Monthly Archives: July 2011

Crowdsourcing Solutions and Crisis Information during the Renaissance

The Bristol Channel Floods of January 30, 1607 reportedly caused the largest loss of life from any sudden onset natural disaster in the UK in the past 500 years. “As there were no newspapers at the time, principal accounts reporting the impact of the flood survive in a small number of pamphlets privately printed in London. These original pamphlets [...] with titles like Lamentable Newes out of Monmouthshire and Newes of out Summerset-shire, were sold by printers who also published Shakespeare” (RMS 2007).

Clearly, crowdsourcing is not new, only the word is. After all, crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology nor an industry. Perhaps one of my favorite examples of crowdsourcing during the Renaissance surrounds the invention of the marine chronometer, which completely revolutionized long distance sea travel. Thousands of lives were being lost in shipwrecks because longitude coordinates were virtually impossible to determine in the open seas. Finding a solution this problem became critical as the Age of Sail dawned on many European empires. 

So the Spanish King, Dutch Merchants and others turned to crowdsourcing by offering major prize money for a solution. The British government even launched the “Longitude Prize” which was established through an Act of Parliament in 1714 and administered by the “Board of Longitude.” This board brought together the greatest scientific minds of the time to work on the problem, including Sir Isaac Newton. Galileo was also said to have taken up the challenge. 

The main prizes included: “£10,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 60 nautical miles (111 km); £15,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 40 nautical miles (74 km); and £20,000 for a method that could determine longitude within 30 nautical miles (56 km).” Note that £20,000 in 1714 is around $4.7 million dollars today. The $1 million Netflix Prize launched 400 years later pales in comparison.” In addition, the Board had the discretion to make awards to persons who were making significant contributions to the effort or to provide financial support to those who were working towards a solution. The Board could also make advances of up to £2,000 for experimental work deemed promising.” 

Interestingly, the person who provided the most breakthroughs—and thus received the most prize money—was the son of a carpenter, the self-educated British clockmaker John Harrison.  And so, as noted by Peter LaMotte, “by allowing anyone to participate in solving the problem, a solution was found for a puzzle that had baffled some of the brightest minds in history (even Galileo!). In the end, it was found by someone who would never have been tapped to solve it to begin with.”

I’d love to see a “Manual GPS Prize” to find very simple, virtually free and highly scalable solutions for accurate geo-location. This means no GPS units and no smart phones—preferably no cell phones at all actually. Something along the lines of WalkingPapers but without the need to print out satellite imagery and scan anything. Impossible? What if the prize for a solution were $4.7 million?

Interested in more examples of crowdsourcing from way back when? Then check-out Peter’s recent blog post and my earlier post entitled “Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing.” Have other examples to share? Please add them to the comments section, thanks!

Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management

“Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation” is the title of a new book edited by Marta Poblet. I recently met Marta in Vienna, Austria during the UN Expert Meeting on Croudsource Mapping organized by UN SPIDER. I’m excited that her book has just launched. The chapters are is divided into 3 sections: Disruptive Applications of Mobile Technologies; Towards a Mobile ODR; and Mobile Technologies: New Challenges for Governance, Privacy and Security.

The book includes chapters by several colleagues of mine like Mike Best on “Mobile Phones in Conflict Stressed Environments”, Ken Banks on “Appropriate Mobile Technologies,” Oscar Salazar and Jorge Soto on “How to Crowdsource Election Monitoring in 30 Days,” Jacok Korenblum and Bieta Andemariam on “How Souktel Uses SMS Technology to Empower and Aid in Conflict-Affected Communities,” and Emily Jacobi on “Burma: A Modern Anomaly.”

My colleagues Jessica Heinzelman, Rachel Brown and myself also contributed one of the chapters. I include the introduction below.

