Code of Conduct: Cyber Crowdsourcing for Good

There is currently no unified code of conduct for digital crowdsourcing efforts in the development, humanitarian or human rights space. As such, we propose the following principles (displayed below) as a way to catalyze a conversation on these issues and to improve and/or expand this Code of Conduct as appropriate.

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This initial draft was put together by Kate ChapmanBrooke Simons and myself. The link above points to this open, editable Google Doc. So please feel free to contribute your thoughts by inserting comments where appropriate. Thank you.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project must:

  • Provide clear volunteer guidelines on how to participate in the project so that volunteers are able to contribute meaningfully.
  • Test their crowdsourcing platform prior to any project or pilot to ensure that the system will not crash due to obvious bugs.
  • Disclose the purpose of the project, exactly which entities will be using and/or have access to the resulting data, to what end exactly, over what period of time and what the expected impact of the project is likely to be.
  • Disclose whether volunteer contributions to the project will or may be used as training data in subsequent machine learning research.
  • Not ask volunteers to carry out any illegal tasks.
  • Explain any risks (direct and indirect) that may come with volunteer participation in a given project. To this end, carry out a risk assessment and produce corresponding risk mitigation strategies.
  • Clearly communicate if the results of volunteer tasks will or are likely to be sold to partners/clients.
  • Limit the level of duplication required (for data quality assurance) to a reasonable number based on previous research and experience. In sum, do not waste volunteers’ time and do not offer tasks that are not meaningful. When all tasks have been carried, inform volunteers accordingly.
  • Be fully transparent on the results of the project even if the results are poor or unusable.
  • Only launch a full-scale crowdsourcing project if they are not able to analyze the results and deliver the findings within a timeframe that provides added value to end-users of the data.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project should:

  • Share as much of the resulting data with volunteers as possible without violating data privacy or the principle of Do No Harm.
  • Enable volunteers to opt out of having their tasks contribute to subsequent machine learning research. Provide digital volunteers with the option of having their contributions withheld from subsequent machine learning studies.
  • Assess how many digital volunteers are likely to be needed for a project and recruit appropriately. Using additional volunteers just because they are available is not appropriate. Should recruitment nevertheless exceed need, adjust project to inform volunteers as soon as their inputs are no longer needed, and possibly give them options for redirecting their efforts.
  • Explain that the same crowdsourcing task (microtask) may/will be given to multiple digital volunteers for data control purposes. This often reassures volunteers who initially lack confidence when contributing to a project.

Automatically Classifying Text Messages (SMS) for Disaster Response

Humanitarian organizations like the UN and Red Cross often face a deluge of social media data when disasters strike areas with a large digital footprint. This explains why my team and I have been working on AIDR (Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response), a free and open source platform to automatically classify tweets in real-time. Given that the vast majority of the world’s population does not tweet, we’ve teamed up with UNICEF’s Innovation Team to extend our AIDR platform so users can also automatically classify streaming SMS.

BulkSMS_graphic

After the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, the main mobile network operator there (Digicel) offered to sent an SMS to each of their 1.4 million subscribers (at the time) to accelerate our disaster needs assessment efforts. We politely declined since we didn’t have any automated (or even semi-automated way) of analyzing incoming text messages. With AIDR, however, we should (theoretically) be able to classify some 1.8 million SMS’s (and tweets) per hour. Enabling humanitarian organizations to make sense of “Big Data” generated by affected communities is obviously key for two-way communication with said communities during disasters, hence our work at QCRI on “Computing for Good”.

AIDR/SMS applications are certainly not limited to disaster response. In fact, we plan to pilot the AIDR/SMS platform for a public health project with our UNICEF partners in Zambia next month and with other partners in early 2015. While still experimental, I hope the platform will eventually be robust enough for use in response to major disasters; allowing humanitarian organizations to poll affected communities and to make sense of resulting needs in near real-time, for example. Millions of text messages could be automatically classified according to the Cluster System, for example, and the results communicated back to local communities via community radio stations, as described here.

These are still very early days, of course, but I’m typically an eternal optimist, so I hope that our research and pilots do show promising results. Either way, we’ll be sure to share the full outcome of said pilots publicly so that others can benefit from our work and findings. In the meantime, if your organization is interested in piloting and learning with us, then feel free to get in touch.

