Tag Archives: Community

Using UAVs for Community Mapping and Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti

“What if, to solve our problems, we simply need to rise above them?” CartONG and France’s OpenStreetMap (OSM) community recently teamed up to support OSM Haiti’s disaster risk reduction efforts by deploying a small UAV, “which proved very useful for participatory mapping.” The video documentary below provides an excellent summary of this humanitarian UAV mission which took place just a few weeks ago.

As I noted in this earlier blog post on grassroots UAVs, the use of UAVs at the community level can be viewed as an extension of community and participatory mapping, which is why community engagement is pivotal for humanitarian UAV deployments. In many ways, a micro-UAV can actually bring a community together; can catalyze conversations & participation, which should be taken as more than simply a positive externality. Public Participatory GIS Projects (PPGIS) have long been used as a means to catalyze community conversations and even conflict resolution and mediation. So one should not overlook the positive uses of UAVs as a way to convene a community. Indeed, as CartONG and partners rightly note in the above video documentary, “The UAV is the uniting tool that brings the community together.”

Credit: CartONG/OSM.fr Video

This joint UAV project in Haiti has three phases: training for data collection; analysis and use of collected data; and empowering the Haitian OSM community to lead their own projects with their own partners. The first phase, which was just completed, comprised 42 individual UAV flights (using SenseFly’s eBee) in multiple locations including the Port-au-Prince area, the urbanized part of Saint-Marc, Sans-Souci Palace (Unesco World Heritage Site), Dominican Republic border areas and Bord de Mer. This enabled the Haitian OSM community to test the UAV under varying conditions and across different terrains.

Credit: CartONG & OSM.fr video

The UAV flight training included “aerial security” and an overview of the UAV’s weaknesses. As CartONG rightly notes, the use of UAVs for data collection and the training that goes along with “strengthen Haitian OSM communities, so that they can fully take part in local development.” To this end, I’m hoping to see more women flying UAVs in the future rather than seeing them standing by as passive observers. Community engagement without women is not community engagement. Perhaps UAVs can play a role in uniting and enabling women to become more engaged and take on leadership roles within communities.

Credit: CartONG & OSM.fr video

As part of their initial phase, CartONG and team also set up a mini-server to facilitate the processing of UAV imagery on site. “Considering the difficulties faced regarding aerial image processing the need for such a tool has been confirmed for all situations where accessing internet & electricity is a challenge.” Moreover, the Haitian OSM community expressed a direct interest in not only piloting UAVs but also in the processing and analysis of the resulting data: “communities wish to be trained to be able to fully master the process of collection and processing of aerial image, including on software such as ArcGIS and QGIS.”

Credit: OSM.fr

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 12.44.06 PM

I’m excited about these efforts and keen to follow the next phases of this UAV community mapping project. In the meantime, big thanks to CartONG’s Martin Noblecourt for kindly sharing this important volunteer-driven project. If you want to learn more about this initiative, feel free to contact Martin via email at info@cartong.org.


See Also:

  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions in During Balkan Floods [link]

Yes, But Resilience for Whom?

I sense a little bit of history repeating, and not the good kind. About ten years ago, I was deeply involved in the field of conflict early warning and response. Eventually, I realized that the systems we were designing and implementing excluded at-risk communities even though the rhetoric had me believe they were instrumented to protect them. The truth is that these information systems were purely extractive and ultimately did little else than fill the pockets of academics who were hired as consultants to develop these early warning systems.


The prevailing belief amongst these academics was (and still is) that large datasets and advanced quantitative methodologies can predict the escalation of political tensions and thus impede violence. To be sure, “these systems have been developed in advanced environments where the intention is to gather data so as to predict events in distant places. This leads to a division of labor between those who ‘predict’ and those ‘predicted’ upon” (Cited Meier 2008, PDF).

Those who predict assume their sophisticated remote sensing systems will enable them to forecast and thus prevent impending conflict. Those predicted upon don’t even know these systems exist. The sum result? Conflict early warning systems have failed miserably at forecasting anything, let alone catalyzing preventive action or empowering local communities to get out of harm’s way. Conflict prevention is inherently political, and “political will is not an icon on your computer screen” (Cited in Meier 2013).

In Toward a Rational Society (1970), the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes “the colonization of the public sphere through the use of instrumental technical rationality. In this sphere, complex social problems are reduced to technical questions, effectively removing the plurality of contending perspectives” (Cited in Meier 2006, PDF). This instrumentalization of society depoliticized complex social problems like conflict and resilience into terms that are susceptible to technical solutions formulated by external experts. The participation of local communities thus becomes totally unnecessary to produce and deliver these technical solutions. To be sure, the colonization of the public sphere crowds out both local knowledge and participation.

