Proof: How Crowdsourced Election Monitoring Makes a Difference

My colleagues Catie Bailard & Steven Livingston have just published the results of their empirical study on the impact of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring. Readers of iRevolution may recall that my doctoral dissertation analyzed the use of crowdsourcing in repressive environments and specifically during contested elections. This explains my keen interest in the results of my colleagues’ news data-driven study, which suggests that crowdsourcing does have a measurable and positive impact on voter turnout.

Reclaim Naija

Catie and Steven are “interested in digitally enabled collective action initiatives” spearheaded by “nonstate actors, especially in places where the state is incapable of meeting the expectations of democratic governance.” They are particularly interested in measuring the impact of said initiatives. “By leveraging the efficiencies found in small, incremental, digitally enabled contributions (an SMS text, phone call, email or tweet) to a public good (a more transparent election process), crowdsourced elections monitoring constitutes [an] important example of digitally-enabled collective action.” To be sure, “the successful deployment of a crowdsourced elections monitoring initiative can generate information about a specific political process—information that would otherwise be impossible to generate in nations and geographic spaces with limited organizational and administrative capacity.”

To this end, their new study tests for the effects of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring efforts on the 2011 Nigerian presidential elections. More specifically, they analyzed close to 30,000 citizen-generated reports of failures, abuses and successes which were publicly crowdsourced and mapped as part of the Reclaim Naija project. Controlling for a number of factors, Catie and Steven find that the number and nature of crowdsourced reports is “significantly correlated with increased voter turnout.”

Reclaim Naija 2

What explains this correlation? The authors “do not argue that this increased turnout is a result of crowdsourced reports increasing citizens’ motivation or desire to vote.” They emphasize that their data does not speak to individual citizen motivations. Instead, Catie and Steven show that “crowdsourced reports provided operationally critical information about the functionality of the elections process to government officials. Specifically, crowdsourced information led to the reallocation of resources to specific polling stations (those found to be in some way defective by information provided by crowdsourced reports) in preparation for the presidential elections.”

(As an aside, this finding is also relevant for crowdsourced crisis mapping efforts in response to natural disasters. In these situations, citizen-generated disaster reports can—and in some cases do—provide humanitarian organizations with operationally critical information on disaster damage and resulting needs).

In sum, “the electoral deficiencies revealed by crowdsourced reports […] provided actionable information to officials that enabled them to reallocate election resources in preparation for the presidential election […]. This strengthened the functionality of those polling stations, thereby increasing the number of votes that could be successfully cast and counted–an argument that is supported by both quantitative and qualitative data brought to bear in this analysis.” Another important finding is that the resulting “higher turnout in the presidential election was of particular benefit to the incumbent candidate.” As Catie and Steven rightly note, “this has important implications for how various actors may choose to utilize the information generated by new [technologies].”

In conclusion, the authors argue that “digital technologies fundamentally change information environments and, by doing so, alter the opportunities and constraints that the political actors face.” This new study is an important contribution to the literature and should be required reading for anyone interested in digitally-enabled, crowdsourced collective action. Of course, the analysis focuses on “just” one case study, which means that the effects identified in Nigeria may not occur in other crowdsourced, election monitoring efforts. But that’s another reason why this study is important—it will no doubt catalyze future research to determine just how generalizable these initial findings are.

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See also:

  • Traditional Election Monitoring Versus Crowdsourced Monitoring: Which Has More Impact? [link]
  • Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) [link]
  • Automatically Classifying Crowdsourced Election Reports [link]
  • Evolution in Live Mapping: The Egyptian Elections [link]

Piloting MicroMappers: How to Become a Digital Ranger in Namibia (Revised!)

Many thanks to all of you who have signed up to search and protect Namibia’s beautiful wildlife! (There’s still time to sign up here; you’ll receive an email on Friday, September 26th with the link to volunteer).

Our MicroMappers Wildlife Challenge will launch on Friday, September 26th and run through Sunday, September 28th. More specifically, we’ll begin the search for Namibia’s wildlife at 12noon Namibia time that Friday (which is 12noon Geneva, 11am London, 6am New York, 6pm Shanghai, 7pm Tokyo, 8pm Sydney). You can join the expedition at any time after this. Simply add yourself to this list-serve to participate. Anyone who can get online can be a digital ranger, no prior experience necessary. We’ll continue our digital search until sunset on Sunday evening.

