Welcome back, folks. Here is the third episode in our “Crowd-Sorcerers Series.” You can read the first episode on “How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and Why It’s Easy” right here. The second episode, which in a tongue-in-cheek way asks “Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?” is available here. Those episodes will highlight what this new “Crowd-Sorcerer Series” is all about.
Oh, but just before we go to episode 3, it seems someone following this series doesn’t appear to have the good sense to recognize the sarcasm and humorous tone in my posts and thereby missed the point entirely. I’m just using these silly analogies and metaphors to get some points across. I’m drawing a caricature, so to speak, as some of these points often get overlooked in aid/dev speak.
This is not personal at all, and I very much welcome an open conversation with all interested, i.e, the point of this series. A Muggles and Crowd-Sorcerer comparison is just for fun, it isn’t about classy/not-classy, it’s about getting a point or two across to more than just a narrow segment of the aid/dev industry. So again, like I wrote in my first blog post in the series, lets please not take ourselves too seriously, ok?
Muggles: Internet-based platforms may be generating good data within a certain segment of the IT community, such as Open Street Maps, and others like Ushahidi are providing an interesting alternative to real-time news channels, but this data is not getting to where it is needed in an operational sense – the guy/gal sitting in the tent with no Internet connection trying to plan a (name your Cluster/sector/need) survey.
The Ushahidi platform allows end-users to subscribe to alerts via SMS. And that core feature is not new to the Haiti deployment, it’s been there for a good while. Not only can users get automated SMS alerts with the Haiti deployment, but they can also define exactly the type of alerts they wish to receive by setting geographic parameters, tags and even keywords. Thanks to a new plugin for the Ushahidi platform, visual voicemail is also an option for the Ushahidi platform.
In addition, a group deploying the Ushahidi platform can respond to incoming text messages directly from the same interface, allowing for near real-time, two-way communication with the disaster affected communities. See this blog post to find out how that all works.
By the way, not all guys/gals will be sitting in a tent and/or have no Internet access. Also, not all data need to go to guys/gals in tents in the first place.
On Ushahidi being an alternative to real-time news channels, the vast majority of the information mapped on the Haiti platform during the 5 days (before the 4636 SMS short code) came from:
- Mainstream media (television, radio, online newspapers)
- The Haitian Diaspora
- Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr)
- Humanitarian sources (emails, situation reports, skype chats, phone calls)
One member of the Diaspora had this to say: “We are the country’s middle and upper class and Haitians living abroad. We do we monitor the Haiti radio, Facebook feeds and Twitter from all our contacts. Filter it and redistribute it [...]. We also have a few contacts on the ground in Haiti. All the information we post has been confirmed to the best of our ability.” (Thanks to Rob Munro of Mission 4636 for sharing this).
Muggles: The crucial link that is required, and that the [Humanitarian Information Management] community seems to be drifting farther and farther from as we are collectively distracted by shiny objects and/or the latest, greatest thing since sliced bread, is field-based NGOs equipped with proper information-sharing platform(s) that can be used even when there is no Internet connectivity or Washington-based (or London-based or Paris-based) IT, mapping and GIS skills and support available.
Mobile pones are not new and shiny. Nor is Google Maps. Integrating both is not new either, SMS/map integration has been around for half-a-decade. The fact that the humanitarian community faces a challenge in innovating and keeping up with technology is certainly a problem. Free and open source platforms wouldn’t be filling a technology-information void if a gap didn’t exist in the first place.
Crowd-Sorcerers want to help (the ones I know at least) and they realize full well that they’re new to this space and don’t have all the answers. They want (and actually) do partner with a number of humanitarian organizations on joint projects. But are the rest of the Muggles ready to join forces with sorcerers? Or will it take a disaster like Voldermort to make that happen? (Just in case someone missed the humorous tone here, that was a joke). Incidentally, I never mentioned the humanitarian organization (from the email thread) in my blog posts. So they are completely anonymous unless they choose otherwise.
Actually, the same Muggles that started the email exchange wrote a second email which was far, far more constructive and conducive to building bridges between Muggles and Crowd-Sorcerers than other humanitarians. I’m excited by the prospects and really appreciate the positive tone and interest they expressed in working together. I definitely look forward to working with them and learning more from them as we proceed forward in this space and collaboration.