Category Archives: Satellite Imagery

Zoomanitarians: Using Citizen Science and Next Generation Satellites to Accelerate Disaster Damage Assessments

Zoomanitarians has been in the works for well over a year, so we’re excited to be going fully public for the first time. Zoomanitarians is a joint initiative between Zooniverse (Brook Simmons), Planet Labs (Alex Bakir) and myself at QCRI. The purpose of Zoomanitarians is to accelerate disaster damage assessments by leveraging Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites and Zooniverse’s highly scalable microtasking platform. As I noted in this earlier post, digital volunteers from Zooniverse tagged well over 2 million satellite images (of Mars, below) in just 48 hours. So why not invite Zooniverse volunteers to tag millions of images taken by Planet Labs following major disasters (on Earth) to help humanitarians accelerate their damage assessments?

Zooniverse Planet 4

That was the question I posed to Brooke and Alex in early 2013. “Why not indeed?” was our collective answer. So we reached out to several knowledgeable colleagues of mine including Kate Chapman from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Lars Bromley from UNOSAT for their feedback and guidance on the idea.

We’ll be able to launch our first pilot project later this year thanks to Kate who kindly provided us with very high-resolution UAV/aerial imagery of downtown Tacloban in the Philippines. Why do we want said imagery when the plan is to use Planet Labs imagery? Because Planet Labs imagery is currently available at 3-5 meter resolution so we’ll be “degrading” the resolution of the aerial imagery to determine just what level and type of damage can be captured at various resolutions as compared to the imagery from Planet Labs. The pilot project will therefore serve to (1) customize & test the Zoomanitarians microtasking platform and (2) determine what level of detail can be captured at various resolutions.

PlanetLabs

We’ll then spend the remainder of the year improving the platform based on the results of the pilot project during which time I will continue to seek input from humanitarian colleagues. Zooniverse’s microtasking platform has already been stress-tested extensively over the years, which is one reason why I approached Zooniverse last year. The other reason is that they have over 1 million digital volunteers on their list-serve. Couple this with Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites, and you’ve got the potential for near real-time satellite imagery analysis for disaster response. Our plan is to produce “heat maps” based on the results and to share shape files as well for overlay on other maps.

It took imagery analysts well over 48 hours to acquire and analyze satellite imagery following Typhoon Yolanda. While Planet Labs imagery is not (yet) available at high-resolutions, our hope is that Zoomanitarians will be able to acquire and analyze relevant imagery within 12-24 hours of a request. Several colleagues have confirmed to me that the results of this rapid analysis will also prove invaluable for subsequent, higher-resolution satellite imagery acquisition and analysis. On a related note, I hope that our rapid satellite-based damage assessments will also serve as a triangulation mechanism (ground-truthing) for the rapid social-media-driven damage assessments carried out using the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform and MicroMappers.

While much work certainly remains, and while Zoomanitairans is still in the early phases of research and development, I’m nevertheless excited and optimistic about the potential impact—as are my colleagues Brooke and Alex. We’ll be announcing the date of the pilot later this summer, so stay tuned for updates!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

Crowdsourcing the Search for Malaysia Flight 370 (Updated)

Early Results available here!

Update from Tomnod: The response has literally been overwhelming: our servers struggled to keep up all day.  We’ve been hacking hard to make some fixes and I think that the site is working now but I apologize if you have problems connecting: we’re getting up to 100,000 page views every minute! DigitalGlobe satellites are continuing to collect imagery as new reports about the possible crash sites come in so we’ll keep updating the site with new data.

Beijing-bound Flight 370 suddenly disappeared on March 8th without a trace. My colleagues at Tomnod have just deployed their satellite imagery crowdsourcing platform to support the ongoing Search & Rescue efforts. Using high-resolution satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe, Tomnod is inviting digital volunteers from around the world to search for any sign of debris from missing Boeing 777.

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The DigitalGlobe satellite imagery is dated March 9th and covers over 1,000 square miles. What the Tomnod platform does is slice that imagery into many small squares like the one below (click to enlarge). Volunteers then tag one image at a time. This process is known as microtasking (or crowd computing). For quality control purposes, each image is shown to more than one volunteer. This consensus-based approach allows Tomnod to triangulate the tagging.

