Category Archives: Digital Activism

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.

bio

From Russia with Love: A Match.com for Disaster Response

I’ve been advocating for the development of a “Match.com” for disaster response since early 2010. Such a platform would serve to quickly match hyperlocal needs with relevant resources available at the local and national level, thus facilitating and accelerating self-organization following major disasters. Why advocate for a platform modeled after an online dating website? Because self-organized mutual-aid is an important driver of community resilience.

Russian Bell

Obviously, self-organization is not dependent on digital technology. The word Rynda, for example, is an old Russian word for a “village bell” which was used by local communities to self-organize during emergencies. Interestingly, Rynda became a popular meme on social media during fires in 2010. As my colleague Gregory Asmolov notes in his brilliant new study, a Russian blogger at the time of the fires “posted an emotional open letter to Prime Minister Putin, describing the lack of action by local authorities and emergency services.” In effect, the blogger demanded a “return to an old tradition of self-organization in local communities,” subsequently exclaiming “bring back the Rynda!” This demand grew into a popular meme symbolizing the catastrophic failure of the formal system’s response to the massive fires.

At the time, my colleagues Gregory, Alexey Sidorenko & Glafira Parinos launched the Help Map above in an effort to facilitate self-organization and mutual aid. But as Gregory notes in his new study, “The more people were willing to help, the more difficult it was to coordinate the assistance and to match resources with needs.” Moreover, the Help Map continued to receive reports on needs and offers-of-help after the fires had subsided. To be sure, reports of flooding soon found their way to the map, for example. Gregory, Alexey, Glarifa and team thus launched “Virtual Rynda: The Help Atlas” to facilitate self-help in response to a variety of situations beyond sudden-onset crises.

“We believed that in order to develop the capacity and resilience to respond to crisis situations we would have to develop the potential for mutual aid in everyday life. This would rely on an idea that emergency and everyday-life situations were interrelated. While people’s motivation to help one another is lower during non-emergency situations, if you facilitate mutual aid in everyday life and allow people to acquire skills in using Internet-based technologies to help one another or in asking for assistance, this will help to create an improved capacity to fulfill the potential of mutual aid the next time a disaster happens. […] The idea was that ICTs could expand the range within which the tolling of the emergency bell could be heard. Everyone could ‘ring’ the ‘Virtual Rynda’ when they needed help, and communication networks would magnify the sound until it reached those who could come and help.”

In order to accelerate and scale the matching of needs & resources, Gregory and team (pictured below) sought to develop a matchmaking algorithm. Rynda would ask users to specify what the need was, where (geographically) the need was located and when (time-wise) the need was requested. “On the basis of this data, computer-based algorithms & human moderators could match offers with requests and optimize the process of resource allocation.” Rynda also included personal profiles, enabling volunteers “to develop an online reputation and increase trust between those needing help and those who could offer assistance. Every volunteer profile included not only personal information, but also a history of the individual’s previous activities within the platform.” To this end, in addition to “Help Requests” & “Help Offers,” Rynda also included an entry for “Help Provided” to close the feedback loop.

Asmolov1

As Gregory acknowledges, the results were mixed but certainly interesting and insightful. “Most of the messages [posted to the Rynda platform dealt] with requests for various types of social help, like clothing and medical equipment for children, homes for orphans, people with limited capabilities, or families in need. […]. Some requests from environmental NGOs were related to the mobilization of volunteers to fight against deforestation or to fight wildfires. […]. In another case, a volunteer who responded to a request on the platform helped to transport resources to a family with many children living far from a big city. […]. Many requests concern[ed] children or disabled people. In one case, Rynda found a volunteer who helped a young woman leave her flat for walks, something she could not do alone. In some cases, the platform helped to provide medicine.” In any event, an analysis of the needs posted to Rynda suggests that “the most needed resource is not the thing itself, but the capacity to take it to the person who needs it. Transportation becomes a crucial resource, especially in a country as big as Russia.”

Alas, “Despite the efforts to create a tool that would automatically match a request with a potential help provider, the capacity of the algorithm to optimize the allocation of resources was very limited.” To this end, like the Help Map initiative, digital volunteers who served as social moderators remained pivotal to the Virtual Ryndal platform. As Alexey notes, “We’ve never even got to the point of the discussion of more complex models of matching.” Perhaps Rynda should have included more structured categories to enable more automated-matching since the volunteer match-makers are simply not scalable. “Despite the intention that the ‘matchmaking’ algorithm would support the efficient allocation of resources between those in need and those who could help, the success of the ‘matchmaking’ depended on the work of the moderators, whose resources were limited. As a result, a gap emerged between the broad issues that the project could address and the limited resources of volunteers.”

