Monthly Archives: April 2012

Civil Resistance 2.0: A New Database on Non-Violent Guerrilla Warfare

[Cross-posted from Meta-Activism.org]

Gene Sharp pioneered the study of nonviolent civil resistance. Some argue that his books were instrumental to the success of activists in a number of revolutions over the past 20 years ranging from the overthrow of Milosevic to ousting of Mubarak. Civil resistance has often been referred to as “nonviolent guerrilla warfare” and Sharp’s manual on “The Methods of Nonviolent Action,” for example, includes a list of 198 methods that activists can use to actively disrupt a repressive regime. These methods are divided into three sections: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

While Sharp’s 198 are still as relevant today as they were some 40 years ago, the technology space has changed radically. In Sharp’s “Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts” published in 2012, Gene writes that “a multitude of additional methods will be invented in the future that have characteristics of the three classes of methods: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.” About four years ago, I began to think about how technology could extend Sharp’s methods and possibly generate entirely new methods as well. This blog post was my first attempt at thinking this through and while it was my intention to develop the ideas further for my dissertation, my academic focus shifted somewhat.

With the PhD out of the way, my colleague Mary Joyce suggested we launch a research project to explore how Sharp’s methods can and are being extended as a result of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The time was ripe for this kind of research so we spent the past few months building a database of civil resistance methods 2.0 based on Sharp’s original list. We also consulted a number of experts in the field to help us populate this online database. We decided not to restrict the focus of this research  to ICTs only–i.e., any type of technology qualifies, such as drones, for example.

This database will be an ongoing initiative and certainly a live document since we’ll be crowdsourcing further input. In laying the foundations for this database, we’ve realized once again just how important creativity is when thinking about civil resistance. Advances in technology and increasing access to technology provides fertile ground for the kind of creativity that is key to making civil resistance successful.

We invite you to contribute your creativity to this database and share the link (bit.ly/CivRes20) widely with your own networks. We’ve added some content, but there is still a long way to go. Please share any clever uses of technology that you’ve come across that have or could be applied to civil resistance by adding them.

Our goal is to provide activists with a go-to resource where they can browse through lists of technology-assisted methods to inform their own efforts. In the future, we envision taking the database a step further by considering what sequencing of said methods are most effective.

Predicting the Future of Global Geospatial Information Management

The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Information Management (GGIM) recently organized a meeting of thought-leaders and visionaries in the geo-spatial world to identify the future of this space over the next 5-10 years. These experts came up with some 80+ individual predictions. I’ve included some of the more interesting ones below.

