Monthly Archives: September 2011

Real Time LRA Crisis Map Tracks Mass Atrocities in Central Africa

My colleagues at Resolve and Invisible Children have just launched their very impressive Crisis Map of LRA Attacks in Central Africa. The LRA, or Lord’s Resistance Army, is a brutal rebel group responsible for widespread mass atrocities, most of which go completely unreported because the killings and kidnappings happen in remote areas. This crisis map has been a long time in the making so I want to sincerely congratulate Michael Poffenberger, Sean Poole, Adam Finck, Kenneth Transier and the entire team for the stellar job they’ve done with this project. The LRA Crisis Tracker is an  important milestone for the fields of crisis mapping and early warning.

The Crisis Tracker team did an excellent job putting together a detailed code book (PDF) for this crisis map, a critical piece of any crisis mapping and conflict early warning project that is all too-often ignored or rushed by most. The reports mapped on Crisis Tracker come from Invisible Children’s local Early Warning Radio Network, UN agencies and local NGOs. Invisible Children’s radio network also provides local communities with the ability to receive warnings of LRA activity and alert local security forces to LRA violence.

When I sat down with Resolve’s Kenneth Transier earlier this month, he noted that the majority of the reports depicted on their LRA crisis map represent new and original information. He also noted that they currently have 22 months of solid data, with historical and real-time data entry on-going. You can download the data here. Note that the public version of this data does not include the most sensitive information for security reasons.

The Crisis Tracker team also provide monthly and quarterly security briefs, analyzing the latest data they’ve collected for trends and patterns. This project is by far the most accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive source of information on LRA atrocities, which the partners hope will improve efforts to protect vulnerable communities in the region. Indeed, the team has joined forces with a number of community-run protection organizations in Central Africa who hope to benefit from the team’s regular crisis reports.

The project is also innovative because of the technology being used. Michael got in touch about a year ago to learn more about the Ushahidi platform and after a series of conversations decided that they needed more features than were currently available from Ushahidi, especially on the data visualization side. So I put them in touch with my colleagues at Development Seed. Ultimately, the team partnered with a company called Digitaria which used the backend of a Sales-force platform and a customized content management system to publish the in-formation to the crisis map. This an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and I do hope that Digitaria share their technology with other groups. Indeed, the fact that new crisis mapping technologies are surfacing is a healthy sign that the field is maturing and evolving.

In the meantime, I’m speaking with Michael about next steps on the conflict early warning and especially response side. This project has the potential to become a successful people-centered conflict early response initiative as long as the team focuses seriously on conflict preparedness and implement an number of other best practices from fourth generation conflict early warning systems.

This project is definitely worth keeping an eye on. I’ve invited Crisis Tracker to present at the 2011 International Conference of Crisis Mappers in Geneva in November (ICCM 2011). I do hope they’ll be able to participate. In the meantime, you can follow the team and their updates via twitter at @crisistracker. The Crisis Tracker iPhone and iPad apps and should be out soon.

Augmented Reality for Crisis Mapping and Humanitarian Response

Could we leverage Augmented Reality (AR) apps for Crisis Mapping? I’ve been thinking about this question for a while but finally decided to experiment after bumping into Autonomy here at the IPI World Congress in Taipei. The company has a free AR app called Aurasma, which basically lets the user create their own AR action. So I gave it a spin, figuring that if people could animate the odd T-Rex splish-splashing in the Bay Area, there might also be some humanitarian applications worth exploring.

Autonomy’s AR app is available for the iPhone, iPad and the Android. What is especially neat is that you can cache the AR data and therefore use the app off-line, always a plus for crisis response. I experimented by using: (1) the amazing Humanitarian OpenStreetMap animated video of Haiti, (2) Internews’s excellent humanitarian technology report on Dadaab (a must read), and (3), a printout of WalkingPapers for some location in California.

I had to use an iPhone and iPad at the same time to film the AR in action, so apologies in advance for the less than smooth panning. In this first video, I point the iPad’s camera to a screenshot print-out of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) video, the cover of Internews’s report and a paper-based map from WalkingPapers. For the OSM screenshot, I superimposed the video animation. I added a dynamic visualization of an Ushahidi platform for Somalia on the front page of the Internews report and added AR red dots to the WalkingPapers handout.

The OSM video animation in AR is a little wobbly but comes out much nicer on this video which demo’s the iPhone app.