Namibia Map 1

As noted here, rangers at Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve need our help to find wild animals in their reserve. This will help our ranger friends to better protect these beautiful animals from poachers and other threats. According to the rangers, “Rhino poaching continues to be a growing problem that threatens to extinguish some rhino species within a decade or two. Rhino monitoring is thus important for their protection. Using digital maps in combination with MicroMappers to trace aerial images of rhinos could greatly improve rhino monitoring efforts.”

NamibiaMap2
At 12noon Namibia time on Friday, September 26th, we’ll send an email to the above list-serve with the link to our MicroMappers Aerial Clicker, which we’ll use to crowdsource the search for Namibia’s wildlife. We’ll also publish a blog post on MicroMappers.org with the link. Here’s what the Clicker looks like (click to enlarge the Clicker):

MM Aerial Clicker Namibia

When we find animals, we’ll draw “digital shields” around them. Before we show you how to draw these shields and what types of animals we’ll be looking for, here are examples of helpful shields (versus unhelpful ones); note that we’ve had to change these instructions, so please review them carefully! 

MM Rihno Zoom

This looks like two animals! So lets draw two shields.

MM Rhine New YES

The white outlines are the shields that we drew using the Aerial Clicker above. Notice that our shields include the shadows of the animals, this important. If the animals are close to each other, the shields can overlap but there can only be one shield per animal (one shield per rhino in this case : )

MM Rhino New NO

These shields are too close to the animals, please give them more room!

MM Rhino No
These shields are too big.

If you’ve found something that may be an animal but you’re not sure, then please draw a shield anyway just in case. Don’t worry if most pictures don’t have any animals. Knowing where the animals are not is just as important as knowing where they are!

MM Giraffe Zoom

This looks like a giraffe! So lets draw a shield.

MM Giraffe No2

This shield does not include the giraffe’s shadow! So lets try again.

MM Giraffe No

This shield is too large. Lets try again!

MM Giraffe New YES

Now that’s perfect!

Here are some more pictures of animals that we’ll be looking for. As a digital ranger, you’ll simply need to draw shields around these animals, that’s all there is to it. The shields can overlap if need be, but remember: one shield per animal, include their shadows and give them some room to move around : )

MM Ostritch

Can you spot the ostriches? Click picture above to enlarge. You’ll be abel to zoom in with the Aerial Clicker during the Wildlife Challenge.

MM Oryx

Can you spot the five oryxes in the above? (Actually, there may be a 6th one, can you see it in the shadows?).

MM Impala

And the impalas in the left of the picture? Again, you’ll be able zoom in with the Aerial Clicker.

So how exactly does this Aerial Clicker work? Here’s a short video that shows just easy it is to draw a digital shield using the Clicker (note that we’ve had to change the instructions, so please review this video carefully!):

Thanks for reading and for watching! The results of this expedition will help rangers in Namibia make sure they have found all the animals, which is important for their wildlife protection efforts. We’ll have thousands of aerial photographs to search through next week, which means that our ranger friends in Namibia need as much help as possible! So this is where you come on in: please spread the word and invite your friends, families and colleagues to search and protect Namibia’s beautiful wildlife.

MicroMappers is a joint project with the United Nations (OCHA), and the purpose of this pilot is also to test the Aerial Clicker for future humanitarian response efforts. More here. Any questions or suggestions? Feel free to email me at patrick@iRevolution.net or add them in the comments section below.

Thank you!

And the UAV/Drone Social Innovation Award Goes To?

The winner of the Drone Social Innovation Award has just been announced! The $10,000 prize is awarded to the most socially beneficial, documented use of a UAV platform that costs less than $3,000. The purpose of this award is to “spur innovation, investment, and attention to the positive role this technology can play in our society.” Many thanks to my colleague Timothy Reuter for including me on the panel of judges for this novel Social Innovation Award, which was kindly sponsored by NEXA Capital Partners.

Here’s a quick look at our finalists!

