How online volunteers responded to the crisis in Libya

Libya crisis map
The online Libya Crisis Map was created by
online volunteers in March 2011 at the request
of OCHA. It displayed live online information
relevant to humanitarian relief efforts in Libya.
(OCHA/2011)(Photo: OCHA/2011)

Bonn, Germany: When the Libya crisis broke on 16 February 2011, Estella Reed, recruitment professional from the United Kingdom, wanted to contribute her time and knowledge to raise awareness of what was going on inside the country. “I have been following the crisis in Libya and was saddened by the suffering that I have seen,” she says.

As the crisis in Libya began to unfold, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) faced a critical challenge: the lack of information about events inside the country. OCHA is the UN agency responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. 

In this situation, OCHA activated the Stand By Task Force (SBTF), an organized group of more than 150 online volunteers skilled in crisis mapping. The SBTF volunteers were scheduled to assist for two weeks in creating the Libya Crisis Map, an online map that shows live information relevant to relief efforts such as health needs, security threats or refugee movements.

As the humanitarian situation deteriorated, OCHA realized that they needed to rotate volunteers to keep the site running. OCHA's Colombia office was available to coordinate the effort. Via the UNV Online Volunteering service, and within less than 72 hours, OCHA mobilized an additional 150 online volunteers.

Estella Reed was one of the first volunteers who signed up to help. She joined the media monitoring team tasked to review traditional and social online media, including blogs, Twitter and Facebook, and to extract, edit and submit information relevant to OCHA’s operations in response to the crisis in Libya.

The team of geolocation volunteers identified the GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates for these reports in order to plot them on the Crisis Map. Geotagged reports were reviewed and approved by the report creation team, which performed basic quality control and escalated “critical” reports to the verification team. Using multiple methods, the verification team was responsible for determining the accuracy and validity of reports. Finally, the analysis team produced trends analysis, charts and heat maps to provide the UN with regular updates.

Fully established work flows, processes, protocols and the modular team structure ensured the highest efficiency of the online collaboration, which was organized via Skype, Google Groups and a volunteer management website.

“The online volunteers ensured that the Libya Crisis Map site could continue to operate, at an optimal capacity. In the end, the site was maintained for three months almost entirely by volunteers,” says Andrej Verity, Information Manager at OCHA.

Through a simple interface, users of the site could quickly filter the map to show thematic areas of their interest in a geographical area relevant to their needs to then perform basic gap analysis and be alerted to incoming relevant new reports.

“The site was used by the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) the Red Cross, USAID and many other organizations to aid in their planning. The WFP’s Executive Director, Josette Sheeran, was so excited with the site that she took to Twitter to highlight its importance,” says Andrej Verity.

Brendan McDonald, Chief of the information services section at OCHA, praises the volunteers for improving awareness of the situation inside the country.

"If you go back a couple of years, all of this information probably would have been available, but it would have been seen as noise coming at you in multiple formats", he says. “Libya Crisis Map has done an extraordinary job to aggregate all of this information."