Monthly Archives: September 2010

Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force: Apply Now!

Please click here to apply to the Crisis Mappers Volunteer Task Force.


The disaster response to Haiti was unprecedented in terms of volunteer buy-in and contribution. It was also reactive. The hundreds of volunteers who rallied to the cause were certainly able and committed but one of the main challenges during the first few weeks was the need to train and maintain this informal network. The humanitarian community openly recognizes the important role that volunteer networks can play in crisis response. What they need now are guarantees that a trained and professionalized volunteer force can be on standby and activated within hours. The good news? Many of the volunteers I interacted with during the response to Haiti, Chile and now Pakistan are eager to join a professionalized volunteer standby team.

So what exactly are we waiting for? I posed this question to my colleagues George Chamales and Rob Munro in San Francisco yesterday. Indeed, there’s no reason to wait. We can get started now so we can take this initiative to the upcoming International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) and get feedback from participants. The challenge, as mentioned in my previous blog post on Disaster Relief 2.0, is to find a way to interface an informal distributed network of volunteers with a highly organized and structured organization like UN OCHA. Three types of reliable networks are needed for this interface: (1) Tech Team; (2) Task Team; and (3) Crowd Force Team.

On the technical side, what colleagues and I have found to be particularly important is to have a group of software developers who are already highly experienced in deploying platforms like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc. This is not about building new tools from scratch. The point here is to rapidly customize existing tools that have already seen action. On the Ushahidi side, there are more and more seasoned Ushahidi developers. These individuals are the ones who made the deployments in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan possible. This network of core technical and reliable volunteers doesn’t need to be large and it already exists.

What this group needs, however, is a support team that can take specific technical tasks given to them for implementation, e.g., fixing an important bug, etc. That way, the core team can focus on rapidly developing customized Ushahidi plugin’s and so on. We need to create a roster of standby software dev’s who are already qualified and ready to support the core team. This group largely exists already, but we need to formalize, professionalize and publicize this information on a dedicated site and turn them into a standby force.

The second type of standby group needed is the Task Team. These are individuals who are not software developers but savvy in media monitoring, geo-referencing, mapping, blogging on updates, etc. These individuals already exist, they played an invaluable role in contributing their time and skills to the responses in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan. Again, it’s just a matter of formalizing, professionalizing and publicizing the information, i.e., to render visible the capacity and assets that already exists, and to have them on standby.

This core task-based team also needs a strong support team for back-up, especially during the first few days of an emergency. This is where the Crowd Force Team comes in. This important team doesn’t need prior-training; only Internet access, browsing experience, an interest in online maps, news, etc. Perhaps most importantly, members of the Crowd Force Team are known for their energy, commitment, team-player attitude and can-do mentality.

We want to formalize this Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force in a professional manner. This means that individuals who want to be part of Tech, Task or Crowd Force Team need to apply. We will first focus on the Ushahidi platform. In the case of the Tech and Task team, interested applicants need to clearly demonstrate that they have the experience necessary to be part of the Standby Task Force. I would actually want to include representatives from the humanitarian community to participate in vetting the candidates who apply. Individuals who want to join the Crowd Force Team will also need to apply so we can keep a roster of the people power available along with their skill set.

There’s no reason we can’t do this. If we learned anything from Haiti, it’s that Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) don’t need to be physically present to contribute to disaster response thanks to online social networking tools and open source platforms like Ushahidi, etc. They can be part of the online community. We need CERTs 2.0 and just like traditional response teams, they should be trained and ready.

My experienced colleagues George Chamales and Anahi Ayala will lead the Technical and Task Teams respectively. Anahi will also coordinate the Crowd Force Team. They will help select the applicants, set up the appropriate communication channels and keep a calendar of which members of their teams are available for rapid response on a daily basis. Jaroslav Valuch and I will support George and Anahi in their efforts.

Please click here to apply to the Crisis Mappers Volunteer Task Force. Once we have developed a robust model for interfacing with the humanitarian community using the Ushahidi platform, we hope to work with other colleagues from FrontlineSMS, Sahana, etc., so that their qualified volunteers can be part of this dedicated Task Force.

Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing

Before emergency telephone numbers existed, one would simply pick up the receiver and say “get me the police” when the operator answered. In fact, operators became the first point of contact for emergency dispatch. They would keep lists of specific numbers in their local towns (local fire department, local doctor, etc) to provide a very personalized emergency service and fast track response.