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UN Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) are co-organizing the first ever “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” next month at UN Headquarters in New York. This full-day strategy meeting, which is co-sponsored by the ICT for Peace Foundation (ICT4Peace) and QCRI, will bring together leading UAV experts (including several members of the UAV Network’s Advisory Board, such as DJI) with seasoned humanitarian professionals from OCHA, WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNDAC, IOM, American Red Cross, European Commission and several other groups that are also starting to use civilian UAVs or have a strong interest in leveraging this technology.

The strategy session, which I’ll be running with my colleague Dan Gilman from OCHA (who authored this Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs), will provide an important opportunity for information sharing between UAV experts and humanitarian professionals with the explicit goal of catalyzing direct collabo-ration on the operational use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. UAV experts seek to better understand humanitarian information needs (e.g. UNDAC needs) while humanitarians seek to better understand the challenges and opportunities regarding the rapid deployment of UAVs. In sum, this workshop will bring together 30 experts from different disciplines to pave the way forward for the safe and effective use of humanitarian UAVs.

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The Experts Meeting will include presentations from select participants such as Gene Robinson (leading expert in the use of UAVs for Search & Rescue), Kate Chapman (director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap), Peter Spruyt (European Commission’s Joint Research Center), Jacob Petersen (Anthea Technologies), Charles Devaney (University of Hawaii), Adam Klaptocz (Drone Adventures & senseFly) and several others. Both Matternet and Google’s Project Wing have been formally invited to present on the latest in UAV payload transportation. (Representatives from the Small UAV Coalition have also been invited to attend).

In addition to the above, the strategy meeting will include dedicated sessions on Ethics, Legislation and Regulation facilitated by Brendan Schulman (leading UAV lawyer) and Kristin Sandvik (Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies). Other sessions are expected to focus on Community Engagement, Imagery Analysis as well as Training and Certification. The final session of the day will be dedicated to identifying potential joint pilot projects between UAV pro’s and humanitarian organizations as well as the Humanitarian UAV Network.

UAViators Logo

We will be writing up a summary of the Experts Meeting and making this report publicly available via the Humanitarian UAV Network website. In addition, we plan to post videos of select talks given during the strategy meeting along with accompanying slides. This first meeting at UN Headquarters serves as a spring board for 2 future strategy meetings scheduled for 2015. One of these will be a 3-day high-level & policy-focused international workshop on Humanitarian UAVs, which will be held at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Center in Bellagio, Italy (pictured below in an UAV/aerial image I took earlier this year). This workshop will be run by myself, Dan Gilman and Kristin Sandvik (both of whom are on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network).

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Kristin and I are also looking to co-organize another workshop in 2015 to focus specifically on the use of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones. We are currently talking to prospective donors to make this happen. So stay tuned for more information on all three Humanitarian UAV meetings as one of our key goals at the Humanitarian UAV Network is to raise awareness about humanitarian UAVs by publicly disseminating results & findings from key policy discussions and UAV missions. In the meantime, big thanks to UN/OCHA, ICT4Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation for their crucial and most timely support.

Bio

See also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Low-Cost UAV Applications for Post-Disaster Damage Assessments: A Streamlined Workflow [Link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs in the Solomon Islands [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

 

Low-Cost UAV Applications for Post-Disaster Assessments: A Streamlined Workflow

Colleagues Matthew Cua, Charles Devaney and others recently co-authored this excellent study on their latest use of low-cost UAVs/drones for post-disaster assessments, environmental development and infrastructure development. They describe the “streamlined workflow—flight planning and data acquisition, post-processing, data delivery and collaborative sharing,” that they created “to deliver acquired images and orthorectified maps to various stakeholders within [their] consortium” of partners in the Philippines. They conclude from direct hands-on experience that “the combination of aerial surveys, ground observations and collaborative sharing with domain experts results in richer information content and a more effective decision support system.”

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UAVs have become “an effective tool for targeted remote sensing operations in areas that are inaccessible to conventional manned aerial platforms due to logistic and human constraints.” As such, “The rapid development of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has enabled greater use of UAVs as remote sensing platforms to complement satellite and manned aerial remote sensing systems.” The figure above (click to enlarge) depicts the aerial imaging workflow developed by the co-authors to generate and disseminate post-processed images. This workflow, the main components of which are “Flight Planning & Data Acquisition,” “Data Post-Processing” and “Data Delivery,” will “continuously be updated, with the goal of automating more activities in order to increase processing speed, reduce cost and minimize human error.”

