand, one can respond that what matters is the scale.
The project also had some unexpected outcomes. First, initially the idea was that the “matchmaking” between needs and resources would rely primarily on the power of the algorithms embedded in the structure of the platform. However, eventually, while the online mechanism played a limited supportive role, the crucial factor in the success of matchmaking was the work of moderators.
There are a few explanations of why a more technologically deterministic approach to matchmaking has not succeeded. First, the algorithm can work only if the platform attracts a relatively large number of registered users (otherwise, help has to rely on resources outside the platform that must be identified by the moderators). Second, in order to make the algorithm efficient, people have to provide comprehensive information in their personal profiles. What we found was that even if people registered they provided very limited information about themselves.
But what was probably mostly important is that the way the matchmaking mechanism was constructed was far from perfect and constructing a better algorithm required more time and resources. “We’ve never even got to the point of the discussion of more complex models of matching,” said Sidorenko. He pointed out, that some of the technical ideas that were defined as a part of the concept were too complicated for implementation by a small team of volunteers.
According to one of the core members of development team, even development of a new platform could be too challenging mission. Sidorenko said, “I still think that retrospectively, it was a mistake to develop something on our own. Starting a separate platform from scratch in the situation of the lack of resources and clear organizational structure to back it up is wrong.”
The second, and unexpected, outcome was the types of need addressed by the platform. Initially, the idea was that the facilitation of mutual aid should address the most common and routine everyday problems experienced by almost anyone. Another traditional focus considered was addressing different types of emergency situation. However, eventually the project focused on the facilitation of solutions for various social problems, with a focus on children, people with disabilities and families/individuals in need.
There are a few factors that explain this shift in the structure of topics covered by the project. First, the initial definition of the project as a general mutual aid platform may have been too broad and unspecific. Every crowdsourcing platform faces a similar dilemma over how to define a goal that is not too broad (people don’t know what the platform is for) and not too narrow (interesting to relatively few people). The broad focus of mutual aid also required more engagement with the general public and a significantly larger community of users. Another reason is the lack of a mobile application that could facilitate mutual aid in real time by relying on the geolocations of both the specific person and the ad-hoc network of people surrounding her/him.
What may be the most significant factor for explaining the shift to a focus on social needs was the assumptions about how the project can contribute to social change that were shared by the team of moderators. We had some tough discussions about the nature of people’s activity. On one hand, relying on the notion of mutual aid, one could suggest that a majority of people can potentially be engaged in mutual aid activities that can address almost any type of routine need. From this perspective, in order to provide help and mobilize potential mutual aid, we just need to design a system that will simplify this participation and decrease transaction costs.
On the other hand, some members of the team rejected such an optimistic notion of human nature, and suggested that addressing routine problems by relying on mutual aid could not be sustainable. Their alternative theory suggested that those ready to help were a consistent minority, and that it was easier to mobilize these resources to address specific urgent social needs. The latter approach was dominant among the team of moderators, the majority of whom had previous experience of participating in various charity and social projects, and that is where they took the project.
This shift also led to a change in target audience. Eventually the major target audience of the platform was not the general public, but, on the one hand, people with social needs (those considered “vulnerable populations”) and, on the other hand, volunteers (those considered to be active as volunteers and who have experience of participating in social projects). The project had a limited capacity to expand the community participating in mutual aid, and instead became a tool or operational system for an existing community of volunteers. Engagement of the general public in mutual aid through increasing situational awareness and simplifying collaboration was limited.
The general degree of user engagement was also relatively low, if we look at the statistics. Eventually, one may argue that the project has not succeeded in changing the notion of “emergency,” or in reframing everyday problems as routine crises in order to address a situation when people have higher motivation to volunteer in situations of large-scale disaster.
What was also discovered to be a major challenge was the scaling of the project to new regions and new topics. Scaling up required more technological resources, as well as more moderators and volunteers to work with the platform on a permanent basis. Anastasia Severina, one of the key members of the Rynda team, said, “We understood that it’s easy to mobilize a team for emergency situations; however, what is lacking is an initiative for everyday routine work.”
While the core team continued to share the commitment, they also experienced a number of challenges due to personal and professional issues in the lives of moderators. Moreover, the tension increased when the platform attracted more attention and users, while at the same time the core team had less time to work with the platform. “We are capable of making big things. We just need to find time for it,” concluded Severina.
