Category Archives: Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing and Humanitarian Action: Analysis of the Literature

Raphael Hörler from Zurich’s ETH University has just completed his thesis on the role of crowdsourcing in humanitarian action. His valuable research offers one of the most up-to-date and comprehensive reviews of the principal players and humanitarian technologies in action today. In short, I highly recommend this important resource. Raphael’s full thesis is available here (PDF).

Crowdsourcing Yolanda Response

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Establishing Social Media Hashtag Standards for Disaster Response

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has just published an important, must-read report on the use of social media for disaster response. As noted by OCHA, this document was inspired by conversations with my team and I at QCRI. We jointly recognize that innovation in humanitarian technology is not enough. What is needed—and often lacking—is innovation in policymaking. Only then can humanitarian technology have widespread impact. This new think piece by OCHA seeks to catalyze enlightened policymaking.

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I was pleased to provide feedback on earlier drafts of this new study and look forward to discussing the report’s recommendations with policymakers across the humanitarian space. In the meantime, many thanks to Roxanne Moore and Andrej Verity for making this report a reality. As Andrej notes in his blog post on this new study, the Filipino Government has just announced that “twitter will become another source of information for the Philippines official emergency response mechanism,” which will lead to an even more pressing Big (Crisis) Data challenge. The use of standardized hashtags will thus be essential.

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The overflow of information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to disaster response as the absence of information. While information scarcity has long characterized our information landscapes, today’s information-scapes are increasingly marked by an overflow of information—Big Data. To this end, encouraging the proactive standardization of hashtags may be one way to reduce this Big Data challenge. Indeed, standardized hashtags—i.e., more structured information—would enable paid emergency responders (as well as affected communities) to “better leverage crowdsourced information for operational planning and response.” At present, the Government of the Philippines seems to be the few actors that actually endorse the use of specific hashtags during major disasters as evidenced by their official crisis hashtags strategy.

The OCHA report thus proposes three hashtag standards and also encourages social media users to geo-tag their content during disasters. The latter can be done by enabling auto-GPS tagging or by using What3Words. Users should of course be informed of data-privacy considerations when geo-tagging their reports. As for the three hashtag standards:

  1. Early standardization of hashtags designating a specific disaster
  2. Standard, non-changing hashtag for reporting non-emergency needs
  3. Standard, non-changing hashtags for reporting emergency needs

1. As the OCHA think piece rightly notes, “News stations have been remarkably successful in encouraging early standardization of hashtags, especially during political events.” OCHA thus proposes that humanitarian organizations take a “similar approach for emergency response reporting and develop partnerships with Twitter as well as weather and news teams to publicly encourage such standardization. Storm cycles that create hurricanes and cyclones are named prior to the storm. For these events, an official hashtag should be released at the same time as the storm announcement.” For other hazards, “emergency response agencies should monitor the popular hashtag identifying a disaster, while trying to encourage a standard name.”

2. OCHA advocates for the use of #iSee, #iReport or #PublicRep for members of the public to designate tweets that refer to non-emergency needs such as “power lines, road closures, destroyed bridges, large-scale housing damage, population displacement or geographic spread (e.g., fire or flood).” When these hashtags are accompanied with GPS information, “responders can more easily identify and verify the information, therefore supporting more timely response & facilitating recovery.” In addition, responders can more easily create live crisis maps on the fly thanks to this structured, geo-tagged information.

3. As for standard hashtags for emergency reports, OCHA notes emergency calls are starting to give way to emergency SMS’s. Indeed, “Cell phone users will soon be able to send an SMS to a toll-free phone number. For emergency reporting, this new technology could dramatically alter the way the public interacts with nation-based emergency response call centers. It does not take a large imaginary leap to see the potential move from SMS emergency calls to social media emergency calls. Hashtags could be one way to begin reporting emergencies through social media.”