We run this risk of repeating these mistakes with respect the discourse on community resilience. While we speak of community resilience, we gravitate towards the instrumentalization of communities using Big Data, which is largely conceived as a technical challenge of real-time data sensing and optimization. This external, top-down approach bars local participation. The depoliticization of resilience also hides the fact that “every act of measurement is an act marked by the play of powerful relations” (Cited Meier 2013b). To make matters worse, these measurements are almost always taken without the subjects knowing, let alone their consent. And so we create the division between those who sense and those sensed upon, thereby fully excluding the latter, all in the name of building community resilience.


Acknowledgements: I raised the question “Resilience for whom?” during the PopTech and Rockefeller Foundation workshop on “Big Data & Community Resilience.” I am thus grateful to the organizers and fellows for informing my thinking and the motivation for this post.

Big Data, Disaster Resilience and Lord of the Rings

The Shire is a local community of Hobbits seemingly disconnected from the systemic changes taking place in Middle Earth. They are a quiet, self-sufficient community with high levels of social capital. Hobbits are not interested in “Big Data”; their world is populated by “Small Data” and gentle action. This doesn’t stop the “Eye of Sauron” from sensing this small harmless hamlet, however. During Gandalf’s visit, the Hobbits learn that all is not well in the world outside the Shire. The changing climate, deforestation and land degradation is wholly unnatural and ultimately threatens their own way of life.


Gandalf leads a small band of Hobbits (bonding social capital) out of the Shire to join forces with other peoples of Middle Earth (bridging social capital) in what he calls “The Fellowship of the Ring” (resilience in diversity). Together, they must overcome personal & collective adversity and travel to Mordor to destroy the one ring that rules them all. Only then will Sauron’s “All Seeing Eye” cease sensing and oppressing the world of Middle Earth.


I’m definitely no expert on J. R. R Tolken or The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve found that literature and indeed mythology often hold up important mirrors to our modern societies and remind us that the perils we face may not be entirely new. This implies that cautionary tales of the past may still bear some relevance today. The hero’s journey speaks to the human condition, and mythology serves as a evidence of human resilience. These narratives carry deep truths about the human condition, our shortcomings and redeeming qualities. Mythologies, analogies and metaphors help us make sense of our world; we ignore them at our own risk.

This is why I’ve employed the metaphor of the Shire (local communities) and Big Data (Eye of Sauron) during recent conversations on Big Data and Community Resilience. There’s been push-back of late against Big Data, with many promoting the notion of Small Data. “For many problems and questions, small data in itself is enough” (1). Yes, for specific problems: locally disconnected problems. But we live in an increasingly interdependent and connected world with coupled systems that run the risk of experiencing synchronous failure and collapse. Our sensors cannot be purely local since the resilience of our communities is no longer mostly place-based. This is where the rings come in.


Frodo’s ring allows him to sense change well beyond the Shire and at the same time mask his local presence. But using the ring allows him to be sensed and hunted by Sauron. The same is true of Google and social media platforms like Facebook. We have no ways to opt out from being sensed if we wish to use these platforms. Community-generated content, our digital fingerprints, belong to the Great Eye, not to the Shire. This excellent piece on the Political Economy of Twitter clearly demonstrates that an elite few control user-generated content. The true owners of social media data are the platform providers, not the end users. In sum, “only corporate actors and regulators—who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race—can afford to participate,” which means “that the emerging data market will be shaped according to their interests.” Of course, the scandal surrounding PRISM makes Sauron’s “All Seeing Eye” even more palpable.

So when we say that we have more data than ever before in human history, it behooves us to ask “Who is we? And to what end?” Does the Shire have access to greater data than ever before thanks to Sauron? Hardly. Is this data used by Sauron to support community resilience? Fat chance. Local communities are excluded; they are observers, unwilling participants in a centralized system that ultimately undermines trust and their own resilience. Hobbits deserve the right not to be sensed. This should be a non-negotiable. They also deserve the right to own and manage their own “Small Data” themselves; that is, data generated by the community, for the community. We need respectful, people-centered data protection protocols like those developed by Open Paths. Community resilience ought to be ethical community resilience.

To be sure, we need to place individual data-sharing decisions in the hands of individuals rather than external parties. In addition to Open Paths, Creative Commons is an excellent example of what is possible. Why not extend that framework to personal and social media data? Why not include a temporal element to these licenses, as hinted in this blog post last year. That is, something like SnapChat where the user decides for herself how long the data should be accessible and usable. Well it turns out that these discussions and related conversations are taking place thanks to my fellow PopTech and Rockefeller Foundation Fellows. Stay tuned for updates. The ideas presented above are the result of our joint brainstorming sessions, and certainly not my ideas alone (but I take full blame for The Lord of the Rings analogy given my limited knowledge of said books!).