To this end, Gregory readily admits that “the initial definition of the project as a general mutual aid platform may have been too broad and unspecific.” I agree with this diagnostic. Take the online dating platform Match.com for example. Match.com’s sole focus is online dating; Airbnb’s sole purpose is to match those looking for a place to stay with those offering their places; Uber’s sole purpose is matching those who need to get somewhere with a local car service. To this end, matching platform for mutual-aid may indeed been too broad—at least to begin with. Amazon began with books, but later diversified.

In any case, as Gregory rightly notes, “The relatively limited success of Rynda didn’t mean the failure of the idea of mutual aid. What […] Rynda demonstrates is the variety of challenges encountered along the way of the project’s implementation.” To be sure, “Every society or community has an inherent potential mutual aid structure that can be strengthened and empowered. This is more visible in emergency situations; however, major mutual aid capacity building is needed in everyday, non-emergency situations.” Thanks to Gregory and team, future digital matchmakers can draw on the above insights and Rynda’s open source code when designing their own mutual-aid and self-help platforms.

For me, one of the key take-aways is the need for a scalable matching platform. Match.com would not be possible if the matching were done primarily manually. Nor would Match.com work as well if the company sought to match interests beyond the romantic domain. So a future Match.com for mutual-aid would need to include automated matching and begin with a very specific matching domain. 

Bio

 

See also:

  • Using Waze, Uber, AirBnB, SeeClickFix for Disaster Response [link]
  • MatchApp: Next Generation Disaster Response App? [link]
  • A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response [link]

Results of the Crowdsourced Search for Malaysia Flight 370 (Updated)

Update: More than 3 million volunteers thus far have joined the crowdsourcing efforts to locate the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. These digital volunteers have viewed over a quarter-of-a-billion micro-maps and have tagged almost 3 million features in these satellite maps. Source of update.

Malaysian authorities have now gone on record to confirm that Flight 370 was hijacked, which reportedly explains why contact with the passenger jet abruptly ceased a week ago. The Search & Rescue operations now involve 13 countries around the world and over 100 ships, helicopters and airplanes. The costs of this massive operation must easily be running into the millions of dollars.

FlightSaR

Meanwhile, a free crowdsourcing platform once used by digital volunteers to search for Genghis Khan’s Tomb and displaced populations in Somalia (video below) has been deployed to search high-resolution satellite imagery for signs of the missing airliner. This is not the first time that crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis has been used to find a missing plane but this is certainly the highest profile operation yet, which may explain why the crowdsourcing platform used for the search (Tomnod) reportedly crashed for over a dozen of hours since the online search began. (Note that Zooniverse can easily handle this level of traffic). Click on the video below to learn more about the crowdsourced search for Genghis Khan and displaced peoples in Somalia.

NatGeoVideo

Having current, high-resolution satellite imagery is almost as good as having your own helicopter. So the digital version of these search operations includes tens of thousands of digital helicopters, whose virtual pilots are covering over 2,000 square miles of Thailand’s Gulf right from their own computers. They’re doing this entirely for free, around the clock and across multiple time zones. This is what Digital Humanitarians have been doing ever since the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and most recently in response to Typhoon Yolanda.

Tomnod has just released the top results of the crowdsourced digital search efforts, which are displayed in the short video below. Like other microtasking platforms, Tomnod uses triangulation to calculate areas of greatest consensus by the crowd. This is explained further here. Note: The example shown in the video is NOT a picture of Flight 370 but perhaps of an airborne Search & Rescue plane.

While looking for evidence of the missing airliner is like looking for the proverbial needle in a massive stack of satellite images, perhaps the biggest value-added of this digital search lays in identifying where the aircraft is most definitely not located—that is, approaching this crowdsourced operation as a process of elimination. Professional imagery analysts can very easily and quickly review images tagged by the crowd, even if they are mistakenly tagged as depicting wreckage. In other words, the crowd can provide the first level filter so that expert analysts don’t waste their time looking at thousands of images of bare oceans. Basically, if the mandate is to leave no stone unturned, then the crowd can do that very well.

