Yesterday, CrisisCommons spent some quality time with Craig Fugate, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He was talking about how to integrate crowdsourcing into formal emergency responses in the US, which is something that’s been bothering me since Haiti.

It goes something like this. Most governments have plans for different types of emergencies. Those plans generally treat the population as something to be contained, controlled and moved from place to place. Yesterday was the first time that I heard an official describe that population as a resource rather than a herdable set of semi-helpless victims. Now granted in an emergency, people will be responding differently and some of them will be in shock and in need of direction, but other people will be in a position (e.g. carrying mobile phones) to feed into a crisis response. FEMA seem to have made an excellent start on this by including a twitter layer into their Common Operating Picture (the name here gives us a clue to how this picture has been created and organised up til now – it’s a military term).  The questions now include how best to use this, and how to use the feedback loop from the government to the people to shift emergency control from group-directed herding at a macro level to guidance of groups and individuals at a micro level based on their gps positions and reported states.

Craig asked CrisisCommons for two technology ideas that could help FEMA’s work with crowdsourcing (i.e. help its operations to work better by using crowdsourcing techniques).  The one that I’d really like to spec out and test is emergency egress from a first-world city.  It goes something like this: every time you see a first-world emergency on TV, the one most striking this isn’t the water or the damaged houses – it’s the lines and lines of cars in traffic jams because they’re all trying to exit the area at the same time. Most times, the emergency is bad but not travelling outwards with the traffic. But. Some emergencies that we haven’t had yet – and I’m thinking about dirty bombs and city-wide fires here – do travel outwards, and for some UK cities the time taken to evacuate their population to a safe distance far exceeds the time that that emergency wave would take to cover that distance. So what could we do with crowdsourcing to help stop the crisis region overtaking the traffic escaping from it?  It may have to involve some *gasp* innovative thinking like car-sharing, people getting out just with what they’re carrying, and playing with the mix of public and private transport. But it’s a systems problem looking for some fresh systems thinking, and we happen to have a set of people like that in Washington right now.