Disaster Relief in the Philippines

Using low-cost UAVs to take high-resolution imagery of disaster-affected areas following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The team behind these efforts is also working with NGOs from around the world to enable them to use this simple technology for situational awareness in times of crisis. The team is also developing platforms to deliver critical items to locations that are difficult to access in post-disaster scenarios.

Taking Autism to the Sky

Teaching young children with autism how to build and fly their own UAVs. The team behind this initiative to scale their work and teach autistic kids both better social skills and “concrete skills in drone technology that could get them a job one day. It’s just one of the many proposed uses of drones in schools and in science and technology education.”

Crowd Estimation with UAVs

While this entry focuses specifically on the use of UAVs and algorithms to determine the size of social movements (e.g., rallies & protests), there may be application to estimating population flows in refugee and IDP settings. I have a blog post on this topic coming up, stay tuned!

Drones for environmental conservation

Aerial photos and videos helped to direct millions in funding to acquire and preserve hundreds of acres of valuable habitat and strategic additions to public park space. “In a single glance, an aerial photo allows you understand so much more about location than a view from the ground.”

Landmine detection

Bosnia-Herzegovina has one of the highest densities of land mines in the world. So this team from Barcelona is exploring how UAVs might accelerate the process of land mine detection. See this post to learn about another UAV land mine detection effort following the massive flooding in the region this summer.

Whale Research and Conservation

Using benign research tools like UAVs to prove you can study whales without killing them. This allows conservationists to study whales’ DNA  along with their stress hormones without disturbing them or requiring the use of loud and expensive airplanes.


And the award goes to… (drum roll please)… not one but two entries (yes it really was a tie)!  Big congratulations to the teams behind the Land Mine Detection and Disaster Response projects! We really look forward to following your progress. Thank you for your important contributions to social innovation!

We are hoping to making this new “Drone Social Innovation Award” an annual competition (if the stars align again next year). So stay tuned. In the meantime, many thanks again to Timothy Reuter for spearheading this social innovation challenge, to my fellow judges, and most importantly to all participants for taking the time to share their remarkable projects!

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See Also:

  • Crowdsourcing the Analysis of Aerial Imagery for Wildlife Protection  and Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention

My colleague Helena Puig Larrauri recently published this excellent piece on the ethical problems & possible solutions to using UAVs for good in conflict settings. I highly recommend reading her article. The purpose of my blog post is simply to reflect on the important issues that Helena raises.

DPKOdrone

One of Helena’s driving questions in this: “Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose?” She asks this in the context of the surveillance drones (pictured above) used by the United Nation’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While the use of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones raises a number of complicated issues, Helena is right to insist that we begin discussing these hard issues earlier rather than later. To this end, she presents “three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.” I italicized solutions because much of the nascent discourse on this topic seems preoccupied with repeating all the problems that have already been identified, leaving little time and consideration to discussions on possible solutions. So kudos to Helena.

Problem 1: Privacy and Consent. How viable is it to obtain consent from those being imaged for UAV-collected data? As noted in this blog post on data protection protocols for crisis mapping, the International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes that, “When such consent cannot be realistically obtained, information allowing the identification of victims or witnesses, should only be relayed in the public domain if the expected protection outcome clearly outweighs the risks. In case of doubt, displaying only aggregated data, with no individual markers, is strongly recommended.” But Helena argues that drawing the line on what is actually life-threatening in a conflict context is particularly hard. “UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?” These are really important questions, and I certainly do not have all, most or any of the answers.

In terms of UAVs not being able to detect intent, could other data sources be used to monitor tactics and strategies that may indicate intent to harm? On a different note, DigitalGlobe’s latest & most sophisticated satellite, WorldView-3, captures images at an astounding 31-centimeter resolution and can even see wildfires beneath the smoke. What happens when commercial satellites are able to capture imagery at 20 or 10 centimeter resolutions? Will DigitalGlobe ask the planet’s population for their consent? Does anyone know of any studies out there that have analyzed just how much—and also what kind—of personal identifying information can be captured via satellite and UAV imagery across various resolutions, especially when linked to other datasets?

