Monthly Archives: March 2011

Disaster Relief 2.0: Between a Signac and a Picasso

The United Nations Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, OCHA and my “alma matter” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative just launched an important report that seeks to chart the future of disaster response based on critical lessons learned from Haiti. The report, entitled “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies,” builds on a previous UN/Vodafone Foundation Report co-authored by Diane Coyle and myself just before the Haiti earthquake: “New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflict: The Role of Information and Social Networks.”

The authors of the new study begin with a warning: “this report sounds an alarm bell. If decision makers wish to have access to (near) real-time assessments of complex emergencies, they will need to figure out how to process information flows from many more thousands of individuals than the current system can handle.” In any given crisis, “everyone has a piece of information, everyone has a piece of that picture.” And more want to share their piece of the picture. So part of the new challenge lies in how to collect and combine multiple feeds of information such that the result paints a coherent and clear picture of an evolving crisis situation. What we need is a Signac, not a Picasso.

The former, Paul Signac, is known for using “pointillism,” a technique in which “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.” Think of these dots as data points drawn from diverse pallets but combined to depict an appealing and consistent whole. In contrast, Pablo Picasso’s paintings from his Cubism and Surrealism period often resemble unfinished collages of fragmented objects. A Picasso gives the impression of impossible puzzle pieces in contrast to the single legible harmony of a Signac.

This Picasso effect, or “information fragmentation” as the humanitarian community calls it, was one of the core information management challenges that the humanitarian community faced in Haiti: “the division of data resources and analysis into silos that are difficult to aggregate, fuse, or otherwise reintegrate into composite pictures.” This plagued information management efforts between and within UN clusters, which made absorbing new and alternative sources of information–like crowdsourced SMS reports–even less possible.

These new information sources exist in part thanks to new players in the disaster response field, the so-called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs). This shift towards a more multi-polar system of humanitarian response brings both new opportunities and new challenges. One way to overcome “information fragmentation” and create a Signac is for humanitarian organizations and VTCs to work more closely together. Indeed, as “volunteer and technical communities continue to engage with humanitarian crises they will increasingly add to the information overload problem. Unless they can become part of the solution.” This is in large part why we launched the Standby Volunteer Task Force at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010): to avoid information overload by creating a common canvas and style between volunteer crisis mappers and the humanitarian community.

What is perhaps most striking about this new report is the fact that it went to press the same month that two of the largest crisis mapping operations since Haiti were launched, namely the Libya and Japan Crisis Maps. One could already write an entirely new UN/Vodafone Foundation Report on just the past 3 months of crisis mapping operations. The speed with which learning and adaptation is happening in some VTCs is truly astounding. As I noted in this earlier blog post, “Crisis Mapping Libya: This is no Haiti“, we have come a long way since the Haiti response. Indeed, lessons from last year have been identified, they have been learned and operationally applied by VTCs like the Task Force. The fact that OCHA formally requested activation of the Task Force to provide a live crisis map of Libya just months after the Task Force was launched is a clear indication that we are on the right track. This is no Picasso.

Referring to lessons learned in Haiti will continue to be important, but as my colleague Nigel Snoad has noted, Haiti represents an outlier in terms of disasters. We are already learning new lessons and implementing better practices in response to crises that couldn’t be more different than Haiti, e.g., crisis mapping hostile, non-permissive environments like Egypt, Sudan and Libya. In Japan, we are also learning how a more hierarchical society with a highly developed and media rich environment presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for crisis mapping. This is why VTCs will continue to be at the forefront of Disaster 2.0 and why reports like this one are so key: they clearly show that a Signac is well within our reach if we continue working together.

How To Use Technology To Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan

I just completed a short field mission to Kyrgyzstan with UN colleagues and I’m already looking forward to the next mission. Flipping through several dozen pages of my handwritten notes just now explains why: example after example of the astute resourcefulness and creative uses of information and communication technologies in Kyrgyzstan is inspiring. I learned heaps.