In closing, a final reference to The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf (who is a translational leader) didn’t empower the Hobbits, he took them on a journey that built on their existing capacities for resilience. That is, we cannot empower others, we can only provide them with the means to empower themselves. In sum, “Not all those who wander are lost.”


ps. I’m hoping my talented fellows Kate Crawford, Gustavo Faleiros, Amy Luers, Claudia Perlich and Jer Thorp will chime in, improve my Lord of the Rings analogy and post comments in full Elvish script.

Crowdsourcing Community-Based Disaster Relief in Indonesia

I just came across a very neat example of crowdsourced, community-based crisis response in this excellent report by the BBC World Service Trust: “Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive—And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help.” I plan to provide a detailed summary of this important report in a forthcoming blog post. In the meantime, this very neat example below (taken directly from said BBC report) is well worth sharing.

“In Indonesia during the eruption of Mount Merapi in November 2010, a local radio community known as Jalin Merapi began to share information via Twitter and used the network to organize community-based relief to over 700 shelters on the side of the mountain […].”

“The Jalin Merapi network was founded following an eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano on Java, Indonesia in 2006. Three community radio stations who felt that the reporting of the eruption by the mainstream media had been inaccurate and unhelpful to those affected joined up with a group of local NGOs and other radio networks to produce accurate information on volcanic activity for those living on the mountain’s slopes. By the time of the 2010 eruption the network involved 800 volunteers, a presence online, on Twitter and on Face-book, and a hotline.”

“During the first eruption on 26 October 2010, the team found that their online accounts–especially Twitter–had become extremely busy. Ten volunteers were assigned to manage the information flow: sorting incoming information (they agreed 27 hashtags to share information), cross referencing it and checking for veracity. For example, when one report came in about a need for food for 6,000 internally displaced people, the team checked the report for veracity then redistributed it as a request for help, a request re-tweeted by followers of the Jalin Merapi account. Within 30 minutes, the same volunteer called and said that enough food had now been supplied, and asked people to stop sending food – a message that was distributed by the team immediately.”

“Interestingly, two researchers who analyzed information systems during the Merapi eruption found that many people believed traditional channels such as television to be ‘less satisfying’. In many cases they felt that television did not provide proper information at the time, but created panic instead.” [...] “The success of initiatives such as the Jalin Merapi is based on the levels of trust, community interaction and person-to-person relationships on which participants can build. While technology facilitated and amplified these, it did not replace them.” [...] “The work of Jalin Merapi continues today, using the time between eruptions to raise awareness of dangers and help communities plan for the next incident.”

Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently announced a new partnership with Google that will apparently empower citizen cartographers in 150 countries worldwide. This has provoked some concern among open source enthusiasts. Under this new agreement, the Bank, UN agencies and developing country governments will be able to “access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.”

So what’s the catch? Google’s licensing agreement for Google Map Maker stipulates the following: Users are not allowed to access Google Map Maker data via any platform other than those designated by Google. Users are not allowed to make any copies of the data, nor can they translate the data, modify it or create a derivative of the data. In addition, users cannot publicly display any Map Maker data for commercial purposes. Finally, users cannot use Map Maker data to create a service that is similar to any already provided by Google.

There’s a saying in the tech world that goes like this: “If the product is free, then you are the product.” I fear this may be the case with the Google-Bank partnership. I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data, which will carry all the licensing restrictions described above. Does this really empower citizen cartographers?

Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes? Will Google push Map Maker data to Google Maps & Google Earth products, i.e., expanding market share & commercial interests? Contrast this with the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), which uses open source software and open data to empower local communities and disaster risk managers. Also, the Google-Bank partnership is specifically with UN agencies and governments, not exactly citizens or NGOs.

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

“In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

 Here’s another version:

“In the 21st century, for-profit companies like Google Inc have an advantage over local communities. They can use big license restrictions. With the Google-Bank partnership, Google can use local communities to collect information for free and make the biggest profit. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

The Google-Bank partnership points to another important issue being ignored in this debate. Let’s not pretend that technology alone determines whether participatory mapping truly empowers local communities. I recently learned of an absolutely disastrous open source “community” mapping project in Africa which should one day should be written up in a blog post entitled “Open Source Community Mapping #FAIL”.

So software developers (whether from the open source or proprietary side) who want to get involved in community mapping and have zero experience in participatory GIS, local development and capacity building should think twice: the “do no harm” principle also applies to them. This is equally true of Google Inc. The entire open source mapping community will be watching every move they make on this new World Bank partnership.

I do hope Google eventually realizes just how much of an opportunity they have to do good with this partnership. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will draft a separate licensing agreement for the World Bank partnership. In fact, I hope they openly invite the participatory GIS and open source mapping communities to co-draft an elevated licensing agreement that will truly empower citizen cartographers. Google would still get publicity—and more importantly positive publicity—as a result. They’d still get the data and have their brand affiliated with said data. But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?