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 2.02.42 PM

Problem 2: Fear and Confusion. Helena kindly refers to this blog post of mine on common misconceptions about UAVs. I gasped when she quite rightly noted that my post didn’t explicitly distinguish between the use of UAVs in response to natural hazards versus violent, armed conflict. To be clear, I was speaking strictly and only about the former. The very real possibility for fear and confusion that Helena and others describe is precisely why I’ve remained stead-fast about including the following guideline in the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct:

“Do not operate humanitarian UAVs in conflict zones or in countries under repressive, authoritarian rule; particularly if military drones have recently been used in these countries.”

As Helena notes, a consortium of NGOs working in the DRC have warned that DPKO’s use of surveillance drones in the country could “blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors.” According to Daniel Gilman from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who also authored OCHA’s Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs,

“The DRC NGO position piece has to be understood in the context of the Oslo Guidelines on the use of Military and Civil Defense Assets in Disaster Relief – from conversations with some people engaged on the ground, the issue was less the tech itself [i.e., the drones] than the fact that the mission was talking about using this [tech] both for military interventions and ‘humanitarian’ needs, particularly since [DPKO’s] Mission doesn’t have a humanitarian mandate. We should be careful of eliding issues around dual-use by military actors with use by humanitarians in conflicts or with general concerns about privacy” (Email exchange on Sept. 8, 2014, permission to publish this excerpt granted in writing).

This is a very important point. Still, distinguishing between UAVs operated by the military versus those used by humanitarian organizations for non-military purposes is no easy task—assuming it is even possible. Does this mean that UAVs should simply not be used for good in conflict zones? I’m conflicted. (As an aside, this dilemma reminds me of the “Security Dilemma” in International Relations Theory and in particular the related “Offense-Defense Theory“).

Perhaps an alternative is for DPKO to use their helicopters instead (like the one below), which, for some (most?) civilians, may look somewhat more scary than DPKO’s drone above. Keep in mind that such helicopters & military cargo planes are also significantly louder, which may add to the fear. Also, using helicopters to capture aerial imagery doesn’t really solve the privacy and consent problem.

UNheli

On the plus side, we can at least distinguish these UN-marked helicopters from other military attack helicopters used by repressive regimes. Then again, what prevents a ruthless regime from painting their helicopters white and adding big UN letters to maintain an element of surprise when bombing their own civilians?

un-drone

Going back to DPKO’s drone, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that these models are definitely on the larger and heavier end of the spectrum. Compare the above with the small, ultralight UAV below, which was used following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. This UAV is almost entirely made of foam and thus weighs only ~600 grams. When airborne, it looks like a bird. So it may elicit less fear even if DPKO ends up using this model in the future.

Problem 3: Response and Deterrence. Helena asks whether it is ethical for DPKO or other UN/NGO actors to deploy UAVs “if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats?” Could the use of UAV raise expectations of a response? “One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent” to would-be perpetrators of violence, “just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent.” As Helena writes, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is actually a direct aim of the UN’s drone program. “But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.”

I suppose this leads to the following question: are there ways to make conflict actors on the ground aware that they are perhaps being watched? Then again, if they do realize that they’re being watched, won’t they simply adapt and evolve strategies to evade or shoot down DPKO’s UAVs? This would then force DPKO to change it’s own strategy, perhaps adopting more stealthy UAVs. What broader consequences and possible unintended impact could this have on civilian, crisis-affected communities?

Solution 1: Education and Civic Engagement. I completely agree with Helena’s emphasis on both education and civic engagements, two key points I’ve made in a number of posts (here, here & here). I also agree that “This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account.” But this brings us back to Helena’s first question: “what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.” So what to do? Perhaps Helena’s second solution may shed some light.

Solution 2: From Civic Engagement to Empowerment. In Helena’s view, “the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs.” I completely agree with this as well, which is why I’m very interested in this community-based project in Haiti and this grassroots UAV initiative; in fact, I invited the latter’s team leads to join the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) given their expertise in UAVs and their explicit focus on community engagement.

UAViators Long Logo

In terms of peacebuilding applications, Helena writes that “there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.” But as she rightly notes, these novel applications exacerbate the three ethical problems outlined above. So what now?

