Networks Versus Institutions: Lessons from Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross

In the title of her post at Slate Katherine Goldstein asks “Is Occupy Wall Street Outperforming the Red Cross in Hurricane Relief?” It’s a provocative question, but the article doesn’t really go very far in answering it. While it provides a glimpse of the tremendous effort and coordination behind Occupy Sandy, it doesn’t really provide any evidence with which to compare Occupy’s effort to the Red Cross’s work.

I’m not on the ground in New York so I’m in no position to assess the tactics or impact of either group, and as Andrew Katz argued on Twitter, it may be “Unfair to pit Red Cross against Occupy in a ‘who’s helping more’ debate. Similar priorities, diff abilities.” However, I’ve watched as many of my friends have headed out to help with Occupy Sandy and connected to other self-organized grassroots relief efforts around the city. What Goldstein’s post raises, and what I have witnessed online, is how fundamentally the way we respond to disasters is changing.

Networks Versus Institutions

New networks are challenging old institutions across all aspects of society, why should disaster relief be any different? Within hours of the hurricane making landfall people on Twitter and Facebook were already coordinating ad-hoc networks of support and assistance. Individuals connected on Twitter, groups came together to “hack the hurricane” and tech companies like Google and Foursquare lent their resources to the effort. Alex Howard has compiled a great round-up of networked recovery efforts on and offline and Anjali Mullany is collecting ideas for how social media can help better address disaster relief with some interesting responses.

These networked efforts are nimble, local, and benefit from the wisdom of the connected crowd. They draw on information in real-time from an array of sources and are built on the backbone of relationships. They exemplify the ways networks are connecting us to people and information in new ways.

Watching the Occupy Sandy effort emerge and make such an immediate impact has been an inspiration, and reminds us of some of America’s best qualities and values: service, community, justice, etc. But that doesn’t mean that longtime institutions don’t also have a huge role to play. The Red Cross has more than 100 years of experience responding to natural disasters and the wisdom and lessons from that time shouldn’t be overlooked. As a huge institution they have significant resources to draw on: staff, equipment, supplies and funding. Indeed, the NBC telethon that aired this past Friday raised $23 million for the agency.

In an important post on ad-hoc crisis response efforts, Ethan Zuckerman points out that “Volunteer tech communities frequently don’t understand the processes used by CROs [crisis response organizations], and frequently fail to understand that there’s often a good reason for those processes.” In fairness, institutions can also be slow to react or can rely on old methods when a situation demands new solutions. But they also have shown they can last the test of time, and can maintain and invest for the long haul. That is critical in terms of disaster relief, which extends long after the press have moved on to other stories.

Service is Political

From its earliest encampments, Occupy Wall Street has been a laboratory for testing out new ways of living together, of making decisions, and building community. From medical teams to media teams, from libraries to community kitchens, the encampments have been marked by care, compassion and a profound willingness to solve problems together. While most have focused on Occupy Wall Street as a response to our financial system, its hard not to see Occupy also a response to America’s fraying civic networks and institutions.

All of this means that Occupy was well prepared to step up and expand the kind of coordinated community response they developed on the streets to help their neighbors in the wake of Sandy. Occupy has also helped remind people of the structural issues that undergird so many of our social issues. Once the immediate disaster relief work subsides, we’ll need people who can not just assist but also advocate for these communities.

In the end, we need both networks and intuitions. Relief efforts are much like movements, which demands a range of different tactics and strategies. Our response to natural disasters will only be strengthened by more people being engaged in more ways. Indeed, too often a focus on one or two high profile relief efforts distracts from many other important local, small scale efforts. Ideally we’ll get to a place where networks and institutions can be better coordinated, can share resources, and help strengthen and support each other’s work. However, Zuckerman notes, “Crisis response organizations have a difficult time incorporating informal, ad-hoc citizen organizations into their emergency response plans.” Different cultures, different comfort levels with technology, different funding and structures all complicate this relationship.

However, in this case, the media may provide a hopeful example. Obviously, the tension between networks and institutions has also been a part of debates about the future of journalism. In some ways, Sandy was one of the best illustrations of how new networks, citizens and professional reporters and institutions can work together to cover a disaster in real-time and continue to bear witness in the week since. But this has been a long time coming. I hope that networked relief efforts and old institutions can find common ground faster than networks and institutions in journalism have.

The communities up and down the east coast need all the help they can get.

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