Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?

Thanks for joining us for the second episode in the new “Crowd-Sorcerers Series.” If you missed the season premiere on “How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and Why It’s Easy,” you can read it here. For a quick synopsis of what this is all about, I’m responding to some initial “anti-crowdsourcing” remarks made by a frustrated humanitarian group in a recent email exchange. I’m referring to this group as Muggles after they christened the Crowdsourcing Community as “Crowd-Sorcerers.” The name calling is of course all in good fun.

Here’s more from the original email exchange:

Muggles: [Our] view is that the focus [on crowdsourcing] needs to be turned around. Don’t use crowdsourcing as technology to collect data, but as a means to distribute verified, accurate and reliable information that has been collected according to recognized/accepted standards.

Well, well, well. Isn’t this interesting? Writing that “crowdsourcing is a technology” reveals how out of touch Muggles are. Crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology. See my blog posts on “Demystifying Crowdsourcing” and “Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again.” Worse, to write that crowdsourcing should be used to disseminate information shows just how much confusion exists in the humanitarian space.

The importance of information dissemination has long been documented and has nothing to do with crowdsourcing! Perhaps the term they’re looking for is “crowdfeeding” but I coined this to highlight the need for technologies that promote information dissemination by the crowd for the crowd.

Confession: I shudder when reading language like “according to recognized/accepted standards.” Not because standards are not important, but just because I’m weary of the exclusive and at times elitist attitude that tends to come with this language. I get flashbacks from “Seeing Like a State.”

Perhaps an astute reader will have recognized that the title of this blog post (Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers”) is inspired from Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” I won’t try to summarize all of Clay’s many lucid observations here but I do highly recommend the book to Muggles (along with Seeing Like a State).

This type of tension between regulation and innovation has been playing out in several other sectors as well, including banking (vs. mobile banking) and perhaps most notably in journalism (vs. citizen journalism). But the tensions there have matured somewhat (at least relatively). In the latter case, people are increasingly recognizing the value of citizen journalism while better understanding its limits—so much so that large media companies have themselves started to leverage crowdsourcing for content in their programming.

The journalism community’s initial reaction against bloggers is not too dissimilar to the frustration expressed by Muggles who keep hoping that crowdsourcing will just go away if they pout and stamp their feet hard enough. (Reminds me of the way that some Muggles freaked out at the invention of the printing press and later the telephone).

Here’s the bad news folks, you’ve seen nothing yet. The Crowd-Sorcerers are just getting warmed up. The level of crowdsourcing we’ve seen to date is just the tip of the wand. Haiti was a first, just a first. User-generated content is not about to vanish any time soon. In fact, it will continue growing exponentially. The vast majority of content available on the web will soon be user-generated.

The good news? Muggles can take this as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and share their savoir-faire. What should Muggles not do? Let me share a real example from another sector: election monitoring. One of the world’s leading election monitoring groups actively discouraged local NGOs in a developing country from contributing any reports to an Ushahidi deployment that was run in-country by a local civil society network—lets call them the Gryffindors.

The Gryffindors discovered this interference when they spoke with other local NGOs. They want to partner with these NGOs for the next elections but these groups are now hesitant. So here we have a Western (i.e. external group) directly interfering by telling local NGOs they cannot participate in a local initiative to document their own elections in their own country. (Sound familiar to the LogBase example from Episode 1? Naturally). Who do the elections belong to? Citizens or foreigners?

Muggles have the opportunity to provide unique thought leadership here. Make Crowd-Sorcerers part of the solution, not the problem.

There’s more good news. Despite what some Muggles may think, crowdsourcing is not actually magic. It’s just a methodology like any other, with advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the day, you’re just collecting information and this information can also be triangulated and verified like any other type of information.

That’s the whole point behind Swift River, to provide a free and open source platform that can help validate large quantities of information in near real time. Is it the silver bullet that we’ve all been dreaming of? Of course not, this ain’t Hogwarts. What Swift River does, however, is make the triangulation of crowdsourced information far more efficient for Muggles than ever before. So to suggest that crowdsourced information is inherently unverifiable is rather shortsighted.

Was the technology community’s response to Haiti perfect? Not even close, hence the current M&E on the Ushahidi deployment and these blog posts that I wrote up earlier this year:

In fact, much of my own frustration during the emergency period stemmed from the reckless behavior of some in the technology community. In addition, some tech folks who mean well end up producing tech solutions that don’t solve anything and never get used. So as I’ve blogged about before, tech folks need to get up to speed and get their act together. Hacking away every other weekend is all fine and well as long as the tech produced is actually in line with the needs of the humanitarian and disaster affected communities.

But lets be clear that the humanitarian community’s response to Haiti was hardly stellar (c.f., John Holmes’s leaked email, etc.). No one’s perfect, of course, and that includes Crowd-Sorcerers. The volunteer community that mobilized around the Ushahidi platform had never done anything like this (because nothing like this had quite happened) before, they had no prior training nor did they have much (if any) humanitarian experience to speak of. I, for one, had never launched an Ushahidi platform before. So boy did we all learn a heck of a lot.