  • The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as a tool for rapid geospatial data collection will increase.
  • 3D and even 4D geospatial information, incorporating time as the fourth dimension, will increase.
  • Technology will move faster than legal and governance structures.
  • The link between geospatial information and social media, plus other actor networks, will become more and more important.
  • Real-time info will enable more dynamic modeling & response to disasters.
  • Free and open source software will continue to grow as viable alternatives both in terms of software, and potentially in analysis and processing.
  • Geospatial computation will increasingly be non-human consumable in nature, with an increase in fully-automated decision systems.
  • Businesses and Governments will increasingly invest in tools and resources to manage Big Data. The technologies required for this will enable greater use of raw data feeds from sensors and other sources of data.
  • In ten years time it is likely that all smart phones will be able to film 360 degree 3D video at incredibly high resolution by today’s standards & wirelessly stream it in real time.
  • There will be a need for geospatial use governance in order to discern the real world from the virtual/modelled world in a 3D geospatial environ-ment.
  • Free and open access to data will become the norm and geospatial information will increasingly be seen as an essential public good.
  • Funding models to ensure full data coverage even in non-profitable areas will continue to be a challenge.
  • Rapid growth will lead to confusion and lack of clarity over data ownership, distribution rights, liabilities and other aspects.
  • In ten years, there will be a clear dividing line between winning and losing nations, dependent upon whether the appropriate legal and policy frameworks have been developed that enable a location-enabled society to flourish.
  • Some governments will use geospatial technology as a means to monitor or restrict the movements and personal interactions of their citizens. Individuals in these countries may be unwilling to use LBS or applications that require location for fear of this information being shared with authorities.
  • The deployment of sensors and the broader use of geospatial data within society will force public policy and law to move into a direction to protect the interests and rights of the people.
  • Spatial literacy will not be about learning GIS in schools but will be more centered on increasing spatial awareness and an understanding of the value of understanding place as context.
  • The role of National Mapping Agencies as an authoritative supplier of high quality data and of arbitrator of other geospatial data sources will continue to be crucial.
  • Monopolies held by National Mapping Agencies in some areas of specialized spatial data will be eroded completely.
  • More activities carried out by National Mapping Agencies will be outsourced and crowdsourced.
  • Crowdsourced data will push National Mapping Agencies towards niche markets.
  • National Mapping Agencies will be required to find new business models to provide simplified licenses and meet the demands for more free data from mapping agencies.
  • The integration of crowdsourced data with government data will increase over the next 5 to 10 years.
  • Crowdsourced content will decrease cost, improve accuracy and increase availability of rich geospatial information.
  •  There will be increased combining of imagery with crowdsourced data to create datasets that could not have been created affordably on their own.
  • Progress will be made on bridging the gap between authoritative data and crowdsourced data, moving towards true collaboration.
  • There will be an accelerated take-up of Volunteer Geographic Information over the next five years.
  • Within five years the level of detail on transport systems within OpenStreetMap will exceed virtually all other data sources & will be respected/used by major organisations & governments across the globe.
  • Community-based mapping will continue to grow.
  • There is unlikely to be a market for datasets like those currently sold to power navigation and location-based services solutions in 5 years, as they will have been superseded by crowdsourced datasets from OpenStreetMaps or other comparable initiatives.

Which trends have the experts missed? Do you think they’re completely off on any of the above? The full set of predictions on the future of global geospatial information management is available here as a PDF.

Building Egypt 2.0: When Institutions Fail, Crowdsourcing Surges

I recently presented at Where 2.0 and had the chance to catch Adel Youssef’s excellent talk on “How Location Based Services is Used to Build Egypt 2.0.” He shared some important gems on digital activism. For example, while Facebook allowed Egyptians to “like” a protest event or say they were headed to the streets, check-in’s were a more powerful way to recruit others because they let your friends know that you were actively in the location and actually protesting. In other words, activists were not checking into a place per se, but rather creating an event and checking into that to encourage people to participate in said event.

Adel also shared some interesting insights on how location-aware mobile tech-nologies are being used to build a new Egypt. “After the revolution, the police force just disappeared, there is no police; and there is no traffic control. But this drove more crowdsourced traffic control, crowdsourced police, crowdsourced services. And this has been happening in the last year alone. Crowdsourcing revolution. But not a revolution to overthrow a tyrant but a revolution to build a developed country. […] People going to clean the streets, planting trees, repainting the streets. And they are feeling ownership of their campaign.”

Adel shared several other crowdsourcing initiatives in his talk, from OneYad (matching volunteers) and Zabatak (monitoring corruption) to EntaFeen (check-in’s for good), Bey2Ollak and Wasalny (both addressing the problem of road traffic). I’m excited by all this innovation happening elsewhere than Silicon Valley and hope these platforms will go mainstream beyond the region in the near future. Indeed, I just signed up for the OneYad beta because I really think this kind of tool could be used in the West.

Adel: “We see a lot of crowdsourced networks built after the revolution because we need to build the country and we want to do this bottom-up, want to do it by the people, you want to empower the people.” The point, for Adel, is to go “from social networking to social working” and thus fill the gaps in services that institutions are failing to provide. This reminded me of Tunisian Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya’s remarks last year: “During the Arab Spring, we have seen the power of Twitter and Facebook… Now we need to use the power of LinkedIn.”

Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross

The Digital Operations Center at the American Red Cross is an important and exciting development. I recently sat down with Wendy Harman to learn more about the initiative and to exchange some lessons learned in this new world of digital  humanitarians. One common challenge in emergency response is scaling. The American Red Cross cannot be everywhere at the same time—and that includes being on social media. More than 4,000 tweets reference the Red Cross on an average day, a figure that skyrockets during disasters. And when crises strike, so does Big Data. The Digital Operations Center is one response to this scaling challenge.

Sponsored by Dell, the Center uses customized software produced by Radian 6 to monitor and analyze social media in real-time. The Center itself sits three people who have access to six customized screens that relate relevant information drawn from various social media channels. The first screen below depicts some of key topical areas that the Red Cross monitors, e.g., references to the American Red Cross, Storms in 2012, and Delivery Services.

Circle sizes in the first screen depict the volume of references related to that topic area. The color coding (red, green and beige) relates to sentiment analysis (beige being neutral). The dashboard with the “speed dials” right underneath the first screen provides more details on the sentiment analysis.

Lets take a closer look at the circles from the first screen. The dots “orbiting” the central icon relate to the categories of key words that the Radian 6 platform parses. You can click on these orbiting dots to “drill down” and view the individual key words that make up that specific category. This circles screen gets updated in near real-time and draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. (Note that the distance between the orbiting dots and the center does not represent anything).

An operations center would of course not be complete without a map, so the Red Cross uses two screens to visualize different data on two heat maps. The one below depicts references made on social media platforms vis-a-vis storms that have occurred during the past 3 days.

The screen below the map highlights the bio’s of 50 individual twitter users who have made references to the storms. All this data gets generated from the “Engagement Console” pictured below. The purpose of this web-based tool, which looks a lot like Tweetdeck, is to enable the Red Cross to customize the specific types of information they’re looking form, and to respond accordingly.

Lets look at the Consul more closely. In the Workflow section on the left, users decide what types of tags they’re looking for and can also filter by priority level. They can also specify the type of sentiment they’re looking, e.g., negative feelings vis-a-vis a particular issue. In addition, they can take certain actions in response to each information item. For example, they can reply to a tweet, a Facebook status update, or a blog post; and they can do this directly from the engagement consul. Based on the license that the Red Cross users, up to 25 of their team members can access the Consul and collaborate in real-time when processing the various tweets and Facebook updates.

The Consul also allows users to create customized timelines, charts and wordl graphics to better understand trends changing over time in the social media space. To fully leverage this social media monitoring platform, Wendy and team are also launching a digital volunteers program. The goal is for these volunteers to eventually become the prime users of the Radian platform and to filter the bulk of relevant information in the social media space. This would considerably lighten the load for existing staff. In other words, the volunteer program would help the American Red Cross scale in the social media world we live in.

Wendy plans to set up a dedicated 2-hour training for individuals who want to volunteer online in support of the Digital Operations Center. These trainings will be carried out via Webex and will also be available to existing Red Cross staff.


As  argued in this previous blog post, the launch of this Digital Operations Center is further evidence that the humanitarian space is ready for innovation and that some technology companies are starting to think about how their solutions might be applied for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, it was Dell that first approached the Red Cross with an expressed interest in contributing to the organization’s efforts in disaster response. The initiative also demonstrates that combining automated natural language processing solutions with a digital volunteer net-work seems to be a winning strategy, at least for now.

After listening to Wendy describe the various tools she and her colleagues use as part of the Operations Center, I began to wonder whether these types of tools will eventually become free and easy enough for one person to be her very own operations center. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to following the Center’s progress and hope it inspires other emergency response organizations to adopt similar solutions.