Alexey Sidorenko suggested that some of the gaps should be associated with the organizational structure of the project. He said, “I think we need to recognize purely networked form failed. A hybrid form of a legal body and crowdsourcing methods is needed. Purely networked forms don’t live long as they can’t sustain the decision-making mechanisms. Whereas in the formal organization, the law provides the mechanisms of legitimacy, in the times of crisis it’s the crisis itself that provides legitimacy and gives power to those who have the most common sense in them. When there’s no crisis—other forms of sustainability are needed.”
That said, one may argue that the sustainability of a network may be associated not only with crisis. Networked projects may be more sustainable when their members have a high degree of commitment to relatively specific and bounded issues and their participation in the network does not create significant conflicts with other life roles (e.g. work and family). In the case of Rynda, the project relied on a network of volunteers that emerged out of disaster, and decided to expand their activity in order to cover a variety of topics beyond the traditional definition of an emergency.
Despite the intention that the “matchmaking” algorithm would support the efficient allocation of resources between those in need and those who could help, the success of the “matchmaking” depended on the work of the moderators, whose resources were limited. As a result, a gap emerged between the broad issues that the project could address and the limited resources of volunteers. Managers of the project were often approached with ideas for new issues that could be resolved by relying on the platforms and with requests for new sub-maps, but were not able to satisfy these.
One can argue that what failed in this case was not the networked model of management, but the assumption that one network of volunteers using one platform and relying on algorithms could address broad issues. While from the outset the ethos of Rynda was horizontal and bottom-up, the fact that the project relied on a bounded group of people also gave it vertical and top-down characteristics, in particular because the project team were the ones who defined what problems were to be addressed. The team were also the ones who had to manage and moderate the flow of requests and to be ready to address new issues following the emergence of new challenges and new ideas.
Analysis of the Rynda project leads to an important differentiation between a digital platform as a project and a digital platform as a tool. In the first case, Rynda as a project is a digital platform created to be managed by a specific bounded team (network) of people in order to address specific issues, with the management of the platforms relying on the resources of this group. In the second case, the creation of Rynda as a tool means that the platform could be deployed by anyone for any purpose and rely on independent resources.
From the beginning, Rynda was developed primarily as a project, and not as a tool. Accordingly, the scope of the topics that Rynda could address was limited by the fact that the platform was developed to be managed by a specific group of people. At the same time, the scope of activities that could be facilitated through Rynda was limited by the resources of the team.What was required in order to scale the project up was to differentiate between the development of the tool and the definition of what the tool should be used for.
Jonathan Zittrain suggests the notion of generativity as “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.” Unlike a project that is focused on specific goals (whether narrow or broad) that are defined and controlled by a bounded group of people, tools that are disconnected from projects have the capacity to produce unexpected outcomes.
The outcomes of Rynda as a project were bounded by the resources of the team, while the potential outcomes of Rynda as a tool were much more open. A transition from emergency situation to everyday life was only one part of the story. Another part of the transition that has not been completed is from a specific project to a generative tool that can be adapted and applied by a variety of audiences in order to address a variety of challenges.
A successful example of the transformation of a specific crisis-related project into a generative tool is offered by the story of the Ushahidi platform, which started as a project for monitoring post-violence elections in Kenya and was transformed into a tool that empowered thousands of activists and projects all over the world (including the Help Map).
More than a year after the Rynda project was launched, while discussing the challenges within the project team, one of the team members pointed out that we have to realize that we cannot solve all problems and “save the world”. What we can do is give others the tools to solve their own problems through relying on the logic of mutual aid and in the context of their own local challenges and the way they see and define their problems. Accordingly, the next phase of Rynda should be the transition from a project to an open-code platform that can be used by any network of activists in accordance with their own needs.
A Russian proverb says: “Make good deeds and throw it into the water.” In order to make Rynda a powerful instrument able to address a variety of unexpected challenges to unbounded audiences, Rynda’s open code, as well as Rynda as an accessible tool, need to be thrown into the networked ocean of the Internet.
