The overriding lesson for the Virtual Operations Support Group (#VOSG) for 2015 is that we live in a very scattered space and need to select tools that do more of what works and do less of what doesn’t work. VOSG is first and foremost project based – we are the doers of virtual operations support teams who get it done as needed, no politics – throughout 2015 and carrying that mission forward to 2016 and beyond. Our goals are to use the public as a resource for social media intelligence to help the authorities identify unmet needs and better manage their resources for the benefit of the whole community, and also to engage with the community to help them help themselves in all phases of disaster, especially during the Response phase where it has been proven over and over that we can and do change the outcome, saving lives and helping to preserve property.
As an a-political, project driven organization, we believe in learning by doing, not just talking. The apparent absence of #VOST in some incidents where we don’t have active teams, for example in the #StormFrank aftermath in the UK, also various active shooter incidents in the US, and the refugee crisis in the Greek Islands amongst other incidents over the last 365 days, we learn that we cannot be all things to all people all of the time. We cannot roll out enough VOSTs “in-house” for every agency in the world to have a local team available anywhere and everywhere needed. Events in 2015 overtook us. We cannot deploy fully trained VOSTs with standardized training and resources to provide a proper and professional response team fast enough to serve everyone, everywhere at all times. If nothing else, 2015 taught us that is an unrealistic goal at this time.
We also learnt that there is value in a “VOST in the sky”, a team that can be “ordered up” as needed ad hoc for those who don’t have a “home team”. skyVOST, a team that can be called upon at a moment’s notice to step in and help regardless of where that need may be in the world provides another option and much needed solution that we will be further developing in 2016. This concept was proven in 2015 when we deployed to a locality where no official connection had been pre-established, namely Nepal. By partnering with Team Rubicon USA, an NGO responding to the earthquake who did have the Government connections in place, for the first time, we deployed a VOST to support the specific missions of a non-government organization. By working in tandem with other digital humanitarian groups and leveraging their efforts, including Standby Task Force, Kathmandu Living Labs, and generously sponsored by Geofeedia, we learned that everyone is needed and that even a small and very remote VOST can make a big difference for teams that may need additional intelligence for their teams helping survivors on the ground. And that there is a place for the VOSG in disaster response everywhere, for individual members, single teams or offering mutual aid support and operating together as a family of teams – performing specific missions requested by those responding on the ground – filling a small gap or even a huge one to save lives and help preserve property – changing the outcome.
As we ring in the New Year, we have established teams in Europe, Americas and Oceania, now operating in 3 languages simultaneously – English, French and Spanish – who can be called upon at a moment’s notice to support each other across the entire network. Conops are in place, coordinated via the VOSG Global Advisory Council (GAC) which was established as a team of 12 representatives in 2015 for the purposes of global coordination during major incidents, and to vet new teams applying to join the VOSG. The VOSG GAC currently comprises leadership representation from the following teams:
- Can VOST
- NY VOST
- VOST Panama
- VOST Spain
- VOST Vic
Throughout 2015, VOSTs throughout the world were focused on day to day incidents, including stamping out hoaxes (#stopbulos / #mythbusters) and dozens of volunteers stepped up on a regular basis. Incidents included everything from wildfires to severe weather to terrorist attack to earthquake to a building collapse, floods and more. Globally, for the first time ever, we supported a US NGO in an international crisis, and in the process, proved that there was value in deploying a remote Virtual Operations Support Team on the fly, where none had previously been established. skyVOST flexed to provide advance intelligence for a medical team en route to a major disaster zone on the other side of the world and continued to support this first US medical team with boots on the ground as part of the United Nations medical response. A long time before any other teams deployed from the US, we were already there, set up and helping.