I have some (unformed) ideas but this blog post is long enough already. I’ll leave this for a future post and simply add the following for now. First, in terms of civil resistance and the need to distinguish between a regime’s UAV versus activist UAVs, perhaps secret codes could be used to signal that a UAV flying for a civil resistance mission. This could mean painting certain patterns on the UAV or flying in a particular pattern. Of course, this leads back to the age-old challenge of disseminating the codes widely enough while keeping them from falling into the wrong hands.

Second, I used to work extensively in the conflict prevention and conflict early warning space (see my original blog on this). During this time, I was a strong advocate for a people-centered approach to early warning and rapid response systems. The UN ‘s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time & in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

This shift is ultimately a shift in the balance of power, away from state-centric power to people-power, which is why I wholeheartedly agree with Helena’s closing thoughts: “The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.” This is not about us.

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See Also:

  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Reflections on Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]

Piloting MicroMappers: Crowdsourcing the Analysis of UAV Imagery for Disaster Response

New update here!

UAVs are increasingly used in humanitarian response. We have thus added a new Clicker to our MicroMappers collection. The purpose of the “Aerial Clicker” is to crowdsource the tagging of aerial imagery captured by UAVs in humanitarian settings. Trying out new technologies during major disasters can pose several challenges, however. So we’re teaming up with Drone Adventures, Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve, Polytechnic of Namibia, and l’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to try out our new Clicker using high-resolution aerial photographs of wild animals in Namibia.

Kuzikus1
As part of their wildlife protection efforts, rangers at Kuzikus want to know how many animals (and what kinds) are roaming about their wildlife reserve. So Kuzikus partnered with Drone Adventures and EPFL’s Cooperation and Development Center (CODEV) and the Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG) to launch the SAVMAP project, which stands for “Near real-time ultrahigh-resolution imaging from unmanned aerial vehicles for sustainable land management and biodiversity conservation in semi-arid savanna under regional and global change.” SAVMAP was co-funded by CODEV through LASIG. You can learn more about their UAV flights here.

Our partners are interested in experimenting with crowdsourcing to make sense of this aerial imagery and raise awareness about wildlife in Namibia. As colleagues at Kuzikus recently told us, “Rhino poaching continues to be a growing problem that threatens to extinguish some rhino species within a decade or two. Rhino monitoring is thus important for their protection. One problematic is to detect rhinos in large areas and/or dense bush areas. Using digital maps in combination with MicroMappers to trace aerial images of rhinos could greatly improve rhino monitoring efforts.” 

So our pilot project serves two goals: 1) Trying out the new Aerial Clicker for future humanitarian deployments; 2) Assessing whether crowdsourcing can be used to correctly identify wild animals.

MM Aerial Clicker

Can you spot the zebras in the aerial imagery above? If so, you’re already a digital ranger! No worries, you won’t need to know that those are actually zebras, you’ll simply outline any animals you find (using your mouse) and click on “Add my drawings.” Yes, it’s that easy : )

We’ll be running our Wildlife Challenge from September 26th-28th. To sign up for this digital expedition to Namibia, simply join the MicroMappers list-serve here. We’ll be sure to share the results of the Challenge with all volunteers who participate and with our partners in Namibia. We’ll also be creating a wildlife map based on the results so our friends know where the animals have been spotted (by you!).

MM_Rhino

Given that rhino poaching continues to be a growing problem in Namibia (and elsewhere), we will obviously not include the location of rhinos in our wildlife map. You’ll still be able to look for and trace rhinos (like those above) as well as other animals like ostriches, oryxes & giraffes, for example. Hint: shadows often reveal the presence of wild animals!

MM_Giraffe

Drone Adventures hopes to carry out a second mission in Namibia early next year. So if we’re successful in finding all the animals this time around, then we’ll have the opportunity to support the Kuzikus Reserve again in their future protection efforts. Either way, we’ll be better prepared for the next humanitarian disaster thanks to this pilot. MicroMappers is developed by QCRI and is a joint project with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Any questions or suggestions? Feel free to email me at patrick@iRevolution.net or add them in the comments section below. Thank you!