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Flight Planning simply means developing a flight plan based on clearly defined data needs. The screenshot above (click to enlarge) is a “UAV flight plan of the coastal section of Tacloban city, Leyte generated using APM Mission Planner. The [flight] plan involved flying a small UAV 200 meters above ground level. The raster scan pattern indicated by the yellow line was designed to take images with 80% overlap & 75% side overlap. The waypoints indicating a change in direction of the UAV are shown as green markers.” The purpose of the overlapping is to stitch and accurately geo-referenced the images during post-processing. A video on how to program UAV flight is available here.  This video specifically focuses on post-disaster assessments in the Philippines.

“Once in the field, the team verifies the flight plans before the UAV is flown by performing a pre-flight survey [which] may be done through ground observations of the area, use of local knowledge or short range aerial observations with a rotary UAV to identify launch/recovery sites and terrain characteristics. This may lead to adjustment in the flight plans. After the flight plans have been verified, the UAV is deployed for data acquisition.”

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Matthew, Charles and team initially used a Micropilot MP-Vision UAV for data acquisition. “However, due to increased cost of maintenance and significant skill requirements of setting up the MP-Vision,” they developed their own custom UAV instead, which “uses semi-professional and hobby- grade components combined with open-source software” as depicted in the above figure (click to enlarge). “The UAV’s airframe is the Super SkySurfer fixed-wing EPO foam frame.” The team used the “ArduPilot Mega (APM) autopilot system consisting of an Arduino-based microprocessor board, airspeed sensor, pressure and tem-perature sensor, GPS module, triple-axis gyro and other sensors. The firmware for navigation and control is open-source.”

The custom UAV, which costs approximately $2,000, has “an endurance of about 30-50 minutes, depending on payload weight and wind conditions, and is able to survey an area of up to 4 square kilometers.” The custom platform was “easier to assemble, repair, maintain, modify & use. This allowed faster deploy-ability of the UAV. In addition, since the autopilot firmware is open-source, with a large community of developers supporting it, it became easier to identify and address issues and obtain software updates.” That said, the custom UAV was “more prone to hardware and software errors, either due to assembly of parts, wiring of electronics or bugs in the software code.” Despite these drawbacks, “use of the custom UAV turned out to be more feasible and cost effective than use of a commercial-grade UAV.”

In terms of payloads (cameras), three different kinds were used: Panasonic Lumix LX3, Canon S100, and GoPro Hero 3. These cameras come with both advantages and disadvantages for aerial mapping. The LX3 has better image quality but the servo triggering the shutter would often fail. The S100 is GPS-enabled and does not require mechanical triggering. The Hero-3 was used for video reconnaissance specifically.

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“The workflow at [the Data-Processing] stage focuses on the creation of an orthomosaic—an orthorectified, georeferenced and stitched map derived from aerial images and GPS and IMU (inertial measurement unit values, particularly yaw, pitch and roll) information.” In other words, “orthorectification is the process of stretching the image to match the spatial accuracy of a map by considering location, elevation, and sensor information.”

Transforming aerial images into orthomosaics involves: (1) manually removing take-off/landing, burry & oblique images; (2) applying contrast enhancement to images that are either over- or under-exposed using commercial image-editing software; (3) geo-referencing the resulting images; (4) creating an orthomosaic from the geo-tagged images. The geo-referencing step is not needed if the images are already geo-referenced (i.e., have GPS coordinates, like those taken with the Cannon S100. “For non-georeferenced images, georeferencing is done by a custom Python script that generates a CSV file containing the mapping between images and GPS/IMU information. In this case, the images are not embedded with GPS coordinates.” The sample orthomosaic above uses 785 images taken during two UAV flights (click to enlarge).

Matthew, Charles and team used the “Pix4Dmapper photomapping software developed by Pix4D to render their orthomosaics. “The program can use either geotagged or non-geotagged images. For non-geotagged images, the software accepts other inputs such as the CSV file generated by the custom Python script to georeference each image and generate the photomosaic. Pix4D also outputs a report containing information about the output, such as total area covered and ground resolution. Quantum GIS, an open-source GIS software, was used for annotating and viewing the photomosaics, which can sometimes be too large to be viewed using common photo viewing software.”