London was the first city to deploy an emergency number system. The number 999 was launched on June 30, 1937. When called, “a buzzer sounded and a red light flashed in the exchange to attract an operator’s attention” (1). The first number to be used in North America was the 911 system deployed in Winnipeg, Canada in 1959. The first US system, also using the 911 number, was launched in Alabama and Alaska in 1968. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that 911 was adopted as the standard number across most of the country.

Today, about 240 million 911 calls are made in the US each year, 30%-50% of which are placed using wireless services, and this number is increasing steadily.

When discussing the use of crowdsourcing to collect crisis information in humanitarian disasters, one of the overriding concerns is: “But what if the information is false? How can we trust that the information reported is true?” We forget that national emergency telephone systems have faced the same challenge for half-a-century. Indeed, 911 is a 50 year-old crowdsourcing system! So our colleagues in law enforcement may have learned a few things during this time, which could inform our work in the humanitarian field.

Incidentally, this may be a silly question but why in the world did governments set up  emergency phone numbers if the information collected using this crowdsourced approach is not immediately verifiable? Have the police gone nuts? What were/are they thinking? Were police crowdsourcing reports before telephone lines sprung up across the country? Maybe one had to run, bike or drive to the police station. Or if you were lucky, perhaps you’d have a police officer strolling the streets at just the right time.

So why not keep that good old analog system then? Well, lets face it, do we really want to leg it to the station every time something’s strange in the neighborhood?  No, we want to be able to call…

Can we assume that we’ll always be mobile during an emergency? Do we want to leave it up to chance that a fire truck might be patrolling the streets when the house next door house goes up in flames? Probably not.

In fact, the world’s oldest emergency (crowdsourcing!) call service—the UK’s 999—was introduced over 70 years ago after a London fire on November 10, 1935 killed 5 women. A neighbor had tried to phone the fire brigade but was held up in a queue by the telephone exchange. Neighbor Norman was so outraged that he wrote a letter to the editor of The Times:

A public outcry resulted (which could have been crowdsourced and mapped on an Ushahidi platform as a complaints mechanism):

This prompted a government inquiry. And thus was born the largest crowdsourcing system of the day. Rather ironic that it was ultimately user generated content that created today’s national emergency phone services. Wouldn’t it be great to get a UN inquiry along those same lines that established a crowdsourcing system for humanitarian crises? Sounds crazy, I know, but hey, 999 probably sounded a little nuts back in 1937 as well. And yet, they decided to test the idea in London, then extended trials in Glasgow and within 10 years the entire country was covered. I don’t see why a similar iterative approach couldn’t work in disaster response.

But what challenges does an emergency phone system face? The misuse and abuse of 911 can be divided into 2 categories: unintentional and intentional calls (2). The former includes phantom calls, misdials and hang-up calls. Lets focus on the latter issue, which be divided into the following categories: Non-emergency Calls, Prank Calls, Exaggerated Calls and Lonely Complainant Calls.

  • Non-emergency Calls: reports suggest that non-emergency calls account for a large percentage of 911 calls. For example, callers will phone in to report their car radio getting stolen, or ask for the results of a football game, the time of day, etc. 911 operators even get callers who ask them to transfer their calls to another number since calling 911 is free.
  • Prank Calls: most agencies apparently do not keep figures on total number of prank calls but these generally come from children and teenagers. Diversionary calls represent a sub-category of prank calls. Callers will dial 911 to send the police to a location where not emergency has occurred, sometimes to divert attention away from criminal activity committed by the caller. “There are only a few ways to determine if a call is diversionary: if the caller admits it; if someone informs on the caller; or if the dispatcher or police compare the caller’s location with that of the alleged emergency, to determine if the caller could plausibly claim an emergency at the called in location” (4).
  • Exaggerated Emergency Calls: callers will sometime intentionally exaggerate the seriousness of an emergency expecting that the police will respond faster. It is reportedly unclear how extensive this problem is.
  • Lonely Complainant Calls: other callers will repeatedly report an emergency over a series of month or years but the police never find evidence of there being one. These calls are often made by the elderly and those with mental health problems.

As these news articles here & here show, false reports to 911 can claim lives. Does this mean that law enforcement is considering pulling the plug on the 911 system? Of course not. So how does law enforcement deal with all this? Lets stick to prank and diversionary calls since this comes closest to the most pressing concerns we face in the humanitarian context. (Note the other issues listed above are typically addressed by educating the public).