For example, one challenge that local groups faced during periods of ethnic tension and violent conflict last year was the spread of rumors, particularly via SMS. These deliberate rumors ranged from humanitarian aid being poisoned to cross border attacks carried out by a particular ethnic group. But many civil society groups were able to verify these rumors in near real-time using Skype.

When word of the conflict spread, the director of one such groups got online and invited her friends and colleagues to a dedicate Skype chat group. Within two hours, some 2,000 people across the country had joined the chat group with more knocking but the group had reached the maximum capacity allowed by Skype. (They subsequently migrated to a web-based platform to continue the real-time filtering of information from around the country).

The Skype chat was abuzz with people sharing and validating information in near real-time. When someone got wind of a rumor, they’d simply jump on Skype and ask if anyone could verify. This method proved incredibly effective. Why? Because members of this Skype group constituted a relevant, trusted and geographically distributed network. A person would only add a colleague or two to the chat if they knew who this individual was, could vouch for them and believed that they had—or could have—important information to contribute given their location and/or contacts. (This reminded me of Gmail back in the day when you only had a certain number of invites, so one tended to chose carefully how to “spend” those invites).

The degrees of separation needed to verify a rumor was close to one. In the case of the supposed border attack, one member of the chat group had a contact with the army unit guarding the border crossing in question. They called them on their cell phone and confirmed within minutes that no attack was taking place. As for the rumor about the poisoned humanitarian aid, another member of the chat found the original phone numbers from which these false SMS’s were being sent. They called a personal contact at one of the telecommunication companies and asked whether the owners of these phones were in fact texting from the place where the aid was reportedly poisoned; they weren’t. Meanwhile, another member of the chat group had himself investigated the rumor in person and confirmed that the text messages were false.

This Skype detective network proved an effective method for the early detection and response to rumors. Once a rumor was identified as such, 2,000 people could share that information with their own networks within minutes. In addition, members of this Skype group were able to ping their media contacts and have the word spread even further. In at least two cases and in two different cities, telecommunication companies also collaborated by sending out broadcast SMS to notify subscribers about the false rumors.

I wonder if this model can be further improved on and replicated. Any thoughts from iRevolution readers would be most welcome.

Can Live Crisis Maps Help Prevent Mass Atrocities?

Live crisis maps tell stories, hopefully compelling stories the last chapters of which have yet to be written. To paraphrase my New York Times colleague Anand Giridharadas: They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time: “I was here, and this is what happened to me”?

Anand recently sat down with Elie Wiesel to talk about the power of bearing witness. “If one idea has animated Mr. Wiesel’s life, it is that of the power of memory: memory gives culture, he likes to say; memories spoken and shared can prevent remembered tragedies from recurring.”

This afternoon, I sat down with someone who recounted to me in graphic detail the absolute horrors he witnessed during weeks of relentless violence in Central Asia less than a year ago. Survivors uploaded their videos and pictures of the targeted violence but they did so weeks after the murders and uploaded them on several different websites, making the aggregation of evidence difficult. The international media remained unresponsive which hampered advocacy efforts. The remaining survivors were so desperate for attention that they even painted SOS in large letters on nearby roads in hopes that passing helicopters or airplanes would come to the rescue. But help from the skies above never came.

Would a live crisis map have made a difference? Would a single, public repos-itory of geo-referenced evidence mapped in real-time and multi-media format have mattered?  There are of course those who still ask, “What’s the point of putting dots on a map? How’s that supposed to change anything?” As my Ushahidi colleague Brian Herbert likes to respond, “Well then, what’s the point of having words on a page, huh? How are words going to change anything?” They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Can the live crisis map be even mightier than the pen? If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what is a live map worth? Will all live maps have the desired impact? Of course not, just like not every letter or book ever written has had significant impact.

