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>  News Releases >   2005 >   November

Engineering professor works to help create a new approach to disaster relief

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 11/18/05 • Contact Genevieve Haas (603) 646-3661

Quintus Jett, a visiting professor at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, has helped  organize a Nov. 19 summit in Baton Rouge to bring together diverse constituencies to develop near-term actionable steps that concerned citizens can take to help those affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The summit, entitled Rights, Recovery & Renaissance and hosted by the Louisiana chapter of the NAACP, is part of Jett's ongoing efforts to transform the way relief efforts are handled following disasters of this magnitude.

"I could look at the news and I wasn't seeing a sense of plan or vision about where we want to be as a community, as a nation."

- Quintus Jett

Jett watched the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the news with the rest of America, and like most people, he was horrified by what he saw. But what struck him as the most tragic was the way the existing emergency response structures fell short of meeting the evacuees' needs. "I remember having an instinctive feeling that there wasn't a plan," said Jett "I could look at the news and I wasn't seeing a sense of plan or vision about where we want to be as a community, as a nation." 

In response, Jett is developing a style of emergency response that he calls "open organizing," a style less reliant on institutional and hierarchical structures and more reliant on individual flexibility and ad hoc efficiency. Jett, who is putting his ideas into practice with the help of his students, compares his approach to open source programming in which, "part-time volunteer hackers contributed to the development of software."

Jett teaches a course on organization, technology and management for the engineering school,  and  with the help of his students, he is hoping to show that people don't always need the constraints of a bureaucracy to be effective. In large part, he said, people are so comfortable with bureaucratic structures that they are able to use the networking and organizing skills independently of the "coercive parts of bureaucracy." As a former organizer for the Howard Dean presidential campaign, Jett spent several years studying the successes and failures of that campaign. He came to the conclusion that individuals were so empowered by the availability of high-speed information and technology that the old model of highly-structured, behemoth organizations was no longer the only way to accomplish things. He founded the MOSAIC Project with the help of the graduate students in his course and together they are working to help Katrina victims supplement the efforts of institutional help with their own grassroots efforts.

Among the precepts of his theory is the idea that evacuees can serve effectively as their own advocates. Contrary to the expectations of large government and charitable organizations, said Jett,  people are prepared to help themselves if they're provided with the proper framework. MOSAIC also aims to welcome all kinds of volunteers, regardless of their available time or skills. Jett's approach focuses on matching people with some time and certain skills with the work that's needed. This means that the people and organizations who use the MOSAIC website also help determine how the project evolves. MOSAIC maintains a blog and a website (www.mosaic-nola.org) designed to concentrate available resources by serving as a clearinghouse for relief agencies, volunteer opportunities, and a place to post evacuee needs and resource donations. Perhaps most crucially, the website and blog serve as a place for people to form a virtual community around hurricane relief, and it is this idea of community that lies at the core of Jett's approach.

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