TomNod

I’ve long advocated for the use of microtasking to support humanitarian efforts. In 2010, I wrote about how volunteers used microtasking to crowdsource the search for Steve Fossett who had disappeared while flying a small single-engine airplane in Nevada. This was back in 2007. In 2011, I spearheaded a partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) in Somalia and used the Tomnod platform to crowdsource the search for internally displaced populations in the drought-stricken Afgooye Corridor. More here. I later launched a collaboration with Amnesty International in Syria to crowdsource the search for evidence of major human rights violations—again with my colleagues from Tomnod. Recently, my team and I at QCRI have been developing MicroMappers to support humanitarian efforts. At the UN’s request, MicroMappers was launched following Typhoon Yolanda to accelerate their rapid damage assessment. I’ve also written on the use of crowd computing for Search & Rescue operations.

TomnodSomalia

I’m still keeping a tiny glimmer of hope that somehow Malaysia Flight 370 was able to land somewhere and that there are survivors. I can only image what families, loved ones and friends must be going through. I’m sure they are desperate for information, one way or another. So please consider spending a few minutes of your time to support these Search and Rescue efforts. Thank you.

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Note: If you don’t see any satellite imagery on the Tomnod platform for Flight 370, this means the team is busy uploading new imagery. So please check in again in a couple hours.

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.

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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!

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How UAVs Are Making a Difference in Disaster Response

I visited the University of Torino in 2007 to speak with the team developing UAVs for the World Food Program. Since then, I’ve bought and tested two small UAVs of my own so I can use this new technology to capture aerial imagery during disasters; like the footage below from the Philippines.

UAVs, or drones, have a very strong military connotation for many of us. But so did space satellites before Google Earth brought satellite imagery into our homes and changed our perceptions of said technology. So it stands to reason that UAVs and aerial imagery will follow suit. This explains why I’m a proponent of the Drone Social Innovation Award, which seeks to promote the use of civilian drone technology for the benefit of humanity. I’m on the panel of judges for this award, which is why I reached out to DanOffice IT, a Swiss-based company that deployed two drones in response to Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines. The drones in question are Huginn X1’s, which have a flight time of 25 minutes with a range of 2 kilometers and maximum altitude of 150 meters.

HUGINN X1

I recently spoke with one of the Huginn pilots who was in Tacloban. He flew the drone to survey shelter damage, identify blocked roads and search for bodies in the debris (using thermal imaging cameras mounted on the drone for the latter). The imagery captured also helped to identify appropriate locations to set up camp. When I asked the pilot whether he was surprised by anything during the operation, he noted that road-clearance support was not a use-case he had expected. I’ll be meeting with him in Switzerland in the next few weeks to test-fly a Huginn and explore possible partnerships.

I’d like to see closer collaboration between the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and groups like DanOffice, for example. Providing DHN-member Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOTosm) with up-to-date aerial imagery during disasters would be a major win. This was the concept behind OpenAerialMap, which was first discussed back in 2007. While the initiative has yet to formally launch, PIX4D is a platform that “converts thousands of aerial images, taken by lightweight UAV or aircraft into geo-referenced 2D mosaics and 3D surface models and point clouds.”

Drone Adventures

This platform was used in Haiti with the above drones. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) partnered with Drone Adventures to map over 40 square kilometers of dense urban territory including several shantytowns in Port-au-Prince, which was “used to count the number of tents and organize a ‘door-to-door’ census of the population, the first step in identifying aid requirements and organizing more permanent infrastructure.” This approach could also be applied to IDP and refugee camps in the immediate aftermath of a sudden-onset disaster. All the data generated by Drone Adventures was made freely available through OpenStreetMap.

If you’re interested in giving “drones for social good” a try, I recommend looking at the DJI Phantom and the AR.Drone Parrot. These are priced between $300- $600, which beats the $50,000 price tag of the Huginn X1.

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Project Loon: Google Blimps for Disaster Response (Updated)

A blimp is a floating airship that does not have any internal supporting framework or keel. The airship is typically filled with helium and is controlled remotely using steerable fans. Projet Loon is a Google initiative to launch a fleet of Blimps to extend Internet/wifi access across Africa and Asia. Some believe that “these high-flying networks would spend their days floating over areas outside of major cities where Internet access is either scarce or simply nonexistent.” Small-scale prototypes are reportedly being piloted in South Africa “where a base station is broadcasting signals to wireless access boxes in high schools over several kilometres.” The US military has been using similar technology for years.