But some live crisis maps may create unprecedented pressure to respond in a more timely manner. As my colleague Olga Werby recently noted,

“Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC [International Criminal Court] Prosecutor, sited Facebook and other social media as key influence in ICC taking action in Libya: ‘[Facebook and social-networking] triggered a very quick reaction. The [United Nations] Security Council reacted in a few days; the U.N. General Assembly reacted in a few days. So, now because the court is up and running we can do this immediately,’ he said. ‘I think Libya is a new world. How we manage the new challenge—that’s what we will see now.” (CNN World News article: “Gadhafi faces investigation for crimes against humanity” by Atika Shubert (watch the video at 1:40), published on March 3, 2011.) Mr. Moreno-Ocampo talks about sea-change in the world’s reaction time to crisis due to the effects of ICT!”

In his recent piece on “The Political Power of Social Media“, Clay Shirky noted that access to conversation is more important, politically, than access to information. He writes that change in behavior does not come from mass media alone. Rather, it is a two-step process where the second, social step, stems from the conversations that happen between family, friends and colleagues about new information related by the media. This is when political change becomes possible. I have witnessed first hand how crisis maps catalyze conversations and prompt questions about the patterns that materialize on the maps, the actions of a government or secret police, the reasons for the status-quo, etc.

After his conversation with Elie Wiesel, Anand wrote the following:

“The debate has tended to dwell on the question of whether all this overseas digital mirroring of a crisis, especially when the Internet is inaccessible or censored in the nation in crisis, is of any use to those on the ground. But what is often missing from the debate is the idea of bearing witness: the notion, as Mr. Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concen- tration camps and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once put it, that an experience like the one he endured ‘cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared.’ Today, at age 82, he is a trace removed from the latest technology trends, but he was more vigorous than many half his age in seeing a place for technology in tragedy. It is partly that the sufferings of others are available to much of the world in real time today, he said, and partly that the multiplication of avenues to publish and to access what others publish makes people less confined to particular sources:

‘Since they come from a variety of sources, from a variety of people, representing all ideologies and all sensitivities, we know. We cannot not know,’ Mr. Wiesel said.  ‘Whether you want it or not,’ he added a moment later, ‘we are witnesses.’ Because of technology, and because of the progress made in technology, especially in the field of communication, no one has any excuse anymore to say, ‘I don’t know; I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware’.”

After listening to the horrors that happened in Central Asia, I reached for my laptop and turned to the live Crisis Map of Libya. The person who had just recounted some of the atrocities he had witnessed had never seen a map quite like this one nor heard of Ushahidi. I explained to him the range of possible features and the different ways that people around the world have used the mapping platform over the past three years.

I felt some hope from my interlocutor, he was excited but I could tell that—like myself—he was also trying not to get his hopes too high. But there are definitely grounds for hope. He said something like this had never been tried in his part of the world before. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out. The last chapters of this story have yet to be written.

Live Crisis Mapping: Update on Libya and Japan

Update: The Japan Crisis Map team is now partnering with government officials. Government staff will be using iPads with the Ushahidi iPad app to report information from the field. Also, one of the Japanese cell phone operators has pledged to lend over 12,000 cell phones to volunteers.

All of us had really hoped that 2011 would be a quieter year for crisis mapping. The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti during the very first month of 2010 in many ways created a new generation of volunteer crisis mappers. This was followed rapidly by crisis mapping operations for the US, Chile, Pakistan, Russia and Colombia among other crises, which prompted the launch of the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping in October 2010.

This year is unfortunately no less busy for Crisis Mappers around the world. The Standby Task Force was activated to provide mapping support to Sudan Vote Monitor for the Sudan referendum, the Christchurch Recovery Map for New Zealand earthquake and most recently the Libya Crisis Map. The latter was requested by the Information Services Section of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an unprecedented move by the UN to engage directly with volunteer technical communities like the Task Force.

In order to provide the UN with more long term crisis mapping support in Libya, we teamed up with the UN’s Online Volunteer Service program to scale the number of Task Force volunteers considerably. We more than doubled our size in a week and now have more than 400 volunteers from over 50 different countries around the world. It was a huge challenge to train so many new crisis mappers, and that’s an understatement. But our seasoned volunteers did a formidable job and our new crisis mappers are doing an absolutely stellar job. The team has now mapped over 1,000 reports and continue to provide OCHA, UNHCR, WFP, IRC, Red Cross and others with a real time crisis map of Libya.

