Junior VOST: Guidelines for an Under 18 Program


Recently, the #SMEM and #VOST communities were presented with a new VOST Volunteer initiative for under 18s, a wonderfully innovative idea, but one that raises concerns about involving children in supporting official response agencies during all phases of the disaster life cycle.

Research clearly shows risks to children and teens from exposure to visual materials that can trigger a strong visceral reaction, yet Virtual Operations Support Teams routinely tasked with monitoring social media in an emergency or disaster situation cannot control the material to which they are exposed in the live stream. Once something is seen, it can’t be unseen.

This paper aims to:

  1. help agencies and organizations address key issues related to the participation of youth and children in VOST missions, including monitoring social media accounts.
  2. raise awareness of the science and research about the risks to children, and
  3. establish responsible and safe VOST policy guidelines to recommend to those considering a Junior VOST or community youth volunteer program as part of their social media emergency management strategy.

The Science

Carol Dunn is a Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist who specializes in raising awareness of the implications of current findings related to cognitive neurology and how organizations deal with and communicate risk. She has put together the following collection of research work and articles to assist planning decisions:

From the moment you see the first image you are changed for good .… But where law enforcement has developed specialized programs and hires experienced mental health professionals …. many tech companies have yet to grasp the seriousness of the problem.

  • Previous exposure to traumatic situations has been found to increase risk of long term brain changes, so even if individuals don’t respond negatively in the short term, the situations they are exposed to today can play a role in later trauma. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2816923/

Potential Benefits of Junior VOST

We also recognize that volunteering at a young age has been found to: promote a healthy lifestyle and choices, enhance development, teach life skills, improve the community, and encourage a lifelong service ethic. (source) Therefore, it is not our intention to squelch student VOSTs, but to ensure that programs operate with full awareness of the risks.

The same good management techniques apply to children as to adults. However, they may need to be modified or adapted to appropriately relate to children.

The VOSG seeks to ensure the highest standards of safety to everyone under any program we are asked to endorse or recommend.  With this in mind, we have outlined a suggested program that we think would provide a good model for how to incorporate student volunteers appropriately within a Virtual Operations Support Team.

Examples given are for guidance purposes only; responsibility lies with the Agency or Organization managing the VOST or student program.

Example Junior VOST Program Outline

The team’s purpose, objectives and goals are outlined in an age appropriate way to maximize youth opportunities and the community vision for team growth and progression towards joining a professional team when old enough (18+).

This program is designed to mitigate risk to children by aligning the Junior VOST more closely with a “Preparedness VOST” than any other phase in the disaster life cycle, with some activities and tasks explicitly excluded that a fully operational VOST would engage in when deployed during a disaster to support an overwhelmed or under resourced agency.

Team members may not be placed in a situation where they could be exposed to the risks and stress that even hardened digital first responders often find challenging, such as a situation with fatalities.

Students are encouraged to participate in live VOST Exercises using benign events, such as a sports game, to become familiar with how to use social media and to communicate with authorities should a real live emergency be presented to them during their day-to-day activities or as a survivor of an incident in which they are directly impacted.

With this in mind, we strongly recommend any mission that includes minors explicitly excludes monitoring the live stream in a real emergency or disaster situation, allocating such tasks only to a professional social media monitoring team or VOST comprising adults with more advanced training.

To manage risk, Junior VOST missions and tasks are classified prior to activation using a common rating system and re-evaluated during operations should unforeseen escalations occur.

Parents and guardians are asked to sign a waiver and are given information about what is involved.

Example Junior VOST Program Values

  • Educating and acquainting the student with a modified, age-appropriate VOST environment, encouraging an interest in using social media for emergency management (SMEM) and fostering future leadership.
  • Recognizing that service of Junior VOST volunteers is both needed and appreciated.
  • Recognizing that serving as a VOST volunteer is a privilege and carries great responsibility.
  • Acknowledging that a Junior VOST cannot replace or replicate an adult team.
  • Encouraging students who are responsible, dependable, caring, have the ability to follow direction, and who can provide high quality support service to our professional teams, and eventually, join them.

Example Mission Rating System

  • G: General – All Ages
  • PG: Adult Supervision and Guidance Suggested. Some Material May Not Be Suitable For Children.
  • PG-13: Adult Supervision and Guidance Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.
  • R: Restricted. Under 18 Requires Adult Supervision and Guidance.
  • NC-18: No One Under 18 Authorized To Support Mission

Children are closely supervised and any escalation that presents during an activation triggers re-evaluation of the mission for appropriateness to the age group.

