During the night of July 15, 2021, the Ahr Valley was hit by a flood disaster. Entire villages and landscapes were engulfed in a matter of hours, and countless houses were destroyed. After the disaster many emergency services, aid organizations, and volunteers traveled to the affected areas.
Among the volunteers was the „Dachzeltnomaden" community. They decided to stay in the Ahr Valley to provide permanent help and founded the "Dachzeltnomaden Hilfsorganisation" (DZNH; English= Rooftop Nomads Aid Organization). Affected individuals could contact DZNH and request assistance for the reconstruction of their homes. DZNH then took care of organizing a team of helpers and providing the necessary equipment.
Problems immediately after the flood disaster
Especially during the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, effective and efficient assistance was made difficult by many challenges: These included uncoordinated planning by public institutions, a lack of transparent information flow, and the absence of a central point of contact that could provide an overview of where help was needed and who could offer it. For example, the managing director of DZNH, Dennis, reported how THW (Technical Relief Agency) staff recorded important information solely by hand. He saw the risk of information loss and a significant shortcoming in sharing information with others.
Vision of a digital information platform for environmental disasters
These experiences led DZNH to reach out to us. Dennis had the idea of developing a digital platform that could serve as a central hub for information exchange and communication during environmental disasters. We were inspired by the DZNH's determination and wanted to help, so we initiated a joint pro bono project.
Understanding the challenges through service design methods
In the first step, we conducted a structured workshop with a small team from DZNH to gather and evaluate relevant information. Together, we defined a more precise problem statement, we identified relevant user groups, and visualized current workflows in the form of user journeys. It quickly became apparent that the idea of a digital information platform was quite ambitious, and we had concerns about future user requirements. As a result, we prioritized analyzing the DZNH organization to gain more clarity.
We asked ourselves: How can we optimize the processes of such an aid organization through digitalization? Is the kind of tool the managing director envisioned a suitable and viable solution for aid organizations? And can such a solution be scaled to meet the complex challenges that may arise during a flood disaster?
Interviews with the DZNH team
To better understand the processes and challenges of DZNH, we interviewed eight helpers from different camp areas. Due to time constraints, we conducted the interviews remotely, but we were able to get a glimpse of the camp through images.
We asked the helpers about their daily work and the challenges they face in collaborating with each other, other organizations, and the affected individuals. The synthesis of the interviews resulted in the following key findings:
Deficits in information flow were identified between management and the core team, which led to delays in critical situations for important organizational and budget-related decisions. Core team members felt somewhat restricted in their work.
Construction site planning and camp management generally worked well for most helpers. Only those core team members dealing with complex planning tasks wished for a better overview of the status quo of different construction sites.
A significant motivating factor for personal engagement at DZNH is the effortless process from registration to on-site volunteering and departure. Recurring helpers saw no friction points or areas for improvement in this process.
Face-to-face exchange conveyed a strong sense of community to all participants, which most helpers highly valued and considered their greatest motivation for being part of DZNH.
WhatsApp groups were the main digital communication channel, as WhatsApp is widely used and familiar to the helpers.
There was little mention of regular or close cooperation with other organizations and institutions (e.g., THW, other authorities) as it occurred only to a limited extent.
In addition to the interviews, we conducted research on "Digitalization in Disaster Relief" to learn from similar projects in other parts of the world, which highlighted the importance of network stability.Infrastructures can be damaged during disasters, making the use of digital communication and documentation channels difficult and unreliable. Data protection and data security also add complexity to the implementation, requiring comprehensive expertise and regulations.
A sobering result (initially)
Based on these findings, we concluded that developing a standalone digital platform for DZNH was not the appropriate solution.
However, their processes could be optimized cost-effectively and efficiently with existing applications. We introduced them to the tool Trello and provided concrete suggestions on how to map and organize their construction site planning there. Instead of communicating through numerous and confusing WhatsApp groups, we suggested using a communication tool like Slack. This would allow DZNH teams to divide their topics into channels and assign relevant individuals. Maintaining an overview would be easy. With a smartphone app, Slack could be easily used by helpers with laptops at the camp or on the construction sites.
Research saves money and prevents inappropriate solutions:
To ensure that digitalization can truly provide effective support, it is essential to understand the complexity of the requirements of all stakeholders involved in a process, as well as their levels of impact (ecosystem). In this project, the initial results from user research gave us a fundamental understanding of the needs of those involved in disaster relief in the Ahr Valley. Further research activities would be necessary to reliably assess the requirements for a digital central information platform.
The problem assessments and assumptions about possible solutions made by individual stakeholders can be put into perspective with a comprehensive review and the journeys of all involved persons. We found that the core team of the DZNH as well as the volunteers are quite satisfied with their work process.
This ultimately led us to the following:
There are numerous digital tools available on the market that can help plan and coordinate work processes. In order to optimize the structures and processes of DZNH, we suggested suitable, efficient, existing tools for communication and site planning.
The larger the team, the more important it is to delegate appropriately. By distributing responsibilities within the core teams of DZNH, silos can be reduced. This, in turn, facilitates faster decision-making and brings more efficiency to everyday work.
We would like to sincerely thank all the Roof Tent Nomads for their dedication and hard work during the relief efforts in the Ahr Valley! Your motivation to take action and willingness to make changes for the greater good has been truly inspiring to us.
We have learned a lot from you and are delighted that we could assist you in your work.
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