Counter-Mapping the State with UAVs

Want a piece of Indonesia? The country’s government is busy implementing an “accelerated development program” in which “different provinces are assigned different development foci,” like “food and energy for Papua, palm oil processing for North Sumatra, mining for Central Kalimantan etc.” Critics describe this program as “a national, state-coordinated program of land grabs.” An important component of “this development plan is the commoditization of space by spatial planning,” which is “supposed to be open, transparent and participatory.” The reality is very different. “Maps are made by consultants and government offices favoring the interests of capital and local elites.” As a result, “concessions are given mostly without the consent (and often without the knowledge) of local communities.” These quotes are taken from a brilliant new study (PDF) written by Irendra Radjawali and Oliver Pye. The study describes the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to “generate high-quality community controlled maps to challenge spatial planning from above,” which is “revolutionizing the counter-mapping movement in Indonesia.”

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“Challenging state power over maps and its categorization of land uses by counter-mapping indigenous and local claims to territory has developed into an important movement in Indonesia.” As the authors of the new study rightly note, “Mapping needs to be understood as a political process rather than a merely technical tool. Mapping is not only an act of how to produce maps, it is important to always ask who produces the maps, how people can access the maps and how the maps can be used for emancipatory purposes.” Counter-mapping is thus a political process as well. And this counter-mapping movement is now experimenting with “grassroots UAVs” (or community drones) to bolster their political actions.

Activists in Indonesia initially used their UAV to capture “high quality and high-resolution spatial data in areas where access was restricted by company security and police.” Where exactly did they get their UAV from? They built one from scratch: “Irendra Radjawali built the first drone without any former training, by using the Internet and the online forum. He also sourced much of the material second hand via ebay.” The advantage of this DIY approach is the relatively low costs involved. This UAV, coupled with a mapping camera, came to just over USD 500.

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Irendra and team subsequently few their UAVs over oil palm plantations where a company had taken lands from local communities who had no idea that their lands had been parceled off to said company. The team managed to fly their UAVs “at several places, capturing several community’s areas which have been grabbed by the company, including the customary area.” It is worth emphasizing that “community members very rarely have access to the spatial plan documents, and so could hardly ever actively participate in the spatial planning process. The opportunity to produce high-quality and precise maps is seen by community members as the chance to claim and to re-claim their lands.”

The team also flew over an area that was directly “affected by the expansion of large scale open mining for bauxite.” The water from the river became unsafe to drink; fishing grounds vanished; the nearby lake dried up. Local communities repeatedly protested the irreversible destruction of their ecosystem but this hasn’t stopped mining companies from expanding their activities. Irendra and team were able to take aerial photographs of the affected areas. One of the “high-quality and precise maps” that they were able to generate with these photos has since “been used as an evidence to disclose illegal mining company exploiting bauxites operating outside of their concession area.” These aerial counter-maps are thus “being used to provide evidence against the mining company,” and they also support local community’s efforts to protect their existing lands and forest.”

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Irendra and his colleagues took a direct, community-driven approach to these counter-mapping projects: “Community members are involved in establishing the community drone and in deciding who will be responsible to perform drone mapping activities. […] Village meetings also discussed the plans and strategies to perform mapping activities at various different villages with different challenges and contexts. One part of village meetings was training on mapping and drones where participants were informed about participatory counter-mapping techniques as well as the use and the operation of drones to support rapid participatory counter-mapping for high-quality spatial data. A meeting in Subah village agreed to fund the mapping themselves by a monthly contribution of [50 USD] from each [sub-village].”

In sum, co-authors Irendra and Oliver write that UAVs are “very empowering.” “The sense of power and achievement when community members themselves fly the drone is substantial. The empowerment impact that comes with the knowledge that these images are of greater quality than the concession maps and that they have been acknowledged by the Constitutional Court is even greater.”

It is worth noting that the land-use planning maps controlled by the government and companies were made on “the basis of satellite imagery,” which means that “small hamlets [are] not visible. In the process of map-making by the State, the hamlets literally disappeared, losing any rights to their land in the process. With high-resolution drone maps, however, residential areas, farming, fruit tree forests and other long-term uses of the land are rendered visible. Furthermore, local communities require high-quality maps to re-claim those residential areas which now are ‘officially’ part of company’s concessions. These maps are used to support their arguments to halt new concessions for mining and for oil palm.”