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Data Delivery involves uploading the orthomosaics to a common, web-based platform that stakeholders can access. Orthomosaics “generally have large file sizes (e.g around 300MB for a 2 sq. km. render),” so the team created a web-based geographic information systems (GIS) to facilitate sharing of aerial maps. “The platform, named VEDA, allows viewing of rendered maps and adding metadata. The key advantage of using this platform is that the aerial imagery data is located in one place & can be accessed from any computer with a modern Internet browser. Before orthomosaics can be uploaded to the VEDA platform, they need to be converted into an approprate format supported by the platform. The current format used is MBTiles developed by Mapbox. The MBTiles format specifies how to partition a map image into smaller image tiles for web access. Once uploaded, the orthomosaic map can then be annotated with additional information, such as markers for points of interest.” The screenshot above (click to enlarge) shows the layout of a rendered orthomosaic in VEDA.

Matthew, Charles and team have applied the above workflow in various mission-critical UAV projects in the Philippines including damage assessment work after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. This also included assessing the impact of the Typhoon on agriculture, which was an ongoing concern for local government during the recovery efforts. “The coconut industry, in particular, which plays a vital role in the Philippine economy, was severely impacted due to millions of coconut trees being damaged or flattened after the storm hit. In order to get an accurate assessment of the damage wrought by the typhoon, and to make a decision on the scale of recovery assistance from national government, aerial imagery coupled with a ground survey is a potentially promising approach.”

So the team received permission from local government to fly several missions over areas in Eastern Visayas that [were] devoted to coconut stands prior to Typhoon Haiyan.” (As such, “The UAV field team operated mostly in rural areas and wilderness, which reduced the human risk factor in case of aircraft failure. Also, as a safety guideline, the UAV was not flown within 3 miles from an active airport”). The partners in the Philippines are developing image processing techniques to distinguish “coconut trees from wild forest and vegetation for land use assessment and carbon source and sink estimates. One technique involved use of superpixel classification, wherein the image pixels are divided into homogeneous regions (i.e. collection of similar pixels) called superpixels which serve as the basic unit for classification.”

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The image below shows the “results of the initial test run where areas containing coconut trees [above] have been segmented.”

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“Similar techniques could also be used for crop damage assessment after a disaster such as Typhoon Haiyan, where for example standing coconut trees could be distinguished from fallen ones in order to determine capacity to produce coconut-based products.” This is an area that my team and I at QCRI are exploring in partnership with Matthew, Charles and company. In particular, we’re interested in assessing whether crowdsourcing can be used to facilitate the development of machine learning classifiers for image feature detection. More on this herehere and on CNN here. In addition, since “aerial imagery augmented with ground observations would provide a richer source of informa-tion than either one could provide alone,” we are also exploring the integration of social media data with aerial imagery (as described here).

In conclusion, Matthew, Charles and team are looking to further develop the above framework by automating more processes, “such as image filtering and image contrast enhancement. Autonomous take-off & landing will be configured for the custom UAV in order to reduce the need for a skilled pilot. A catapult system will be created for the UAV to launch in areas with a small clearing and a parachute system will be added in order to reduce the risk of damage due to belly landings.” I very much look forward to following the team’s progress and to collaborating with them on imagery analysis for disaster response.

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See Also:

  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs Fly in China After Earthquake [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Humanitarian UAVs in the Solomon Islands [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

Integrating Geo-Data with Social Media Improves Situational Awareness During Disasters

A new data-driven study on the flooding of River Elbe in 2013 (one of the most severe floods ever recorded in Germany) shows that geo-data can enhance the process of extracting relevant information from social media during disasters. The authors use “specific geographical features like hydrological data and digital elevation models to prioritize crisis-relevant twitter messages.” The results demonstrate that an “approach based on geographical relations can enhance information extraction from volunteered geographic information,” which is “valuable for both crisis response and preventive flood monitoring.” These conclusions thus support a number of earlier studies that show the added value of data integration. This analysis also confirms several other key assumptions, which are important for crisis computing and disaster response.

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The authors apply a “geographical approach to prioritize [the collection of] crisis-relevant information from social media.” More specifically, they combine information from “tweets, water level measurements & digital elevation models” to answer the following three research questions:

  • Does the spatial and temporal distribution of flood-related tweets actually match the spatial and temporal distribution of the flood phenomenon (despite Twitter bias, potentially false info, etc)?