The Aurasma app was easy to use and the Autonomy Marketing Executive I spoke to said he’d be happy to support humanitarian applications of the platform. One idea would be to visualize MapAction GIS products in the field with an AR layer for crowdsourced data, for example. In other words, the hard copy maps could serve as informative base maps on top of which dynamic event-data could be visualized (and updated) via the Aurasma app. A related idea: visualize projected weather forecasts on top of a hard copy map of flood prone areas. Of course, the same types of visualizations could be done from a GIS platform but I’m thinking about mobile, rapid and off-line options for humanitarian professionals not conversant in GIS.

How would you apply AR to crisis mapping? Is AR even useful for humanitarian response or yet another unnecessary gadget? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. (As for fans of David Suarez’s book, The Daemon, yes, this brings us one step closer to Matthew Sobol’s vision).

The Standby Volunteer Task Force: One Year On

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) was launched exactly a year ago tomorrow and what a ride it has been! It was on September 26, 2010, that I published the blog post below to begin rallying the first volunteers to the cause.

The first blog post announcing the SBTF

Some three hundred and sixty plus days later, no fewer than 621 volunteers have joined the SBTF. These amazing individuals are based in the following sixty plus countries, including: Afghanistan, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guam, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Republic of South Korea, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Mexico, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela.

Most members have added themselves to the SBTF map below.

Between them, members of the SBTF represent several hundred organizations, including the American Red Cross, the American University in Cairo, Australia’s National University, Bertelsmann Foundation, Briceland Volunteer Fire Department, Brussels School of International Studies, Carter Center, Columbia University, Crisis Commons, Deloitte Consulting, Engineers without Borders, European Commission Joint Research Center, Fairfax County International Search & Rescue Team, Fire Department of NYC, Fletcher School, GIS Corps, Global Voices Online, Google, Government of Ontario, Grameen Development Services, Habitat for Humanity, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, International Labor Organization, International Organization for Migration, John Carroll University, Johns Hopkins University, Lewis and Clark College, Lund University, Mercy Corps, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of New Zealand, Medecins Sans Frontieres, NASA, National Emergency Management Association, National Institute for Urban Search and Rescue, Nethope, New York University, OCHA, Open Geospatial Consortium, OpenStreetMap, OSCE, Pan American Health Organization, Portuguese Red Cross, Sahana Software Foundation, Save the Children, Sciences Po Paris, Skoll Foundation, School of Oriental and African Studies, Tallinn University, Tech Change, Tulane University, UC Berkeley,  UN Volunteers, UNAIDS, UNDP Bangladesh, University of Algiers, University of Colorado, University of Portsmouth, UNOPS, Ushahidi-Liberia, WHO, World Bank and Yale University.

Over the past twelve months, major SBTF deployments have included the Colombia Disaster Simulation with UN OCHA Colombia, Sudan Vote Monitor, Cyclone Yasi, Christchurch Earthquake, Libya Crisis Map and the Alabama Tornado. SBTF volunteers were also involved in other projects in Mumbai, Khartoum, Somalia and Syria with partners such as UNHCR and AI-USA. The latter two saw the establishment of a brand new SBTF team, the Satellite Imagery Team, the eleventh team to joint the SBTF Group (see figure below).  SBTF Coordinators organized and held several trainings for new members in 2011, as have our partners like the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team. You can learn more about all this (and join!) by visiting the SBTF blog.

We’re  grateful to have been featured in the media on several occasions over the past year, documenting how we’re changing the world, one map at a time. CNN, UK Guardian, The Economist, Fast Company, IRIN News, Washington Post, Technology Review, PBS and NPR all covered our efforts. The SBTF has also been presented at numerous conferences such as TEDxSilicon Valley, The Skoll World Forum, Re:publica, ICRC Global Communications Forum, ESRI User Conference and Share Conference. But absolutely none of this would be possible without the inspiring dedication of SBTF members and Team Coordinators.

Indeed, were it not for them, the Libya Crisis Map that we launched for UN OCHA would have looked like this (as would all the other maps):

So this digital birthday cakes goes to every SBTF member who offered their time and thereby made what this global network is today, you all know who you are and have my sincere gratitude, respect and deep admiration. SBTF Coordinators and Core Team Members deserve very special thanks and recognition for the many, many extra days and indeed weeks they have committed to the SBTF. We are also most grateful to our partners, including Ning, UN OCHA-Geneva and OCHA-Colombia for their support, camaraderie and mentorship. So a big, big thank you to all and a very happy birthday, Mapsters! I look forward to the second candle!

