Tag Archives: CrisisMappers

Opening Keynote Address at CrisisMappers 2013

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Welcome to Kenya, or as we say here, Karibu! This is a special ICCM for me. I grew up in Nairobi; in fact our school bus would pass right by the UN every day. So karibu, welcome to this beautiful country (and continent) that has taught me so much about life. Take “Crowdsourcing,” for example. Crowdsourcing is just a new term for the old African saying “It takes a village.” And it took some hard-working villagers to bring us all here. First, my outstanding organizing committee went way, way above and beyond to organize this village gathering. Second, our village of sponsors made it possible for us to invite you all to Nairobi for this Fifth Annual, International Conference of CrisisMappers (ICCM).

I see many new faces, which is really super, so by way of introduction, my name is Patrick and I develop free and open source next generation humanitarian technologies with an outstanding team of scientists at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), one of this year’s co-sponsors.

We’ve already had an exciting two-days of pre-conference site visits with our friends from Sisi ni Amani and our co-host Spatial Collective. ICCM participants observed first-hand how GIS, mobile technology and communication projects operate in informal settlements, covering a wide range of topics that include governance, civic education and peacebuilding. In addition, our friend Heather Leson from the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) coordinated an excellent set of trainings at the iHub yesterday. So a big thank you to Heather, Sisi ni Amani and Spatial Collective for these outstanding pre-conference events.

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This is my 5th year giving opening remarks at ICCM, so some of you will know from previous years that I often take this moment to reflect on the past 12 months. But just reflecting on the past 12 days alone requires it’s own separate ICCM. I’m referring, of course, to the humanitarian and digital humanitarian response to the devastating Typhoon in the Philippines. This response, which is still ongoing, is unparalleled in terms of the level of collaboration between members of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and formal humanitarian organizations like UN OCHA and WFP. All of these organizations, both formal and digital, are also members of the CrisisMapper Network.

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The Digital Humanitarian Network, or DHN, serves as the official interface between formal humanitarian organizations and global networks of tech-savvy digital volunteers. These digital volunteers provide humanitarian organizations with the skill and surge capacity they often need to make timely sense of “Big (Crisis) Data” during major disasters. By Big Crisis Data, I mean social media content and satellite imagery, for example. This overflow of such information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to humanitarian response as the absence of information. And making sense of this overflow in response to Yolanda has required all hands on deck—i.e., an unprecedented level of collaboration between many members of the DHN.

So I’d like to share with you 2 initial observations from this digital humanitarian response to Yolanda; just 2 points that may be signs of things to come. Local Digital Villages and World Wide (good) Will.

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First, there were numerous local digital humanitarians on the ground in the Philippines. These digitally-savvy Filipinos were rapidly self-organizing and launching crisis maps well before any of us outside the Philippines had time to blink. One such group is Rappler, for example.

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We (the DHN) reached out to them early on, sharing both our data and volunteers. Remember that “Crowdsourcing” is just a new word for the old African saying that “it takes a village…” and sometimes, it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground. And Rappler is hardly the only local digital community that mobilizing in response to Yolanda, there are dozens of digital villages spearheading similar initiatives across the country.

The rise of local digital villages means that the distant future (or maybe not too distant future) of humanitarian operations may become less about the formal “brick-and-mortar” humanitarian organizations and, yes, also less about the Digital Humanitarian Network. Disaster response is and has always have been about local communities self-organizing and now local digital communities self-organizing. The majority of lives saved during disasters is attributed to this local agency, not international, external relief. Furthermore, these local digital villages are increasingly the source of humanitarian innovation, so we should pay close attention; we have a lot to learn from these digital villages. Naturally, they too are learning a lot from us.

The second point that struck me occurred when the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) completed its deployment of MicroMappers on behalf of OCHA. The response from several SBTF volunteers was rather pointed—some were disappointed that the deployment had closed; others were downright upset. What happened next was very interesting; you see, these volunteers simply kept going, they used (hacked) the SBTF Skype Chat for Yolanda (which already had over 160 members) to self-organize and support other digital humanitarian efforts that were still ongoing. So the SBTF Team sent an email to it’s 1,000+ volunteers with the following subject header: “Closing Yolanda Deployment, Opening Other Opportunities!”

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The email provided a list of the most promising ongoing digital volunteer opportunities for the Typhoon response and encouraged volunteers to support whatever efforts they were most drawn to. This second reveals that a “World Wide (good) Will” exists. People care. This is good! Until recently, when disasters struck in faraway lands, we would watch the news on television wishing we could somehow help. That private wish—that innate human emotion—would perhaps translate into a donation. Today, not only can you donate cash to support those affected by disasters, you can also donate a few minutes of your time to support the relief efforts on the ground thanks to new humanitarian technologies and platforms. In other words, you, me, all of us can now translate our private wishes into direct, online public action, which can support those working in disaster-affected areas including local digital villages.