In the midst of this transition in Libya, one of the most devastating earthquakes in centuries hit northern Japan, causing one of the most destructive tsunamis in recent memory. Just hours after the earthquake, a member of Japan’s OpenStreetMap community launched a dedicated Crisis Map for the mega-disaster. A few hours later, Japanese students at The Fletcher School (which is where the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map was launched) got in touch with the Tokyo-based OpenStreetMap team to provide round-the-clock crisis mapping support.

The Fletcher Team, which now includes Japanese students from Harvard and MIT, have been combing the Twittersphere for relevant updates on the situation in Japan. I have spent several hours over the past few days on the phone or Skype with members of the team to answer as many questions as I can on how to manage large scale crisis mapping efforts. They are doing a stellar job and it’s amazing that they’re able to balance these efforts while being in the middle of mid-term exams.

Over 4,000 reports have been mapped in just 6 days. That’s an astounding figure. Put differently, that’s over 600 reports per day, or one report almost every two minutes for 24 hours straight over 6 days. What’s important about the Japan Crisis Map is that the core operations are being run directly from Tokyo and the team there is continuing to scale it’s operations. It’s very telling that the Tokyo team did not require any support from the Standby Volunteer Task Force. They’re doing an excellent job in the midst of the biggest disaster they’ve ever faced. I’m just amazed.

As for who is using the map, it’s hard to get updates from our colleagues because they are completely swamped, but we have confirmed reports that several foreign Embassies in Tokyo are using the live map. One Embassy official asked that the map be kept “as up to date as possible because this picture is worth the proverbial 1,000.”

The Volunteers Behind the Libya Crisis Map: A True Story

My colleague Clay Shirky calls it “Cognitive Surplus” in his recent book. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams refer to it as “MacroWikinomics” in theirs. What is cognitive surplus? The trillion hours of free time enjoyed by the world’s educated population every year. Don and Tony describe MacroWikinomics as mass distributed collaboration on scales we’ve never seen before thanks to technology. We’re familiar with deficits and shortages, writes, Clay, but when it comes to surplus social capital, things quickly become unpredictable—especially when this capital scales thanks to the use of social networking platforms and Web 2.0 technologies. But then again, says Clay, “Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.”

We saw cognitive surplus and macrowikinomics in action in the wake of the Haiti earthquake when more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti. The map above depicts the location of each digital volunteer based on their ISP address.

As I noted in my talk at PopTech last year, it was an emotional reaction to the breaking news on CNN that prompted me to call my colleague David Kobia at Ushahidi to launch a crisis map of Haiti. But it was access to social networks, cognitive surplus, free social networking and easy mapping tools that translated that initially private, emotional reaction into public, collective action. And this was by no means a one-off, as I recently noted in my blog post on Changing the World One Map at a Time.

The Standby Task Force volunteers behind the Libya crisis map have been equally inspiring. They come from diverse backgrounds and live in some 30 countries. The map above doesn’t (yet) include all the 220+ Task Force volunteers, but it  gives you an idea of just how global this initiative is.

Just yesterday, I found out that one volunteer is an airside manager at Heathrow airport in charge of real-time crisis management and incident control. He jumps on Skype to help out on the Libya crisis map after the last aircraft have taken off around midnight. Another is 63 and was part of an initial group that put the pieces together leading to the modern tour business of rock and roll concerts back in the 1970s. He did the setup for the Simon & Garfunkle tour in the early 80s. A third volunteer brings 16 years of disaster management experience to the Task Force and has lead a number of international search & rescue teams around the world. I could go on, and on—there are more than 200 of such profiles!

It’s also great to see that the Task Force is nowhere close to just being a “Global North” initiative. We have volunteers from (or based in) Haiti, Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, Samoa, Colombia and Brazil. And this is again just a subset.