  • Does the spatial distribution of flood-related tweets differ depending on their content?
  • Is geographical proximity to flooding a useful parameter to prioritize social media messages in order to improve situation awareness?

The authors analyzed just over 60,000 disaster-related tweets generated in Germany during the flooding of River Elbe in June 2013. Only 398 of these tweets (0.7%) contained keywords related to the flooding. The geographical distribution of flood-related tweets versus non-flood related tweets is depicted below (click to enlarge).

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As the authors note, “a considerable amount” of flood-related tweets are geo-located in areas of major flooding. So they tested the statistical correlation between the location of flood-related tweets and the actual flooding, which they found to be “statistically significantly lower compared to non-related Twitter messages.” This finding “implies that the locations of flood-related twitter messages and flood-affected catchments match to a certain extent. In particular this means that mostly people in regions affected by the flooding or people close to these regions posted twitter messages referring to the flood.” To this end, major urban areas like Munich and Hamburg were not the source of most flood-related tweets. Instead, “The majority of tweet referring to the flooding were posted by locals” closer to the flooding.

Given that “most flood-related tweets were posted by locals it seems probable that these messages contain local knowledge only available to people on site.” To this end, the authors analyzed the “spatial distribution of flood-related tweets depending on their content.” The results, depicted below (click to enlarge), show that the geographical distribution of tweets do indeed differ based on their content. This is especially true of tweets containing information about “volunteer actions” and “flood level”. The authors confirm these results are statistically significant when compared with tweets related to “media” and “other” issues.

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These findings also reveal that the content of Twitter messages can be combined into three groups given their distance to actual flooding:

Group A: flood level & volunteer related tweets are closest to the floods.
Group B: tweets on traffic conditions have a medium distance to the floods.
Group C: other and media related tweets a furthest to the flooding.

Tweets belonging to “Group A” yield greater situational awareness. “Indeed, information about current flood levels is crucial for situation awareness and can complement existing water level measurements, which are only available for determined geographical points where gauging stations are located. Since volunteer actions are increasingly organized via social media, this is a type of information which is very valuable and completely missing from other sources.”

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In sum, these results show that “twitter messages that are closest to the flood- affected areas (Group A) are also the most useful ones.” The authors thus conclude that “the distance to flood phenomena is indeed a useful parameter to prioritize twitter messages towards improving situation awareness.” To be sure, the spatial distribution of flood-related tweets is “significantly different from the spatial distribution of off-topic messages.” Whether this is also true of other social media platforms like Instagram and Flickr remains to be seen. This is an important area for future research given the increasing use of pictures posted on social media for rapid damage assessments in the aftermath of disasters.

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“The integration of other official datasets, e.g. precipitation data or satellite images, is another avenue for future work towards better understanding the relations between social media and crisis phenomena from a geographical perspective.” I would add both aerial imagery (captured by UAVs) and data from mainstream news (captured by GDELT) to this data fusion exercise. Of course, the geographical approach described above is not limited to the study of flooding only but could be extended to other natural hazards.

This explains why my colleagues at GeoFeedia may be on the right track with their crisis mapping platform. That said, the main limitation with GeoFeedia and the study above is the fact that only 3% of all tweets are actually geo-referenced. But this need not be a deal breaker. Instead, platforms like GeoFeedia can be complemented by other crisis computing solutions that prioritize the analysis of social media content over geography.

Take the free and open-source “Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response” (AIDR) platform that my team and I at QCRI are developing. Humanitarian organizations can use AIDR to automatically identify tweets related to flood levels and volunteer actions (deemed to provide the most situational awareness) without requiring that tweets be geo-referenced. In addition, AIDR can also be used to identify eyewitness tweets regardless of whether they refer to flood levels, volunteering or other issues. Indeed, we already demonstrated that eyewitness tweets can be automatically identified with an accuracy of 80-90% using AIDR. And note that AIDR can also be used on geo-tagged tweets only.

The authors of the above study recently go in touch to explore ways that their insights can be used to further improve AIDR. So stay tuned for future updates on how we may integrate geo-data more directly within AIDR to improve situational awareness during disasters.