Most if not all countries have national emergency phone numbers already. So OCHA suggests using these existing, well-known numbers as the basis for social media hashtags. More specifically, an emergency hashtag would be composed of the country’s emergency number (such as 911 in the US, 999 in the UK, 133 in Austria, etc) followed by the country’s two-letter code (US, UK, AT respectively). In other words: #911US, #999UK, #133AT. Some countries, like Austria, have different emergency phone numbers for different types of emergencies. So these could also be used accordingly. OCHA recognizes that many “federal agencies fear that such a system would result in people reporting through social media outside of designated monitoring times. This is a valid concern. However, as with the implementation of any new technology in the public service, it will take time and extensive promotion to ensure effective use.”

Digital Humanitarians: The Book

Of course, “no monitoring system will be perfect in terms of low-cost, real-time analysis and high accuracy.” OCHA knows very well that there are a number of important limitations to the system they propose above. To be sure, “significant steps need to be taken to ensure that information flows from the public to response agencies and back to the public through improved efforts.” This is an important theme in my forthcoming book “Digital Humanitarians.”

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See also:

  • Social Media & Emergency Management: Supply and Demand [link]
  • Using AIDR to Automatically Classify Disaster Tweets [link]

Using Flash Crowds to Automatically Detect Earthquakes & Impact Before Anyone Else

It is said that our planet has a new nervous system; a digital nervous system comprised of digital veins and intertwined sensors that capture the pulse of our planet in near real-time. Next generation humanitarian technologies seek to leverage this new nervous system to detect and diagnose the impact of disasters within minutes rather than hours. To this end, LastQuake may be one of the most impressive humanitarian technologies that I have recently come across. Spearheaded by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center (EMSC), the technology combines “Flashsourcing” with social media monitoring to auto-detect earthquakes before they’re picked up by seismometers or anyone else.

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Scientists typically draw on ground-motion prediction algorithms and data on building infrastructure to rapidly assess an earthquake’s potential impact. Alas, ground-motion predictions vary significantly and infrastructure data are rarely available at sufficient resolutions to accurately assess the impact of earthquakes. Moreover, a minimum of three seismometers are needed to calibrate a quake and said seismic data take several minutes to generate. This explains why the EMSC uses human sensors to rapidly collect relevant data on earthquakes as these reduce the uncertainties that come with traditional rapid impact assess-ment methodologies. Indeed, the Center’s important work clearly demonstrates how the Internet coupled with social media are “creating new potential for rapid and massive public involvement by both active and passive means” vis-a-vis earthquake detection and impact assessments. Indeed, the EMSC can automatically detect new quakes within 80-90 seconds of their occurrence while simultaneously publishing tweets with preliminary information on said quakes, like this one:

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In reality, the first human sensors (increases in web traffic) can be detected within 15 seconds (!) of a quake. The EMSC’s system continues to auto-matically tweet relevant information (including documents, photos, videos, etc.), for the first 90 minutes after it first detects an earthquake and is also able to automatically create a customized and relevant hashtag for individual quakes.

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How do they do this? Well, the team draw on two real-time crowdsourcing methods that “indirectly collect information from eyewitnesses on earthquakes’ effects.” The first is TED, which stands for Twitter Earthquake Detection–a system developed by the US Geological Survey (USGS). TED filters tweets by key word, location and time to “rapidly detect sharing events through increases in the number of tweets” related to an earthquake. The second method, called “flashsourcing” was developed by the European-Mediterranean to analyze traffic patterns on its own website, “a popular rapid earthquake information website.” The site gets an average of 1.5 to 2 million visits a month. Flashsourcing allows the Center to detect surges in web traffic that often occur after earthquakes—a detection method named Internet Earthquake Detection (IED). These traffic surges (“flash crowds”) are caused by “eyewitnesses converging on its website to find out the cause of their shaking experience” and can be detected by analyzing the IP locations of website visitors.