Example Junior VOST Tasks

Selected tasks that might be safely allocated to a Junior VOST team, grouped by phase. Each task would be rated for age appropriateness.


  • Create VOST workbook templates and populate with search strings, key websites and resources, ready for use.
  • Create “Lay of the Land” lists of official social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc.
  • Create or source local community maps to mark emergency related resources – shelter locations, hospitals, school etc.
  • Monitor app use in the local community and keep the Agency informed of new apps and trends of interest, especially in use amongst youth.
  • Assist and support Preparedness Messaging: Junior VOST could pull together fact sheets on all-hazards events and possibly assist in breaking those down into social media messages to be available for PIOs to use. This age group might also assist with official preparedness accounts such as @ReadyColorado messaging or monitoring instead of the operational @COEmergency side of the house.
  • Help build Community Resilience by promoting the use of SMS alerts, Code Red, etc.
  • Tech support: Help professional EM staff gain a better understanding of the world of social media, set up systems and troubleshoot tech issues.
  • Prepare a coordination summary for Junior VOST reporting of 911 type issues.

Response and Recovery:

  • Junior VOSTs are not engaged during the response phase of an emergency or disaster situation due to high stress levels and risk of trauma involved in routine VOST monitoring activities.
  • A Junior VOST may be able to assist with some limited recovery tasks where pre-filtered feeds can be determined as suitable content, such as sorting, categorizing, or mapping, including identifying volunteer opportunities.
  • At no time should a Junior VOST member be asked to monitor live unfiltered feeds while an emergency response is ongoing, neither to help identify 911 issues on social media, nor prepare official reports.

Important issues that also need careful consideration, but have not been addressed here for reasons of length, include liability and accountability.

Authors and Contributors: Joanna Lane, Carol Dunn, Kim Stephens, Caroline Milligan, Nathan Hunerwadel, Micki Trost.


Junior VOST – Guidelines for an Under 18 Program by The Virtual Operations Support Group is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

VOST Victoria Operations Update – December 2014

Check out this great year end summary about Australia’s VOST Victoria by Team Lead Brad Lemon @tyabblemons @VOSTVic

Virtual operations Support Team Logo for VOST Victoria (Australia)

We face a unique fire risk in Victoria. Every day during the summer season, fires run across our great state. Wildfire activity peaks from around 1 pm to 8 pm every day.
Multiple fires must be tracked and their potential to impact on humanity assessed. The challenge of dealing with an overwhelming amount of simultaneous jobs tests our volunteers.

VOST Victoria has evolved a unique workflow in order to make the best use of time for our limited amount of volunteers. A Social Media Emergency Management (SMEM) volunteer is highly skilled. Such people are rare, and we are lucky to have Adam, Daniel, and Brad working as a team to engage in SMEM on Twitter, and also do our best to record key Twitter traffic during chaotic jobs.

Common scenarios

While VOST Victoria does deal with all types of emergencies, one of the most frighteningly common scenarios we face is that of a bushfire reaching the Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI). When this occurs, there is an overwhelming volume of traffic on social media as populated areas come under threat. We try to collate this traffic and extract tweets with important information, and we forward this on to authorities for analysis. Our SMEM operators find themselves under the pump.

Our target audience

VOST Victoria is not designed to provide information to the general public. Information tweeted by the @VOSTVic Twitter account and posted on Facebook is aimed at other SMEM operators, to help them get quality information to the public in a timely manner, and keep us all on the same page. VOST volunteers perform SMEM under their own names using their own personal accounts.
We use ‘job notes’ to get information about an individual event to our registered clients. Each job note covers a single job, and (as of this season) these are now indexed on our operations website. Our clients receive email notification of new job notes as they are created. We try to run this process in as close to real-time as we can get.


In the event of catastrophe, VOST Victoria can call on the international VOST community in order to upscale. To do this, we use a common workbook, which enables many operators to work on a single disaster. International VOST bring a range of specialist skills to assist in the event of disaster in Victoria. VOST Victoria is a member of the VOST Leadership Coalition.


We have two volunteers in our Recovery section, who are not involved with any recovery projects at this time. We have systems in place to try to help with recovery, and we hope to expand on our role as the opportunity presents itself.

