Tag Archives: Balloons

Some Thoughts on Real-Time Awareness for Tech@State

I’ve been invited to present at Tech@State in Washington DC to share some thoughts on the future of real-time awareness. So I thought I’d use my blog to brainstorm and invite feedback from iRevolution readers. The organizers of the event have shared the following questions with me as a way to guide the conver-sation: Where is all of this headed?  What will social media look like in five to ten years and what will we do with all of the data? Knowing that the data stream can only increase in size, what can we do now to prepare and prevent being over-whelmed by the sheer volume of data?

These are big, open-ended questions, and I will only have 5 minutes to share some preliminary thoughts. I shall thus focus on how time-critical crowdsourcing can yield real-time awareness and expand from there.

Two years ago, my good friend and colleague Riley Crane won DARPA’s $40,000 Red Balloon Competition. His team at MIT found the location of 10 weather balloons hidden across the continental US in under 9 hours. The US covers more than 3.7 million square miles and the balloons were barely 8 feet wide. This was truly a needle-in-the-haystack kind of challenge. So how did they do it? They used crowdsourcing and leveraged social media—Twitter in particular—by using a “recursive incentive mechanism” to recruit thousands of volunteers to the cause. This mechanism would basically reward individual participants financially based on how important their contributions were to the location of one or more balloons. The result? Real-time, networked awareness.

Around the same time that Riley and his team celebrated their victory at MIT, another novel crowdsourcing initiative was taking place just a few miles away at The Fletcher School. Hundreds of students were busy combing through social and mainstream media channels for actionable and mappable information on Haiti following the devastating earthquake that had struck Port-au-Prince. This content was then mapped on the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map, providing real-time situational awareness to first responders like the US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora were busy translating and geo-coding tens of thousands of text messages from disaster-affected communities in Haiti who were texting in their location & most urgent needs to a dedicated SMS short code. Fletcher School students filtered and mapped the most urgent and actionable of these text messages as well.

One year after Haiti, the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asked the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) , a global network of 700+ volunteers, for a real-time map of crowdsourced social media information on Libya in order to improve their own situational awareness. Thus was born the Libya Crisis Map.

The result? The Head of OCHA’s Information Services Section at the time sent an email to SBTF volunteers to commend them for their novel efforts. In this email, he wrote:

“Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is no easy task. The Task Force has given us an output that is manageable and digestible, which in turn contributes to better situational awareness and decision making.”

These three examples from the US, Haiti and Libya demonstrate what is already possible with time-critical crowdsourcing and social media. So where is all this headed? You may have noted from each of these examples that their success relied on the individual actions of hundreds and sometimes thousands of volunteers. This is primarily because automated solutions to filter and curate the data stream are not yet available (or rather accessible) to the wider public. Indeed, these solutions tend to be proprietary, expensive and/or classified. I thus expect to see free and open source solutions crop up in the near future; solutions that will radically democratize the tools needed to gain shared, real-time awareness.

But automated natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning alone are not likely to succeed, in my opinion. The data stream is actually not a stream, it is a massive torent of non-indexed information, a 24-hour global firehose of real-time, distributed multi-media data that continues to outpace our ability to produce actionable intelligence from this torrential downpour of 0′s and 1′s. To turn this data tsunami into real-time shared awareness will require that our filtering and curation platforms become more automated and collaborative. I believe the key is thus to combine automated solutions with real-time collabora-tive crowdsourcing tools—that is, platforms that enable crowds to collaboratively filter and curate real-time information, in real-time.

Right now, when we comb through Twitter, for example, we do so on our own, sitting behind our laptop, isolated from others who may be seeking to filter the exact same type of content. We need to develop free and open source platforms that allow for the distributed-but-networked, crowdsourced filtering and curation of information in order to democratize the sense-making of the firehose. Only then will the wider public be able to win the equivalent of Red Balloon competitions without needing $40,000 or a degree from MIT.

I’d love to get feedback from readers about what other compelling cases or arguments I should bring up in my presentation tomorrow. So feel free to post some suggestions in the comments section below. Thank you!

From Grassroots Mapping to One Satellite Per Child

There were some amazing presentations at Where 2.0, but for me personally, Jeffrey Warren’s talk on Community-based Grassroots Mapping with Balloons and Kites in Lima was the most exciting. Jeffrey and his colleagues were inspired by two MIT undergraduate students who “launched a digital camera into near-space to take photographs of the earth from high up above.”

Jeff and colleague traveled to Lima in January 2010 to work with children and adults from several communities to bring a truly participatory (and fun!) approach to mapping.

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers used helium balloons and kites to loft their own “community satellites” made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost.

In some cases these maps may be used to support residents’ claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

Once several pictures have been taken, they can be “stitched together” to form a map like the one below. The stitching can be done by hand or using this neat tool.

All it takes is $100 for the equipment below. In fact, you could even use $1.30 trash bags instead to reduce the cost. I highly recommend looking through this fun illustrated guide.

I also like how the communities used tracing paper to annotate the maps they produced from the balloons. This is something I had wanted to do for this community mapping project in the Sudan.

I absolutely love this project. It’s easy, cheap, participatory, empowering and fun. Jeff and company are democratizing aerial mapping. I’d love to see this approach take off all over the world and would like to find some use cases in the humanitarian context, e.g., in post-disaster reconstruction and development. Imagine if local communities in Haiti could use balloon mapping to hold the development community accountable for the way their own country is being rebuilt. This approach can democratize urban planning in post-disaster environments.

Do check out the Grassroots Mapping website. You can also sign up for the group’s mailing list. If you’re in the Boston area, you may want to join Jeffrey and friends for some balloon mapping excercises. I definitely will! In the meantime, check out Jeff’s Ignite Talk from the 2009 CrisisMappers Conference.

Patrick Philippe Meier