In sum, crowdsourcing can reduce the signal to noise ratio so that experts can focus more narrowly on analyzing the potential signals. This process may not be perfect just yet but it can be refined and improved. (Note that professionals also get it wrong, like Chinese analysts did with this satellite image of the supposed Malaysian airliner).

If these digital efforts continue and Flight 370 has indeed been hijacked, then this will certainly be the first time that crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis is used to find a hijacked aircraft. The latest satellite imagery uploaded by Tomnod is no longer focused on bodies of water but rather land. The blue strips below (left) is the area that the new satellite imagery covers.

Tomnod New Imagery 2

Some important questions will need to be addressed if this operation is indeed extended. What if the hijackers make contact and order the cessation of all offline and online Search & Rescue operations? Would volunteers be considered “digital combatants,” potentially embroiled in political conflict in which the lives of 227 hostages are at stake?

bio

Note: The Google Earth containing the top results of the search is available here.

See also: Analyzing Tweets on Malaysia Flight #MH370 [link]

Yes, I’m Writing a Book (on Digital Humanitarians)

I recently signed a book deal with Taylor & Francis Press. The book, which is tentatively titled “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Disaster Response,” is slated to be published next year. The book will chart the rise of digital humanitarian response from the Haiti Earthquake to 2015, highlighting critical lessons learned and best practices. To this end, the book will draw on real-world examples of digital humanitarians in action to explain how they use new technologies and crowdsourcing to make sense of “Big (Crisis) Data”. In sum, the book will describe how digital humanitarians & humanitarian technologies are together reshaping the humanitarian space and what this means for the future of disaster response. The purpose of this book is to inspire and inform the next generation of (digital) humanitarians while serving as a guide for established humanitarian organizations & emergency management professionals who wish to take advantage of this transformation in humanitarian response.

2025

The book will thus consolidate critical lessons learned in digital humanitarian response (such as the verification of social media during crises) so that members of the public along with professionals in both international humanitarian response and domestic emergency management can improve their own relief efforts in the face of “Big Data” and rapidly evolving technologies. The book will also be of interest to academics and students who wish to better understand methodological issues around the use of social media and user-generated content for disaster response; or how technology is transforming collective action and how “Big Data” is disrupting humanitarian institutions, for example. Finally, this book will also speak to those who want to make a difference; to those who of you who may have little to no experience in humanitarian response but who still wish to help others affected during disasters—even if you happen to be thousands of miles away. You are the next wave of digital humanitarians and this book will explain how you can indeed make a difference.

The book will not be written in a technical or academic writing style. Instead, I’ll be using a more “storytelling” form of writing combined with a conversational tone. This approach is perfectly compatible with the clear documentation of critical lessons emerging from the rapidly evolving digital humanitarian space. This conversational writing style is not at odds with the need to explain the more technical insights being applied to develop next generation humanitarian technologies. Quite on the contrary, I’ll be using intuitive examples & metaphors to make the most technical details not only understandable but entertaining.

While this journey is just beginning, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to my mentors for their invaluable feedback on my book proposal. I’d also like to express my deep gratitude to my point of contact at Taylor & Francis Press for championing this book from the get-go. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to sincerely thank the Rockefeller Foundation for providing me with a residency fellowship this Spring in order to accelerate my writing.

I’ll be sure to provide an update when the publication date has been set. In the meantime, many thanks for being an iRevolution reader!

bio

The Best of iRevolution in 2013

iRevolution crossed the 1 million hits mark in 2013, so big thanks to iRevolution readers for spending time here during the past 12 months. This year also saw close to 150 new blog posts published on iRevolution. Here is a short selection of the Top 15 iRevolution posts of 2013:

How to Create Resilience Through Big Data
[Link]

Humanitarianism in the Network Age: Groundbreaking Study
[Link]

Opening Keynote Address at CrisisMappers 2013
[Link]

The Women of Crisis Mapping
[Link]

Data Protection Protocols for Crisis Mapping
[Link]

Launching: SMS Code of Conduct for Disaster Response
[Link]

MicroMappers: Microtasking for Disaster Response
[Link]

AIDR: Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response
[Link]

Social Media, Disaster Response and the Streetlight Effect
[Link]

Why the Share Economy is Important for Disaster Response
[Link]

Automatically Identifying Fake Images on Twitter During Disasters
[Link]

Why Anonymity is Important for Truth & Trustworthiness Online
[Link]

How Crowdsourced Disaster Response Threatens Chinese Gov
[Link]

Seven Principles for Big Data and Resilience Projects
[Link]