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Not surprisingly, perhaps, “the counter-mapping process also uncovered simmering territorial conflicts.” In one of these conflicts, “it emerged that the unsettled village border is one the problems.” Irendra and fellow co-author Oliver write that “One of the aims of community drones is to map the area of several villages […] and to confirm village borders.”

The team’s use of UAVs for counter-mapping resulted in a number of political victories that went beyond the local level. In one case, for example, a counter-map was “used as legal evidence at the Constitutional Court trial on the 1st September 2014, providing the chance for drone counter maps to be recognized by the Indonesian legal system in the future.” In another case, counter maps were combined with other evidence to “challenge the provincial government to accept what the civil society organizations demand. Some of their demands were achieved and accepted, including: (1) Recognition of community-managed lands, (2) Recognition of customary community rights, and (3) active community engagement in the spatial planning process. These demands had not been addressed before.” In yet a third case, “Maps made by drones were used to support […] arguments that often mining activities are causing detrimental social and ecological effects. The Constitutional Court ruled against the mining corporations [as a result], upholding the obligation of mining companies to install smelters and to process raw minerals and coal before exporting them.”

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These projects have generated a growing interest in UAVs, which is why the local Swandiri Institute recently established a “drones school” where “civil society organizations and community activists who are interested in learning and using drones for mapping and for advocacy work could join and participate.” A second drones school was also launched by other partners to “focus on using drones at village levels to map village areas and to confirm village borders.”

The authors conclude that “the appropriation of drone technology by community activists has the potential to improve the situation with regard to inclusion, transparency, and empowerment. […] Nowadays, younger members of local communities are computer literate. After a mapping flight, images and videos can be directly downloaded on to a laptop, giving instant transparency to village meetings during the mapping project. The resolution is so high that individual houses, trees, etc. can be clearly identified, also increasing transparency and the potential to include just about everybody in territorial discussions.”

But of course, to state the obvious: UAVs are not a silver bullet or “magic wand that can conjure away hierarchies and power structures at the local level or in wider society.” Irendra and team were “unable to use drones in those areas where local elites were in cahoots with plantation and mining companies and controlled traditional institutions such as customary councils and where opposition was marginalized.” In other areas, “hierarchical gender relations […], power dynamics, and territorial disputes between different villages were replicated in the mapping process.” At the same time, the UAV revolution does have “the potential—together with campaigning and political pressure—to force through the recognition of community counter-maps in the spatial planning process […].” To this end, “if embedded within political action, drone technology can revolutionize counter-mapping and become an effective weapon in the struggle against land grabs.” And in this context, “community drones for counter-mapping could well become a technology of the masses, by the masses, and for the masses.”

A Practical Introduction to UAVs for NGOs

The New America Foundation and Omidyar Network recently published an important primer on how NGOs across multiple sectors can begin to leverage UAVs (or drones). Entitled, “Drones and Aerial Observation: New Technologies for Property Rights, Human Rights & Global Development,” this new publication (PDF) is highly recommended to NGOs seeking to better understand the in’s and out’s of this new technology. UAVs represent the first wave of robotics to be used in the NGOs space. It is incumbent on us to both anticipate and channel the transformative impact that these aerial robots will inevitably have in order to lead by example and thereby inform the safe, responsible and effective use of this new technology. As per AmeriCare’s recent tweet about UAVs: “Technology can disrupt, destroy or transform. Our choice.”

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The UAV industry is expected to grow to $11.5 billion annually within 10 years. In the meantime, “governments worldwide are wrestling in real time with exactly how to react to this democratization of technology and information, particularly in the areas of surveillance and privacy. This is where smart, informed public policy is especially critical. It is imperative that we balance the rights of citizens with legitimate privacy and security concerns. The only way this will happen is if we set up an open, fair and transparent exchange of ideas—something we hope that this Primer will enable.”

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Perhaps what I value the most about this primer is the simple language it uses to explain what UAVs are, what they can do, and how. See in particular Chapter 1 on what UAVs can do, and Chapter 4 on how to make maps with UAVs. If you only have time to read one chapter, then definitely read Chapter 4. Chapter 2 focuses on community participation, consent and data sharing; worth reading Kate Chapman’s comments on that chapter. Chapter 3 addresses the thorny issue of regulations. The primer also features important case-studies on how UAVs are used across different sectors. For example, Chapter 5, “Mapping in Practice,” highlights multiple real-world uses of mapping UAVs, ranging from community and cadastral mapping to archaeological and conservation mapping. 