These volunteers have accomplished so much over the past 7 days. An hour after UN/OCHA requested activation of the Task Force, the Tech Team launched the technical platform for the crisis map using Ushahidi, which they’ve been customizing (front-end and back-end) every day since. They launched a second map for the public just days later and in the first 3 days of that launch, the site received 18,000+ unique visitors and 44,000+ pageviews from 65 countries.

The Media Monitoring Team, Geolocation Team, Reports Team and Verification Team have mapped some 500 individual reports in just 7 days. They’ve been monitoring over 70 individual online sources almost around the clock for relevant content that can be added to the map. The Geolocation Team has found GPS coordinates for all the reports that end up on the map thanks to the Reports Team. The Analysis Team has produced a number of important heat maps and trends analysis reports for OCHA. The Verification Team has been providing quality control for the mapped data and triangulating reports whenever possible.

Meanwhile, the Task Team has focused on two core and urgent research projects solicited by the UN to improve the crisis map and their preparedness operations. The Humanitarian Liaison Team is composed of Task Force coordinators and representatives from the UN and other humanitarian groups. They facilitate communication between the teams listed above and our humanitarian partners. Between them, all of these teams have written over 1,200 Word document pages, font size 10, based on their exchanges on the Skype—again in just 7 days. Did I mention that these are all volunteers contributing their own “cognitive surplus” above and beyond their current jobs, classes, family lives?

It’s incredible to think that the Task Force only launched last October. And it’s only going to keep getting better, keep growing. Indeed, we’re now in touch with the coordinators of the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) program after I suggested to the UN in a phone conversation and my previous blog post that we tap into that resource to scale the Task Force’s support for Libya and beyond. It turns out the UN has an Online Volunteers Service (OVS) website!

According to our contacts at OVS,

“Many NGOs, governments and United Nations agencies already recognize the value of online volunteering, their satisfaction with the collaboration with online volunteers runs at 90%.  In 2010, our three person OVS staff team mobilized 10,000 online volunteers from 168 countries who completed 15,000 assignments, amongst them online volunteers who supported UN OCHA Colombia in the area of disaster related data gathering and management.”

To say I’m super, super excited about this potential collaboration would be an understatement. In fact, I always grin when writing the following to recruit new volunteers: “So, you want to be a Crisis Mapper?” Totally stealing Yoda’s line from StarWars when he asks young Luke Skywalker: “So, you want to be a Jedi, hmmmm?” For me, today’s Jedis are definitely the crisis mappers I work with on the Task Force. So as I’m fond of saying:

“May the Crowd be with you, always.”

Changing the World One Map at a Time

The response to last year’s crises in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan revealed an exciting potential. Volunteers from thousands of miles away could possibly play an important role in humanitarian operations by using social networking platforms and free, open source software to create live crisis maps. Today’s volunteer efforts on the Libya Crisis Map are turning that potential into reality.

When I called Ushahidi’s David Kobia to launch the Haiti Crisis Map just hours after the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, that was purely an emotional reaction. I had no plan. I just needed to do something because watching the first reports coming in on CNN was agonizing and unbearable. Some of my closest friends from The Fletcher School were in Haiti at the time and I had no idea whether they were still alive. Little did I know that several hundred volunteers from dozens of countries would soon join the efforts to create a live crisis map of the disaster-struck country.

I called David again a few weeks later just hours after another earthquake had struck, this time Chile. Unlike Haiti, I now had a better sense of what it would take to launch a crisis map, but I had no idea who might volunteer to keep this map alive around the clock since volunteers working on Haiti were either over-stretched or burnt out, or both (like I was). As luck would have it, I was due to give a talk at Columbia University that same day on our experience in Haiti. So I used my speaking slot to recruit volunteers for Chile. Several came up to me after the presentation and some sixty new volunteers were trained within 48 hours. This is how the Chile Crisis Map got started.