Combining Crowdsourced Satellite Imagery Analysis with Crisis Reporting: An Update on Syria

Members of the the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) Satellite Team are currently tagging the location of hundreds of Syrian tanks and other heavy mili-tary equipment on the Tomnod micro-tasking platform using very recent high-resolution satellite imagery provided by Digital Globe.

We’re focusing our efforts on the following three key cities in Syria as per the request of Amnesty International USA’s (AI-USA) Science for Human Rights Program.

For more background information on the project, please see the following links:

To recap, the purpose of this experimental pilot project is to determine whether satellite imagery analysis can be crowdsourced and triangulated to provide data that might help AI-USA corroborate numerous reports of human rights abuses they have been collecting from a multitude of other sources over the past few months. The point is to use the satellite tagging in combination with other data, not in isolation.
 
To this end, I’ve recommended that we take it one step further. The Syria Tracker Crowdmap has been operations for months. Why not launch an Ushahidiplatform that combines the triangulated features from the crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis with crowdsourced crisis reports from multiple sources?

The satellite imagery analyzed by the SBTF was taken in early September. We could grab the August and September crisis data from Syria Tracker and turn the satellite imagery analysis data into layers. For example, the “Military tag” which includes large military equipment like tanks and artillery could be uploaded to Ushahidi as a KML file. This would allow AI-USA and others to cross-reference their own reports, with those on Syria Tracker and then also place that analysis into context vis-a-vis the location of military equipment, large crowds and check-points over the same time period.

The advantage of adding these layers to an Ushahidi platform is that they could be updated and compared over time. For example, we could compare the location of Syrian tanks versus on-the-ground reports of shelling for the month of August, September, October, etc. Perhaps we could even track the repositioning of  some military equipment if we repeated this crowdsourcing initiative more frequently. Incidentally, President Eisenhower proposed this idea to the UN during the Cold War, see here.

In any case, this initiative is still very much experimental and there’s lots to learn. The SBTF Tech Team headed by Nigel McNie is looking to make the above integration happen, which I’m super excited about. I’d love to see closer integration with satellite imagery analysis data in future Ushahidi deployments that crowdsource crisis reporting from the field. Incidentally, we could scale this feature tagging approach to include hundreds if not thousands of volunteers.

In other news, my SBTF colleague Shadrock Roberts and I had a very positive conference call with UNHCR this week. The SBTF will be partnering with HCR on an official project to tag the location of informal shelters in the Afgooye corridor in the near future. Unlike our trial run from several weeks ago, we will have a far more developed and detailed rule-set & feature-key thanks to some very useful information that our colleagues at HCR have just shared with us. We’ll be adding the triangulated features from the imagery analysis to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi platform. We hope to run this project in October and possibly again in January so HCR can do some simple change detection using Ushahidi.

In parallel, we’re hoping to partner with the Joint Research Center (JRC), which has developed automated methods for shelter detection. Comparing crowdsourced feature tagging with an automated approach would provide yet more information to UNHCR to corroborate their assessments.

Help Crowdsource Satellite Imagery Analysis for Syria: Building a Library of Evidence

Update: Project featured on UK Guardian Blog! Also, for the latest on the project, please see this blog post.

This blog post follows from this previous one: “Syria – Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis to Identify Mass Human Rights Violations.” As part of the first phase of this project, we are building a library of satellite images for features we want to tag using crowdsourcing.

In particular, we are looking to identify the following evidence using high-resolution satellite imagery:

  • Large military equipment
  • Large crowds
  • Checkpoints
The idea is to provide volunteers the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) Satellite Team with as much of road map as possible so they know exactly what they’re looking for in the  satellite imagery they’ll be tagging using the Tomnod system:

Here are some of the pictures we’ve been able to identify thanks to the help of my good colleague Christopher Albon:
I’ve placed these and other examples in this Google Doc which is open for comment. We need your help to provide us with other imagery depicting heavy Syrian military equipment, large crowds and checkpoints. Please provide links and screenshots of such imagery in this open and editable Google Doc.Here are some of the links that Chris already sent us for the above imagery:

 

How to Crowdsource Crisis Response

I recently had the distinct pleasure of giving this year’s keynote address at the Global Communications Forum (#RCcom on Twitter) organized by the Interna-tional Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The conversations that followed were thoroughly fruitful and enjoyable.

