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ĀteaApril 16, 2023

Crowdsourcing for Papatūānuku, Te Tairāwhiti style


When an inquiry into forestry slash was announced following Cyclone Gabrielle, a Tairāwhiti group put a call out for volunteers to help put together a submission. What came next surpassed all expectations, writes Nadine Anne Hura.

The water came like a wall. Locals knew that slash would follow and it did. By the time the sun rose on Tuesday morning after Cyclone Gabrielle, the river had again turned to gravy, awash in the bones and carcasses of forests once clear-felled to line the pockets of mostly foreign-owned forestry companies.

Just days after, the government announced an inquiry into land use in Te Tairāwhiti. It could be considered cynical, perhaps even gaslighting, to undertake an inquiry to understand the causes of a crisis while the victims are still up to the rafters in mud, unable to even access the internet let alone a pen or a laptop to write a submission. Add to that an eight-week timeframe allowing just one month for people to have their say, and one month for the panel to read, review and make recommendations, and you could be forgiven for thinking the task impossible. 

But in a style and manner that has become emblematic of the region, people simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti, the same group that organised the 10,000-strong petition calling for an inquiry weeks before Cyclone Gabrielle hit, once again raised the flag.

It all started with a Google form

In just 48 hours, networks across the country sparked to life, with over 110 volunteers responding to a Google form requesting assistance of the intellectual, rather than physical or financial kind. Manu Caddie, a māngai for Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti, said they were hopeful a few people would respond. He was surprised when the group became so large they needed a team of volunteers just to coordinate the volunteers. 

One reason the call for support was so generously received, Caddie believes, is that it offered a practical means for people outside the region to help. “Researchers from the London School of Economics and Cambridge University joined our own experts like Dr Wayne Ngata and Dame Professor Anne Salmond along with dozens of lay people who wanted to help the mammoth effort to understand what the science, community and land itself have been saying over the last 60 years.”

At the same time as research brigades were forming units around the inquiry’s seven key theme areas, the documents and reports to review were stacking up in a Dropbox folder at a commensurate scale. 

A spreadsheet was needed to keep track of the 150+ references, so another group spontaneously formed to design a system to locate and house them. Yet another group developed bespoke tech solutions to rapidly, efficiently and logically delegate readings among the separate units, and then to gather in, sort and assess the reviews as they came in. 

This infrastructure did not already exist. It was built on the fly, moment to moment, with Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti steering the waka at regular intervals to ensure there was coordination and synchronicity across the teams. Whakawhanaungatanga was both genuine and speedy. Not a minute was wasted. Tangata whenua, tangata Tiriti, subject matter experts and laypeople all worked together to dig, sift and mine the evidence and unearth decades-old warnings and recommendations that, if heeded, might have prevented some of the loss and devastation. 

With one week remaining before the deadline, readers and reviewers passed the baton to a team of writers. Sharp and dedicated, this unit blurred time zones and obliterated weekends to bring coherence, synthesis, rationality and heart to the submission. Once complete, the Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti submission comprised a 29-page report in four parts, with three unequivocal recommendations for the government:

  • An immediate end to clear-felling on erosion-prone land
  • An immediate native reforesting of recently harvested areas and erosion-prone land currently in pasture
  • Not one more pine tree planted on erosion-prone land

But that’s not all. The submission also included a slidedeck, a 58-page thematic summary providing detailed analyses of every single area of the inquiry plus three bonus areas, a searchable annotated database of the reviewed source documents – and like a free set of steak knives, the team also threw in five specially commissioned expert papers including one on changes required to the Emissions Trading Scheme and another on the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry. 

two Tokomaru residents dressed in wet weather gear holding shovels on the side of a road amid storm debris
Tokomaru Bay residents helping clear debris from the road following Cyclone Gabrielle (Photo: Supplied)

Crowdsourcing for collective abundance

You might think that finding volunteers to produce a thesis-length government submission in under four weeks would be about as attractive as an invitation to pay for a root canal. But Renee Raroa, who grew up in Rangitukia where the mighty Waiapu meets Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, says she wasn’t surprised by the enthusiastic response. “I was stoked and heartened, but it’s actually typical of the way groups of diverse people move in response in a crisis. When people see how they can contribute to a cause that has intrinsic value or collective benefit, they will rally around it.”

Raroa, who is also part of the Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti steering group, has a background in neuroscience and psychology. Understanding and predicting human behaviour isn’t just a curiosity, it has the potential to be transformative in the environmental spaces she works in. “Institutions and governments and even NGOs can be notoriously slow to act. The people on the ground haven’t got time to wait. They’ll move, and they typically move much faster than funders.”

Finding a way to capture the story of the response on the ground – from the number of boxes of kai delivered to the hours spent on the shovel – is something Raroa and her colleagues at Toha NZ dedicated themselves to from the moment the sun rose that bleak Tuesday morning when the river turned to slash.

With experience developing technology at the intersection between economics, the health of the environment and notions of value, the Toha team launched the East Coast Exchange to register both the monetary and non-monetary ways that communities have been contributing to the cyclone response effort. From a thousand researcher hours to several weeks unpaid leave to help shovel silt from homes, the East Coast Exchange is possibly the first transparent public record of the mahi and investment towards the regeneration of Te Tairāwhiti. 

It’s not Give a Little, it’s not telethon, it’s not an audit trail, it’s not a box of roses. It’s all of these things – with the potential to be so much more besides.

A screenshot from the East Coast Exchange website showing contribution points and funding
The East Coast Exchange registers both the monetary and non-monetary ways that communities have been contributing to the cyclone response effort

East Coast Exchange – how does it work?

