MEDIATOR was a research project conducted between 2015 and 2019. It investigated the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in the cooperation and collaboration between emergent volunteers and formal relief organisations.
New media technologies in crisis and disaster management for enhancing the resilience of communities (MEDIATOR) was a national research project conducted between 2015 and 2019. It used qualitative research methodology to investigate the role that information and communication technology had played in the coordination between self-organised volunteers and formal response organisations during the migration crisis of 2015 in Austria. Analysis of gathered data revealed a digital gap between the two actors, that resulted in friction and decreased efficiency. I formulated a thesis on how the gap may be mitigated. I deployed a prototype implementation of the principles of this thesis during a large field exercise. The results failed to refute my theory and corroborated my assumptions. An extensive description of the research and results over the course of MEDIATOR (as well as RE-ACTA) can be found in my PhD thesis.
The work on CrowdTasker during project RE-ACTA was shaped by the needs and requirements of an emergency organisation. However, observations during field testing indicated that highly self-determined forms of participation were not covered so well by this approach. The onset of the migration crisis in 2015 and corresponding, emergent efforts of civil society to avert a humanitarian catastrophe highlighted the importance of such self-determined action. Motivated by the events of the migration crisis, I formulated the discrepancies in the centralised Command and Control approach we had pursued, when faced with such highly emergent efforts (Auferbauer and Tellioğlu, 2017). Further investigation of the interactions between emergent efforts and formal disaster response seemed necessary. Both parties had worked with great dedication during the migration crisis, albeit apparently often in parallel. My goal was to understand the dynamics that affect their interaction (or lack thereof) and to find possible ways to facilitate cooperation through information and communication technology (ICT). To this end, I started a new research effort aimed specifically at the relation between established emergency organisations and emergent groups: project MEDIATOR.
Research Questions and Methodological Approach
From the beginning, project MEDIATOR was intended to investigate those highly self-determined forms of volunteering that had not been covered in RE-ACTA. The following research questions guided my work in MEDIATOR:
RQ1: What are the current challenges regarding the interaction and collaboration be- tween emergent, self-organised groups using new media technologies and formal organisations for crisis and disaster relief?
RQ2: What reasonable contributions can ICT make to mitigate challenges determined in RQ1?
RQ3: How was the spontaneous volunteer effort during the recent migration crisis perceived by representatives of the formal response system?
RQ4: What organisational structures, measures, or tools were in place to integrate spontaneous volunteers into formal relief efforts?
RQ5: What were the obstacles encountered in the integration of spontaneous volunteers into formal relief efforts, if any?
Methodologically, I used qualitative research to answer these research questions. Unlike in RE-ACTA, requirements for technological support were gathered from both informal volunteers and formal organisations. I held two guided group discussions with a total of six representatives of formal organisations that had provided humanitarian aid during the migration crisis. All participants had been active in tactical or operational roles. In the group discussions, I explored the formal organisations’ perception of, and experience with, spontaneous and self-organised participation, and self-determined activity of citizens. I also conducted interviews with nine members of seven different emergent groups. All groups had formed in response to the influx of migrants in Austria in 2015. All but two participants had been present since the formation of their respective groups. I used these interviews to explore the formation of groups, their internal organisation, cooperation with other organisations, and usage of ICT. Further, I conducted two complementary interviews with representatives of state-funded intermediating agencies, which worked to connect volunteers with formal organisations. I interviewed them regarding how their work had changed during the migration crisis and which issues in collaboration they had experienced between formal and informal efforts.
Audio recordings of all interviews and group discussions were taken with the permission of participants, resulting in roughly 14 hours of data. All recordings were transcribed to build a data set for analysis. I used thematic analysis to construct themes with firm grounding in this data set. The analysis was inductive in nature, as there were no existing categories to fit the data into. Themes were built ‘bottom up’ over the course of multiple phases, which were increasingly abstracted from the original data set.
During the first phase of analysis, I coded the entire data set. I conducted this coding according to the research questions outlined above; meaning that data was considered relevant if it appeared to relate to at least one research question. Through this process, I created data items. Multiple data items (preferably from different participants) that addressed a common issue were grouped by establishing a new topic. Topics were purely semantic artefacts. In the second phase, I constructed themes from topics that showed inter-connectedness. As such, this was the first step not based purely on semantics, but instead on the meaning of collated topics. This phase resulted in candidate themes that showed a fair level of abstraction from data items. Candidate themes also provided a new lens from which to view data items. They were useful in revealing the relevance of data items, or connections between data items, that I had missed in the first phase. Thus, in the third phase, I checked and refined existing themes by looking at the data set through this new analytical lens. This step also saw some adaptation to the thematic landscape I had built so far, as themes started to show variances within them. Once I could no longer find variances within themes or inter-connectedness between them, I felt comfortable to consider the remaining themes as final. These final themes answered, in particular, research questions RQ1, RQ3 and RQ4. However, I felt that these final themes did not entirely capture the implications present in the data set. Thus, I established a new perspective, based on the final themes, that aimed to establish how actors’ actions impact each other. In doing so, I created socio-technical dynamics of interaction. It is noteworthy that these dynamics are not another level of abstraction. They represent a shift of the analytic lens to pursue those research questions that depended on an understanding of how behaviours and technologies influence other actors (i.e., RQ2 and RQ5).
The socio-technical dynamics described above constitute the main theoretical output of MEDIATOR. One set of dynamics describes the impeding and facilitating factors in cooperation between emergent groups and established organisations. These dynamics identify and describe that the cohesion and identity of emergent groups requires that they need to be included in a different way than traditional volunteer efforts, and that the distributed nature of information spaces requires an ‘anchor’ (Auferbauer and Tellioğlu, 2019). The second, distinct set of dynamics concerns the attempts of formal organisation to accommodate the increasingly self-determined and reflexive activity exhibited by individual volunteers (Auferbauer et al., 2019). Both publications offer design implications for ICT with regards to the respective dynamics. These publications received honourable mentions and nomination for best paper award, respectively. Lastly, my work over the last years has led to the inception of a taxonomy that classifies the actors and interactions in the confluence of emergent efforts of civil society and formal emergency organisations (Auferbauer et al., 2019).
The applied output of MEDIATOR was a prototype implementation, based on the first set of socio-technical dynamics. I implemented a chatbot that acted as an interface between emergent groups on social media (using Telegram as representative example) and a formal response system (the CrowdTasker volunteer management system used in project RE-ACTA). I used this prototype to critically examine my own thesis. Even though the prototype was fielded in a challenging environment, a large-scale field exercise with response organisation professionals and volunteers, the results did not refute my thesis. On the contrary, it showed promising results to actually decrease the digital gap between volunteers and response organisations; to positive feedback from both volunteers and professional crisis responders.