#NoShare: A Personal Twist on Data Privacy
[Link]

I’ll be mostly offline until February 1st, 2014 to spend time with family & friends, and to get started on a new exciting & ambitious project. I’ll be making this project public in January via iRevolution, so stay tuned. In the meantime, wishing iRevolution readers a very Merry Happy Everything!

santahat

Early Results of MicroMappers Response to Typhoon Yolanda (Updated)

We have completed our digital humanitarian operation in the Philippines after five continuous days with MicroMappers. Many, many thanks to all volunteers from all around the world who donated their time by clicking on tweets and images coming from the Philippines. Our UN OCHA colleagues have confirmed that the results are being shared widely with their teams in the field and with other humanitarian organizations on the ground. More here.

ImageClicker

In terms of preliminary figures (to be confirmed):

  • Tweets collected during first 48 hours of landfall = ~230,000
  • Tweets automatically filtered for relevancy/uniqueness = ~55,000
  • Tweets clicked using the TweetClicker = ~ 30,000
  • Relevant tweets triangulated using TweetClicker = ~3,800
  • Triangulated tweets published on live Crisis Map = ~600
  • Total clicks on TweetClicker = ~ 90,000
  • Images clicked using the ImageClicker = ~ 5,000
  • Relevant images triangulated using TweetClicker = ~1,200
  • Triangulated images published on live Crisis Map = ~180
  • Total clicks on ImageClicker = ~15,000
  • Total clicks on MicroMappers (Image + Tweet Clickers) = ~105,000

Since each single tweet and image uploaded to the Clickers was clicked on by (at least) three individual volunteers for quality control purposes, the number of clicks is three times the total number of tweets and images uploaded to the respective clickers. In sum, digital humanitarian volunteers have clocked a grand total of ~105,000 clicks to support humanitarian operations in the Philippines.

While the media has largely focused on the technology angle of our digital humanitarian operation, the human story is for me the more powerful message. This operation succeeded because people cared. Those ~105,000 clicks did not magically happen. Each and every single one of them was clocked by humans, not machines. At one point, we had over 300 digital volunteers from the world over clicking away at the same time on the TweetClicker and more than 200 on the ImageClicker. This kind of active engagement by total strangers—good “digital Samaritans”—explains why I find the human angle of this story to be the most inspiring outcome of MicroMappers. “Crowdsourcing” is just a new term for the old saying “it takes a village,” and sometimes it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground.

Until recently, when disasters struck in faraway lands, we would watch the news on television wishing we could somehow help. That private wish—that innate human emotion—would perhaps translate into a donation. Today, not only can you donate cash to support those affected by disasters, you can also donate a few minutes of your time to support the operational humanitarian response on the ground by simply clicking on MicroMappers. In other words, you can translate your private wish into direct, online public action, which in turn translates into supporting offline collective action in the disaster-affected areas.

Clicking is so simple that anyone with Internet access can help. We had high schoolers in Qatar clicking away, fire officers in Belgium, graduate students in Boston, a retired couple in Kenya and young Filipinos clicking away. They all cared and took the time to try and help others, often from thousands of miles away. That is the kind of world I want to live in. So if you share this vision, then feel free to join the MicroMapper list-serve.

Yolanda TweetClicker4

Considering that MicroMappers is still very much under development, we are all pleased with the results. There were of course many challenges; the most serious was the CrowdCrafting server which hosts our Clickers. Unfortunately, that server was not able to handle the load and traffic generated by digital volunteers. So their server crashed twice and also slowed our Clickers to a complete stop at least a dozen times during the past five days. At times, it would take 10-15 seconds for a new tweet or image to load, which was frustrating. We were also limited by the number of tweets and images we could upload at any given time, usually ~1,500 at most. Any larger load would seriously slow down the Clickers. So it is rather remarkable that digital volunteers managed to clock more than 100,000 clicks given the repeated interruptions. 

Besides the server issue, the other main bottleneck was the geo-location of the ~30,000 tweets and ~5,000 images tagged using the Clickers. We do have a Tweet and Image GeoClicker but these were not slated to launch until next week at CrisisMappers 2013, which meant they weren’t ready for prime time. We’ll be sure to launch them soon. Once they are operational, we’ll be able to automatically push triangulated tweets and images from the Tweet and Image Clickers directly to the corresponding GeoClickers so volunteers can also aid humanitarian organizations by mapping important tweets and images directly.