Pakistan was different. I didn’t launch a crisis map; someone else did, and from Karachi. But he needed volunteer support to create the Pakistan Crisis Map so we turned to the incredible volunteers who had helped out in Haiti and Chile and recruited new ones along the way. By now, we had a core set of volunteers with an impressive track record in live crisis mapping.

This is when I realized what the next logical step was. To give these volunteers a name and visibility. We needed to give them the opportunity to share what they had learned and train new recruits. Thus was born the Standby Volunteer Task Force: an online community for live mapping.

We got to work right away after launching in October 2010. Our first step was to create protocols and establish workflows in order to streamline crisis mapping processes and render them as efficient and effective as possible. We had the opportunity to test our first drafts thanks to the UN OCHA Colombia team who invited us to participate in an official earthquake disaster simulation exercise just weeks after we launched. This provided us with invaluable feedback which we used to revise our protocols.

In January of this year, we activated the Task Force to provide live mapping support to monitor the referendum in Southern Sudan. We also learned a lot from that experience and improved our workflows accordingly. Last month, New Zealand was struck by a powerful earthquake so we activated the Task Force at the request of local disaster response colleagues. Again, there were some important lessons gained from that deployment, and again we went back to our protocols and workflows to improve them further.

This week, the Information Services Section of OCHA in Geneva requested that the Task Force be activated for Libya. This was a first. Unlike Haiti, we had a direct channel from day one to the main coordinating body of the UN for humanitarian assistance. We also had a trained network of volunteers on standby with protocols and workflows that had already been revised and tested several times over almost half-a-year. It is also important to emphasize that many Task Force volunteers are skilled professionals, including humanitarian professionals. This is a self-selected group and while many new volunteers who join may have little experience in crisis mapping, they go through a structured training process managed by the most experienced volunteers on the team.

The result? A Crisis Map of Libya launched within hours and public institutional support expressed within days. Some of the awesome volunteers crisis mapping Libya brought their experience from the Haiti, Chile and Pakistan days. Most however, are newly trained and bring renewed energy, dedication and good cheer to the Task Force.

Below is a new interface option developed as a plugin for an Ushahidi project in Liberia that is being used for Libya as well. Our colleagues at OCHA are using this interface almost exclusively as it provides a number of important functionalities for data visualization and comparative analysis:

The public tweets below are amazing and unprecedented in so many ways! Thank you UN and Josette, we really appreciate your public support!

Note that Josette Sheeran is the Executive Director of WFP.

We still have a long way to go with the Task Force, but boy have we covered even more ground since Haiti. There are for me two powerful narratives in this story:

The first is a reminder that being human is about helping others in need. And thanks to today’s easy mapping platforms, volunteers can help respond to a crisis from thousands of miles away by collaborating online to create a live map that can be used to support humanitarian operations. They can use social networking platforms to connect, organize, recruit and train. There’s so much we as volunteers can do online to help, especially if we’re prepared and are ready to work hard. This is why I think it’s time for established volunteer networks like UN Volunteers (UNVs) to offer both field-based and web-based opportunities. Why not train UNVs in online crisis mapping so they can be activated to directly support UN operations via web?

The second powerful narrative for me is the collaboration between large established organizations and new decentralized volunteer networks. OCHA took a bold move when they decided to bet on the Volunteer Task Force for the Libya Crisis Map. They should be applauded. They’ve never done this before and neither have we (vis-a-vis direct collaboration with a UN office during a major crisis). I find this unprecedented move a powerful indication that learning by doing is almost always better than learning by just talking. This impromptu collaboration also shows that large organizations and small volunteer networks can work together in a way that creates more added value than flying solo does.

It’s the beginning of a new world for humanitarian response; The Prologue, if you will. I’m excited for what comes next. I know there’s a lot to figure out and many obstacles to overcome. I have no illusions of that. But I’m hopeful; as ready as I’ll ever be; and I have the honor and privilege to work with and learn from the best volunteer network of crisis mappers on the planet. They are the true heros, for without them the map would be barren. Onwards.