Law enforcement’s response to prank calls involves targeting violators and applying graduated sanctions, such as fines or jail time. In Ohio, a public service announcement made clear to users that “we know where you are” when you call 911. Prank calls reportedly dropped as a result (5). Police can also take action by targeting specific phones that are used for prank calls. In another example, a hotel in Vegas routed all 911 calls to hotel security for triage after a large number of false 911 reports were made to the fire department.

Could we do something similar within a humanitarian operation? There’s already precedent to prosecute hate-based SMS, as happened in Kenya. We could work with telcos in question to send out a mass SMS broadcast to all subscribers letting them know they can be prosecuted for deliberately reporting false information.

That’s not a silver bullet, of course, but it seems to help national emergency phone systems. We could also draw on natural language processing (NLP) technologies like Swift River to create veracity ratings for crowdsourced reports. Of course, when confronted with a major disaster, everyone may be calling 911 at the same time, thus overwhelming capacity to respond.

In terms of this operational response, one partial answer may be revitalizing Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs). Another partial answer may be the idea of crowdfeeding, or crowdsourcing response as I blogged about here based on a recent presentation I gave at Red Cross Conference in DC. During that same conference, the Red Cross revealed the results of a study on the role of social media in emergencies, which showed that more than 70% of those surveyed expect a response within an hour after posting a request on an social media platform. Now, there are too few disaster response professionals to assign to every street to meet those expectations (not to mention the cost implications). So they can’t always be there, but the crowd, by definition, is always there.

In the case of national phone emergency systems, there are usually laws that require the police to respond (not that they always do). This may be difficult to work out in the context of humanitarian response. So let me share an anecdote from the Ushahidi-Haiti Project. One of our overriding concerns after launching the 4636 short code with colleagues was raising expectations among those texting that someone would respond to these SMS’s. Three points:

1) Colleagues and I spent hours on Haitian Diaspora radio and television answering questions from listeners and viewers about the purpose of 4636. We made it very clear that the service was simply an information service and that we couldn’t guarantee any kind of response. We also explained that some responders like the US Coast Guard and Marine Corps were prioritizing life and death situations and therefore were not responding to every text message. This helped callers understand the purpose and limits of the service.

2) As a result of these concerns regarding expectations, my colleague Jaroslav Valuch and I recommended that adjust their public messaging campaign by asking people to report their observations instead of their needs. One could also invite people to text in their complaints, thus crowdsourcing perceptions (real or otherwise) of frustration and discontent which could provide humanitarians with important situational awareness. But this too may raise expectations of response. So sticking with simple reports based on observations is sometimes more prudent.

3) As studies from Aceh (the 2004 tsunami) and Pakistan (the 2005 earthquake) showed, it is important to communicate with disaster affected communities, even if the message is that help is not yet on the way. See Imogen Hall’s research and the CDAC consortium, for example.

I’m using the 911 emergency system as an analogy and don’t pretend that the model can be automatically applied to the humanitarian context. But these phone-based emergency crowdsourcing systems have been around for half-a-century and it would be naive to discount any of the lessons learned and best practices that this wealth of experience has produced across such a large scale.

Analyzing the Veracity of Tweets during a Major Crisis

A research team at Yahoo recently completed an empirical study (PDF) on the behavior of Twitter users after the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile. The study was based on 4,727,524 indexed tweets, about 20% of which were replies to other tweets. What is particularly interesting about this study is that the team also analyzed the spread of false rumors and confirmed news that were disseminated on Twitter.

The authors “manually selected some relevant cases of valid news items, which were confirmed at some point by reliable sources.” In addition, they “manually selected important cases of baseless rumors which emerged during the crisis (confirmed to be false at some point).” Their goal was to determine whether users interacted differently when faced with valid news vs false rumors.

The study shows that about 95% of tweets related to confirmed reports validated that information. In contrast only 0.03% of tweets denied the validity of these true cases. Interestingly, the results also show  that “the number of tweets that deny information becomes much larger when the information corresponds to a false rumor.” In fact, about 50% of tweets will deny the validity of false reports. The table below lists the full results.

The authors conclude that “the propagation of tweets that correspond to rumors differs from tweets that spread news because rumors tend to be questioned more than news by the Twitter community. Notice that this fact suggests that the Twitter community works like a collaborative filter of information. This result suggests also a very promising research line: it could posible to detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.”

I think these findings are particularly important for projects like *Swift River, which try to validate crowdsourced crisis information in real-time. I would also be interested to see a similar study on tweets around the Haitian earthquake to explore whether this “collaborative filter” dynamic is an emergent phenomena in this complex systems or simply an artifact of something else.