It is worth emphasizing that both TED and IED work independently from traditional seismic monitoring systems. Instead, they are “based on real-time statistical analysis of Internet-based information generated by the reaction of the public to the shaking.” As EMSC rightly notes in a forthcoming peer-reviewed scientific study, “Detections of felt earthquakes are typically within 2 minutes for both methods, i.e., considerably faster than seismographic detections in poorly instrumented regions of the world.” TED and IED are highly complementary methods since they are based on two entirely “different types of Internet use that might occur after an earthquake.” TED depends on the popularity of Twitter while IED’s effectiveness depends on how well known the EMSC website is in the area affected by an earthquake. LastQuake automatically publishes real-time information on earthquakes by automatically merging real-time data feeds from both TED and IED as well as non-crowdsourcing feeds.

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Lets looks into the methodology that powers IED. Flashsourcing can be used to detect felt earthquakes and provide “rapid information (within 5 minutes) on the local effects of earthquakes. More precisely, it can automatically map the area where shaking was felt by plotting the geographical locations of statistically significant increases in traffic […].” In addition, flashsourcing can also “discriminate localities affected by alarming shaking levels […], and in some cases it can detect and map areas affected by severe damage or network disruption through the concomitant loss of Internet sessions originating from the impacted region.” As such, this “negative space” (where there are no signals) is itself an important signal for damage assessment, as I’ve argued before.

remypicIn the future, EMSC’s flashsourcing system may also be able discriminate power cuts between indoor and outdoor Internet connections at the city level since the system’s analysis of web traffic session will soon be based on web sockets rather than webserver log files. This automatic detection of power failures “is the first step towards a new system capable of detecting Internet interruptions or localized infrastructure damage.” Of course, flashsourcing alone does not “provide a full description of earthquake impact, but within a few minutes, independently of any seismic data, and, at little cost, it can exclude a number of possible damage scenarios, identify localities where no significant damage has occurred and others where damage cannot be excluded.”

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EMSC is complementing their flashsourching methodology with a novel mobile app that quickly enables smartphone users to report about felt earthquakes. Instead of requiring any data entry and written surveys, users simply click on cartoonish-type pictures that best describe the level of intensity they felt when the earthquake (or aftershocks) struck. In addition, EMSC analyzes and manually validates geo-located photos and videos of earthquake effects uploaded to their website (not from social media). The Center’s new app will also make it easier for users to post more pictures more quickly.

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What about typical criticisms (by now broken records) that social media is biased and unreliable (and thus useless)? What about the usual theatrics about the digital divide invalidating any kind of crowdsourcing effort given that these will be heavily biased and hardly representative of the overall population? Despite these already well known short-comings and despite the fact that our inchoate digital networks are still evolving into a new nervous system for our planet, the existing nervous system—however imperfect and immature—still adds value. TED and LastQuake demonstrate this empirically beyond any shadow of a doubt. What’s more, the EMSC have found that crowdsourced, user-generated information is highly reliable: “there are very few examples of intentional misuses, errors […].”

My team and I at QCRI are honored to be collaborating with EMSC on integra-ting our AIDR platform to support their good work. AIDR enables uses to automatically detect tweets of interest by using machine learning (artificial intelligence) which is far more effective searching for keywords. I recently spoke with Rémy Bossu, one masterminds behind the EMSC’s LastQuake project about his team’s plans for AIDR:

“For us AIDR could be a way to detect indirect effects of earthquakes, and notably triggered landslides and fires. Landslides can be the main cause of earthquake losses, like during the 2001 Salvador earthquake. But they are very difficult to anticipate, depending among other parameters on the recent rainfalls. One can prepare a susceptibility map but whether there are or nor landslides, where they have struck and their extend is something we cannot detect using geophysical methods. For us AIDR is a tool which could potentially make a difference on this issue of rapid detection of indirect earthquake effects for better situation awareness.”

In other words, as soon as the EMSC system detects an earthquake, the plan is for that detection to automatically launch an AIDR deployment to automatically identify tweets related to landslides. This integration is already completed and being piloted. In sum, EMSC is connecting an impressive ecosystem of smart, digital technologies powered by a variety of methodologies. This explains why their system is one of the most impressive & proven examples of next generation humanitarian technologies that I’ve come across in recent months.

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Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Rémy Bossu for providing me with all the material and graphics I needed to write up this blog post.