Animal Welfare

We have another two volunteers in our Animal Welfare section. We are working with other NGOs to try help Victorians deal with animals during emergencies. We have found that the public seek help in managing livestock and pets using all methods – including social media. The Animal Welfare team aims to help get information through to the right people.


Our most valuable assets are our highly skilled volunteers. Our members do an incredible job 24/7, every day of the year. Our biggest challenge is volunteer retention (volunteers are constantly in high-stress situations, and we experience volunteer burn-out)! We are always seeking volunteers, and we’ve learned not to throw new people in at the deep end. There is no minimum commitment. Becoming a volunteer for VOST Victoria is now as easy as joining a Google Hangout, and we provide all training. You will progress at your own pace, and contribute only what you feel comfortable with. Please consider joining our team of five?


VOST Victoria has received limited funding from Hastings MP Neale Burgess, who consulted with us to help with social media prior to the 2014 state election in Victoria. Neale’s support, has made it possible for VOST Victoria to operate over the 2014/15 season. We have received no funding from any other source. VOST volunteers have generally paid for their own equipment and software, etc. VOST Victoria has no employees, and makes no profit.


It should be noted that VOST Victoria has established its own systems and workflows, although we are integrated with the international VOST community. VOST Victoria have a limited number of volunteers who work to collate quality information about emergencies and disasters. We can upscale by calling on the international VOST community for assistance in the event of catastrophe. VOST Victoria volunteers are active in many areas of emergency information management, and provide SMEM services on social media. We also feed information back to authorities and other clients.

More information

For further information about VOST Victoria, or if you’re thinking of joining VOST Vic in Australia, send email to:  vostvic at gmail dot com or use the contact form here. 


Reblogged from an Original Article by Brad lemon posted here: http://vostvic.net.au/vost-victoria-operations-update-december-2014

Isolating #Ebola on social networks

In any emergency, someone may only get one cry for help and if it’s not heard, they may lose their life. Some people might say that happened yesterday to 20+ people in  Chiefdom in  district in Sierra Leone, where an #Ebola #hashtag #fail may have contributed to a call for ambulances being directed towards deaf ears. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently published “Hashtag Standards For Emergencies”, and promptly applied it to the Ebola crisis in West Africa with a series of new hashtags intended to replace the ones already in use locally.

  • #EbolaLR for Liberia
  • #EbolaSL for Sierra Leone
  • #EbolaGN for Guinea
  • #EbolaResponse general updates and discussion
  • #EbolaNeed to share with us [OCHA] what is currently needed

Joanna Lane on Twitter   RT  TheFireTracker2  Ridiculous proposal...  Towards Standardized Hashtags in Disasters  http   t.co Mnhg7T58ob via  timolue  SMEM  VOST

That there were also 111 new cases in Sierra Leone just yesterday may have contributed to the current frustration that spilled into the public stream amongst experienced #SMEM and #VOST practitioners.

I was tagged personally by Cédric Moro, who has been active in various capacities supporting the Ebola response since the beginning of the year, who told me that his emergency reports have not received any response on the new tags, in effect calling out @OCHA for a basic failure to understand social media 101, not only for implementing a flawed #SMEM strategy, worse, then not following through.

First do no harm

Cédric Moro on Twitter    EbolaSL Many alerts in  Nieni Chiefdom in  Koinadugu district   20 deaths  need all  and no case by  WHO  EbolaNeed http   t.co GJLZgjy5gZSince implementation in Sierra Leone, reports are that engagement is down on #EbolaNeed and #EbolaSL , below the level previously on the local community tags they attempted to replace – #stopEbola14 #GuineeSansEbola #EbolaInLiberia . There was also an interesting #smemchat on the #stopebola14 tag in July.

The assurance that OCHA’s Information Management Officer at OCHA ROWCA, @ChristianCric made, to use official accounts to maintain a high profile for these unique hashtags and to raise awareness of their intended use with health care workers and responders in the field has not yet materialized. There’s even confusion about which official account is supposed to be engaged on these new tags, neither  @Hum_IM or @UNMEER are engaging on the tags that I could see, and seemingly, they’re not even monitoring for reports either.