Twitcident: Filtering Tweets in Real-Time for Crisis Response

The most recent newcomer to the “tweetsourcing” space comes to us from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Twitcident is a web-based filtering system that extracts crisis information from Twitter in real-time to support emergency response efforts. Dutch emergency services have been testing the platform over the past 10 months and results “show the system to be far more useful than simple keyword searching of a twitter feed” (NewScientist).

Here’s how it works. First the dashboard, which shows current events-of-interest being monitored.

Lets click on “Texas”, which produces the following page. More than 22,000 tweets potentially relate to the actual fire of interest.

This is where the filtering comes in:

The number of relevant tweets is reduced with every applied filter.

Naturally, geo-location is also an optional filter.

Twitcident also allows for various visualization options, including timelines, word clouds and charts.

The system also allows the user to view the filtered tweets on a map. The pictures and videos shared via twitter are also aggregated and viewable on dedicated tabs.

The developers of the platform have not revealed how their algorithms work but will demo the tool at the World Wide Web 2012 conference in France next week. In the meantime, here’s a graphic that summarizes the platform workflow.

I look forward to following Twitcident’s developments. I’d be particularly interested in learning more about how Dutch emergency services have been using the tool and what features they think would improve the platform’s added value.

Does the Humanitarian Industry Have a Future in The Digital Age?

I recently had the distinct honor of being on the opening plenary of the 2012 Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The panel, “Innovation in Times of Flux: Opportunities on the Heels of Crisis” was moderated by Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. I’ve spent the past six years creating linkages between the humanitarian space and technology community, so the conversations we began during the panel prompted me to think more deeply about innovation in the humanitarian industry. Clearly, humanitarian crises have catalyzed a number of important innovations in recent years. At the same time, however, these crises extend the cracks that ultimately reveal the inadequacies of existing organiza-tions, particularly those resistant to change; and “any organization that is not changing is a battle-field monument” (While 1992).

These cracks, or gaps, are increasingly filled by disaster-affected communities themselves thanks in part to the rapid commercialization of communication technology. Question is: will the multi-billion dollar humanitarian industry change rapidly enough to avoid being left in the dustbin of history?

Crises often reveal that “existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive [since] response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities” (Leonard and Howitt 2007). More formally, “the ‘symmetry-breaking’ effects of disasters undermine linearly designed and centralized administrative activities” (Corbacioglu 2006). This may explain why “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster” (Manyena 2006).

But disaster-affected populations have always self-organized in times of crisis. Indeed, first responders are by definition those very communities affected by disasters. So local communities—rather than humanitarian professionals—save the most lives following a disaster (Gilbert 1998). Many of the needs arising after a disaster can often be met and responded to locally. One doesn’t need 10 years of work experience with the UN in Darfur or a Masters degree to know basic first aid or to pull a neighbor out of the rubble, for example. In fact, estimates suggest that “no more than 10% of survival in emergencies can be attributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hilhorst 2004).

This figure may be higher today since disaster-affected communities now benefit from radically wider access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). After all, a “disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). This communication challenge is far less acute today because disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital, and thus more and more the primary source of information communicated following a crisis. Of course, these communities were always sources of information but being a source in an analog world is fundamentally different than being a source of information in the digital age. The difference between “read-only” versus “read-write” comes to mind as an analogy. And so, while humanitarian organiza-tions typically faced a vacuum of information following sudden onset disasters—limited situational awareness that could only be filled by humanitarians on the ground or via established news organizations—one of the major challenges today is the Big Data produced by disaster-affected communities themselves.

Indeed, vacuums are not empty and local communities are not invisible. One could say that disaster-affected communities are joining the quantified self (QS) movement given that they are increasingly quantifying themselves. If inform-ation is power, then the shift of information sourcing and sharing from the select few—the humanitarian professionals—to the masses must also engender a shift in power. Indeed, humanitarians rarely have access to exclusive information any longer. And even though affected populations are increasingly digital, some groups believe that humanitarian organizations have largely failed at commu–nicating with disaster-affected communities. (Naturally, there are important and noteworthy exceptions).

