Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Biggest Problem with “Crisis Maps”

I enjoy thinking about the different analogies one can use to describe crisis mapping. I’ve likened crisis mapping to the Nascza Lines here and to cymatics here, for example. In a recent interview with Reuters/Alertnet (published here), I used the following analogy:

“Crisis mapping is to the humanitarian space what x-rays are to emergency rooms.”

I wanted to find an analogy that would steer clear of technical jargon and capture the public’s imagination. I thought through several analogies before the interview. For example, I debated using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as analogy instead of x-rays since, well, it’s a more accurate comparison.

Why?

Have a look at the first minute of this rather amusing video, which first shows some x-ray pictures and then MRI scans.

MRI scans provide “quantitative, real-time, thermal images of the treated area” (1). All x-rays do is display static, albeit still useful, information. It’s a bit like comparing today’s high-speed digital video cameras with the cameras of bygone days that produced black and white photographs.

I thought about these analogies again this evening while walking home from MIT’s conference on data visualization. That’s when something very obvious dawned on me. The biggest problem with crisis maps is the word “maps”. The majority of the world’s population including myself associate maps with printed maps—no thanks to pirates.

Source: artfiles.art.com

Source: artfiles.art.com

The term “animated map” almost seems like an oxymoron, much like the word “airbus” must have come across when the company was founded 40 years ago. For you fellow Harry Potter fans, perhaps the best way to describe what I’m trying to convey is by referring to The Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper whose articles include moving pictures. Or perhaps the magical Marauder’s map which tracks the movement of students and teachers at Hogwarts in real-time.

Source: newlaunches.com

Source: newlaunches.com

Fictional protagonists aside, Albert Einstein was spot on when he wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

We know a lot about maps but if we were to play the word association game we’d likely come up with static descriptions rather than words associated with moving pictures. The time slider feature on Google Earth is perhaps starting to shift people’s conception of maps. Hans Rosling‘s work with Gapminder is also stirring our imagination since he talks about time series data much like a sports commentator describes a horse race (see his really neat TED talk here).

source: google earth

source: google earth

But we’re even more trapped by our archaic conception of maps than we realize. Playing the word association game with the word “map” may conjure Google Earth’s time slider for a few neogeographers, but I doubt that anyone would blurt out “3D!” for example. And yet, that’s what some of us crisis mappers are increasingly thinking about.

Google invited me to participate in a full-day workshop at their DC office last week and sure enough they told us to expect that all structures (e.g., buildings, mountains) on Google Earth would be rendered in 3D within about 2 years. The team is looking to integrate Mapmaker, My Maps, and Sketch-Up with Google Earth. And we already know they have a great flight simulator.

Source: gizmodo

Source: gizmodo

Now compare the above screenshot of Google Earth with a screenshot of Simcity 4 below. And then, of course, there’s also Second Life, and more recently live video integrated into Google Earth.

SimCity4

In the meantime, the most accurate 3D map of any city on Earth has just been created using very high resolution lasers—some 7 million individual points of light to be exact. You could call this the best MRI of a terrestrial city yet!

I’ve already blogged about crisis maps evolving into 3D virtual worlds with live data feeds and agent-based models for scenario development, simulation and forecasting:

  • 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training (link)
  • GeoTime: Visual Crisis Mapping in 3D (link)

All these systems are part of the evolving info webs I recently blogged about. But the italicized attributes above hardly come to mind when we hear the word map. And I think this is biggest problem with the term “crisis maps.” Perhaps we should come up with an entirely new term. But coming back to my interview with Reuters/Alertnet, a new more accurate term would simply add more technical jargon and definitely lose the public’s imagination (and mine with it).

So I’ve got an alternative “solution” … maybe. We keep the word map, or rather M.A.P.S. Yes, that’s right “Crisis MAPS.” All we need now is to be as creative as InSTEDD and find a way to fit this acronym with something sensible.

So how’s this?

