Unpacking Crowdsourcing during Crises

For those of us who study crises, the term crowdsourcing just keeps coming up. Though Ushahidi is the most referenced example, other platforms and virtual volunteer efforts (CrisisMappers, CrisisCamps, Humanity Road) use the term crowdsourcing, in one way or another, to describe their work. Examining the range of behaviors that these efforts encompass, crowdsourcing becomes a nebulous term, a catchall descriptor that, if taken at face value, can obscure the diverse socio-technical phenomena underneath.

Volunteerism during disasters and crises is not a new phenomenon. Researchers of sociology and disaster have long recognized that during the aftermath of an event, people will spontaneously converge on the site to offer assistance [1, 2]. In recent years, the spontaneous volunteer has met the connective power of social media, opening up new opportunities for contributions of many varieties from people all over the world.

Crowd-driven and crowd-leveraging activities during crisis events take a myriad of different forms, including uploading data from those affected or responding on the “ground” during an event, using the crowd to process (filter, verify, map, relay) data, and outsourcing tool development and debugging. During recent disasters (earthquakes and tsunamis in Haiti, New Zealand and Japan, floods and wildfires in the U.S. and Australia, political protests and violence in the Middle East) groups of volunteers used the Ushahidi platform to collect reports from the ground, Skype chat rooms to verify reports and coordinate media monitoring strategies, CrisisCommons wikis to consolidate information, and Twitter to coordinate the movement of responders and supplies [3]. Often, these efforts were set in intentional motion by an individual or group. For instance, a person or organization can initiate a Google Map or Ushahidi crowdmap and encourage others to participate in populating the map. In other cases, spontaneous volunteers self-organized into ad-hoc groups to help process and route information during the immediate aftermath of tragic events.

Considering the diverse and varied behaviors that constitute “crowdsourcing” during disasters, it’s possible that the term has outgrown its usefulness as a one-off descriptor. My research looks to unpack crowdsourcing during crisis events by uncovering the socio-technical interactions taking place between those affected, the spontaneous virtual volunteers, response agencies, and their ever-evolving tool sets.


[1] Fritz, C. E. & Mathewson, J. H. Convergence Behavior in Disasters: A Problem in Social Control, Committee on Disaster Studies, National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Washington DC, 1957. 21.

[2] Kendra, J. M. & Wachtendorf, T. Reconsidering Convergence and Converger: Legitimacy in Response to the World Trade Center Disaster, Terrorism and Disaster: New Threats, New Ideas: Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 11,
(2003), 97-122.

[3] Starbird, K. & Palen, L. (2011). “Voluntweeters:” Self-Organizing by Digital Volunteers in Times of Crisis. Proceedings of the ACM 2011 Conference on Computer Human Interaction (CHI 2011), Vancouver, BC, Canada

About the author

Kate Starbird

Kate is a PhD Student at the University of Colorado's ATLAS Institute, researching technology, media, and society with a focus on Crisis Informatics.

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