Crisis Mapping Libya: This is No Haiti (Updated)

Update: Public version of Libya Crisis Map now available:

http://libyacrisismap.net

We activated the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) on March 1st and quickly launched a Crisis Map of Libya to support humanitarian preparedness opera-tions. This is the largest deployment of the Task Force since it was formed at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping in Boston (ICCM 2010). Task Force partners include CrisisMappers, CrisisCommons, Humanity Road, ICT4Peace, Open Street Map and MapAction. The Task Force currently has trained 166 volunteers. I’m amazed at how far we’ve come since the response to the Haiti earthquake.

Crisis mapping Libya is definitely no Haiti, for many reasons. The first is that unlike Haiti, we didn’t have to recruit crisis mapping volunteers from scratch. We didn’t have to spend a third of our time training volunteers. We didn’t have to develop new work flows and protocols from thin air. All we had to do was activate the Standby Task Force and everyone knew what to do, like set up dedicated Skype chats (communicating via email is too slow in these scenarios, networked communication is the way to go). Our volunteer CrisisMappers had already been trained and had even participated in an official UN crisis simulation exercise with OCHA in Colombia a few months earlier.

The second reason why this is no Haiti is because the request for activation of the Standby Task Force to provide live crisis mapping support came directly from the UN OCHA’s Information Management unit in Geneva. This was not the case in Haiti since there was no precedent for the crisis mapping efforts we launched at the time. We did not have buy in from the humanitarian community and the latter was reluctant to draw on anything other than official sources of information. Crowdsourcing and social media were unchartered territories. OCHA also reached out to CrisisCommons and OpenStreetMap and we are all working together more closely than ever before.

Contrast this to the case of Libya this week which saw an established humanitarian organization specifically request a volunteer technical community for a live map of reports generated from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and mainstream media sources. Seriously, I have never been more impressed by the humanitarian community than I am today. The pro-active approach they have taken and their constructive engagement is absolutely remarkable. This is truly spectacular and the group deserve very high praise.

From the official annoucement:

OCHA, UNOSAT and NetHope have been collaborating with the Volunteer Technical Community (VTC) specifically including the CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Open Street Map, and the Google Crisis Response Team over the past week. The CrisisMappers Standby Task Force has been undertaking a mapping of social media and new reports from within Libya and along the borders at the request of OCHA.  As well, the Task Force is aiding in the collection and mapping of 3W information for the response. UNOSAT is kindly hosting the Common Operational Datasets to be used during the emergency (http://www.unitar.org/unosat/libya). Interaction with these groups is being coordinated by OCHA’s Information Services Section. Focal Point: Andrej Verity [verity@un.org].

The third reason this is no Haiti is because we are creating a live map of a hostile situation still unfolding. Haiti provided a permissive environment, politically and geographically. Libya couldn’t be more different. We experienced the serious challenges of crisis mapping a hostile environment when we created a crisis map of Khartoum at the request of local Sudanese activists. This was a stressful deployment but one that was able to provide an important window into what was happening in Khartoum.

In the case of Libya, our humanitarian partner requested that the crisis map be password protected. We intend to make the map public after this phase of the humanitarian operations is over. In the meantime, the screenshots below provide a good picture of what the platform looks like. In the first 48 hours since the activation of the Task Force, over 220 individual reports have been mapped, many including pictures and some with video footage.

We also pulled in the data from the Google Map created by @Arasmus to complement our own live mapping:

None of the above would be possible without such a dedicated network of skilled crisis mapping volunteers. They are truly outstanding and a testament to what civic engagement can do online from thousands of miles away. There’s no doubt that our approach can still be improved. But there’s equally no doubt that all the learning we did in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan went beyond just recommendations but were actually  put into practice in a big way thanks to the Task Force.

The Task Force has over 160 volunteers from 18 different countries. Do you want to become one of those crisis mappers? If so, please send an email to join@standbytaskforce.com and we’ll train you on how to become a real pro in crisis mapping.