Crisis MAPS = Crisis Movies and Platform Simulations

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Biggest Problem with “Crisis Maps”

I enjoy thinking about the different analogies one can use to describe crisis mapping. I’ve likened crisis mapping to the Nascza Lines here and to cymatics here, for example. In a recent interview with Reuters/Alertnet (published here), I used the following analogy:

“Crisis mapping is to the humanitarian space what x-rays are to emergency rooms.”

I wanted to find an analogy that would steer clear of technical jargon and capture the public’s imagination. I thought through several analogies before the interview. For example, I debated using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as analogy instead of x-rays since, well, it’s a more accurate comparison.

Why?

Have a look at the first minute of this rather amusing video, which first shows some x-ray pictures and then MRI scans.

MRI scans provide “quantitative, real-time, thermal images of the treated area” (1). All x-rays do is display static, albeit still useful, information. It’s a bit like comparing today’s high-speed digital video cameras with the cameras of bygone days that produced black and white photographs.

I thought about these analogies again this evening while walking home from MIT’s conference on data visualization. That’s when something very obvious dawned on me. The biggest problem with crisis maps is the word “maps”. The majority of the world’s population including myself associate maps with printed maps—no thanks to pirates.

The term “animated map” almost seems like an oxymoron, much like the word “airbus” must have come across when the company was founded 40 years ago. For you fellow Harry Potter fans, perhaps the best way to describe what I’m trying to convey is by referring to The Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper whose articles include moving pictures. Or perhaps the magical Marauder’s map which tracks the movement of students and teachers at Hogwarts in real-time.

Source: newlaunches.com

Source: newlaunches.com

Fictional protagonists aside, Albert Einstein was spot on when he wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

We know a lot about maps but if we were to play the word association game we’d likely come up with static descriptions rather than words associated with moving pictures. The time slider feature on Google Earth is perhaps starting to shift people’s conception of maps. Hans Rosling‘s work with Gapminder is also stirring our imagination since he talks about time series data much like a sports commentator describes a horse race (see his really neat TED talk here).

source: google earth

source: google earth

But we’re even more trapped by our archaic conception of maps than we realize. Playing the word association game with the word “map” may conjure Google Earth’s time slider for a few neogeographers, but I doubt that anyone would blurt out “3D!” for example. And yet, that’s what some of us crisis mappers are increasingly thinking about.

Google invited me to participate in a full-day workshop at their DC office last week and sure enough they told us to expect that all structures (e.g., buildings, mountains) on Google Earth would be rendered in 3D within about 2 years. The team is looking to integrate Mapmaker, My Maps, and Sketch-Up with Google Earth. And we already know they have a great flight simulator.

Source: gizmodo

Source: gizmodo

Now compare the above screenshot of Google Earth with a screenshot of Simcity 4 below. And then, of course, there’s also Second Life, and more recently live video integrated into Google Earth.

SimCity4

In the meantime, the most accurate 3D map of any city on Earth has just been created using very high resolution lasers—some 7 million individual points of light to be exact. You could call this the best MRI of a terrestrial city yet!

I’ve already blogged about crisis maps evolving into 3D virtual worlds with live data feeds and agent-based models for scenario development, simulation and forecasting:

  • 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training (link)
  • GeoTime: Visual Crisis Mapping in 3D (link)

All these systems are part of the evolving info webs I recently blogged about. But the italicized attributes above hardly come to mind when we hear the word map. And I think this is biggest problem with the term “crisis maps.” Perhaps we should come up with an entirely new term. But coming back to my interview with Reuters/Alertnet, a new more accurate term would simply add more technical jargon and definitely lose the public’s imagination (and mine with it).

So I’ve got an alternative “solution” … maybe. We keep the word map, or rather M.A.P.S. Yes, that’s right “Crisis MAPS.” All we need now is to be as creative as InSTEDD and find a way to fit this acronym with something sensible.