Haiti was a complete first as far as live crisis mapping and mobile crowdsourcing goes. Yet Muggles  blame Crowd-Sorcerers for not getting everything right on their first try. The importance of standards is repeatedly voiced by Muggles, as noted above. Well I call this a double-standard.

Stay tuned for Episode 3 in the new series: “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

16 responses to “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?

  1. Pingback: Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and How Easy It Is « iRevolution

  2. Get Up organisation in Australia uses tech that is disruptive. They have memebers all over Au and ask them to support initiatives. A recent one is a court case challenging the rather early cut off date for enrolling before the coming Federal election. A message was sent to members recently asking whether it was a good idea. You can donate online to legal costs using paypal etc.

    http://www.getup.org.au/

    There are over 300,000 members in Au.

    It is crowdsourcing of funds to a central action organisation who then crowdfeed us back with ideas which they can carry out if they get given enough funds. The web link has an amusing add for the election which we as members paid to broadcast on TV across Australia.

    I could see something like this on an international scale which would be very powerful and hopefully for the good. It would be interesting if a disaster like Haiti had its own Get Up.org that suggested how help could happen and then people from round the world donate directly to that.

    It would need a few well run disaster relief efforts to get trust going so people knew funds went directly to the front line.

    Just a thought anyhow.

    Brian

  3. Vickesh Kambaran

    Brilliant post Patrick. Solid references and I look forward to reading more.

  4. Really enjoying the discussion – but I think that both sides need to work together instead of being wary and mistrustful of each other. Both have something to give and some things they should leave behind/discard. Combined, the skills and experiences from both ‘sectors’ could offer a huge leap forward.

    Totally agree with the analogy of old/new media as applied to old/new humanitarian space. (I’ve written about this also). Tech is not going away, need to incorporate it and use the good thinking and innovations that are coming out. But need to do so in ways that do not repeat mistakes that aid/dev community have already made, use the knowledge already gained to make the whole effort that much stronger. How to throw out what’s ineffective yet keep what’s good to build on?

    There are actually a lot of people in the world of humanitarian aid and development who are very critical of aid/development and do want to re-vamp it, improve it, and would be open to doing so with the support of the innovations/tech community. It’s a question of finding them and figuring out how to approach each other with respect and learn to work around each others’ short comings and strengths.

    Your upcoming ego post perhaps will shed some light on that…. but let’s remember that egos are not the sole property of the humanitarian aid space… there are plenty of egos in the tech and innovations space to work around also. There are also plenty of people working quietly to change things on the ground, that many of us never even hear about.

  5. Of interest? http://www.fastcompany.com/1675552/google-gets-close-to-cia-with-investment-in-analytics-firm-recorded-future? Be nice if a consortium spearheading disaster relief info could get a slice of that kind of support.

  6. Pingback: On Crowdsourcing, with a big sigh at humanitarian.info

  7. Pingback: Blood and Milk » Blog Archive » Change Hurts

  8. Pingback: Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings « iRevolution

  9. Pingback: Social memory and ICT4D collaboration « Wait… What?

  10. The “recognized/accepted standards” you refer to are not exclusive or elitist – the Sphere standards for humanitarian response have been worked out over years among aid agencies as the bare minimum to provide humanitarian assistance.

    Aid agencies distributing food or building shelters don’t seek out individual instances of need but rather consult community leaders to identify larger areas of great need and then concentrate resources within a particular community. So as it’s currently configured, Ushahidi data would be too granular, and lacking sufficient time references to be useful. How can an aid worker know whether one crowd-sourced report represents a trend affecting a much larger community? How long is each report valid? Should each report expire after 48 hours, requiring the author to re-send if it is still valid?

    It may be that Ushahidi can be tweaked to provide information that’s more useful to the large aid agencies, but even then, to be useful, aid agencies would have to practice (in advance of a real emergency) new procedures to make meaningful sense of crowd-sourced data. I think it’s too much to expect the large-scale NGOs in the chaos that is Haiti to start to use crowd-sourced data. They need to go with what they know works. But if you’re willing to work with them in a training context, there may be room for mutual improvement in effective humanitarian action.

    • Hi Matt, many thanks for your detailed comments. I was not suggesting that the Sphere standards (which I know very well), are exclusive or elitist. Not sure how you drew that conclusion.

      On granularity of data vs aggregated data. Yes, that’s exactly (verbatim) what our humanitarian partners in Haiti communicated to us. That is why we are developing a number of apps to do trends analysis and hot-spots analysis based on user-specified threshold. It definitely isn’t rocket science.

      I also agree with you on your point regarding practice and preparedness. No one I know has been arguing against practice and preparedness. See the Ushahidi blog for a number of examples of Ushahidi being used in humanitarian simulations.

      I do like your suggestion of engaging specifically in a training context. We’re doing this with the Crisis Mapping Training Session next week, several colleagues from the UN and other organizations have signed up:

      http://www.crisismappers.net/page/crisis-mapping-training

      Thanks again for your comments.

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