Blimp

Google notes that the technology is “well-suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.” Might Google Blimps also be used by Google’s Crisis Response Team in the future? Indeed, Google Blimps could be used to provide Internet access to disaster-affected communities. The blimps could also be used to capture very high-resolution aerial imagery for damage assessment purposes. Simply adding a digital camera to said blimps would do the trick. In fact, they could simply take the fourth-generation cameras used for Google Street View and mount them on the blimps to create Google Sky View. As always, however, these innovations are fraught with privacy and data protection issues. Also, the use of UAVs and balloons for disaster response has been discussed for years already.

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Zooniverse: The Answer to Big (Crisis) Data?

Both humanitarian and development organizations are completely unprepared to deal with the rise of “Big Crisis Data” & “Big Development Data.” But many still hope that Big Data is but an illusion. Not so, as I’ve already blogged here, here and here. This explains why I’m on a quest to tame the Big Data Beast. Enter Zooniverse. I’ve been a huge fan of Zooniverse for as long as I can remember, and certainly long before I first mentioned them in this post from two years ago. Zooniverse is a citizen science platform that evolved from GalaxyZoo in 2007. Today, Zooniverse “hosts more than a dozen projects which allow volunteers to participate in scientific research” (1). So, why do I have a major “techie crush” on Zooniverse?

Oh let me count the ways. Zooniverse interfaces are absolutely gorgeous, making them a real pleasure to spend time with; they really understand user-centered design and motivations. The fact that Zooniverse is conversent in multiple disciplines is incredibly attractive. Indeed, the platform has been used to produce rich scientific data across multiple fields such as astronomy, ecology and climate science. Furthermore, this citizen science beauty has a user-base of some 800,000 registered volunteers—with an average of 500 to 1,000 new volunteers joining every day! To place this into context, the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a digital humanitarian group has about 1,000 volunteers in total. The open source Zooniverse platform also scales like there’s no tomorrow, enabling hundreds of thousands to participate on a single deployment at any given time. In short, the software supporting these pioneering citizen science projects is well tested and rapidly customizable.

At the heart of the Zooniverse magic is microtasking. If you’re new to microtasking, which I often refer to as “smart crowdsourcing,” this blog post provides a quick introduction. In brief, Microtasking takes a large task and breaks it down into smaller microtasks. Say you were a major (like really major) astro-nomy buff and wanted to tag a million galaxies based on whether they are spiral or elliptical galaxies. The good news? The kind folks at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have already sent you a hard disk packed full of telescope images. The not-so-good news? A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals it would take 3-5 years, working 24 hours/day and 7 days/week to tag a million galaxies. Ugh!

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But you’re a smart cookie and decide to give this microtasking thing a go. So you upload the pictures to a microtasking website. You then get on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and invite (nay beg) your friends (and as many strangers as you can find on the suddenly-deserted digital streets), to help you tag a million galaxies. Naturally, you provide your friends, and the surprisingly large number good digital Samaritans who’ve just show up, with a quick 2-minute video intro on what spiral and elliptical galaxies look like. You explain that each participant will be asked to tag one galaxy image at a time by simply by clicking the “Spiral” or “Elliptical” button as needed. Inevitably, someone raises their hands to ask the obvious: “Why?! Why in the world would anyone want to tag a zillion galaxies?!”

Well, only cause analyzing the resulting data could yield significant insights that may force a major rethink of cosmology and our place in the Universe. “Good enough for us,” they say. You breathe a sigh of relief and see them off, cruising towards deep space to bolding go where no one has gone before. But before you know it, they’re back on planet Earth. To your utter astonishment, you learn that they’re done with all the tagging! So you run over and check the data to see if they’re pulling your leg; but no, not only are 1 million galaxies tagged, but the tags are highly accurate as well. If you liked this little story, you’ll be glad to know that it happened in real life. GalaxyZoo, as the project was called, was the flash of brilliance that ultimately launched the entire Zooniverse series.