So “Will Twitter Put the UN Out of Business?” (Reuters), or will humanitarian organizations cope with these radical changes by changing themselves and reshaping their role as institutions before it’s too late? Indeed, “a business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long—it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer,” whilst other actors fill the gaps (Reuters). “In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving” (Reuters).

The music and news industries were muddling along as well for decades. Today, however, they are facing tremendous pressures and are undergoing radical structural changes—none of them by choice. Of course, it would be different if affected communities were paying for humanitarian services but how much longer do humanitarian organizations have until they feel similar pressures?

Whether humanitarian organizations like it or not, disaster affected communities will increasingly communicate their needs publicly and many will expect a response from the humanitarian industry. This survey carried out by the American Red Cross two years ago already revealed that during a crisis the majority of the public expect a response to needs they communicate via social media. Moreover, they expect this response to materialize within an hour. Humanitarian organizations simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this surge in requests for help, nor are they organizationally structured to do so. But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian organizations have never been capable of dealing with this volume of requests in the first place. So “What Good is Crowd-sourcing When Everyone Needs Help?” (Reuters). Perhaps “crowdsourcing” is finally revealing all the cracks in the system, which may not be a bad thing. Surely by now it is no longer a surprise that many people may be in need of help after a disaster, hence the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness.

Naturally, humanitarian organizations could very well chose to continue ignoring calls for help and decide that communicating with disaster affected communities is simply not tenable. In the analog world of the past, the humanitarian industry was protected by the fact that their “clients” did not have a voice because they could not speak out digitally. So the cracks didn’t show. Today, “many traditional humanitarian players see crowdsourcing as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they are already overwhelmed. They worry that the noise-to-signal ration is just too high” (Reuters). I think there’s an important disconnect here worth emphasizing. Crowdsourced information is simply user-generated content. If humanitarians are to ignore user-generated content, then they can forget about two-way communications with disaster-affected communities and drop all the rhetoric. On the other hand, “if aid agencies are to invest time and resources in handling torrents of crowdsourced information in disaster zones, they should be confident it’s worth their while” (Reuters).

This last comment is … rather problematic for several reasons (how’s that for being diplomatic?). First of all, this kind of statement continues to propel the myth that we the West are the rescuers and aid does not start until we arrive (Barrs 2006). Unfortunately, we rarely arrive: how many “neglected crises” and so-called “forgotten emergencies” have we failed to intervene in? This kind of mindset may explain why humanitarian interventions often have the “propensity to follow a paternalistic mode that can lead to a skewing of activities towards supply rather than demand” and towards informing at the expense of listening (Manyena 2006).

Secondly, the assumption that crowdsourced data would be for the exclusive purpose of the humanitarian cavalry is somewhat arrogant and ignores the reality that local communities are by definition the first responders in a crisis. Disaster-affected communities (and Diasporas) are already collecting (and yes crowdsourcing) information to create their own crisis maps in times of need as a forthcoming report shows. And they’ll keep doing this whether or not humanita-rian organizations approve or leverage that information. As my colleague Tim McNamara has noted “Crisis mapping is not simply a technological shift, it is also a process of rapid decentralization of power. With extremely low barriers to entry, many new entrants are appearing in the fields of emergency and disaster response. They are ignoring the traditional hierarchies, because the new entrants perceive that there is something that they can do which benefits others.”

Thirdly, humanitarian organizations are far more open to using free and open source software than they were just two years ago. So the resources required to monitor and map crowdsourced information need not break the bank. Indeed, the Syria Crisis Map uses a free and open source data-mining platform called HealthMap, which has been monitoring some 2,000 English-based sources on a daily basis for months. The technology powering the map itself, Ushahidi, is also free and open source. Moreover, the team behind the project is comprised of just a handful of volunteers doing this in their own free time (for almost an entire year now). And as a result of this initiative, I am collaborating with a colleague from UNDP to pilot HealthMap’s data mining feature for conflict monitoring and peacebuilding purposes.