I had long wanted to collaborate on a peer-reviewed chapter in which I could combine my earlier study of conflict resolution theory with my experience in conflict early warning and crisis mapping. See also this earlier blog post on “Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping.”  I’ve been a big fan of Will Ury’s approach ever since coming across his work while at Columbia University back in 2003. Little did I know then that I’d be co-authoring this book chapter with two new stellar colleagues. Rachel has taken much of this thinking and applied it to the real world in her phenomenal project called Sisi ni Amni, or “We Are Peace.” You can follow them on Twitter. Jessica now serves on their Advisory Board.

Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

Facebook is increasingly used to crowdsource crisis information and response, as is Twitter. So is it just a matter of time until we see similar use cases with Google+? Another question I have is whether such uses cases will simply reflect more of the same or whether we’ll see new, unexpected applications and dynamics? Of course, it may be premature to entertain the role that Google+ might play in disaster response just days after it’s private beta launch, but the company seems fully committed to making  this new venture succeed. Entertain-ing how Google+ (G+) might be used as a humanitarian technology thus seems worthwhile.

The fact that G+ is open and searchable is probably one of the starkest differences with the walled-garden that is Facebook; that, and their Data Liberation policy. This will make activity on G+ relatively easier to find—Google is the King of Search, after all. This openness will render serendipity and synergies more likely.

The much talked about “Circles” feature is also very appealing for the kind of organic and collaborative crowdsourcing work that we see emerging following a crisis. Think about these “Circles” not only as networks but also as “honeycombs” for “flash” projects—i.e., short-term and temporary—very much along the lines that Skype is used for live collaborative crisis mapping operations.

Google+’s new Hangout feature could also be used instead of Skype chat and video, with the advantage of having multi-person video-conferencing. With a little more work, the Sparks feature could facilitate media monitoring—an important component of live crisis mapping. And then there’s Google+ mobile, which is accessible on most phones with a browser and already includes a “check-in” feature as well as geo-referenced status updates. The native app for the Android is already available and the iPhone app is coming soon.

Clicking on my status update above, produces the Google Maps page below. What’s particularly telling about this is how “underwhelming” the use of Google Maps currently is within G+.  There’s no doubt this will change dramatically as G+ evolves. The Google+ team has noted that they already have dozens of new features ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So expect G+ to make full use of Google’s formidable presence on the Geo Web—think MapMaker+ and Earth Engine+. This could be a big plus for live crowdsourced crisis mapping, especially of the multimedia kind.

One stark difference with Facebook’s status updates and check-in’s is that G+ allows you to decide which Circles (or networks of contacts) to share your updates and check-in’s with. This is an important difference that could allow for more efficient information sharing in near real-time. You could set up your Circles as different teams, perhaps even along UN Cluster lines.

As the G+ mobile website reveals, the team will also be integrating SMS, which is definitely key for crisis response. I imagine there will also be a way to connect your Twitter feed with Google+ in the near future. This will make G+ even more compelling as a mobile humanitarian technology platform. In addition, I expect there are also plans to integrate Google News, Google Reader, Google Groups, Google Docs and Google Translate with G+. GMail, YouTube and Picasa are already integrated.

One feature that will be important for humanitarian applications is offline functionality. Google Reader and GMail already have this feature (Google Gears), which I imagine could be added to G+’s Stream and perhaps eventually with Google Maps? In addition, if Google can provide customizable uses of G+, then this could also make the new platform more compelling for humanitarian organizations, e.g., if OCHA could have their own G+ (“iG+”) by customizing and branding their G+ interface; much like the flexibility afforded by the Ning platform. One first step in that direction might be to offer a range of “themes” for G+, just like Google does with GMail.

Finally, the ability to develop third party apps for G+ could be a big win. Think of a G+ store (in contrast to an App Store). I’d love to see a G+ app for Ushahidi and OSM, for example.

If successful, G+ could be the best example of “What Technology Wants” to date. G+ is convergence technology par excellence. It is a hub that connects many of Google’s excellent products and from the looks of it, the G+ team is just getting warmed up with the converging.

I’d love to hear from others who are also brainstorming about possible applications of Google+ in the humanitarian space. Am I off on any of the ideas above? What am I missing? Maybe we could set up a Google+ 4 Disaster Response Circle and get on Hangout to brainstorm together?