So how’s this?

Crisis MAPS = Crisis Movies and Platform Simulations

Patrick Philippe Meier

Behind the Scenes at the Crisis Mapping Conference

We are just five days away from launching the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) but the seeds for this unique event were planted 15 months ago, on Facebook of all places.

My colleague Jen Ziemke and I had reconnected via Facebook where I had linked my status updates to my Twitter feed. I tweeted about my blog posts and this led Jen to this blog, iRevolution, where I published posts of crisis mapping. A few weeks later, I get a message from Jen in my Facebook inbox. She liked what I was writing on crisis mapping and asked if I’d be interested in co-organizing a small workshop on crisis mapping. The rest is history.

The idea to organize a workshop on crisis mapping was brilliant.

I had just completed two years of applied research on crisis mapping at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). The next logical step was indeed to hold a workshop to formalize the field of crisis mapping. We therefore drew on the taxonomy of crisis mapping I developed to inform the workshop’s agenda.

We originally envisaged 20-30 participants and received funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the US Institute of Peace (USIP) to make this happen.

We soon had some 40 participants on our list, and then over 60 by the summer. This was no longer “workshop size” but an international conference in its own right. Humanitarian and human rights practitioners had signed on, as had leading scholars, software and technology developers, policy makers and major donors.

We chose to host ICCM 2009 at John Carroll University (JCU) in Cleveland,  which is where Jen is Professor of International Relations. Several factors contributed to this decision. First, the workshop idea was Jen’s to begin with (I just scaled it up); Second, we wanted to avoid the usual conference destinations and offer something different; and Third, JCU offered generous in-kind contributions and very kindly waived all overhead fees.

We plan to give participants a different kind of conference experience. Participating in MobileActive08 and particularly LIFT09 got me excited about conference design. Being a big fan of the TED and Pop!Tech conferences, I wanted to style them along those lines. This meant having Ignite Talks, a Tech Fair, Birds of a Feather Sessions and Open Roundtables. The key, I have learned, is to find the right balance between structured and unstructured time.

Humanity United (HU) saw the potential of ICCM 2009 and became the third official sponsor of the conference. This allowed us to expand the participant list to 80. Our collaboration with HU also gave us the opportunity to think post-ICCM 2009 in more detail.

Jen and I had talked strategy earlier in the year but this was with the assumption that the workshop would comprise 30 participants.

So we pondered this in early August and quickly realized that the incredible response to ICCM 2009 gave us a unique opportunity. Not only would the event be the first of it’s kind in the world in terms of focus, content and opportunities for collaboration and networking, but it would also serve to officially launch the field of crisis mapping in a very big way.

To be sure, with the majority of the world’s leading crisis mappers at the table, the conference presented an unprecedented opportunity to  define the future of the field.

As more high quality participants continued to sign up for the conference, we had to introduce registration fees to balance the budget which was already very tight. By mid-September, 100 conference participants had registered for ICCM 2009, a far cry from the original 30 we have envisaged. We were now starting to get overstretched in terms of space and facilities. And all throughout, it was just Jen and I trying to keep the ship on course.

We designed our strategy plan and rolled it out in September, adding a Twitter feed to ICCM 2009 which we have recently ramped up. We contacted several news organizations and have had some positive responses. We expect one or two articles in the mainstream media to reference the conference in the coming weeks.

Towards the end of September, we had little choice but to close off registration. This means a dozen late-arrivals were regrettably turned away. Neither Jen or I wanted to turn anyone away but we simply could not physically accommodate any more participants. One colleagues suggested that was a good problem to have.

So here we are, 5 days until show time. We’re busy with final preparations and excited to be welcoming some 100 participants to Cleveland (see this great NYT article on Cleveland). Participants from as far afield as New Zealand, Colombia and the Sudan are joining us for ICCM 2009. We look forward to kicking off the conference on Friday morning with the Ignite Talks.

