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).
My research team and I at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of more than 30 common software platforms used to operate UAVs and analyze resulting aerial imagery. We carried out this research to provide humanitarian organizations with a single repository where they can review existing software platforms (including free & open source solutions) for their humanitarian UAV missions. The results, available here, provide a brief description of each software platform along with corresponding links for additional information and download. We do realize that this list is not (yet) comprehensive, so we hope you’ll help us fill remaining gaps. This explains why we’ve made our research available as an open, editable Google Doc.
Many thanks to my research assistant Peter Mosur for taking the lead on this. We have additional research documents available here on the UAViators website.
- Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
- Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
- Low-Cost UAV Applications for Post-Disaster Damage Assessments: A Streamlined Workflow [Link]
My research team and I at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of fears and concerns expressed by humanitarians and others on the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. To do this, we closely reviewed well over 50 different documents, reports, articles, etc., on humanitarian UAVs as part of this applied research project. The motivation behind this research is to better understand the different and overlapping concerns that humanitarian organizations have over the use of non-lethal drones in crises, particularly crises mired by violent conflict.
The results of this research are available in this open & editable spreadsheet and summarized in the table above. We identified a total of 9 different categories of concerns and tallied the unique instances in which these appear in the official humanitarian reports, articles, papers, studies, etc., that we reviewed. The top 3 concerns are: Military Association, Data Privacy and Consent. We very much welcome feedback, so feel free to get in touch via the comments section below and/or add additional content directly to the spreadsheet. This research will feed into an upcoming workshop that my colleague Kristin Sandvik (on the Advisory Board of UAViators) and I are looking to organize in the Spring of 2015. The workshop will address the most pressing issues around the use of civilian UAVs in conflict zones.
I tend to believe that UAV initiatives like the Syria Airlift Project (video above) can play a positive role in conflict settings. In fact, I wrote about this exact use of UAVs back in 2008 for PeaceWork Magazine (scroll down) and referred to previous (conventional) humanitarian airlift examples from the Berlin Airlift in the 1940’s to the Biafran Airlift in the 1960’s as a basis for remotely piloted aircraft systems. As such, I suggested that UAVs could be used in Burma at the time to transport relief supplies in response to the complex emergency. While fraught with risks, these risks can at times be managed when approached with care, integrity and professionalism, especially if a people-centered, community-based approach is taken, which prioritizes both safety and direct empowerment.
While some humanitarians may be categorically against any and all uses of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones regardless of the circumstances, the fact is that their opinions won’t prevent affected communities and others from using UAVs anyway. More and more individuals will have access to cheaper and cheaper UAVs in the months and years ahead. As a UN colleague noted with respect to the Syria Airlift Project, initiatives like these may well be a sign of things to come. This sentiment is also shared by my colleague Jules Frost at World Vision. See her recent piece entitled: “Eyes in the Sky are Inevitable: UAVs and Humanitarian Response.”
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my research assistants Peter Mosur and Jus Mackinnon for taking the lead in this research.
- On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention [link]
- The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
- Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish [link]
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.
This initial draft was put together by Kate Chapman, Brooke 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.