Interested in learning more about “information forensics”? See this link and the articles below:

Disaster Relief 2.0: Towards a Multipolar System?

My colleague Adele Waugaman from the UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnerships has kindly invited some colleagues and I to participate on the following panel at the Mashable Social Good Summit:

Disaster relief 2.0: collaborative technologies & the future of aid
In humanitarian crises, information-sharing and coordination among relief agencies is essential. But what about communications between aid groups and individuals? From Haiti to Pakistan, collaborative technologies are enabling survivors and concerned citizens alike to become important sources of information. Join innovation experts to discuss how new citizen-centered technologies are shaping the future of disaster relief.

I expect that the panel will set the stage and tone for the upcoming 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) in Boston in two weeks time. What follows then is a quick recap of where we are in the field of disaster 2.0 and where we might be headed. The recap is based on conversations with colleagues at OCHA and the Crisis Mappers Network, particularly with Oliver Hall and Nigel Snoad.

What Happened

I think it’s fair to say that the disaster response to Haiti was a departure from the past in more ways than one. The Crisis Mappers Network while relatively new played an impressive role in catalyzing rapid collaboration and open information sharing as detailed in this empirical study. In addition, the response to Haiti saw widespread and global volunteer involvement from the Haitian Diaspora and university students: more than 2,000 volunteers based in some 40 countries used their cognitive surplus to try and help those affected by the earthquake thousands of miles away. Ushahidi-Haiti and Mission4636 are both examples of volunteer based projects.

Craig Fugate is the head of FEMA

My friend and colleague Chris Blow described the change best in his phenomenal presentation on Crisis Mapping and Interaction Design. The following slides depict what we are all experiencing–the shift to a multipolar system:

In sum, the rise in informal volunteer networks is shifting the disaster response system towards a more multipolar one, not only in terms of actors but also in terms of the new technologies they employ.

Where To From Here

What does this mean for the future of disaster relief? I think this remains to be seen. The new “world order” brings new possibilities and new consequences. The shift will require both formal and informal actors to adapt and interface in different ways. If the analogy to international relations (unipolar vs multipolar world orders) is apt, then this suggests that new “institutions” are perhaps needed to manage the new constellation of actors.

The launch of the Crisis Mappers Network is a direct response to this transition. The network comprises some 900 members from both state and non-state, formal and informal actors including all the major humanitarian organizations and technology groups in the world. The newly established group Communications with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) is an important member. The purpose of the Crisis Mappers Network is to catalyze information sharing, collaboration, partnerships and joint learning in this rapidly changing space—hence the Crisis Mapping Conference series, Annual Meeting of the Crisis Mappers Group, Crisis Mapping Trainings, monthly webinars, blog posts, online discussions and the dedicated Crisis Mappers Google Group.

I believe the Crisis Mappers Group provides an ideal forum to help shape the new conversations, policies and applied research necessary to improve disaster relief 2.0. We need to consider new coordination and cooperation frameworks that connect formal actors with informal networks. As a community, we also need to catalyze joint learning so that informal actors deploying new technologies can learn from more experienced actors who have established best practices in disaster response.

Our Questions

The world of disaster relief 2.0 also brings new possibilities to render humanitarian response more effective and accountable. How can formal actors and informal networks collaborate to foster and implement innovations in humanitarian technology? How do we evaluate this collaboration and the impact of individual crisis mapping initiatives? Information sharing and interoperability are two additional challenges that need to be tackled by the Crisis Mapping Community. This inevitably means that some basic data standards need to be defined—or have existing ones communicated in an accessible manner to volunteer and informal networks.

Some of the most pressing questions in this new “world order” have to do with replicability and sustainability—not to mention leadership—of new crisis mapping initiatives. The challenge of future replicability (and hence reliability) is an issue that colleagues at OCHA communicated to me just weeks after Haiti; rightly so since Ushahidi-Haiti and Mission4636 were both self-organized volunteer driven efforts. I do believe there is room to professionalize some volunteer groups, hence the launch of Universities for Ushahidi (U4U) next month. It is also worth noting that Ushahidi-Chile deployed even more rapidly than Ushahidi-Haiti, even though the former was also purely volunteer driven. The same is true of the Ushahidi-Pakistan deployment called PakReport.