See also:

  • Social Media: Pulse of the Planet? [link]
  • Taking Pulse of Boston Bombings [link]
  • The World at Night Through the Eyes of the Crowd [link]
  • The Geography of Twitter: Mapping the Global Heartbeat [link]

Code of Conduct: Cyber Crowdsourcing for Good

There is currently no unified code of conduct for digital crowdsourcing efforts in the development, humanitarian or human rights space. As such, we propose the following principles (displayed below) as a way to catalyze a conversation on these issues and to improve and/or expand this Code of Conduct as appropriate.

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This initial draft was put together by Kate ChapmanBrooke Simons and myself. The link above points to this open, editable Google Doc. So please feel free to contribute your thoughts by inserting comments where appropriate. Thank you.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project must:

  • Provide clear volunteer guidelines on how to participate in the project so that volunteers are able to contribute meaningfully.
  • Test their crowdsourcing platform prior to any project or pilot to ensure that the system will not crash due to obvious bugs.
  • Disclose the purpose of the project, exactly which entities will be using and/or have access to the resulting data, to what end exactly, over what period of time and what the expected impact of the project is likely to be.
  • Disclose whether volunteer contributions to the project will or may be used as training data in subsequent machine learning research.
  • Not ask volunteers to carry out any illegal tasks.
  • Explain any risks (direct and indirect) that may come with volunteer participation in a given project. To this end, carry out a risk assessment and produce corresponding risk mitigation strategies.
  • Clearly communicate if the results of volunteer tasks will or are likely to be sold to partners/clients.
  • Limit the level of duplication required (for data quality assurance) to a reasonable number based on previous research and experience. In sum, do not waste volunteers’ time and do not offer tasks that are not meaningful. When all tasks have been carried, inform volunteers accordingly.
  • Be fully transparent on the results of the project even if the results are poor or unusable.
  • Only launch a full-scale crowdsourcing project if they are not able to analyze the results and deliver the findings within a timeframe that provides added value to end-users of the data.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project should:

  • Share as much of the resulting data with volunteers as possible without violating data privacy or the principle of Do No Harm.
  • Enable volunteers to opt out of having their tasks contribute to subsequent machine learning research. Provide digital volunteers with the option of having their contributions withheld from subsequent machine learning studies.
  • Assess how many digital volunteers are likely to be needed for a project and recruit appropriately. Using additional volunteers just because they are available is not appropriate. Should recruitment nevertheless exceed need, adjust project to inform volunteers as soon as their inputs are no longer needed, and possibly give them options for redirecting their efforts.
  • Explain that the same crowdsourcing task (microtask) may/will be given to multiple digital volunteers for data control purposes. This often reassures volunteers who initially lack confidence when contributing to a project.

Automatically Classifying Text Messages (SMS) for Disaster Response

Humanitarian organizations like the UN and Red Cross often face a deluge of social media data when disasters strike areas with a large digital footprint. This explains why my team and I have been working on AIDR (Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response), a free and open source platform to automatically classify tweets in real-time. Given that the vast majority of the world’s population does not tweet, we’ve teamed up with UNICEF’s Innovation Team to extend our AIDR platform so users can also automatically classify streaming SMS.

BulkSMS_graphic

After the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, the main mobile network operator there (Digicel) offered to sent an SMS to each of their 1.4 million subscribers (at the time) to accelerate our disaster needs assessment efforts. We politely declined since we didn’t have any automated (or even semi-automated way) of analyzing incoming text messages. With AIDR, however, we should (theoretically) be able to classify some 1.8 million SMS’s (and tweets) per hour. Enabling humanitarian organizations to make sense of “Big Data” generated by affected communities is obviously key for two-way communication with said communities during disasters, hence our work at QCRI on “Computing for Good”.

