Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Brave New World of Digital Volunteers

I just posted on the subject of Liability and Volunteers in disaster in an effort to provide a comprehensive resource that would hopefully add clarity to this complex and multi-faceted issue. In my continued exploration of the subject I came across the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In a nutshell, the Commons Lab "seeks to advance research and independent policy analysis of emerging technologies, with an emphasis on their social, legal, and ethical implications." They have articles on:

Basically, they have lots of interesting things to read that focus on the nexus of emerging technological platforms and their role in creating social change...but the article that caught my attention is this: Responding to Liability: Evaluating and Reducing Tort Liability for Digital Volunteers, apropos given Friday’s posting. 

Responding to Liability: Evaluating and Reducing Tort Liability for Digital Volunteers

Full Disclosure, I didn't know what a Tort for those of you who aren't up on your legal terminology a Tort is:

civil wrong which unfairly causes someone else to suffer loss or harm resulting in legal liability for the person who commits the tortious act, called a tortfeasor. (Thanks Wikipedia)

The article focuses on Digital Volunteers and the liability issues that come with engaging in this brave new digital world in a post-disaster context. Because of the application of Volunteers in this way is so new, courts are still evaluating the potential exposure individuals and groups face by engaging in these types of activities. In the absence of definitive guidance, the article outlines challenges and opportunities related to Liability and the innovative work being done along the digital frontier.

An aspect of the article that surprised me though is that it focuses on the group rather than the individual and encourages as a mitigation strategy the instituting and formalization of processes and procedures through incorporation. For some reason I see this strategy as running counter to what makes this form of Volunteering so attractive to so many: anonymity and autonomy. While it’s easier to plug in and help an already established structure that has definition than acting on your own, I feel that one of the aspects of virtual engagement that appeals to so many is the freedom to do and act how they see fit given the context. It’s with this belief that I find the focus on the group over the individual surprising.

As more discussion and opportunities to see firsthand how Virtual Volunteers engage in response, as both individuals and groups become available, the ability to forecast how best to indemnify these good Samaritans will become clearer.

Until then, if you are interested in lending a digital hand the hashtag #SMEM (Social Media Emergency Management) or groups like crisis mappers, Ushahidi, or VOSTs (Virtual Operation Support Teams) are good ways to learn more about the opportunities that exist.

One thing is for certain, the way in which Volunteers engage in response and recovery efforts are changing, and while it may be difficult to accurately foresee all the speed bumps along the way towards their seamless integration, the energy and desire to help those in need is always welcomed.

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