Like many other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC is thinking hard about how to manage the social media challenge. In 2010, this study carried out by the American Red Cross (ARC) found that the public increasingly expects humanitarian organizations to respond to pleas for help posted on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. The question is, how in the world are humanitarian organizations supposed to handle this significant increase in “customer service” requests? Even during non-emergencies, ARC’s Facebook page receives a large number of comments on a daily basis many of which solicit replies. This figure escalates significantly during crises. So what to do?

The answer, in my opinion, requires some organizational change. Clearly, the dramatic rise in customer service requests posted on social media platforms cannot be managed through existing organizational structures and work flows. Moreover, the vast majority of posted requests don’t reflect life threatening situations. In other words, responses to many requests don’t require professional emergency responders. So humanitarian organizations should consider taking a two-pronged strategy to address the social media challenge. The first is to upgrade their “customer service systems” and the second is to connect these systems with local networks of citizen crisis responders.

How do large private sector companies deal with the social media challenge? Well, some obviously do better than others. (Incidentally, this question was a recurring topic of conversation at the Same Wavelength conference in London where I spoke after Geneva). This explains why I recommended that my ICRC colleagues consider various social media customer service models used in the private sector and identify examples of positive deviance.

The latest innovation in the customer service space was just launched at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. TalkTo “allows consumers to send text messages to any business and get quick responses to questions, feedback, and more.” As TechCrunch writes, “no one wants to wait on the phone, and email can be slow as well. SMS Messaging is a natural form of communication these days and the most efficient for simple questions. It makes sense to bring this communication to businesses.” If successful, I wonder whether TalkTo will add Twitter and Facebook to their service as other communication media.

Some companies leverage crowdsourcing, like Best Buy’s TwelpForce. Over time, Best Buy “found that with some good foundational guideposts and training tools, the crowd began to self-organize and govern itself.  Leaders in the space popped up as coaches, or mentors – and pretty soon they had a really good support network in place.”

On the humanitarian side, the American Red Cross has begun to leverage their trained volunteers to manage responses to the organization’s official Facebook page, for example. With some good foundational guideposts and training tools, they should be able to scale this solution. In some ways, one could say that humanitarian organizations are increasingly required to play the role of “telephone” operator. So I’d be very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers on alternative, social media approaches to customer service in the private sector. If you know of any innovative ones, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

The second strategy that humanitarian organizations need to consider is linking this new customer service system to networks of citizen crisis responders. An “operator” on the ARC Facebook page, for example, would triage the incoming posts by “pushing” them into different bins according to topic and urgency. Posts that don’t reflect a life-threatening situation but still require operational response could simply be forwarded to local citizen crisis responders. The rest can be re-routed to professional emergency responders. Geo-fenced alerts from crisis mapping platforms could also play an important role in this respect.

One should remember that the majority of crisis responses are “crowdsourced” by definition since the real first responders are always local communities. For example, “it is well known that in case of earthquakes, such as the one that happened in Mexico City, the assistance to the victims comes first of all from the other survivors […]” (Gilbert 1998). In fact, estimates suggest that, “no more than 10 per cent of survival in emergencies can be contributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hillhorst 2004). So why not connect humanitarian customer service systems to local citizen crisis responders and thereby make the latter’s response more targeted and efficient rather than simply ad hoc? I’ve used the term “crowdfeeding” to describe this idea in previous blog posts like this one and this one. We basically need a Match.com for citizen based crisis response in which both problems and solutions are crowdsourced.

So where are these “new” citizen crisis responders to come from? How about leveraging existing networks like Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), the UN Volunteer system (UNVs), Red Cross volunteer networks and platforms like Red Cross Volunteer Match? Why not make use of existing training materials like FEMA’s online courses? Universities could also promote the idea of student crisis responders and offer credit for relevant courses.

Update: New app helps Queensland coordinate volunteers.

Syria: Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis to Identify Mass Human Rights Violations

Update: See this blog post for the latest. Also, our project was just featured on the UK Guardian Blog!