AIDR/SMS applications are certainly not limited to disaster response. In fact, we plan to pilot the AIDR/SMS platform for a public health project with our UNICEF partners in Zambia next month and with other partners in early 2015. While still experimental, I hope the platform will eventually be robust enough for use in response to major disasters; allowing humanitarian organizations to poll affected communities and to make sense of resulting needs in near real-time, for example. Millions of text messages could be automatically classified according to the Cluster System, for example, and the results communicated back to local communities via community radio stations, as described here.

These are still very early days, of course, but I’m typically an eternal optimist, so I hope that our research and pilots do show promising results. Either way, we’ll be sure to share the full outcome of said pilots publicly so that others can benefit from our work and findings. In the meantime, if your organization is interested in piloting and learning with us, then feel free to get in touch.

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Integrating Geo-Data with Social Media Improves Situational Awareness During Disasters

A new data-driven study on the flooding of River Elbe in 2013 (one of the most severe floods ever recorded in Germany) shows that geo-data can enhance the process of extracting relevant information from social media during disasters. The authors use “specific geographical features like hydrological data and digital elevation models to prioritize crisis-relevant twitter messages.” The results demonstrate that an “approach based on geographical relations can enhance information extraction from volunteered geographic information,” which is “valuable for both crisis response and preventive flood monitoring.” These conclusions thus support a number of earlier studies that show the added value of data integration. This analysis also confirms several other key assumptions, which are important for crisis computing and disaster response.

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The authors apply a “geographical approach to prioritize [the collection of] crisis-relevant information from social media.” More specifically, they combine information from “tweets, water level measurements & digital elevation models” to answer the following three research questions:

  • Does the spatial and temporal distribution of flood-related tweets actually match the spatial and temporal distribution of the flood phenomenon (despite Twitter bias, potentially false info, etc)?

  • Does the spatial distribution of flood-related tweets differ depending on their content?
  • Is geographical proximity to flooding a useful parameter to prioritize social media messages in order to improve situation awareness?

The authors analyzed just over 60,000 disaster-related tweets generated in Germany during the flooding of River Elbe in June 2013. Only 398 of these tweets (0.7%) contained keywords related to the flooding. The geographical distribution of flood-related tweets versus non-flood related tweets is depicted below (click to enlarge).

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As the authors note, “a considerable amount” of flood-related tweets are geo-located in areas of major flooding. So they tested the statistical correlation between the location of flood-related tweets and the actual flooding, which they found to be “statistically significantly lower compared to non-related Twitter messages.” This finding “implies that the locations of flood-related twitter messages and flood-affected catchments match to a certain extent. In particular this means that mostly people in regions affected by the flooding or people close to these regions posted twitter messages referring to the flood.” To this end, major urban areas like Munich and Hamburg were not the source of most flood-related tweets. Instead, “The majority of tweet referring to the flooding were posted by locals” closer to the flooding.

Given that “most flood-related tweets were posted by locals it seems probable that these messages contain local knowledge only available to people on site.” To this end, the authors analyzed the “spatial distribution of flood-related tweets depending on their content.” The results, depicted below (click to enlarge), show that the geographical distribution of tweets do indeed differ based on their content. This is especially true of tweets containing information about “volunteer actions” and “flood level”. The authors confirm these results are statistically significant when compared with tweets related to “media” and “other” issues.

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These findings also reveal that the content of Twitter messages can be combined into three groups given their distance to actual flooding:

Group A: flood level & volunteer related tweets are closest to the floods.
Group B: tweets on traffic conditions have a medium distance to the floods.
Group C: other and media related tweets a furthest to the flooding.

Tweets belonging to “Group A” yield greater situational awareness. “Indeed, information about current flood levels is crucial for situation awareness and can complement existing water level measurements, which are only available for determined geographical points where gauging stations are located. Since volunteer actions are increasingly organized via social media, this is a type of information which is very valuable and completely missing from other sources.”

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In sum, these results show that “twitter messages that are closest to the flood- affected areas (Group A) are also the most useful ones.” The authors thus conclude that “the distance to flood phenomena is indeed a useful parameter to prioritize twitter messages towards improving situation awareness.” To be sure, the spatial distribution of flood-related tweets is “significantly different from the spatial distribution of off-topic messages.” Whether this is also true of other social media platforms like Instagram and Flickr remains to be seen. This is an important area for future research given the increasing use of pictures posted on social media for rapid damage assessments in the aftermath of disasters.