Bringing visibility to the response and recovery mahi isn’t just an opportunity for people to feel good – though spending half an hour exploring the platform to see what people have been doing can certainly have a positive impact on your mental health. Equally important, East Coast Exchange is an opportunity to ascribe value to that work, flipping the system from one of extraction to one of investment.

The way it works is simple: people register and log the work that they’ve done. Activities are extensive and detailed, from manual labour to food drops to sharing water and providing Starlinks.

The work must be verified with some kind of evidence to show it happened, which is recorded and made public on the exchange. The information is then mapped geographically, allowing anyone – including central and local government agencies, policy-makers and NGOs, even you – to understand the very specific needs of different communities as they’re responding to them, in real time. 

Like airpoints, each verified activity earns “contribution points” or CPs. One dollar is equivalent to one CP. Meanwhile, on the other side of the transaction, East Coast Exchange is also collecting and actively seeking financial donations, holding that resource in trust until certain thresholds are reached. 

Once a funding threshold is triggered, users – whose activities have been logged in a queue that determines the order in which reimbursements are made – are offered the chance to redeem their points for cash. Alternatively people can “donate” the credits they’ve earned to someone else, or put them towards the collective pool to be dispersed to the next in line. 

people handing out supplies from a truck against a green field backdrop
Resources being distributed following Cyclone Gabrielle (Photo: Supplied)

A different, regenerative kind of economy

Where the East Coast Exchange deviates from a traditional economic model is that the person doing the work determines the value of their contribution, not the corporation. The guidance given to users who log their activity is that CPs must be realistic. Other than that, Raroa says, it’s up to the discretion of the individual or group to put a figure on their own mahi. In other words, the system operates on a different kind of currency altogether: trust

“It requires people to be honest. This is core to how the exchange functions. But by making the platform open-source we’re incentivising honesty and collectivism. Anyone can look up and view the contributions made. There is transparency built into the infrastructure because of that openness.”

On the other hand, the exchange also provides a way for those who are unable to donate cash to have their time and labour captured and recorded as a contribution of value. Caddie says that the value of the thousand or so hours of voluntary research labour, however it’s ultimately accounted for, will be reinvested straight back into the wider pool, a decision that Raroa anticipates won’t necessarily be an exception.

“No one goes to a working bee expecting to be paid back for their time, but most people would be really happy to know that their time had a regenerative impact in some way.”

With major funding bodies like the Red Cross recently facing criticisms around speed and efficiency, the East Coast Exchange offers a new and complementary model of handling donations that comes with transparency off-the-shelf, because the register of donations and work is stored in the public domain rather than closed organisations. 

It also offers something else that centralised funders struggle with: it makes visible what only those on the ground can see. It paints a picture and provides immediate information about what the needs are by showing what’s already been done. 

This highlights another characteristic that Raroa says is common in crowdsourcing – they tend to move ahead of, and even predict the direction of policy. “This information is really important and incredibly useful. By capturing what people are doing, when and where, we can see the patterns around how resources move. Not only does it mean we have the chance to reimburse people at some point, for example, individuals and communities who had to make critical purchases that simply couldn’t wait six months for funding, but it can also help us prepare for future events.” 

One of the reasons resources can be slow to distribute is that funders need to work with communities, and when those communities are in crisis, and the needs are so diverse and so complex, it’s almost inevitable that time will be lost just setting up processes and mechanisms that are fair, robust and transparent. 

But they’re also slow because they’re looking backwards, focused on a single event or crisis that has already occurred. East Coast Exchange is different because it’s been developed with a long-term vision and wide scope. “We know there will be future events,” says Raroa. “This wasn’t the first weather event we’ve faced and it won’t be the last. If we have access to the right tools, we have a much better chance of getting the right resources to the right sites as quickly as possible.”

people handing out crates of oranges from a truck along a main road, with a sign saying free oranges
Distributing free oranges on Gladstone Road following Cyclone Gabrielle (Photo: Supplied)

A dreamy future

Switching from an extractive, hand-out mentality to a regenerative, hand-up model can be hard to imagine when it’s such a departure from the individual and profit-driven marketplace we’ve become socially and culturally primed for. But the belief that it’s possible is what’s driving so much of the response effort in Te Tairāwhiti and across the country right now. 

There’s potential for the exchange to be used as a template for other regions, allowing all of us to actively invest in and further enable the power, skill and resource that collectives can generate quickly and, like the MTT volunteer brigade demonstrates, seemingly effortlessly.

Eventually, the East Coast Exchange team wants to move towards capturing and documenting the ongoing work being done to mitigate, adapt, regenerate, revive, protect and conserve, not just the immediate crisis recovery mahi. This allows us to glimpse a future most of us want, but one that the government is currently failing to create the conditions for. It includes establishing circular supply chains, investing in better transport options, eradicating pests, restoring wetlands and transitioning away from exotic forests to permanent native ngahere.

Pairing the assistive power of technology with the generosity that drives crowds to a cause, for the ultimate benefit of Papatūānuku, sounds a bit like the dreaming future that Moana Jackson was always encouraging us to envision. 

Inspiration isn’t a byproduct of the model’s design, says Raroa, it’s intentional. “If we can see each other’s work, we can all benefit from it, whether it’s feeling inspired to be part of the collective, or sharing practical knowledge and expertise around what’s worked well where, and why. I really believe, and the evidence shows, that if we can bring better visibility to the good work that people are doing, it will have a snowball effect. It creates a sense of abundance, which literally fuels and inspires more good work. This abundance mindset is the same abundance we see reflected within nature. This is our role as humans, to work with nature to help grow the collective abundance.” 

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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