What if we crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis of key cities in Syria to identify evidence of mass human rights violations? This is precisely the question that my colleagues at Amnesty International USA’s Science for Human Rights Program asked me following this pilot project I coordinated for Somalia. AI-USA has done similar work in the past with their Eyes on Darfur project, which I blogged about here in 2008. But using micro-tasking with backend triangulation to crowdsource the analysis of high resolution satellite imagery for human rights purposes is definitely breaking new ground.

A staggering amount of new satellite imagery is produced every day; millions of square kilometers’ worth according to one knowledgeable colleague. This is a big data problem that needs mass human intervention until the software can catch up. I recently spoke with Professor Ryan Engstrom, the Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at George Washington University, and he confirmed that automated algorithms for satellite imagery analysis still have a long, long way to go. So the answer for now has to be human-driven analysis.

But professional satellite imagery experts who have plenty of time to volunteer their skills are far and few between. The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), which I blogged about here, is composed of a very small team and a few interns. Their focus is limited to the Sudan and they are understandably very busy. My colleagues at AI-USA analyze satellite imagery for several conflicts, but this takes them far longer than they’d like and their small team is still constrained given the number of conflicts and vast amounts of imagery that could be analyzed. This explains why they’re interested in crowdsourcing.

Indeed, crowdsourcing imagery analysis has proven to be a workable solution in several other projects & sectors. The “crowd” can indeed scan and tag vast volumes of satellite imagery data when that imagery is “sliced and diced” for micro-tasking. This is what we did for the Somalia pilot project thanks to the Tomnod platform and the imagery provided by Digital Globe. The yellow triangles below denote the “sliced images” that individual volunteers from the Standby Task Force (SBTF) analyzed and tagged one at a time.

We plan do the same with high resolution satellite imagery of three key cities in Syria selected by the AI-USA team. The specific features we will look for and tag include: “Burnt and/or darkened building features,” “Roofs absent,” “Blocks on access roads,” “Military equipment in residential areas,” “Equipment/persons on top of buildings indicating potential sniper positions,” “Shelters composed of different materials than surrounding structures,” etc. SBTF volunteers will be provided with examples of what these features look like from a bird’s eye view and from ground level.

Like the Somalia project, only when a feature—say a missing roof—is tagged identically  by at least 3 volunteers will that location be sent to the AI-USA team for review. In addition, if volunteers are unsure about a particular feature they’re looking at, they’ll take a screenshot of said feature and share it on a dedicated Google Doc for the AI-USA team and other satellite imagery experts from the SBTF team to review. This feedback mechanism is key to ensure accurate tagging and inter-coder reliability. In addition, the screenshots shared will be used to build a larger library of features, i.e., what a missing roof looks like as well military equipment in residential areas, road blocks, etc. Volunteers will also be in touch with the AI-USA team via a dedicated Skype chat.

There will no doubt be a learning curve, but the sooner we climb that learning curve the better. Democratizing satellite imagery analysis is no easy task and one or two individuals have opined that what we’re trying to do can’t be done. That may be, but we won’t know unless we try. This is how innovation happens. We can hypothesize and talk all we want, but concrete results are what ultimately matters. And results are what can help us climb that learning curve. My hope, of course, is that democratizing satellite imagery analysis enables AI-USA to strengthen their advocacy campaigns and makes it harder for perpetrators to commit mass human rights violations.

SBTF volunteers will be carrying out the pilot project this month in collaboration with AI-USA, Tomnod and Digital Globe. How and when the results are shared publicly will be up to the AI-USA team as this will depend on what exactly is found. In the meantime, a big thanks to Digital Globe, Tomnod and SBTF volunteers for supporting the AI-USA team on this initiative.

If you’re interested in reading more about satellite imagery analysis, the following blog posts may also be of interest:

• Geo-Spatial Technologies for Human Rights
• Tracking Genocide by Remote Sensing
• Human Rights 2.0: Eyes on Darfur
• GIS Technology for Genocide Prevention
• Geo-Spatial Analysis for Global Security
• US Calls for UN Aerial Surveillance to Detect Preparations for Attacks
• Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?
• Satellite Imagery Analysis of Kenya’s Election Violence: Crisis Mapping by Fire
• Crisis Mapping Uganda: Combining Narratives and GIS to Study Genocide
• Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia: Results of Trial Run
• Genghis Khan, Borneo & Galaxies: Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis
• OpenStreetMap’s New Micro-Tasking Platform for Satellite Imagery Tracing