Fourth, other than UN Global Pulse, humanitarian agencies are not investing time and resources to manage Big (Crisis) Data. Why? Because they have neither the time nor the know-how. To this end, they are starting to “outsource” and indeed “crowdsource” these tasks—just as private sector businesses have been doing for years in order to extend their reach. Anyone actually familiar with this space and developments since Haiti already knows this. The CrisisMappers Network, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and Crisis Commons (CC) are four volunteer/technical networks that have already collaborated actively with a number of humanitarian organizations since Haiti to provide the “surge capacity” requested by the latter; this includes UN OCHA in Libya and Colombia, UNHCR in Somalia and WHO in Libya, to name a few. In fact, these groups even have their own acronym: Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

As the former head of OCHA’s Information Services Section (ISS) noted after the SBTF launched the Libya Crisis Map, “Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is not easy task” (March 8, 2011). Furthermore, the crowdsourced social media information mapped on the Libya Crisis Map was integrated into official UN OCHA information products. I dare say activating the SBTF was worth OCHA’s while. And it cost the UN a grand total of $0 to benefit from this support.

Credit: Chris Bow

The rapid rise of V&TC’s has catalyzed the launch of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), formerly called the Humanitarian Standby Task Force (H-SBTF). Digital Humanitarians is a network-of-network catalyzed by the UN and comprising some of the most active members of the volunteer & technical co-mmunity. The purpose of the Digital Humanitarian platform (powered by Ning) is to provide a dedicated interface for traditional humanitarian organizations to outsource and crowdsource important information management tasks during and in-between crises. OCHA has also launched the Communities of Interest (COIs) platform to further leverage volunteer engagement in other areas of humanitarian response.

These are not isolated efforts. During the massive Russian fires of 2010, volunteers launched their own citizen-based disaster response agency that was seen by many as more visible and effective than the Kremlin’s response. Back in Egypt, volunteers used IntaFeen.com to crowdsource and coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Libya, for example. The company LinkedIn has also taken innovative steps to enable the matching of volunteers with various needs. They recently added a “Volunteer and Causes” field to its member profile page, which is now available to 150 million LinkedIn users worldwide. Sparked.com is yet another group engaged in matching volunteers with needs. The company is the world’s first micro-volunteering network, sending challenges to registered volunteers that are targeted to their skill set and the causes that they are most passionate about.

It is not farfetched to envisage how these technologies could be repurposed or simply applied to facilitate and streamline volunteer management following a disaster. Indeed, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have already developed a new smart phone app to help mobilize and coordinate volunteer efforts during and following major disasters. The app not only provides information on preparedness but also gives real-time updates on volunteering opportunities by local area. For example, volunteers can register for a variety of tasks including community response to extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross just launched a Digital Operations Center in partnership with Dell Labs, which allows them to leverage digital volunteers and Dell’s social media monitoring platforms to reduce the noise-to-signal ratio. This is a novel “social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief, demonstrating the growing importance of social media in emergency situations.” As part of this center, the Red Cross also “announced a Digital Volunteer program to help respond to question from and provide information to the public during disasters.”

While important challenges do exist, there are many positive externalities to leveraging digital volunteers. As deputy high commissioner of UNHCR noted about this UNHCR-volunteer project in Somalia, these types of projects create more citizen-engagement and raises awareness of humanitarian organizations and projects. This in part explains why UNHCR wants more, not less, engage-ment with digital volunteers. Indeed, these volunteers also develop important skills that will be increasingly sought after by humanitarian organizations recruit-ing for junior full-time positions. Humanitarian organizations are likely to be come smarter and more up to speed on humanitarian technologies and digital humanitarian skills as a result. This change should be embraced.