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See also:

  • Debating the Value of Tweets For Disaster Response (Intelligently) [link]
  • Social Media for Emergency Management: Question of Supply and Demand [link]
  • Become a (Social Media) Data Donor and Save a Life [link]

May the Crowd Be With You

Three years ago, 167 digital volunteers and I combed through satellite imagery of Somalia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on this joint project. The purpose of this digital humanitarian effort was to identify how many Somalis had been displaced (easily 200,000) due to fighting and violence. Earlier this year, 239 passengers and crew went missing when Malaysia Flight 370 suddenly disappeared. In response, some 8 million digital volunteers mobilized as part of the digital search & rescue effort that followed.

May the Crowd be With You

So in the first case, 168 volunteers were looking for 200,000+ people displaced by violence and in the second case, some 8,000,000 volunteers were looking for 239 missing souls. Last year, in response to Typhoon Haiyan, digital volunteers spent 200 hours or so tagging social media content in support of the UN’s rapid disaster damage assessment efforts. According to responders at the time, some 11 million people in the Philippines were affected by the Typhoon. In contrast, well over 20,000 years of volunteer time went into the search for Flight 370’s missing passengers.

What to do about this heavily skewed distribution of volunteer time? Can (or should) we do anything? Are we simply left with “May the Crowd be with You”?The massive (and as yet unparalleled) online response to Flight 370 won’t be a one-off. We’re entering an era of mass-sourcing where entire populations can be mobilized online. What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).

As we continue heading towards this new era of mass-sourcing, those with the ability to mobilize entire populations online will indeed yield an impressive new form of power. And as millions of volunteers continue tagging, tracing various features, this volunteer-generated data combined with machine learning will be used to automate future tagging and tracing needs of militaries and multi-billion dollar companies, thus obviating the need for large volumes of volunteers (especially handy should volunteers seek to boycott these digital operations).

At the same time, however, the rise of this artificial intelligence may level the playing field. But few players out there have ready access to high resolution satellite imagery and the actual technical expertise to turn volunteer-generated tags/traces into machine learning classifiers. To this end, perhaps one way forward is to try and “democratize” access to both satellite imagery and the technology needed to make sense of this “Big Data”. Easier said than done. But maybe less impossible than we may think. Perhaps new, disruptive initiatives like Planet Labs will help pave the way forward.

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Using UAVs to Estimate Crowd Populations

Russian friends of mine recently pointed me to a very interesting computer vision program called “White Counter”. The purpose of this mysterious-sounding algorithm was to automatically count people in a dense crowd from video footage. The program developed in early 2012 by two experts in computer vision and artificial intelligence: Anatoliy Katz and Igor Khuraskin. I recently spoke with Anatoliy to learn more about his work given potential applications for counting refugees and internally displaced peoples using UAVs.

He and Igor created their “White Counter” in order to counter government figures on the number of protestors who join demonstrations. As is typical, the Kremlin will always downplay the numbers. So Anatoliy and Igor used insights from fluid dynamics to create their algorithm, measuring average speed of flow as well as density, for example. Note that “White Counter” is not a fully automated solution. The algorithm requires manual counts every 30 seconds in order to estimate overall crowd figures. But the results of the algorithm are impressive: the error margin at this point is less than 3%. Anatoliy and Igo used their algorithm during the “March of Millions” on September 15, 2012 (video above). Their code is python based and open-source, so if you’re interested in experimenting with the code, simply email whitecounter2012@gmail.com.

My colleague Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and his team are also working on a similar challenge. They too are interested in estimating the size of social movements. As Austin rightly notes, “Establishing the size of a protest event is critical for social movements as they signal their legitimacy to the media, to the general public & as they demonstrate their strength to the authorities that they’re challenging.” But the methods we use to estimate how large a protest is haven’t changed in more than half-a-century. So Austin & team are looking to update these methods using UAVs and aerial imagery. They take a given image, identify the total area covered by protestors, then slice up the image into a grid of micro-images. They then assess the density level of the crowd in each micro-image. The video below introduces the project and research in more detail.

Perhaps in the near future humanitarian UAVs will be able to draw on these advances in computer vision to assess refugee populations and the number of displaced peoples following major disasters. In the meantime, we can use simple crowdsourcing solutions like MicroMappers to estimate populations. There is a precedence for applying crowdsourcing to compute population counts—see this UN Refugee Project, for example. But if you know of any related work other than the JRC’s efforts that draws on automated techniques, then please let me know, thank you!

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See Also:

  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]