The videos of the Ignite Talks will be uploaded to the ICCM website shortly after the conference. We look forward to a lot of user generated content via individual blogs and the conference blog as well as Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. around ICCM. The hashtag for the conference is #ICCM09.

I hope this blog post gave you a good glimpse of ICCM 2009 behind the scenes. And while we haven’t yet started the conference, early explorations for a possible ICCM 2010 are already taking place.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

I’ve already blogged about what an ecosystem approach to conflict early warning and response entails. But I have done so with a country focus rather than thinking globally. This blog post applies a global perspective to the ecosystem approach given the proliferation of new platforms with global scalability.

Perhaps the most apt analogy here is one of food webs where the food happens to be information. Organisms in a food web are grouped into primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers. Primary producers such as grass harvest an energy source such as sunlight that they turn into biomass. Herbivores are primary consumers of this biomass while carnivores are secondary consumers of herbivores. There is thus a clear relationship known as a food chain.

This is an excellent video visualizing food web dynamics produced by researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI):

Our information web (or Info Web) is also composed of multiple producers and consumers of information each interlinked by communication technology in increasingly connected ways. Indeed, primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers also crawl and dynamically populate the Info Web. But the shock of the information revolution is altering the food chains in our ecosystem. Primary consumers of information can now be primary producers, for example.

At the smallest unit of analysis, individuals are the most primary producers of information. The mainstream media, social media, natural language parsing tools, crowdsourcing platforms, etc, arguably comprise the primary consumers of that information. Secondary consumers are larger organisms such as the global Emergency Information Service (EIS) and the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS).

These newly forming platforms are at different stages of evolution. EIS and GIVAS are relatively embryonic while the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems (GDACS) and Google Earth are far more evolved. A relatively new organism in the Info Web is the UAV as exemplified by ITHACA. The BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is further along the information chain while Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping platform and the Swift River driver are more mature but have not yet deployed as a global instance.

InSTEDD’s GeoChat, Riff and Mesh4X solutions have already iterated through a number of generations. So have ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). There are of course additional organisms in this ecosystem, but the above list should suffice to demonstrate my point.

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts? Before we can answer this question in any reasonable way, we need to know the characteristics of each organism in the ecosystem. These organisms represent the threads that may be woven into the GSS, a global web of crisis mapping and early warning systems.

Global System of Systems

Emergency Information Service (EIS) is slated to be a unified communications solution linking citizens, journalists, governments and non-governmental organizations in a seamless flow of timely, accurate and credible information—even when local communication infrastructures are rendered inoperable. This feature will be made possible by utilizing SMS as the communications backbone of the system.

In the event of a crisis, the EIS team would sift, collate, make sense of and verify the myriad of streams of information generated by a large humanitarian intervention. The team would gather information from governments, local media, the military, UN agencies and local NGOs to develop reporting that will be tailored to the specific needs of the affected population and translated into local languages. EIS would work closely with local media to disseminate messages of critical, life saving information.

Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) is being designed to closely monitor vulnerabilities and accelerate communication between the time a global crisis hits and when information reaches decision makers through official channels. The system is mandated to provide the international community with early, real-time evidence of how a global crisis is affecting the lives of the poorest and to provide decision-makers with real time information to ensure that decisions take the needs of the most vulnerable into account.

BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is specifically designed for UN field-based agencies to improve real time situational awareness. The dynamic mapping platform enables humanitarians to easily and quickly map infrastructure relevant for humanitarian response such as airstrips, bridges, refugee camps, IDP camps, etc. The SensorWeb is also used to map events of interest such as cholera outbreaks. The platform leverages mobile technology as well as social networking features to encourage collaborative analytics.

Ushahidi integrates web, mobile and dynamic mapping technology to crowdsource crisis information. The platform uses FrontlineSMS and can be deployed quickly as a crisis unfolds. Users can visualize events of interest on a dynamic map that also includes an animation feature to visualize the reported data over time and space.

