This post originally appeared on TechSoup.org's blog and was written by Jim Lynch, Co-Director of TechSoup's GreenTech program.

GreenTech LogoThe January 12, 2010 catastrophic earthquake in Haiti showed some of the astonishing potential for volunteer-based digital disaster relief. Thousands of people - with the aid of their computers, mobile phones, and online applications - were able to do important work to save lives and bring resources where they were badly needed, without needing to travel.

Online tools like Twitter, Ushahidi, Google Person Finder, CrisisMappers, and the work of nonprofit organizations like Crisis Commons and Sahana Foundation (which hosts a free open source disaster management system), have changed the way disaster relief is being done all over the world. Many of these tools use crowdsourcing techniques, which engages large groups of people via the Internet to do important tasks like raise money, collect information on needs in a stricken area and get them out to first responders, translate information in to several languages, or  map the crisis in useful ways.

Ushahidi in HaitiA great example of crowdsourcing is Voluntweeters. This is a group of largely self-organizing digital volunteers who use Twitter to respond to all of the major disasters around the world. Of course people use Twitter to do 140-character (or less) messages called tweets to people who follow them. Twitter uses hashtags for key words to help users to search the site to find things that interest them. The one for Voluntweeters is #voluntweeters. It has all the Twitter volunteer opportunities in one place. The account is managed by @KevinSage.

A good in-depth description of how Voluntweeters works and what it can do can be found in this case study (PDF) of its response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake by Kate Starbird and Leysia Palen from the University of Colorado at Boulder. At the time of the Haiti earthquake, very few people in the country were using Twitter, but it was enough to get news of needs out to the world. With only four twitterers in-country, their messages were retweeted (forwarded) and translated by hundreds of digital volunteers. This information was then picked up by first responders who were able to get help and to where it was needed.

A very interesting part of the report describes the personal motivations for digital volunteers to be involved in disaster relief work, some of them for as many as 80 hours per week during the crisis. That was the case with Mirela Monte, who blogged about her experience. Not surprisingly a number of Voluntweeters had some type of personal connections to Haiti - a friend or relative who was there. For others it was not so clear.

Another great example of what Voluntweeters can do is the case of Red Cross voluntweeters responding to the more recent February 2011 Chicago blizzard. Volunteers mobilized by Twitter crowdsourcing converged on Lake Shore Drive, distributing water and food to hundreds of people stranded in cars until warming buses arrives to take them to Red Cross shelters. Red Cross tweets, news, and updates generated so much credibility among the Chicago community that offers of cash, blood donations, and volunteer assistance immediately followed the crisis.

In several, if not all, instances of online crisis relief efforts, multiple volunteer digital disaster relief projects work together to coordinate efforts. One of the main ones that anchors this work is Ushahidi. Ushahidi is an NGO project from Kenya that hosts a free online service that collects reports about a stricken area via mobile phone or computer and then maps them so relief efforts can respond. TechSoup has helped to publicize Ushahidi's work several times, especially its extraordinary work in Haiti. Another more recent example of Ushahidi's  expanding work is its efforts in the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

Disaster relief is one of the primary activities of the NGO sector, and crowdsourced volunteer digital disaster work is an important and expanding part of it. It's quite incidental that it's a green technology in that it allows people to have significant impact without needing to travel to stricken areas. Aside from being a more environmentally friendly option, it also frees up transport systems for the responders who need to be on-site while still giving people a way to lend a hand from home.

Image: AlphachimpStudio