So given the rise of “self-quantified” disaster-affected communities and digitally empowered volunteer communities, is there a future for traditional humani-tarian organizations? Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is seriously misguided and out of touch with innovation in the humanitarian space. Twitter will not put the UN out of business. Humanitarian organizations will continue to play some very important roles, especially those relating to logistics and coor-dination. These organizations will continue outsourcing some roles but will also take on some new roles. The issue here is simply one of comparative advantage. Humanitarian organizations used to have a comparative advantage in some areas, but this has shifted for all the reasons described above. So outsourcing in some cases makes perfect sense.

Interestingly, organizations like UN OCHA are also changing some of their own internal information management processes as a result of their collaboration with volunteer networks like the SBTF, which they expect will lead to a number of efficiency gains. Furthermore, OCHA is behind the Digital Humanitarians initiative and has also been developing a check-in app for humanitarian pro-fessionals to use in disaster response—clear signs of innovation and change. Meanwhile, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has just launched a $75+ million fund to leverage new technologies in support of humani-tarian response; this includes mobile phones, satellite imagery, Twitter as well as other social media technologies, digital mapping and gaming technologies. Given that crisis mapping integrates these new technologies and has been at the cutting edge of innovation in the humanitarian space, I’ve invited DfID to participate in this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012).

In conclusion, and as argued two years ago, the humanitarian industry is shifting towards a more multi-polar system. The rise of new actors, from digitally empowered disaster-affected communities to digital volunteer networks, has been driven by the rapid commercialization of communication technology—particularly the mobile phone and social networking platforms. These trends are unlikely to change soon and crises will continue to spur innovations in this space. This does not mean that traditional humanitarian organizations are becoming obsolete. Their roles are simply changing and this change is proof that they are not battlefield monuments. Of course, only time will tell whether they change fast enough.

Crowdsourcing Humanitarian Convoys in Libya

Many activists in Egypt donated food and medical supplies to support the Libyan revolution in early 2011. As a result, volunteers set up and coordinated humanitarian convoys from major Egyptian cities to Tripoli. But these convoys faced two major problems. First, volunteers needed to know where the convoys were in order to communicate this to Libyan revolutionists so they could wait for the fleet at the border and escort them to Tripoli. Second, because these volunteers were headed into a war zone, their friends and family wanted to keep track of them to make sure they were safe. The solution? IntaFeen.com.

Inta feen? means “where are you?” in Arabic and IntaFeen.com is a mobile check-in service like Foursquare but localized for the Arab World. Convoy drivers used IntaFeen to check-in at different stops along the way to Tripoli to provide regular updates on the situation. This is how volunteers back in Egypt who coordinated the convoy kept track of their progress and communicated updates in real-time to their Libyan counterparts. Volunteers who went along with the convoys also used IntaFeen and their check-in’s would also get posted on Twitter and Facebook, allowing families and friends in Egypt to track their whereabouts.

Al Amain Road is a highway between Alexandria and Tripoli. These tweets and check-in’s acted as a DIY fleet management system for volunteers and activists.

The use of IntaFeen combined with Facebook and Twitter also created an interesting side-effect in terms of social media marketing to promote activism. The sharing of these updates within and across various social networks galvanized more Egyptians to volunteer their time and resulted in more convoys.

I wonder whether these activists knew about another crowdsourced volunteer project taking place at exactly the same time in support of the UN’s humanitarian relief operations: Libya Crisis Map. Much of the content added to the map was sourced from social media. Could the #LibyaConvoy project have benefited from the real-time situational awareness provided by the Libya Crisis Map?

Will we see more convergence between volunteer-run crisis maps and volunteer-run humanitarian response in the near future?

Big thanks to Adel Youssef from IntaFeen.com who spoke about this fascinating project (and Ushahidi) at Where 2.0 this week. More information on #Libya Convoy is available here. See also my earlier blog posts on the use of check-in’s for activism and disaster response.