Swift River is under development but designed to validate crowdsourced information in real time by combining machine learning for predictive tagging with human crowdsourcing for filtering purposes. The purpsose of the platform is to create veracity scores to denote the probability of an event being true when reported across several media such as Twitter, Online news, SMS, Flickr, etc.

GeoChat and Mesh4X could serve as the nodes connecting the above platforms in dynamic ways. Riff could be made interoperable with Swift River.

Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate. This is one of the main reasons I am co-organizing the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) next week.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Is Crowdsourcing Really a Myth?

Dan Woods had an interesting piece in Forbes Magazine last month that labels crowdsourcing as a myth. As Dan puts it, the popular press and millions of people are deluded in thinking that “there is a crowd that solves problem better than individuals.”

Dan writes that…

  • The notion of crowds creating solutions appeals to our desire to believe that working together we can do anything, but in terms of innovation it is just ridiculous.
  • There is no crowd in crowdsourcing. There are only virtuosos, usually uniquely talented, highly trained people who have worked for decades in a field. [...] From their fervent brains spring new ideas. The crowd has nothing to do with it. The crowd solves nothing, creates nothing.
  • What really happens in crowdsourcing as it is practiced in wide variety of contexts, from Wikipedia to open source to scientific research, is that a problem is broadcast to a large number of people with varying forms of expertise. Then individuals motivated by obsession, competition, money or all three apply their individual talent to creating a solution.
  • What bugs me is that misplaced faith in the crowd is a blow to the image of the heroic inventor. We need to nurture and fund inventors and give them time to explore, play and fail. A false idea of the crowd reduces the motivation for this investment, with the supposition that companies can tap the minds of inventors on the cheap.
  • Whatever term we use, let’s not call it crowdsourcing and pretend that 10,000 average Joes invent better products than Steve Jobs.

Dan certainly makes some valid points. But when Wired journalist Jeff Howe coined the term in 2006, he did so to differentiate the process from “outsourcing”, from whence the term crowdsourcing originates. In his own words, crowdsourcing describes a process when tasks are opened to anyone as a way “to tap the talent of the crowd.”

I looked up the definition of the word talent and sure enough the term can be used to describe both a person and a group. Clearly Dan takes issue with the semantics of the term crowdsourcing since he sees this as misleading and unfair to those who do most of the innovative work.

In context of the Internet, the 1 % rule or the 90-9-1 principle reflects an observation that “more people will lurk in a virtual community than will participate. This term is often used as a euphemism for participation inequality in the context of the Internet.” What is often overlooked, however, is that this 1% figure is one percent of a growing number given the increasing access to the Web around the world. So the 1% figure does constitute a crowd; a self-selected crowd for sure, but a crowd nevertheless.

In terms of innovation, new ideas are not isolated islands of thought. Ideas tend to ricochet off different minds. Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum; there is always context.

Why have have innovation labs otherwise? Why cluster in Silicon Valley?

While I certainly respect individual talent and absolutely believe that individuals should get credit for their work, I feel that Dan’s article is bent on establishing ownership and safeguarding proprietary rights, i.e., control. This stands in contrast to the crowdsourcing approach which has individuals contribute without controlling.

Perhaps elitesourcing is the term that the author would prefer? But as James Surowiecki notes in his best seller, “The Wisdom of the Crowds“:

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.

Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them. Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart.

There is also confusion with respect to micro-motives and macro-behavior, or emergent behavior. Swarm intelligence also comes to mind. When we see a flock of birds seemingly “dancing” in the sky as if one entity, this is emergent behavior driven by local synchronization. Does this mean we value the individual birds any less? Of course not. When we say that “it takes a village to raise a child” do we devalue individual parents and family members? Surely not.

We credit the crowd because no one person lives in a vacuum and comes up with innovative ideas that are completely independent from their interaction with the outside world.

Patrick Philippe Meier