New Zealand Student Volunteer Army demonstrates grassroots disaster relief


Want a few thousand people to pick up rubbish off a beach? Want to co-ordinate thousands of volunteers eager to help after a natural disaster? Talk to Louis Brown, an expert in using social media and modern technology to create and manage volunteer networks. On Nov. 1, he visited UVic to present his work in reviving the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) in response to the February 2011 Christchurch, NZ, earthquake.

The SVA shoveled 360 000 tonnes of liquefaction muck (mud that bubbles to the surface in an earthquake) in two months. The volunteers delivered 500 000 government pamphlets, which gave information on disaster response, to Christchurch residents and moved chemical toilets to neighbourhoods without services. All told, they did millions of dollars’ worth of work — but since labour, transportation and equipment were donated, the final cost was just 59 673 New Zealand dollars (C$49 066).

Brown and his team used a combination of Facebook, cell phones and more traditional media. He said starting early is key.

“In a disaster, the Red Cross will put out an appeal [early] . . . [When] a disaster happens, the interest from the world — the ability to gather donations — peaks in the first week then tapers [off]. If you miss the first week, you miss the opportunity for donations, to get volunteers on board.”

Facebook “likes” alone are not a response. Brown decided to use a system based on his earlier work (organizing volunteers to do beach cleanups) to marshal volunteers and accomplish useful jobs. “What we’ve learned in Christchurch is: yes, there are a bunch of people with free will, but there are a whole bunch of people behind the scenes that keep it all going,” Brown said. By the end of the response, the SVA had a 40-seat call centre taking calls from citizens and dispatching groups by text messages.

However, the SVA started small. The original idea came from Sam Jones, another pioneer in using social media. Jones created the original SVA after the Christchurch earthquake of Sept. 4, 2010. This first group was quite small, just a couple hundred people and a Facebook event.

Brown had been using social media and technology to organize beach cleanups since 2007. Along the way, he learned to co-ordinate traditional media, social media and modern technological tools to assemble and manage large groups of volunteers. On the day of the February 2011 quake, he was planning a beach cleanup near Christchurch with Jones. They were in the same third-floor office, discussing their final plans, when the quake hit.

After dealing with the immediate earthquake aftermath — escaping their office and helping people on the streets — they set up a Facebook page and began calling associates to come help them set up and co-ordinate a new SVA. Three days after the quake, on a Friday, they started relief work.

“We got 50 jobs completed and we were like, ‘Wow, it worked; we got 50 jobs done. Awesome,’ ” Brown said. The next day, they accomplished around 300, and the number kept growing. The number of volunteers grew, too, to over 7 000.

The work done by the SVA was low-risk, but time-intensive and important. While the police and firefighters were working in the red zone, moving massive chunks of concrete and going into unstable office buildings to pull people out, the SVA was in the suburbs digging the liquefaction muck away from doors so people could go outside.

“In some places, [muck] was as high as your deck chairs,” Brown said.

At first, the government was uncertain about the SVA.

Brown said, “The response was, ‘Hang on a minute; no, no, no — we haven’t seen this before’ . . . If we hadn’t pushed [the government] so hard [to give us permission], none of this would have happened, [because] it’s not necessarily based on policy . . . it was grassroots innovation.”

Within days, the SVA was recognized as a response organization. The government began funding the SVA and asking it to do jobs (like deliver the pamphlets). The government also referred citizens to the SVA for help.

Brown would like governments to view citizens as a sophisticated resource.

“I think we are in the middle of a revolution that is of the scale of the printing press, of the telegraph, the radio. I think [social media] is transforming humans interacting.”