A Brief Story[edit | edit source]

The idea is to provide a scalable, volunteer-driven service to aid workers and others in the field to be able to send back questions and get good quality, reliable answers a good percentage of the time.

We'll trace an email from an aid worker through the process to get an idea of how it would work.

1. Jane sends her email to the http://groups.google.com/group/how-to-live-support Google Group.


The email sits in a moderation que. Any one of the moderators can check that the email meets the group criteria before allowing it through. Those criteria are:

  • it is not spam
  • it has sufficient information to constitute a meaningful question in broadly speaking the right area for the HTLW (How To Live Wiki) crew.

Though it is tempting to do more vetting here, that would be a mistake. Moderators here provide only the very slightest filtering function, for reasons we'll go into in a moment.

2. Jane's email goes out to everybody on the HTLW list

This is where the main work gets done. All the volunteers get all the emails which are sent to the list, although I expect many will use filtering software to reduce the flow in areas outside of their expertise and interest. If a volunteer decides to champion a query, they will:

  • Make a new HTLW page which includes the text of the original question
  • Email the HTWL list, and Jane, the author of the question to say they have escalated the question to the Wiki, including a link to the HTLW page.
  • Re-edit the page if time permits adding any additional information or resources that seem relevant to the question, including placing the question on aggregation pages like "Open Questions about Solar Water Sterilization."

A volunteer may also know of an answer to the query in the database and choose to reply directly to the person asking the question.

An email which is not championed will remain visible in the archives of the Google Group indefinitely. I expect that most questions will not be championed due to resource constraints. We'll do what we can.

3. Jane's question is now on the Wiki Here, it may either attract further resources, or simply sit, smouldering and unanswered until who knows when.

Hopefully, volunteers will keep an eye on the "new pages" feeds, and on pages with the category of "new question."

So, this all sounds very pedestrian and boring. Now let's think about how this works in a real crisis...

Suppose we had this system running during the Tsunami

Aid workers and first responders send out their questions: "What do we do about purifying sewage contaminated pond water, because we have no idea?" or "How do we dry out the books in our school library?"

People are swarming looking for something to do, something to help, some way to participate in the crisis. Those with basic research skills can actually contribute.

Why Do It This Way?[edit | edit source]

Rather than, for example, simply having people with questions go straight to the Wiki?

Basically, it all comes down to push rather than pull participation.

The mailing list is ephemeral. If nobody cares enough to move a question to the Wiki or link to it, then there's probably nothing we can do.

And it passes: the Wiki doesn't get clogged up with junk questions piling up in unused corners. Neither do we have unskilled people who most likely never used a Wiki before waiting to try and figure out how a Wiki works, and where to place their question, further hampering the process of them getting help.

But, mainly, it's push: if you're helping out on this project, and something crazy happens, and we need to pull together to get answers, we want email reaching out to grab people and get them to turn up and report for labors, rather than waiting until they feel like showing up on the Wiki to see what is going on.

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