What could possibly go wrong?

January 23, 2010

What could possibly go wrong? Thousands of volunteer hackers break ground on dozens of projects at a bunch of hastily organized unconferences promising to Save Haiti?

In a word: everything.

Tonight there are a number of people organizing some pretty intensive projects involving one of the most sensitive places in the world.

Let me tell you — most of us have no idea what we are doing. Perhaps 5% of us have ever actually dealt directly in crisis response. We are a bunch of dilettantes and armchair quarterbacks. We are normal people.

I'm co-organizing one of the "Crisis Camps" here in Portland, and after a few days of work on project I think many things could go wrong with our approach. God forgive us. We will easily rebuild code that already exists, accidentally step on someone's toes, and flub a would-be partnership. It's even likely that our community will waste this rare opportunity to work with the real relief effort. Perhaps we just still won't get our act together, or we'll have an ineffective way of putting people to meaningful work. In fact, it is possible that things could go very wrong, far beyond wasted coding effort on a Saturday — Just imagine the insanity that a few poorly trained volunteers could unleash with a simple list of phone numbers.

It is a responsibility we do not fully understand. As civic actors, we are struggling to participate and innovate remotely, with data. Very strange, that this is possible now: We can act, even from our cubicles, or in pajamas, to improve Haiti. Even though we haven't figured out all the interaction design yet, it's possible now. And the Man is starting to listen to us.

So, I will post screenshots of all the innovations later but for now, just before going to this event, I'm worried that we might flub our responsibilities in a way that could destroy lives and wreck a movement. It would not take much, to break rules that we did not even know existed yet.

Those who work as civic editors and engineers — the crazy beautiful hackers and hippies and good people who are working at crisis camps all over the world tomorrow — please remember that you are in a much larger ecosystem of response efforts and you bear a great deal of responsibility to them all. Please be diligent and critical in your many response efforts. And check the mindset you bring to the new conversation about the digital response for Haiti. We have an enormous amount to learn.