The Rynda team continued to support the platform, and looked to recruit new volunteer moderators. In spring 2013 (the time of writing this chapter), the project was continuing to rely on a small core team under the leadership of Elena Kobyakova and developer Valeriy Ilychev. At the same time, the team shared a feeling that the project had reached a crisis point, when things could not stay as they were—the two possible scenarios were either scaling up through the mobilization of new moderators, development of new partnerships, and introduction of new technological functions, or collapse due to lack of the resources necessary for dealing with the flow of requests and fulfilling the purpose of the project.
To conclude, the analysis of the “Virtual Rynda” case study demonstrates that it is not enough to have “theory of change” and develop a platform that can contribute to implementation of this theory. In order to achieve the goal and engage the crucial number of users, it has to be the best platform in this field, satisfying the needs of the users who need help and those who want to contribute their resources in the most efficient and simple way. The relatively limited success of Rynda didn’t mean the failure of the idea of mutual aid. What the story of Rynda demonstrates is the variety of challenges encountered along the way of the project’s implementation.
Conclusion: mutual aid capacity building
Imagine that your phone battery is dying while you are sitting in a café, but you have no charger with you. The probability that someone among the visitors to this cafe (or even in the restaurant next door) has the right charger and could let you use it for fifteen minutes is relatively high (especially if you own a popular device). Lending you this charger will not reduce the resources of this person in any way. There are a few reasons, however, why this might not happen:
- The owner of the charger does not know that you need it, and you do not know that someone has the right charger.
- The owner of the charger might not trust that once you have the charger you will give it back. He does not know you, or whether you have any friends in common (which might increase his trust).
- The owner of the charger might not be sufficiently motivated. He/she does not know if you are the type of person who would help in a similar situation. Additionally, there is no mechanism for linking the owner’s good deed to his/her reputation, or for promising that the help will be rewarded with some type of “social currency.”
The design of crowdsourcing systems that support mutual aid should allow a simplification of cooperation and a reduction in the risks that can be associated with helping unknown people. In order to increase the probability of such a manifestation of mutual aid, a system is needed that will decrease the transaction costs related to mutual aid. Decreasing transaction costs involves:
- Real-time awareness of a need: How do I know that someone needs help at a time/location when/where I can provide help?
- Relevance/personalization of help: How do I know that a request for help can be addressed with the resources I possess?
- Optimization of resource mobilization: How do I know that my relatively minor loss of resources goes to the help-seeker that can benefit most from it?
- Mitigation of risks: How do I know that this person really needs help, that he is a person who can be approached as part of a network of indirect reciprocity, and that contact with him/her will not put my own security at risk?
- Reputation management: How do I know that my help will increase my reputation, and potentially increase the probability that I will receive help myself when I need it?
These principles can be identified in the design of the Virtual Rynda. Our project suggested a case study for the role of ICT in the facilitation of mutual aid. In the “Rynda” project, we have argued that through decreasing transaction costs and simplifying participation, ICT can enable new opportunities for everyday activism focused on concrete forms of help to people in the surrounding environment.
The Rynda case is just one of many efforts to introduce a design that seeks to foster mutual aid by relying on crowdsourcing mechanisms. Many other applications all over the world are trying to mobilize and fulfill the potential of mutual aid. However, beyond mutual aid we can see the emergence of a much broader sector of the digital economy. The matching of needs and resources is becoming an increasingly dominant field for the development of Internet projects and a new economic sector. More and more tools are being focused on the facilitation of peer-to-peer communication in order to allow the efficient allocation of resources directly between individuals.
The matchmaking economy may, however, suggest various logics for managing the horizontal allocation of resources. On the one hand, it provides new opportunities for monetization. Services like Airbnb, Uber, Fotourism and others harness matchmaking and transform it into a mechanism for the generation not only of good, but also of profit. Certainly, this project may be disruptive to traditional industries, as we can see from the protests against Airbnb or the Taxi-drivers’ strikes against Uber.
On the other hand, however, there are a variety of projects that rely on a logic of mutual aid. For instance, the well-known Couchsurfing platform suggests accommodation solutions for travelers with individual hosts, relying on indirect reciprocity and supported by a comprehensive reputation-management system and a community with a shared set of values. The Pulse Point mobile application distributes urgent calls for help among people who are qualified to provide first aid. Relying on geolocation, it can let the owner of the application know that someone close to him needs urgent, potentially life-saving help. Do these logics contradict each other, or can they find a balanced way of coexistence and mutual empowerment?
