In June 2013, Citizen Lab Doctoral Fellow Jennie Phillips attended the Information Activism Camp in the idyllic countryside of Pettenasco, Italy. Hosted by Tactical Tech, 135 people from 45 countries gathered for a week-long camp to discuss everything from digital security to physical security, campaign design to graphic design, crisis mapping and open street mapping, data visualization, curation, and analysis.

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All human rights defenders in one way or another, the pool of attendees was an eclectic blend of activists, journalists, donors, computer programmers, freelance consultants, crisis mappers, lawyers and academics. Many of the participants were Citizen Lab partners or otherwise familiar with the work of the Lab and spoke highly of how our work has influenced their operations.

The camp was divided into workshops driven by Tactical Tech and designed on the fly based on feedback from camp attendees. Mornings consisted of Tracks, where campers could choose between four topics: Investigation, Curation, Documentation and Intervention. Participants chose one track for the duration of the week. Afternoons consisted of “Skillshares”, 1-hour workshops where camp attendees suggested and hosted their own workshops to share skills, acquire skills or simply discuss issues they were facing in their work. Labs provided more hands on opportunities for campers to acquire skills and knowledge that applied to their work. Core labs were often consistent during the week, focusing mainly on digital security, data analysis and mapping, but others emerged that were designed and hosted by the campers themselves based on needs identified as the week progressed.

One of the needs that emerged was crisis management training. Given the diversity of attendees to the camp, the nature of their work mixed with the contexts in which they inhabit poses risk to the safety and security of their lives and the information they manage on a daily basis. Their capacity to handle these risks, however, was low and early discussions revealed there was a need to provide the opportunity to provide the tools for them to learn how to prepare for and manage crisis.

In response to this need, Phillips offered a crisis workshop to provide the opportunity to train and discuss problems faced by participants. Earlier this year, Phillips ran a similar crisis simulation in Toronto. Given the diversity of needs, this workshop was offered with the support of experts on psychosocial, physical and digital security.

After an introduction to emergency management, the participants went through a crisis simulation. They identified risks they may face in their contexts, and worked together to brainstorm ideas on how to prepare for and respond to these risks. The simulation was structured so that participants divide into groups, each with an expert to facilitate discussion and answer their questions. Following the crisis simulation, Phillips took time to reflect in depth on risk management, security from a digital, physical and psychosocial perspective and contingency planning.

Following the sessions and the entire week of the camp, four important lessons emerged:

1. Training in Crisis Management should be compulsory

Although the workshop had a fair sized group of attendees, there were many participants that were unable to attend due to conflicting needs from simultaneous workshops. Often observed in the field of emergency management, organizations often find it difficult to allocate resources to prioritize planning for the unknown when the “known” needs are in your face and demanding attention. What was interesting, however, was that even on this small scale, and with organizations where “crisis” is their normal, this phenomenon remained true. Even though organizations were experiencing risks to the safety and security to themselves, their staff and their families on a regular basis, daily operational needs were still prioritized over planning for the safety and security of themselves and their families. Drawing from participant feedback and those that wished they could have attended, discussions in this area are essential to be able to do the work we need to do and, at the end of the day, can mean life or death. To work around competing interests, Phillips suggest that, in the future, time should be set aside for mandatory crisis management training and discussion.

2. Maintain a flexible approach to Crisis Management training to accommodate the specific needs of the participants

After the training component from Day 1 was completed, the crisis simulation unexpectedly transformed into what participants truly needed: answers to questions specific to their contexts. Questions ranged from “where do I hide in my house if it’s being shot at” to “how do we actually train my staff for crisis without wasting our time.” Facilitated mostly by the experts, this section of the workshop went extremely well as participants had the opportunity to ask the questions they need and get answers. Combined with the odd sigh of relief, participants also shared experience and acquired knowledge from dealing with crisis. It became evident at this point that a) facilitating this type of workshop requires being attuned and responding to the needs of the participants and b) in the future there needs to be opportunity for these discussions. At the end of the day, the objective of emergency management training should be to equip participants with the tools they need to protect themselves. As such, training should focus on the needs of the user and respond to the uniqueness to their contexts.

3. Integrate interdisciplinary expertise to crisis and security discussions

Given the complexity associated with crisis and security planning, it was evident that including experts from the fields of psychosocial, digital, and physical security was beneficial to discussion. It allowed discussion to go more in-depth and shed light on realms previously unlinked. They were able to provide insight from within their area and apply them to aspects outside their area. An added benefit is that they also learned from one another.

4. Do the following five“expert recommended” emergency preparedness measures

At the end of the workshop, each of the experts were asked to suggest one important thing participants should do to protect themselves.

1. Make a call tree – A modified approach to a contact list, it arranges names of all members within an organization and/or network in an organizational chart type format. The idea is to design a communication system for a crisis where staff member 1 calls staff member 2 and 3, staff member 2 and 3 each call 2 people, and so forth. Example of a call tree is here.

2. Make a grab-bag / emergency kit– In many cases, when an emergency hits there is no time to think about let alone gather all the supplies and tools required to sustain oneself from a personal and/or business continuity sense. Depending on the nature of crisis, it is common to have to relocate or disperse during the recovery period for a duration that can go on for months or maybe longer. It is important therefore to identify the essential items required during a crisis and gather them into a single bag prior. That way when “disasters strikes, you can grab and go.” Examples of items include: cash, food, water, light, and passport. For more information, Red Cross provides a comprehensive list among other online resources.

3. Use HTTPS, SSL&TLS and 2-step verification for email – When using webmail, always ensure it’s being used with https://. If using an email client, be sure that software settings use SSL and TLS. For Gmail users, be sure to use 2-step verification, and email login process that relies on two forms of verification prior to accessing gmail. Click here for more information.

4. Prioritize psychosocial state of being – Prior to, during, and post disaster psychosocial impacts are common but often overlooked. Whether a disaster victim or digital volunteer supporting a crisis remotely, it can happen to anyone. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the most common, and can manifest immediately to days, weeks, and sometimes even months later. Symptoms range from trouble concentrating to lashing out, recurring dreams, anxiety, etc. It is very important to be sure to stay in-touch with oneself around disaster and to take the precautions to maintain their well-being.

5. Be prepared at home before you come to work – In a crisis, if you are not prepared at home then you are not going to be able to come to work. It is important to take the time and work with family, close friends, pets, etc. to prepare for a disaster. Identify communication strategies, assembly and relocation points, supplies required to sustain yourself and your family for seven days. See this article to shed some light on the realities of personal planning and using a kit during disaster.