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Chapter 6 is the one I wrote, documenting recent uses of UAVs in humanitarian disasters along with key use-cases and lessons learned. In closing, I briefly introduce the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which is the only global initiative that actively promotes the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The Network champions a dedicated Code of Conduct to raise awareness about best practices and humanitarian principles. This is especially important given that an increasing number of  the  “disaster tourists” and “citizen journalists” are already experimenting with UAVs in disaster zones. UAViators is thus taking pro-active steps to educate amateur pilots rather than waiting for mistakes to be made.

Chapters 7 and 8 focus on the use of UAVs for conservation & human rights respectively. While the chapter on human rights is more hypothetical and speculative than others, it contains insightful interviews with several experts from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. One such interviewee, Daniel Gilman, is rather skeptical about the use of UAVs to deter armed groups from committing human rights abuses: “I’m not convinced so much about the deterrent effect of drones. Just because I think people are assholes.” The final chapters, 8 and 9, address uses of UAVs in archaeology and in peacekeeping operations. Like the use of UAVs for human rights, the use of UAVs in peacekeeping is an area I have also explored.

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Taken together, the real-world focus and accessible language of the 9 chapters really sets this short book apart and certainly fills a void. So if you’re new to UAVs, this primer will definitely help answer your most frequent questions and will go a long way to demystifying this new technology for you. If you’re keen to learn more about humanitarian applications, then I recommend this write-up on “Humanitarian UAV Missions: Towards Best Practices” along with this overview on streamlined workflows. You may also want to visit the resources available at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators).

3D Digital Humanitarians: The Irony

In 2009 I wrote this blog post entitled “The Biggest Problem with Crisis Maps.” The gist of the post: crises are dynamic over time and space but our crisis maps are 2D and static. More than half-a-decade later, Digital Humanitarians have still not escaped from Plato’s Cave. Instead, they continue tracing 2D shadows cast by crisis data projected on their 2D crisis maps. Is there value in breaking free from our 2D data chains? Yes. And the time will soon come when Digital Humanitarians will have to make a 3D run for it.

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Aerial imagery captured by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) can be used to create very high-resolution 3D point clouds like the one below. It only took a 4-minute UAV flight to capture the imagery for this point cloud. Of course, the processing time to convert the 2D imagery to 3D took longer. But solutions already exist to create 3D point clouds on the fly, and these solutions will only get more sophisticated over time.

Stitching 2D aerial imagery into larger “mosaics” is already standard practice in the UAV space. But that’s so 2014. What we need is the ability to stitch together 3D point clouds. In other words, I should be able to mesh my 3D point cloud of a given area with other point clouds that overlap spatially with mine. This would enable us to generate high-resolution 3D point clouds for larger areas. Lets call these accumulated point clouds Cumulus Clouds. We could then create baseline data in the form of Cumulus Clouds. And when a disaster happens, we could create updated Cumulus Clouds for the affected area and compare them with our baseline Cumulus Cloud for changes. In other words, instead of solely generating 2D mapping data for the Missing Maps Project, we could add Cumulus Clouds.

Meanwhile, breakthroughs in Virtual Reality will enable Digital Humanitarians to swarm through these Cumulus Clouds. Innovations such as Oculus Rift, the first consumer-targeted virtual reality headsets, may become the pièce de résistance of future Digital Humanitarians. This shift to 3D doesn’t mean that our methods for analyzing 2D crisis maps are obsolete when we leave Plato’s Cave. We simply need to extend our microtasking and crowdsourcing solutions to the 3D space. As such, a 3D “tasking manager” would just assign specific areas of a Cumulus Cloud to individual Digital Jedis. This is no different to how field-based disaster assessment surveys get carried out in the “Solid World” (Real Word). Our Oculus headsets would “simply” need to allow Digital Jedis to “annotate” or “trace various” sections of the Cumulus Clouds just like they already do with 2D maps; otherwise we’ll be nothing more than disaster tourists.