There’s a lot more that we’ve learned throughout the past 5 days and much room for improvement. We have a long list of excellent suggestions and feedback from volunteers and partners that we’ll be going through starting tomorrow. The most important next step is to get a more powerful server that can handle a lot more load and traffic. We’re already taking action on that. I have no doubt that our clicks would have doubled without the server constraints.

For now, though, BIG thanks to the SBTF Team and in particular Jus McKinnon, the QCRI et al team, in particular Ji Lucas, Hemant Purohit and Andrew Ilyas for putting in very, very long hours, day in and day out on top of their full-time jobs and studies. And finally, BIG thanks to the World Wide Crowd, to all you who cared enough to click and support the relief operations in the Philippines. You are the heroes of this story.

bio

Digital Humanitarians: From Haiti Earthquake to Typhoon Yolanda

We’ve been able to process and make sense of a quarter of a million tweets in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. Using both AIDR (still under development) and Twitris, we were able to collect these tweets in real-time and use automated algorithms to filter for both relevancy and uniqueness. The resulting ~55,000 tweets were then uploaded to MicroMappers (still under development). Digital volunteers from the world over used this humanitarian technology platform to tag tweets and now images from the disaster (click image below to enlarge). At one point, volunteers tagged some 1,500 tweets in just 10 minutes. In parallel, we used machine learning classifiers to automatically identify tweets referring to both urgent needs and offers of help. In sum, the response to Typhoon Yolanda is the first to make full use of advanced computing, i.e., both human computing and machine computing to make sense of Big (Crisis) Data.

ImageClicker YolandaPH

We’ve come a long way since the tragic Haiti Earthquake. There was no way we would’ve been able to pull off the above with the Ushahidi platform. We weren’t able to keep up with even a few thousand tweets a day back then, not to mention images. (Incidentally, MicroMappers can also be used to tag SMS). Furthermore, we had no trained volunteers on standby back when the quake struck. Today, not only do we have a highly experienced network of volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) who serve as first (digital) responders, we also have an ecosystem of volunteers from the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). In the case of Typhoon Yolanda, we also had a formal partner, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), that officially requested digital humanitarian support. In other words, our efforts are directly in response to clearly articulated information needs. In contrast, the response to Haiti was “supply based” in that we simply pushed out all information that we figured might be of use to humanitarian responders. We did not have a formal partner from the humanitarian sector going into the Haiti operation.

Yolanda Prezi

What this new digital humanitarian operation makes clear is that preparedness, partnerships & appropriate humanitarian technology go a long way to ensuring that our efforts as digital humanitarians add value to the field-based operations in disaster zones. The above Prezi by SBTF co-founder Anahi (click on the image to launch the presentation) gives an excellent overview of how these digital humanitarian efforts are being coordinated in response to Yolanda. SBTF Core Team member Justine Mackinnon is spearheading the bulk of these efforts.

While there are many differences between the digital response to Haiti and Yolanda, several key similarities have also emerged. First, neither was perfect, meaning that we learned a lot in both deployments; taking a few steps forward, then a few steps back. Such is the path of innovation, learning by doing. Second, like our use of Skype in Haiti, there’s no way we could do this digital response work without Skype. Third, our operations were affected by telecommunications going offline in the hardest hit areas. We saw an 18.7% drop in relevant tweets on Saturday compared to the day before, for example. Fourth, while the (very) new technologies we are deploying are promising, they are still under development and have a long way to go. Fifth, the biggest heroes in response to Haiti were the volunteers—both from the Haitian Diaspora and beyond. The same is true of Yolanda, with hundreds of volunteers from the world over (including the Philippines and the Diaspora) mobilizing online to offer assistance.

A Filipino humanitarian worker in Quezon City, Philippines, for example, is volunteering her time on MicroMappers. As is customer care advisor from Eurostar in the UK and a fire officer from Belgium who recruited his uniformed colleagues to join the clicking. We have other volunteer Clickers from Makati (Philippines), Cape Town (South Africa), Canberra & Gold Coast (Australia), Berkeley, Brooklyn, Citrus Heights & Hinesburg (US), Kamloops (Canada), Paris & Marcoussis (France), Geneva (Switzerland), Sevilla (Spain), Den Haag (Holland), Munich (Germany) and Stokkermarke (Denmark) to name just a few! So this is as much a human story is it is one about technology. This is why online communities like MicroMappers are important. So please join our list-serve if you want to be notified when humanitarian organizations need your help.

Bio