During 2015, our member teams were recognized for their incredible work by government and official agencies in Spain, Panama, France and in the US by the FDNY, Henrico County Virginia, Colorado DHSEM and more. These are no small achievements for an industry sector that did not even exist 5 years ago and has been built from the ground up on the backs of caring volunteer effort with zero funding support to date. Every member who has contributed is appreciated and the VOSG will recognize contributions of the past year with Certificates of Appreciation, as well as introduce a new VOSG Global Award for the best work, adding to the many awards and commendations that are received by teams from their local jurisdictions.
In some ways, 2015 appeared to be dominated by traumatic #ActiveShooter incidents, too many regrettably, but not previously experienced by #VOST in any significant way; that was until #AttentatsParis. Typically VOST does not activate for law enforcement which is more appropriately allocated to an in-house SMEM staff team for security purposes, but few have that capability currently. As we witnessed innocent civilians getting caught up in such incidents, and the public in harms way, we realized that there are still unmet needs in such hazards, in fact all hazards, and that we need to be flexible in our response to requests for support. Thus our teams found themselves deployed by Government agencies at Federal and State level to help the social media public response efforts in both the #ParisAttacks in France and #PlannedParenthood in Colorado Springs.
One issue common to almost all those activations was the need for unified messaging to bridge the global language barriers we currently face. We’ve seen it in play in the field since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but 3 years later, the gaps were even more clearly marked when a major terrorist incident targeted the international capital city of Paris. The benefit from the VISOV (French VOST) translated and published SMEM (MSGU) Guide in French was apparent in the efficiency and professionalism of the team, but still there are Lessons learned from activations such as these that now serve to direct our future goals, projects and work product for 2016.
For the first quarter 2016, these include:
- Operational Languages: Adding Italian and German to our day to day communications networks is a priority, and starts with a search for new partners to join VOST Europe. 2015 saw some exploratory talks with interested parties, but we have yet to identify with groups or individuals with common goals. Interested? Please contact us here.
- Universal Messaging: We have partnered with the Emergency 2.0 Wiki and CEO Eileen Culleton for a pilot project to test out unified response phase messaging that bridges language and cultural barriers – one image worth a thousand words in any language. With the help of Emergency 2.0 Wiki reference group member Philippe Borremans in Brussels, we have also secured a partnership with PR Media based in Morocco, with global links through Hill & Knowlton Strategies. The project team includes:
- Daniel Eshuis (Oceania – Australia)
- Rafael Galvez Rivas (Europe – Spain)
- Matt Green (Americas – US)
- Joanna Lane (Americas US/ Europe – UK)
- Gabe Lugo (Americas – US)
- Juan Magana (Americas – Panama)
- Maria Luisa Moreo (Europe – Spain)
- Matt Murray (Oceania – Australia)
- Marina Tymen (Europe France / Worldwide – French language speakers)
- Jean-Guilhem Cailton (Europe France / Worldwide – French language speakers)
2015 also saw some VOST losses and hopes dashed. We saw the leadership in some teams change focus to other career paths, teams fail to gain traction or establish themselves with incompatible core values. As we close out the year, the VOSG family is saying goodbye to @VOSTItaly, @VOSTItalia, @VOSTde and @VOSTUK, with whom VOSG has no affiliation. We hope every nation finds the inspiration, talent and resources needed in 2016 to work with us to grow the VOSG’s global VOST network.
Another goal for 2016 is to start to tackle the long overdue issues surrounding donations management. In every disaster, human nature being what it is, people reach out to offer help, and others ask for monetary donations. There are always a few with their hand out asking for help that are not well meaning and authorities cannot have their eyes on every platform early enough in the response phase to manage these concerns. This was a gap and a lost opportunity for VOST in 2015 that we would hope to resolve in the coming year.
These are just some of the highlights of our achievements over the past year. Feel free to highlight others in the comments.
Wishing everyone in VOST and VOSG a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016. We’re not yet able to do that in the 35 languages Twitter is supporting this year, but at least we can do so in the 3 operational languages we currently support, which is still a fantastic achievement and 2 more than this time last year for each of us.
#HappyNewYear #FelizAñoNuevo #BonneAnnée
— Twitter (@twitter) December 30, 2015