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The shift to 3D is not without challenges. This shift necessarily increases visual complexity. Indeed, 2D images are a radical (and often welcome) simplification of the Solid World. This simplification comes with a number of advantages like reducing the signal to noise ratio. But 2D imagery, like satellite imagery, “hides” information, which is one reason why imagery-interpretation and analysis is difficult, often requiring expert training. But 3D is more intuitive; 3D is the world we live in. Interpreting signs of damage in 3D may thus be easier than doing so with a lot less information in 2D. Of course, this also depends on the level of detail required for the 3D damage assessments. Regardless, appropriate tutorials will need to be developed to guide the analysis of 3D point clouds and Cumulus Clouds. Wait a minute—shouldn’t existing assessment methodologies used for field-based surveys in the Solid World do the trick? After all, the “Real World” is in 3D last time I checked.

Ah, there’s the rub. Some of the existing methodologies developed by the UN and World Bank to assess disaster damage are largely dysfunctional. Take for example the formal definition of “partial damage” used by the Bank to carry out their post-disaster damage and needs assessments: “the classification used is to say that if a building is 40% damaged, it needs to be repaired. In my view this is too vague a description and not much help. When we say 40%, is it the volume of the building we are talking about or the structural components?” The question is posed by a World Bank colleague with 15+ years of experience. Since high-resolution 3D data enables more of us to more easily see more details, our assessment methodologies will necessarily need to become more detailed both for manual and automated analysis solutions. This does add more complexity but such is the price if we actually want reliable damage assessments regardless.

Isn’t it ironic that our shift to Virtual Reality may ultimately improve the methodologies (and thus data quality) of field-based surveys carried out in the Solid World? In any event, I can already “hear” the usual critics complaining; the usual theatrics of cave-bound humanitarians who eagerly dismiss any technology that appears after the radio (and maybe SMS). Such is life. Moving along. I’m exploring practical ways to annotate 3D point clouds here but if anyone has additional ideas, do please get in touch. I’m also looking for any solutions out there (imperfect ones are fine too) that can can help us build Cumulus Clouds—i.e., stitch overlapping 3D point clouds. Lastly, I’d love to know what it would take to annotate Cumulus Clouds via Virtual Reality. Thanks!

Acknowledgements: Thanks to colleagues from OpenAerialMap, Cadasta and MapBox for helping me think through some of the ideas above.

Developing Guidelines for Humanitarian UAV Missions

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) recently organized a 3-day Policy Forum on Humanitarian UAVs. The mission of UAViators is to promote the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian settings. The Forum, the first of it’s kind, was generously sponsored and hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation at their conference center in Bellagio, Italy. The aerial panoramic photograph below was captured by UAV during the Forum.

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UAViators brought together a cross-section of experts from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), World Food Program (WFP), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), American Red Cross, European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Organization (ECHO), Medair, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, ICT for Peace Foundation (ICT4Peace), DJI, BuildPeace, Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Trilateral Research, Harvard University, Texas A&M, University of Central Lancashire, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Pepperdine University School of Law and other independent experts. The purpose of the Forum, which I had the distinct pleasure of running: to draft guidelines for the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

Five key sets of guidelines were drafted, each focusing on priority areas where policy has been notably absent: 1) Code of Conduct; 2) Data Ethics; 3) Community Engagement; 4) Principled Partnerships; and 5) Conflict Sensitivity. These five policy areas were identified as priorities during the full-day Humanitarian UAV Experts Meeting co-organized at the UN Secretariat in New York by UAViators and OCHA (see summary here). After 3 very long days of deliberation in Bellagio, we converged towards an initial draft set of guidelines for each of the key areas. There was certainly no guarantee that this convergence would happen, so I’m particularly pleased and very grateful to all participants for their hard work. Indeed, I’m reminded of Alexander Aleinikoff (Deputy High Commissioner in the Office of UNHCR) who defines innovation as “dynamic problem solving among friends.” The camaraderie throughout the long hours had a lot to do with the positive outcome. Conferences typically take a group photo of participants; we chose to take an aerial video instead:

Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re done. The most immediate next step is to harmonize each of the guideline documents so that they “speak” to each other. We’ll then solicit internal institutional feedback from the organizations that were represented in Bellagio. Once this feedback has been considered and integrated where appropriate, we will organize a soft public launch of the guidelines in August 2015. The purpose of this soft launch is to actively solicit feedback from the broader humanitarian community. We plan to hold Webinars in August and September to invite this additional feedback. The draft guidelines will be further reviewed in October at the 2015 Humanitarian UAV Experts Meeting, which is being hosted at MIT and co-organized by UAViators, OCHA and the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS).

We’ll then review all the feedback received since Bellagio to produce the “final” version of the guidelines, which will be presented to donors and humanitarian organizations for public endorsement. The guidelines will be officially launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. In the meantime, these documents will serve as best practices to inform both humanitarian UAV trainings and missions. In other words, they will already serve to guide the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. We will also use these draft guidelines to hold ourselves accountable. To be sure, humanitarian innovation is not simply about the technology; humanitarian innovation is also about the processes that enable the innovative use of emerging technologies.

While the first text message (SMS) was sent in 1992, it took 20 years (!) until a set of guidelines were developed to inform the use of SMS in disaster response. I’m relieved that we won’t have to wait until 2035 to produce UAV guidelines. Yes, the evidence base for the added value of UAVs in humanitarian missions is still thin, which is why it is all the more remarkable that forward-thinking guidelines are already being drafted. As several participants noted during the Forum, “The humanitarian community completely missed the boat on the mobile phone revolution. It is vital that we not make this same mistake again with newer, emerging technologies.” As such, the question for everyone at the Forum was not whether UAVs will have a significant impact, but rather what guidelines are needed now to guide the impact that this new technology will inevitably have on future humanitarian efforts.

The evidence base is necessarily thin since UAVs are only now emerging as a potential humanitarian technology. There is still a lot of learning and documenting to be done. The Humanitarian UAV Network has already taken on this task and will continue to enable learning and catalyze information sharing by convening expert meetings and documenting lessons learned in collaboration with key partners. The Network will also seek to partner with select groups on strategic projects with the aim of expanding the evidence base. In sum, I think we’re on the right track, and staying on the right track will require a joint and sustained effort with a cross-section of partners and stakeholders. To be sure, UAViators cannot accomplish the above alone. It took 22 dedicated experts and 3 long days to produce the draft guidelines. So consider this post an open invitation to join these efforts as we press on to make the use of UAVs in humanitarian crises safer, more coordinated and more effective.

In the meantime, a big thanks once again to all the experts who joined us for the Forum, and equally big thanks to the team at the Rockefeller Foundation for graciously hosting us in Bellagio.

Social Media for Disaster Response – Done Right!

To say that Indonesia’s capital is prone to flooding would be an understatement. Well over 40% of Jakarta is at or below sea level. Add to this a rapidly growing population of over 10 million and you have a recipe for recurring disasters. Increasing the resilience of the city’s residents to flooding is thus imperative. Resilience is the capacity of affected individuals to self-organize effectively, which requires timely decision-making based on accurate, actionable and real-time information. But Jakarta is also flooded with information during disasters. Indeed, the Indonesian capital is the world’s most active Twitter city.

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So even if relevant, actionable information on rising flood levels could somehow be gleaned from millions of tweets in real-time, these reports could be inaccurate or completely false. Besides, only 3% of tweets on average are geo-located, which means any reliable evidence of flooding reported via Twitter is typically not actionable—that is, unless local residents and responders know where waters are rising, they can’t take tactical action in a timely manner. These major challenges explain why most discount the value of social media for disaster response.

But Digital Humanitarians in Jakarta aren’t your average Digital Humanitarians. These Digital Jedis recently launched one of the most promising humanitarian technology initiatives I’ve seen in years. Code named Peta Jakarta, the project takes social media and digital humanitarian action to the next level. Whenever someone posts a tweet with the word banjir (flood), they receive an automated tweet reply from @PetaJkt inviting them to confirm whether they see signs of flooding in their area: “Flooding? Enable geo-location, tweet @petajkt #banjir and check petajakarta.org.” The user can confirm their report by turning geo-location on and simply replying with the keyword banjir or flood. The result gets added to a live, public crisis map, like the one below.

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Over the course of the 2014/2015 monsoon season, Peta Jakarta automatically sent 89,000 tweets to citizens in Jakarta as a call to action to confirm flood conditions. These automated invitation tweets served to inform the user about the project and linked to the video below (via Twitter Cards) to provide simple instructions on how to submit a confirmed report with approximate flood levels. If a Twitter user forgets to turn on the geo-location feature of their smartphone, they receive an automated tweet reminding them to enable geo-location and resubmit their tweet. Finally, the platform “generates a thank you message confirming the receipt of the user’s report and directing them to PetaJakarta.org to see their contribution to the map.” Note that the “overall aim of sending programmatic messages is not to simply solicit a high volume of replies, but to reach active, committed citizen-users willing to participate in civic co-management by sharing nontrivial data that can benefit other users and government agencies in decision-making during disaster scenarios.”

A report is considered verified when a confirmed geo-tagged tweet includes a picture of the flooding, like in the tweet below. These confirmed and verified tweets get automatically mapped and also shared with Jakarta’s Emergency Management Agency (BPBD DKI Jakarta). The latter are directly involved in this initiative since they’re “regularly faced with the difficult challenge of anticipating & responding to floods hazards and related extreme weather events in Jakarta.” This direct partnership also serves to limit the “Data Rot Syndrome” where data is gathered but not utilized. Note that Peta Jakarta is able to carry out additional verification measures by manually assessing the validity of tweets and pictures by cross-checking other Twitter reports from the same district and also by monitoring “television and internet news sites, to follow coverage of flooded areas and cross-check reports.”

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During the latest monsoon season, Peta Jakarta “received and mapped 1,119 confirmed reports of flooding. These reports were formed by 877 users, indicating an average tweet to user ratio of 1.27 tweets per user. A further 2,091 confirmed reports were received without the required geolocation metadata to be mapped, highlighting the value of the programmatic geo-location ‘reminders’ […]. With regard to unconfirmed reports, Peta Jakarta recorded and mapped a total of 25,584 over the course of the monsoon.”

The Live Crisis Maps could be viewed via two different interfaces depending on the end user. For local residents, the maps could be accessed via smartphone with the visual display designed specifically for more tactical decision-making, showing flood reports at the neighborhood level and only for the past hour.

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For institutional partners, the data is visualized in more aggregate terms for strategic decision-making based trends-analysis and data integration. “When viewed on a desktop computer, the web-application scaled the map to show a situational overview of the city.”

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Peta Jakarta has “proven the value and utility of social media as a mega-city methodology for crowdsourcing relevant situational information to aid in decision-making and response coordination during extreme weather events.” The initiative enables “autonomous users to make independent decisions on safety and navigation in response to the flood in real-time, thereby helping increase the resilience of the city’s residents to flooding and its attendant difficulties.” In addition, by “providing decision support at the various spatial and temporal scales required by the different actors within city, Peta Jakarta offers an innovative and inexpensive method for the crowdsourcing of time-critical situational information in disaster scenarios.” The resulting confirmed and verified tweets were used by BPBD DKI Jakarta to “cross-validate formal reports of flooding from traditional data sources, supporting the creation of information for flood assessment, response, and management in real-time.”


My blog post is based several conversations I had with Peta Jakarta team and on this white paper, which was just published a week ago. The report runs close to 100 pages and should absolutely be considered required reading for all Digital Humanitarians and CrisisMappers. The paper includes several dozen insights which a short blog post simply cannot do justice to. If you can’t find the time to read the report, then please see the key excerpts below. In a future blog post, I’ll describe how the Peta Jakarta team plans to leverage UAVs to complement social media reporting.

  • Extracting knowledge from the “noise” of social media requires designed engagement and filtering processes to eliminate unwanted information, reward valuable reports, and display useful data in a manner that further enables users, governments, or other agencies to make non-trivial, actionable decisions in a time-critical manner.
  • While the utility of passively-mined social media data can offer insights for offline analytics and derivative studies for future planning scenarios, the critical issue for frontline emergency responders is the organization and coordination of actionable, real-time data related to disaster situations.
  • User anonymity in the reporting process was embedded within the Peta Jakarta project. Whilst the data produced by Twitter reports of flooding is in the public domain, the objective was not to create an archive of users who submitted potentially sensitive reports about flooding events, outside of the Twitter platform. Peta Jakarta was thus designed to anonymize reports collected by separating reports from their respective users. Furthermore, the text content of tweets is only stored when the report is confirmed, that is, when the user has opted to send a message to the @petajkt account to describe their situation. Similarly, when usernames are stored, they are encrypted using a one-way hash function.
  • In developing the Peta Jakarta brand as the public face of the project, it was important to ensure that the interface and map were presented as community-owned, rather than as a government product or academic research tool. Aiming to appeal to first adopters—the young, tech-savvy Twitter-public of Jakarta—the language used in all the outreach materials (Twitter replies, the outreach video, graphics, and print advertisements) was intentionally casual and concise. Because of the repeated recurrence of flood events during the monsoon, and the continuation of daily activities around and through these flood events, the messages were intentionally designed to be more like normal twitter chatter and less like public service announcements.
  • It was important to design the user interaction with PetaJakarta.org to create a user experience that highlighted the community resource element of the project (similar to the Waze traffic app), rather than an emergency or information service. With this aim in mind, the graphics and language are casual and light in tone. In the video, auto-replies, and print advertisements, PetaJakarta.org never used alarmist or moralizing language; instead, the graphic identity is one of casual, opt-in, community participation.
  • The most frequent question directed to @petajkt on Twitter was about how to activate the geo-location function for tweets. So far, this question has been addressed manually by sending a reply tweet with a graphic instruction describing how to activate geo-location functionality.
  • Critical to the success of the project was its official public launch with, and promotion by, the Governor. This endorsement gave the platform very high visibility and increased legitimacy among other government agencies and public users; it also produced a very successful media event, which led substantial media coverage and subsequent public attention.

  • The aggregation of the tweets (designed to match the spatio-temporal structure of flood reporting in the system of the Jakarta Disaster Management Agency) was still inadequate when looking at social media because it could result in their overlooking reports that occurred in areas of especially low Twitter activity. Instead, the Agency used the @petajkt Twitter stream to direct their use of the map and to verify and cross-check information about flood-affected areas in real-time. While this use of social media was productive overall, the findings from the Joint Pilot Study have led to the proposal for the development of a more robust Risk Evaluation Matrix (REM) that would enable Peta Jakarta to serve a wider community of users & optimize the data collection process through an open API.
  • Developing a more robust integration of social media data also means leveraging other potential data sets to increase the intelligence produced by the system through hybridity; these other sources could include, but are not limited to, government, private sector, and NGO applications (‘apps’) for on- the-ground data collection, LIDAR or UAV-sourced elevation data, and fixed ground control points with various types of sensor data. The “citizen-as- sensor” paradigm for urban data collection will advance most effectively if other types of sensors and their attendant data sources are developed in concert with social media sourced information.

Review: The First Ever Course on Humanitarian UAVs

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The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) promotes the safe, coordinated and effective use of UAVs in a wide range of humanitarian settings. To this end, the Network’s mission includes training the first generation of Humanitarian UAV experts. This explains why I teamed up with VIVES Aeronautics College last year to create and launch the first ever UAV training specifically geared towards established humanitarian organizations. The 3-day, intensive and hands-on training took place this month in Belgium and went superbly well, which is why we’ll be offering it again next year and possibly a second time this year as well.

Participants included representatives from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Program (WFP), International Organization for Migration (IOM), European Union Humanitarian Aid Organization (ECHO), Medair, Direct Relief, and Germany’s Development Organization GIZ. We powered through the most important subjects, ranging from airspace regulations to the physics of flight, the in’s and out’s of civil aviation, aeronautics, weather forecasts, programming flight routes, operational safety, standard operating procedures, best practices, etc. I gave trainings on both Humanitarian UAV Applications and Humanitarian UAV Operations, which totaled well over 4 hours of instruction and discussion. The Ops training included a detailed review of best practices—summary available here. Knowing how to operate this new technology is definitely the easy part; knowing how to use UAVs effectively and responsibly in real-world humanitarian contexts is a far bigger challenge; hence the need for this training.

The purpose of the course was to provide the kind of training that humanitarian professionals need in order to 1) Fully understand the opportunities and limitations of this new technology; 2) Partner effectively with professional UAV teams during disasters; and 3) Operate safely, legally, responsibly and ethically. The accelerated training ended with a 2-hour simulation exercise in which participants were tasked with carrying out a UAV mission in Nepal for which they had to use all the standard operating procedures and best practices they had learned over the course of the training. Each team then had to present in detail how they would carry out the required mission.

Below are pictures from the 3-day event. Each day included some 12 hours of instructions and discussions—so these pictures certainly don’t cover all of the flights, materials and seminars. For more on this unique UAV training course, check out this excellent blog post by Andrew Schroeder from Direct Relief. In the meantime, please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested taking this course in the future or would like a customized one for your organization.

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The VIVES Aeronautics campus in Belgium has a dedicated group focused on UAV courses, training and research in addition to traditional aviation training.

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Facilities at VIVES include flight simulators, computer labs and labs dedicated to building UAVs.

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We went through hundreds of pages and at least 400 slides of dedicated training material over the course of the 3 days.

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We took a direct, hands-on approach from day one of the training. Naturally, we go all the necessary legal permissions to operate UAVs in this area.

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Introducing participants to fixed-wing and multi-rotor UAVs.

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Participants learned how the basics on how to operate this fixed-wing UAV.

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Some fixed-wing UAVs are hand-launched, this one uses a dedicated launcher. We flew this one for about 20 minutes.

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Multi-rotor UAVs were then introduced and participants were instructed on how to operate this model themselves during the training.

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So each participant took to the controls under the supervision of certified UAV pilots and got a feel for manual flights.

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Other multi-rotor UAVs were also introduced along with standard operating procedures related to safety, take-off, flight and landing.

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Multi-rotors were compared with fixed-wing UAVs and participants asked about which type of asset to use for different humanitarian UAV missions.

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We then visited a factory dedicated towards the manufacturing of long-range fixed-wing UAVs so participants could learn about airframes and hardware.

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After half-a-day of outdoor, hands-on training on UAVs, the real-work began.

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Intensive, back-to-back seminars to provide humanitarian participants with everything they need to know about UAVs, humanitarian applications and also humanitarian UAV missions.

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From the laws of the skies and reading official air-route maps to understanding airspace classes and regulations.

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Safety was an overriding theme throughout the 3-day training.

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Safety training included standard operating procedures for hardware & batteries

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Participants were also introduced to the principles of flight and aviation.

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All seminars were highly interactive and also allowed for long question & answer sessions; some of these lasted up to an hour and continued during the breaks.

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All aspects of UAV technology was introduced and discussed at length, such as First Person View (FPV).

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Regulations were an important component of the 3-day training.

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Participants learned how to program UAV flights; they were introduced to the software and provided with an overview of best practices on flight planning.

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A hands-on introduction to imagery processing and analysis was also provided. Participants were taught how to use dedicated software to process and analyze the aerial imagery captured during the morning outdoor sessions.

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Participants thus spent time in the dedicated computer lab working with this imagery and creating 3D point clouds, for example.

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Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, MapBoxMicroMappers were also introduced.

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The first UAViators & VIVES Class of 2015!

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Handbook: How to Catalyze Humanitarian Innovation in Computing Research Institutes

This research was commissioned by the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) Innovation Team, which I joined last year. An important goal of the Summit’s Innovation Team is to identify concrete innovation pathways that can transform the humanitarian industry into a more effective, scalable and agile sector. I have found that discussions on humanitarian innovation can sometimes tend towards conceptual, abstract and academic questions. This explains why I took a different approach vis-a-vis my contribution to the WHS Innovation Track.

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The handbook below provides practical collaboration guidelines for both humanitarian organizations & computing research institutes on how to catalyze humanitarian innovation through successful partnerships. These actionable guidelines are directly applicable now and draw on extensive interviews with leading humanitarian groups and CRI’s including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Global Pulse, Carnegie Melon University (CMU), International Business Machines (IBM), Microsoft Research, Data Science for Social Good Program at the University of Chicago and others.

This handbook, which is the first of its kind, also draws directly on years of experience and lessons learned from the Qatar Computing Research Institute’s (QCRI) active collaboration and unique partnerships with multiple international humanitarian organizations. The aim of this blog post is to actively solicit feedback on this first, complete working draft, which is available here as an open and editable Google Doc. So if you’re interested in sharing your insights, kindly insert your suggestions and questions by using the Insert/Comments feature. Please do not edit the text directly.

I need to submit the final version of this report on July 1, so very much welcome constructive feedback via the Google Doc before this deadline. Thank you!