Sustainability in my opinion is less of a challenge if these volunteer groups are well organized and linked to local communities. In the case of Ushahidi-Haiti, for example, the project was successfully transitioned to, a local software company in Port-au-Prince. But the question of leadership—or governance—is one that has not been sufficiently addressed. An accessible code of conduct is needed to guide informal actors who wish to volunteer their time in aid of disaster response projects. Not all volunteers will add value. Some may actually be disruptive if not destructive. How should state-actors and informal networks manage such situations? This code of conduct should also focus on establishing standards for local ownership, data privacy and data security.

In Sum…

The level of information sharing, collaboration and volunteer involvement in the disaster response to Haiti was unprecedented. This also means it was completely reactive, which is why the disaster relief 2.0 panel and Crisis Mapping Conference are important. They give us the opportunity to begin aligning expectations and catalyze new, responsible partnerships between established actors and informal networks so they can be more deliberate and less reactive in future responses.

In sum, while the transition to a multipolar system may initially bring some disruption, we can all choose to collaborate, iterate and learn quickly to become a more adaptive, transparent and effective community.

Swarming Crisis Response

[Cross-posted from my Conflict Early Warning Blog]

John Arquilla had a very interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times this weekend on “The Coming Swarm.” I’ve been interested in John’s work for years given his application of complexity science to the study of terrorism and would have assigned this Op-Ed as required reading for the graduate course I co-taught on “Complexity Science and International Relations.”

John writes about the recent simultaneous suicide attacks in Kabul last week and argues that a new ‘Mumbai model’ of swarming, smaller-scale terrorist violence is emerging:

The basic concept is that hitting several targets at once, even with just a few fighters at each site, can cause fits for elite counterterrorist forces that are often manpower-heavy, far away and organized to deal with only one crisis at a time.

[...] This pattern suggests that Americans should brace for a coming swarm. Right now, most of our cities would be as hard-pressed as Mumbai was to deal with several simultaneous attacks. Our elite federal and military counterterrorist units would most likely find their responses slowed, to varying degrees, by distance and the need to clarify jurisdiction.

Current strategy for counterterrorism contemplates having to respond using “overwhelming force” to as many as three simultaneous terrorist attacks. This would imply mobilizing as many as 3,000 ground troops to each site.

If that’s an accurate picture, it doesn’t bode well. We would most likely have far too few such elite units for dealing with a large number of small terrorist teams carrying out simultaneous attacks across a region or even a single city.

“So how are swarms to be countered?” John asks. In his opinion,

The simplest way is to create many more units able to respond to simultaneous, small-scale attacks and spread them around the country. This means jettisoning the idea of overwhelming force in favor of small units that are not “elite” but rather “good enough” to tangle with terrorist teams. In dealing with swarms, economizing on force is essential.

For the defense of American cities against terrorist swarms, the key would be to use local police officers as the first line of defense instead of relying on the military. The first step would be to create lots of small counterterrorism posts throughout urban areas instead of keeping police officers in large, centralized precinct houses. This is consistent with existing notions of community-based policing [...]

At the federal level, we should stop thinking in terms of moving thousands of troops across the country and instead distribute small response units far more widely.

I think John’s recommendations are very important and directly applicable to the field of operational crisis early warning and rapid response, particularly on the response side.  This means taking more of a people-centered or community-based approach to early response and shifting away from the top-down mentality of “The Responsibility to Protect” to one of “The Responsibility to Empower” from the bottom-up.

The Future of Digital Activism and How to Stop It

I’ve been following a “debate” on a technology list serve which represents the absolute worse of the discourse on digital activism. Even writing the word debate in quotes is too generous. It was like watching Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck go all out on Fox News.

The arguments were mostly one-sided and mixed with insults to create public ridicule. It was blatantly obvious that those doing the verbal lynching were driven by other motives. They have a history of being aggressive and seeking provocation in public because it gets them attention, which further bloats their egos. They thrive on it. The irony? Neither of them have much of a track record to speak of in the field of digital activism. All they seem to do is talk about tech in the context of insulting others who get engaged operationally and try to make a difference. Constructive criticism is important, but this hardly qualifies. This is a shame as these individuals are otherwise quite sharp.

So how do we prevent a Fox-styled future of Digital Activism? First, ignore these poisonous debates. If people were serious about digital activism, the discourse would take on a very different tone, a professional one. Second, don’t be fooled, most of the conversations on digital activism are mixed with anecdotes, selection bias and hype, often to get media attention. You’ll find that most involved in the “study” of digital activism have no idea about methodology and research design. Third, help make data-driven, mixed-methods research on digital activism  possible by adding data to the Global Digital Activism Data Set (GDADS). The Meta-Activism Project (MAP) recently launched this data project to catalyze more empirical research on digital activism.