We have suggested that mutual aid could be approached as a form of socio-political activism. Every society or community has an inherent potential mutual aid structure that can be strengthened and empowered. This is more visible in emergency situations; however, major mutual aid capacity building is needed in everyday, non-emergency situations. In some cases, it can work synergistically with traditional institutions. However, in an environment with limited transparency and accountability, it can offer an infrastructure for self-organization that will provide an alternative to collapsing political structures.
Designing systems that foster cooperation and mutual aid can potentially contribute to societal transformation. Relying on an analysis of the social networks of over 50,000 citizens of Florence during the Italian Renaissance, John Clippinger of MIT suggests that a capacity for horizontal collaboration, the emergence of “social currencies” and a high degree of trust were the major factors responsible for the flourishing of Italian society at that time (2007). Clippinger says that the social transition was “not the consequence of any deliberate ‘democratizing process’—such as elections, universal suffrage, legislation, or even enlightened rulers—but rather the result of extending trust networks beyond locality and familial relationships” (2007, p. 98).
According to Clippinger, the conditions for social cooperation can be associated with opportunities for the emergence of new institutions that do not necessarily have to replicate the model of the Italian Renaissance: “We should consider the importance of creating the conditions from which different traditions can evolve their own viable, open institutions. The case study of Renaissance Italy suggests what some of the formative forces and preconditions might be, but it makes no assumptions of what kind of specific institutions might emerge” (2007, p. 109).
Crowdsourcing projects that seek to mobilize the resources of mutual aid should rely on an analysis of the local mutual aid structure. This includes analyzing the local needs and potential resources that can be mobilized in order to address these needs, the most popular forms of communication and technological literacy, the cultural and mentality factors, and the socio-political environment, with a focus on the role of traditional institutions and the degree of trust between various actors. In other words, the design of systems that seek to support collaboration cannot be universal. It should rely on general principles, but at the same time address local needs, factors and features. Additionally, development of the infrastructure of mutual aid coordination can provide fruitful environment for development of new social institutions like social mediation.
The successes and failures illustrated by the Virtual Rynda: the Atlas of Help case study should therefore contribute not only to the conceptualization of mutual aid as a form of social activism, but also to the discussion of how this model can be generalized and applied in different regions and socio-political environments. As an open source project, Rynda can freely offer its technological solutions. But more importantly, it offers a lesson to learn that should make future projects in this field more successful, efficient, and sustainable.
About the Author
Gregory Asmolov is a PhD candidate at the Media and Communication department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gregory is a co-founder of Help Map, a crowdsourcing platform, which was used to coordinate assistance to victims of wildfires in Russia in 2010 (and won a Russian National Internet Award for best project in the “State and Society” category), and he also participated in development of Rynda.org, a crowdsourcing platform for coordination of mutual aid in crisis situations, as well as a number of other projects. He has consulted on information technology, new media, and social media projects for The World Bank and Internews Network, and worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University as well as a contributing editor for to “Runet Echo”, a project of “Global Voices Online” that analyzes the Russian Internet.
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- This problem is well known in emergency response literature as a “convergence problem” (Barton 1969).↵
- Introduction to the book by Ethan Zuckerman and/or Phil Howard.↵
- The idea that small acts can have long-term social and political value was also developed at the end of the 19th century in Russia by Iakov Abramov and is known as a “small deeds theory.” ↵
- The idea of matchmaking for the allocation of resources in emergency situations has also been described in “MatchApp: Next Generation Disaster Response App?” (Meier 2013). ↵
- The statistics relies on on Yandex Metrika service (metrika.yandex.ru), the Russian analogue of Google analytics.↵
- Case studies from the Virtual Rynda blog (http://rynda-org.livejournal.com), as well as from the “Help provided” page of the website.↵
- Virtual Rynda excluded requests for financial assistance and focused on any type of non-financial aid. One of the reasons for this was that requests for money are more difficult to verify and monitor and therefore leave more room for various types of fraud.↵
- For more definitions of crowdsourcing please see “Towards an integrated crowdsourcing definition” (Estellés-Arolas and González-Ladrón-de-Guevara 2012).↵
- The team developed a concept for a mobile application, but this was not implemented due to a lack of resources.↵
- The research was conducted by John Padgett and Paul McLean.↵