I even supported the strategy, but they never did that, except a few poor tweets. I’m not happy at all to report emergencies to them and receive no answer at all. said Cédric Moro

A different solution

As to what could replace OCHA’s failed hashtags in West Africa, Cédric Moro’s Guidelines for Mapping by Place Name published in January 2014 would be a good start. Please post others in the comments.

For Context

We do know how to stop Ebola’s further spread: thorough case finding, isolation of ill people, contacting people exposed to the ill person, and further isolation of contacts if they develop symptoms. *US Center of Disease Control

By now also, we do know how to use social media to support public outreach in a Public Health emergency. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is currently offering this Heat Map of Ebola Tweets that represents the volume of tweets related to Ebola with sensor-based geolocation data available, some 89,477 tweets had been mapped by October 9 2014, merely 1% of all 894,8660 tweets collected about Ebola from September 19th. At that time, it was possible to observe the correlation between these hotspots and the U.S. Center of Disease Control’s announcement of entry screening at five U.S. airports that receive over 94 percent of travelers from the Ebola-affected nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, namely New York’s JFK, Washington-Dulles, Newark, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta, to be implemented in a matter of days at that time.

Heatmap of Ebola Tweets   NowTrending.HHS.gov   Following disease trends  140 characters at a time   HHS ASPR

However, if you scroll over and zoom into the epicenter in West Africa today, the data is slim to none. The people of West Africa, are simply not using Twitter to talk about their situation, needs or response received, and most certainly, they’re not listening either.

2014_11_11.Heatmap of Ebola Tweets   NowTrending.HHS.gov   Following disease trends  140 characters at a time   HHS ASPR

#Ebola hashtags

Inherited wisdom encourages those managing #SMEM to go out there early and big, hoping to influence the sources people rely upon for actionable information. However, when the full spectrum of society worldwide is merged under one 5 character hashtag on a giant global twitter stage, that is also the name of a river, a band, as well as a disease that the public generally fears and doesn’t quite fully understand, important official messages are buried in the firehose and don’t reach survivors, few of whom are listening anyway. It’s then less about #SMEM and more about PR for the international community, of limited value to those seeking to use social media platforms as a tool to change the outcome for survivors needing help, but you can gain a better understanding of the thinking behind the OCHA hashtag initiative in this article.

VISOV and Cédric Moro

VISOV_logoIn January 2014, Cedric More published “Strategic Guidelines for Mapping by Place name” http://www.i-resilience.fr/2014/11/strategic-guidelines-for-smem-mapping-by-place-names/ .  The overall approach described there, had been defined and adopted in the course of emergency operations performed by VISOV (Volontaires internationaux en soutien opérationel virtuel meaning International Volunteers in Support to Virtual operations, a francophone team of volunteers active in SMEM) during the following emergency events:

–    Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013
–    Storm Dirk in metropolitan France in December 2013
–    Cyclone Bejisa in La Réunion in January 2014

In March 2014, VISOV was activated for Ebola in Guinea, which is French speaking, monitoring and reporting social media using the Open Street Map platform under Cédric Moro ‘s team leadership.

By July 2014, as Ebola spread to English speaking countries, Cédric saw the need to work in English and took over the work independently. Data is sourced from daily monitoring of the press, NGO reports, official Gov data, and verified social media posts for Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This map is updating live as of the date of posting and for the indefinite future, and includes the following data:

  • Additional response to the health system
  • At least one confirmed ebola dead case
  • confirmed ebola cases
  • Ebola survivors
  • Hostilities to health workers and vandalism.
  • Not cured patients for other illness than Ebola
  • Suspected ebola case
  • suspected ebola dead case
  • Suspected Ebola propagation way
  • Unvalidated suspected cases
  • Urgent needs to fight Ebola

Additionally, Moro shares reports nightly with local health care workers using WhatsApp, which is a simple, personal, real time message, mobile phone app, free to use.

Ebola E tracking in Sierra Leone  Liberia and Guinea  started July 11    uMap

The powers that be who decided that healthcare workers in affected zones use designated hashtags for specific purposes including reporting needs, also gave them the expectation that these same hashtags would be closely monitored and would engage with them, especially when requesting help. They also expected that their reports would be incorporated in reports about the bigger picture in a fully transparent way.

Did those ambulances ever arrive?

Only crickets could be heard, but thankfully UNICEF is on the case and engaging others.

By Joanna Lane
Opinions are my own

UPDATED November 12th: