Monthly Archives: November 2008

Links: Facebook, Palentir, People Power, MapMaker

  • People Power: Revolutions Colored Green: Think of popular protests, of the kind that make clever use of technology to mobilize support, flummox the authorities and disseminate facts and images. Campaigns have recently been applying the latest “people power” techniques to environmental activism. In time, eco-protest may lead to political change, but the focus is narrower.
  • 16th Century Map Maker’s Intriguing Knowledge: How was it that a German priest writing in Latin and living in a French city far from the coast became the first person to tell the world that a vast ocean lay to the west of the American continents?

InSTEDD’s Mesh4X Explained

I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with InSTEDD’s Robert Kirkpatrick on several occasions this year and always come away from our conversations having learned something new. Robert has recently been presenting InSTEDD’s new Mesh4X project. I confessed to him that I wasn’t entirely sure I fully grasped all the technical language he used to describe Mesh4X (which may serve as one answer to Paul Curion’s recent questions on The Innovation Fallacy).

Shortly after our recent CrisisMappers Meeting in Orlando, Robert kindly took the time to rework his description of Mesh4X for non techies. What follows is this description in Robert’s own words: “Having now heard the message a second time, I’m trying to clarify my description of Mesh4x for a lay audience. This version is more of a ‘product brochure’ in style, but I hope you find it useful in filling in any gaps.”

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InSTEDD Mesh4X

Problem:  cross-organizational data sharing shouldn’t be this hard.

A major obstacle to effective humanitarian action today is that while advances in information technology have made it possible for individual organizations to collect, organize, and analyze data as never before, sharing of data between organizations remains problematic.  Organizations choose to adopt different information systems and software applications for many good reasons, yet a consequence of this is that data ends up fragmented across multiple organizations’ servers, PCs, and networks and remains “trapped” in different databases and formats.

This fragmentation incurs a high opportunity cost, as each organization working on a problem ends up having to act based on a fraction of what is actually known collectively. When data is shared today, it typically involves staff manually exporting from a database,  emailing spreadsheets files, and them importing them manually on the receiving end – a cumbersome and error-prone process further complicated by situations where Internet access is slow, unreliable, or completely unavailable.

Solution: Mesh4X – critical data when you need it, where you need it.

  • Imagine if that spreadsheet on your desktop, filled with health surveys, supply requests, or project status reports, were seamlessly linked to databases, programs, map software, websites and PDAs of others you want to share with, so that whenever you add or update data, the changes end up  being reflected everyone else as well, and all of their changes would also show up in your spreadsheet automatically.
  • Imagine being able to see all of this collective information on a map – a map that updates itself whenever anyone makes a change  to shared data.
  • Now imagine being able to exchange data with others even when no Internet access is available.

InSTEDD Mesh4X is a technology designed to create seamless cross-organizational information sharing between different databases, desktop applications, websites, and devices. It allows you to create or join a shared “data mesh” that links together disparate software and servers and synchronizes data between them automatically. You choose the data you wish to share, others do the same, and now everyone’s data ends up everywhere it needs to be.

  • Using Mesh4X, changes to data in any one location in the mesh are automatically synchronized to every other location.
  • If you’re offline at the time, all of your data will synchronize the next time you connect to the network.
  • For cases where no Internet access is available at all, there is no longer any need for the slow transport of files physically between locations.  Mesh4X gives you the option to synchronize all data via a series of SMS text messages – just plug a compatible phone into your laptop, and Mesh4X does the rest.
Using Mesh4X, you’ll have access to more information, and sooner, when making critical decisions.  When you need to collaborate with multiple organizations toward a shared goal, everyone will have a more complete and up-to-date understanding of needs, resources, and who is doing what where.

_____________________________________________

Thanks again to Robert for pulling this version together. I’m now more assured that I did grasp the in’s and out’s of Mesh4X. My next question to Robert and the InSTEDD team is whether Mesh4X is at point where it’s “plug and play”? That is, as easy to download and set up as, say, a blog on wordpress? Will the setup process be facilitated by a Microsoft-like-wizard for easy guidance and implementation?

InSTEDD’s Mesh4X Explained

I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with InSTEDD’s Robert Kirkpatrick on several occasions this year and always come away from our conversations having learned something new. Robert has recently been presenting InSTEDD’s new Mesh4X project. I confessed to him that I wasn’t entirely sure I fully grasped all the technical language he used to describe Mesh4X (which may serve as one answer to Paul Curion’s recent questions on The Innovation Fallacy).

Shortly after our recent CrisisMappers Meeting in Orlando, Robert kindly took the time to rework his description of Mesh4X for non techies. What follows is this description in Robert’s own words: “Having now heard the message a second time, I’m trying to clarify my description of Mesh4x for a lay audience. This version is more of a ‘product brochure’ in style, but I hope you find it useful in filling in any gaps.”

_____________________________________________

InSTEDD Mesh4X

Problem:  cross-organizational data sharing shouldn’t be this hard.

A major obstacle to effective humanitarian action today is that while advances in information technology have made it possible for individual organizations to collect, organize, and analyze data as never before, sharing of data between organizations remains problematic.  Organizations choose to adopt different information systems and software applications for many good reasons, yet a consequence of this is that data ends up fragmented across multiple organizations’ servers, PCs, and networks and remains “trapped” in different databases and formats.

This fragmentation incurs a high opportunity cost, as each organization working on a problem ends up having to act based on a fraction of what is actually known collectively. When data is shared today, it typically involves staff manually exporting from a database,  emailing spreadsheets files, and them importing them manually on the receiving end – a cumbersome and error-prone process further complicated by situations where Internet access is slow, unreliable, or completely unavailable.

Solution: Mesh4X – critical data when you need it, where you need it.

  • Imagine if that spreadsheet on your desktop, filled with health surveys, supply requests, or project status reports, were seamlessly linked to databases, programs, map software, websites and PDAs of others you want to share with, so that whenever you add or update data, the changes end up  being reflected everyone else as well, and all of their changes would also show up in your spreadsheet automatically.
  • Imagine being able to see all of this collective information on a map – a map that updates itself whenever anyone makes a change  to shared data.
  • Now imagine being able to exchange data with others even when no Internet access is available.

InSTEDD Mesh4X is a technology designed to create seamless cross-organizational information sharing between different databases, desktop applications, websites, and devices. It allows you to create or join a shared “data mesh” that links together disparate software and servers and synchronizes data between them automatically. You choose the data you wish to share, others do the same, and now everyone’s data ends up everywhere it needs to be.

  • Using Mesh4X, changes to data in any one location in the mesh are automatically synchronized to every other location.
  • If you’re offline at the time, all of your data will synchronize the next time you connect to the network.
  • For cases where no Internet access is available at all, there is no longer any need for the slow transport of files physically between locations.  Mesh4X gives you the option to synchronize all data via a series of SMS text messages – just plug a compatible phone into your laptop, and Mesh4X does the rest.
Using Mesh4X, you’ll have access to more information, and sooner, when making critical decisions.  When you need to collaborate with multiple organizations toward a shared goal, everyone will have a more complete and up-to-date understanding of needs, resources, and who is doing what where.

_____________________________________________

Thanks again to Robert for pulling this version together. I’m now more assured that I did grasp the in’s and out’s of Mesh4X. My next question to Robert and the InSTEDD team is whether Mesh4X is at point where it’s “plug and play”? That is, as easy to download and set up as, say, a blog on wordpress? Will the setup process be facilitated by a Microsoft-like-wizard for easy guidance and implementation?

Links: Satellite Maps, Scientific Data, Digital Tracing

  • Satellites Predict Cholera: Science Daily just ran a piece on a new technique using satellites to predict and map cholera outbreaks.
  • Visualizing Scientific Data: The annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco will include a session on Visualizing Scientific Data Using KML and Virtual Globes.
  • Digital Images Contain Maker’s Mark: If you thought your digital photos could not be traced back to you, think again. Digital cameras leave a telltale fingerprint buried in the pixels of every image they capture.

Crisis Mappers Meeting

Our first CrisisMappers meeting took place in Orlando, Florida this past weekend. The meeting brought together a small group of tech professionals who are at the very cutting edge of crisis mapping. It truly was a powerhouse. Ushahidi, Development Seed, NiJEL, Emergencity, GeoCommons, InSTEDD, In.itiative and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). This meeting was mostly self-funded and scheduled on a Saturday. The fact that everyone showed up is a clear testament to the commitment we all have to pushing the new field of crisis mapping forward to the next frontier.

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Andrew Turner gave a typical tour de force presentation on some of the most exciting tech-innovations in mapping. I highly recommend viewing his slide show presentations available on Slideshare here. I gave the second introductory talk and chose to highlight two major themes in the future of crisis mapping: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA).

The former focuses on our understanding of dynamic mapping platforms as communication tools. In other words, all our communication tools should be fully integrated within our dynamic mapping platforms. Imagine a Google Map interface from which I can receive geo-referenced text messages and forward those messages by SMS broadcast or email right back to the field, without ever having to navigate away from the map. InSTEDD’s GeoChat is a good example of what I have in mind.

Understanding mapping platforms as communication tools poses two challenges common to communication in crisis zones. The first is connectivity while the second is data security. In terms of connectivity, we urgently need to move towards meshed-networked peer-to-peer communication that obviates the need for cell phone towers. As for encryption, SMS encryption should be the default setting on all our communications. Anything less is simply unsatisfactory.

I’ve written about Crisis Mapping Analytics before, so won’t go into detail here. I just want to point out that as our crisis mapping platforms continue to crowdsource data, we will need to make sense of this information in terms of trends over both space and time. We are still far from having any user friendly  point-and-click statistical tools for identifying such trends.

Since I was the only token humanitarian-wanna-be-geek at the meeting, I closed my introductory talk with the following three reminders: (1) if our crisis mapping tools work in humanitarian crises, they’ll work anywhere; (2) we need to identify methods and metrics to evaluate the impact of our crisis mapping platforms; (3) if you don’t keep your crisis mappers as simple as Fisher Price, they are unlikely to be adopted by the humanitarian community; call it the Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping.

Let me expand on the latter point. What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. Most of my humanitarian colleagues have done a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Affairs, International Development, etc. I guarantee you that 99.9% of these graduate programs do not include any seminar on humanitarian information management systems let alone computer science.

The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces. What we in the humanitarian field want are interfaces as simple as computer games. We want software packages that are simply plug-and-play. Say an iGoogle approach which allows us humanitarians to import various “widgets” such as 2-way SMS broadcasting, wiki-mapping, etc.

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The rest of the CrisisMappers meeting was dedicated to a series of thought-provoking presentations on individual crisis mapping projects that each organization is working on. I shan’t attempt a summary here but shall close with the following. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Ushahidi’s David Kobia during the meeting. At one point, he turns to me and motions to his laptop screen: “Look, just got a text message from someone in the DRC.”

David was pointing to Ushahidi’s admin interface, and indeed, someone on the ground had gotten wind of Ushahidi’s new deployment and had texted the dedicated Ushahidi DRC number. The texter was expressing her/his concern that the DRC site was in English which posed problems for French speakers. The text message itself was in French. The Ushahidi team has been working diligently on a French version of the interface and are nearly finished. David asked me if I might be able to reply (in French) to the person and let them know that the completed interface will be ready next week. I did so, and pointed the texter to the “French Flag” icon on the Ushahidi DRC interface.

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Here’s what I find particularly neat about this exchange. First, here we were sitting in a conference room in Florida on a Saturday afternoon getting a text message from someone in the DRC interested in reporting events using Ushahidi’s DRC platform. Second, the admin interface that David had up set up was simple and clear to understand. Third, David had included two optional buttons to send one-click replies to the text messages he receives: (1) please send us more information on the event; (2) please send us more information on the location event. Simple yet elegant. After I finished typing my reply to the sender of the text message, I clicked on send and off went my message, right back to the field. All this took place in less than five minutes.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Incident Map

A colleague of mine recently flagged this automated, quasi real-time crisis map: Global Incident Map. The map displays the latest 25 terror-related incidents using customized icons. These include markers for suspicious devices, bus hijackings, airport incidents, etc. Clicking on the icon provides a link to local news report(s) concerning the event. The service is subscription based so I wasn’t able to tinker around as much as I would have liked.

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Compare this with other automated crisis maps such as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), Havaria and HealthMap.

Patrick Philippe Meier

CrisisWire Goes Live

CrisisWire is a “self-aggregating website that pulls information on any disaster around the US and displays it on one page.” The project seeks to get information into the hands of the people that need it most.

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From Nate Ritter:

During a disaster people spend valuable time searching the internet and waiting for the media to report on their city, their neighborhood, their street.  While main stream media serves a vital role during disasters, it is impossible to update the population on everything that is happening during a crisis.  There usually isn’t enough time or resources.  CrisisWire not only uses the traditional media outlets’ valuable information but will also utilize citizen journalist and google maps to track the disaster. YouTube.com (videos), Flickr.com (photos) and a whole host of other types of published media will also soon be integrated.

Future iterations of CrisisWire will include text messages to reach disaster-affected communities who have lost their electricity, Internet access, or who have been displaced from their home. The developers of CrisisWire hope that the platform will “change the way people respond and learn about disasters.” The team  just set up a page on the fires in Santa Barabara, which will be a good “on-site” test for CrisisWire. At the moment, only one contributor appears to be populating the dynamic map.

As always, my interest in such platforms (including Ushahidi, Humanitarian SensorWeb, etc)., is their:

  1. Viability in conflict zones and places with minimal communications infrastructure;
  2. Link to local, decentralized early response;
  3. Actual impact on the ground.

Patrick Philippe Meier