How to Program UAV Flights for Humanitarian Missions

UAVs are increasingly being flown autonomously rather than manually. But how does this actually work? In this blog post, I seek to “demystify” the process of programming UAV flights. While a number of platforms exist to program UAVs, they largely resemble each other. So I used the eMotion software that comes with senseFly’s eBee UAV to provide the demo below, which is actually based on a real humanitarian mission in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. Please be sure to read the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct and Operational Check List before programming any UAV flights for humanitarian missions.

This demo is for simple flights only. If you’re flying near hills or mountains, for example, you’ll need to upload elevation data. I’ll provide a demo on how to program more complicated flights in the future. Of course, humanitarian UAV missions don’t end with the landing. The imagery needs to be analyzed and translated into information products to support decision-making. This requires using image processing platforms like Pix4D and PhotoScan. I’ll provide a demo on this in the future. In the meantime, if you’ve captured aerial videos or pictures of disaster areas, the easiest way to share them with humanitarian organizations and others is by posting them on the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Crisis Map. You can also partner with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and MicroMappers to crowdsource the analysis of aerial imagery. These groups can be contacted via the Digital Humanitarian Network.

Bio

Acknowledgements:

See Also:

  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Reflections on the Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Google Already Developing UAV’s for Disaster Response [link]
  • WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies [link]

Disaster Tweets Coupled With UAV Imagery Give Responders Valuable Data on Infrastructure Damage

My colleague Leysia Palen recently co-authored an important study (PDF) on tweets posted during last year’s major floods in Colorado. As Leysia et al. write, “Because the flooding was widespread, it impacted many canyons and closed off access to communities for a long duration. The continued storms also prevented airborne reconnaissance. During this event, social media and other remote sources of information were sought to obtain reconnaissance information […].”

1coloflood

The study analyzed 212,672 unique tweets generated by 57,049 unique Twitter users. Of these tweets, 2,658 were geo-tagged. The researchers combed through these geo-tagged tweets for any information on infrastructure damage. A sample of these are included below (click to enlarge). Leysia et al. were particularly interested in geo-tagged tweets with pictures of infrastructure damage.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 3.17.34 AM

They overlaid these geo-tagged pictures on satellite and UAV/aerial imagery of the disaster-affected areas. The latter was captured by Falcon UAV. The satellite and aerial imagery provided the researchers with an easy way to distinguish between vegetation and water. “Most tweets appeared to fall primarily within the high flood hazard zones. Most bridges and roads that were located in the flood plains were expected to experience a high risk of damage, and the tweets and remote data confirmed this pattern.” According to Shideh Dashti, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering, and one of the co-authors, “we compared those tweets to the damage reported by engineering reconnaissance teams and they were well correlated.”

falcon uav flooding

To this end, by making use of real-time reporting by those affected in a region, including their posting of visual data,” Leysia and team “show that tweets may be used to directly support engineering reconnaissance by helping to digitally survey a region and navigate optimal paths for direct observation.” In sum, the results of this study demonstrate “how tweets, particularly with postings of visual data and references to location, may be used to directly support geotechnical experts by helping to digitally survey the affected region and to navigate optimal paths through the physical space in preparation for direct observation.”

Since the vast majority of tweets are not geo-tagged, GPS coordinates for potentially important pictures in these tweets are not available. The authors thus recommend looking into using natural language processing (NLP) techniques to “expose hazard-specific and site-specific terms and phrases that the layperson uses to report damage in situ.” They also suggest that a “more elaborate campaign that instructs people how to report such damage via tweets […] may help get better reporting of damage across a region.”

These findings are an important contribution to the humanitarian computing space. For us at QCRI, this research suggests we may be on the right track with MicroMappers, a crowdsourcing (technically a microtasking) platform to filter and geo-tag social media content including pictures and videos. MicroMappers was piloted last year in response to Typhoon Haiyan. We’ve since been working on improving the platform and extending it to also analyze UAV/aerial imagery. We’ll be piloting this new feature in coming weeks. Ultimately, our aim is for MicroMappers to create near real-time Crisis Maps that provide an integrated display of relevant Tweets, pictures, videos and aerial imagery during disasters.

Bio

See also:

  • Using AIDR to Automatically Collect & Analyze Disaster Tweet [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Digital Humanitarian Response: Why Moving from Crowdsourcing to Microtasking is Important [link]