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“The integration of other official datasets, e.g. precipitation data or satellite images, is another avenue for future work towards better understanding the relations between social media and crisis phenomena from a geographical perspective.” I would add both aerial imagery (captured by UAVs) and data from mainstream news (captured by GDELT) to this data fusion exercise. Of course, the geographical approach described above is not limited to the study of flooding only but could be extended to other natural hazards.

This explains why my colleagues at GeoFeedia may be on the right track with their crisis mapping platform. That said, the main limitation with GeoFeedia and the study above is the fact that only 3% of all tweets are actually geo-referenced. But this need not be a deal breaker. Instead, platforms like GeoFeedia can be complemented by other crisis computing solutions that prioritize the analysis of social media content over geography.

Take the free and open-source “Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response” (AIDR) platform that my team and I at QCRI are developing. Humanitarian organizations can use AIDR to automatically identify tweets related to flood levels and volunteer actions (deemed to provide the most situational awareness) without requiring that tweets be geo-referenced. In addition, AIDR can also be used to identify eyewitness tweets regardless of whether they refer to flood levels, volunteering or other issues. Indeed, we already demonstrated that eyewitness tweets can be automatically identified with an accuracy of 80-90% using AIDR. And note that AIDR can also be used on geo-tagged tweets only.

The authors of the above study recently go in touch to explore ways that their insights can be used to further improve AIDR. So stay tuned for future updates on how we may integrate geo-data more directly within AIDR to improve situational awareness during disasters.

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See also:

  • Debating the Value of Tweets For Disaster Response (Intelligently) [link]
  • Social Media for Emergency Management: Question of Supply and Demand [link]
  • Become a (Social Media) Data Donor and Save a Life [link]

May the Crowd Be With You

Three years ago, 167 digital volunteers and I combed through satellite imagery of Somalia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on this joint project. The purpose of this digital humanitarian effort was to identify how many Somalis had been displaced (easily 200,000) due to fighting and violence. Earlier this year, 239 passengers and crew went missing when Malaysia Flight 370 suddenly disappeared. In response, some 8 million digital volunteers mobilized as part of the digital search & rescue effort that followed.

May the Crowd be With You

So in the first case, 168 volunteers were looking for 200,000+ people displaced by violence and in the second case, some 8,000,000 volunteers were looking for 239 missing souls. Last year, in response to Typhoon Haiyan, digital volunteers spent 200 hours or so tagging social media content in support of the UN’s rapid disaster damage assessment efforts. According to responders at the time, some 11 million people in the Philippines were affected by the Typhoon. In contrast, well over 20,000 years of volunteer time went into the search for Flight 370’s missing passengers.

What to do about this heavily skewed distribution of volunteer time? Can (or should) we do anything? Are we simply left with “May the Crowd be with You”?The massive (and as yet unparalleled) online response to Flight 370 won’t be a one-off. We’re entering an era of mass-sourcing where entire populations can be mobilized online. What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).

As we continue heading towards this new era of mass-sourcing, those with the ability to mobilize entire populations online will indeed yield an impressive new form of power. And as millions of volunteers continue tagging, tracing various features, this volunteer-generated data combined with machine learning will be used to automate future tagging and tracing needs of militaries and multi-billion dollar companies, thus obviating the need for large volumes of volunteers (especially handy should volunteers seek to boycott these digital operations).

At the same time, however, the rise of this artificial intelligence may level the playing field. But few players out there have ready access to high resolution satellite imagery and the actual technical expertise to turn volunteer-generated tags/traces into machine learning classifiers. To this end, perhaps one way forward is to try and “democratize” access to both satellite imagery and the technology needed to make sense of this “Big Data”. Easier said than done. But maybe less impossible than we may think. Perhaps new, disruptive initiatives like Planet Labs will help pave the way forward.

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