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No, the second Zooniverse project was not an attempt to pull an Oceans 11 in Las Vegas. One of the most attractive features of many microtasking platforms such as Zooniverse is quality control. Think of slot machines. The only way to win big is by having three matching figures such as the three yellow bells in the picture above (righthand side). Hit the jackpot and the coins will flow. Get two out three matching figures (lefthand side), and some slot machines may toss you a few coins for your efforts. Microtasking uses the same approach. Only if three participants tag the same picture of a galaxy as being a spiral galaxy does that data point count. (Of course, you could decide to change the requirement from 3 volunteers to 5 or even 20 volunteers). This important feature allows micro-tasking initiatives to ensure a high standard of data quality, which may explain why many Zooniverse projects have resulted in major scientific break-throughs over the years.

The Zooniverse team is currently running 15 projects, with several more in the works. One of the most recent Zooniverse deployments, Planet Four, received some 15,000 visitors within the first 60 seconds of being announced on BBC TV. Guess how many weeks it took for volunteers to tag over 2,000,0000 satellite images of Mars? A total of 0.286 weeks, i.e., forty-eight hours! Since then, close to 70,000 volunteers have tagged and traced well over 6 million Martian “dunes.” For their Andromeda Project, digital volunteers classified over 7,500 star clusters per hour, even though there was no media or press announce-ment—just one newsletter sent to volunteers. Zooniverse de-ployments also involve tagging earth-based pictures (in contrast to telescope imagery). Take this Serengeti Snapshot deployment, which invited volunteers to classify animals using photographs taken by 225 motion-sensor cameras in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Volunteers swarmed this project to the point that there are no longer any pictures left to tag! So Zooniverse is eagerly waiting for new images to be taken in Serengeti and sent over.

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One of my favorite Zooniverse features is Talk, an online discussion tool used for all projects to provide a real-time interface for volunteers and coordinators, which also facilitates the rapid discovery of important features. This also allows for socializing, which I’ve found to be particularly important with digital humanitarian deployments (such as these). One other major advantage of citizen science platforms like Zooniverse is that they are very easy to use and therefore do not require extensive prior-training (think slot machines). Plus, participants get to learn about new fields of science in the process. So all in all, Zooniverse makes for a great date, which is why I recently reached out to the team behind this citizen science wizardry. Would they be interested in going out (on a limb) to explore some humanitarian (and development) use cases? “Why yes!” they said.

Microtasking platforms have already been used in disaster response, such as MapMill during Hurricane SandyTomnod during the Somali Crisis and CrowdCrafting during Typhoon Pablo. So teaming up with Zooniverse makes a whole lot of sense. Their microtasking software is the most scalable one I’ve come across yet, it is open source and their 800,000 volunteer user-base is simply unparalleled. If Zooniverse volunteers can classify 2 million satellite images of Mars in 48 hours, then surely they can do the same for satellite images of disaster-affected areas on Earth. Volunteers responding to Sandy created some 80,000 assessments of infrastructure damage during the first 48 hours alone. It would have taken Zooniverse just over an hour. Of course, the fact that the hurricane affected New York City and the East Coast meant that many US-based volunteers rallied to the cause, which may explain why it only took 20 minutes to tag the first batch of 400 pictures. What if the hurricane had hit a Caribbean instead? Would the surge of volunteers may have been as high? Might Zooniverse’s 800,000+ standby volunteers also be an asset in this respect?

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Clearly, there is huge potential here, and not only vis-a-vis humanitarian use-cases but development one as well. This is precisely why I’ve already organized and coordinated a number of calls with Zooniverse and various humanitarian and development organizations. As I’ve been telling my colleagues at the United Nations, World Bank and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, Zooniverse is the Ferrari of Microtasking, so it would be such a big shame if we didn’t take it out for a spin… you know, just a quick test-drive through the rugged terrains of humanitarian response, disaster preparedness and international development. 

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Postscript: As some iRevolution readers may know, I am also collaborating with the outstanding team at  CrowdCrafting, who have also developed a free & open-source microtasking platform for citizen science projects (also for disaster response here). I see Zooniverse and CrowCrafting as highly syner-gistic and complementary. Because CrowdCrafting is still in early stages, they fill a very important gap found at the long tail. In contrast, Zooniverse has been already been around for half-a-decade and can caters to very high volume and high profile citizen science projects. This explains why we’ll all be getting on a call in the very near future.