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This surge of World Wide (good) Will explains why SBTF volunteers wanted to continue volunteering for as long as they wished even if our formal digital humanitarian network had phased out operations. And this is beautiful. We should not seek to limit or control this global goodwill or play the professional versus amateur card too quickly. Besides, who are we kidding? We couldn’t control this flood of goodwill even if we wanted to. But, we can embrace this goodwill and channel it. People care, they want to offer their time to help others thousands of miles away. This is beautiful and the kind of world I want to live in. To paraphrase the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the greatest harm in the world is caused not by evil but apathy. So we should cherish the digital goodwill that springs during disasters. This spring is the digital equivalent of mutual aid, of self-help. The global village of digital Good Samaritans is growing.

At the same time, this goodwill, this precious human emotion and the precious time it freely offers can cause more harm than good if it is not channeled responsibly. When international volunteers poor into disaster areas wanting to help, their goodwill can have the opposite effect, especially when they are inexperienced. This is also true of digital volunteers flooding in to help online.

We in the CrisisMappers community have the luxury of having learned a lot about digital humanitarian response since the Haiti Earthquake; we have learned important lessons about data privacy and protection, codes of conduct, the critical information needs of humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected populations, standardizing operating procedures, and so on. Indeed we now (for the first time) have data protection protocols that address crowdsourcing, social media and digital volunteers thanks to our colleagues at the ICRC. We also have an official code of conduct on the use of SMS for disaster response thanks to our colleagues at GSMA. This year’s World Disaster Report (WDR 2013) also emphasizes the responsible use of next generation humanitarian technologies and the crisis data they manage.

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Now, this doesn’t mean that we the formal (digital) humanitarian sector have figured it all out—far from it. This simply means that we’ve learned a few important and difficult lessons along the way. Unlike newcomers to the digital humanitarian space, we have the benefit of several years of hard experience to draw on when deploying for disasters like Typhoon Yolanda. While sharing these lessons and disseminating them as widely as possible is obviously a must, it is simply not good enough. Guidebooks and guidelines just won’t cut it. We also need to channel the global spring of digital goodwill and distribute it to avoid  “flash floods” of goodwill. So what might these goodwill channels look like? Well they already exist in the form of the Digital Humanitarian Network—more specifically the members of the DHN.

These are the channels that focus digital goodwill in support of the humanitarian organizations that physically deploy to disasters. These channels operate using best practices, codes of conduct, protocols, etc., and can be held accountable. At the same time, however, these channels also block the upsurge of goodwill from new digital volunteers—those outside our digital villages. How? Our channels block this World Wide (good) Will by requiring technical expertise to engage with us and/or  by requiring an inordinate amount of time commitment. So we should not be surprised if the “World Wide (Good) Will” circumvents our channels altogether, and in so doing causes more harm than good during disasters. Our channels are blocking their engagement and preventing them from joining our digital villages. Clearly we need different channels to focus the World Wide (Good) Will.

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Our friends at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap already figured this out two years ago when they set up their microtasking server, making it easier for less tech-savvy volunteers to engage. We need to democratize our humanitarian technologies to responsibly channel the huge surplus global goodwill that exists online. This explains why my team and I at QCRI are developing MicroMappers and why we deployed the platform in response to OCHA’s request within hours of Typhoon Yolanda making landfall in the Philippines.

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This digital humanitarian operation was definitely far from perfect, but it was super simple to use and channeled 208 hours of global goodwill in just a matter days. Those are 208 hours that did not cause harm. We had volunteers from dozens of countries around the world and from all ages and walks of life offering their time on MicroMappers. OCHA, which had requested this support, channeled the resulting data to their teams on the ground in the Philippines.

These digital volunteers all cared and took the time to try and help others thousands of miles away. The same is true of the remarkable digital volunteers supporting the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap efforts. This is the kind of world I want to live in; the world in which humanitarian technologies harvest the global goodwill and channels it to make a difference to those affected by disasters.

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So these are two important trends I see moving forward, the rise of well-organized, local digital humanitarian groups, like Rappler, and the rise of World Wide (Good) Will. We must learn from the former, from the local digital villages, and when asked, we should support them as best we can. We should also channel, even amplify the World Wide (Good) Will by democratizing humanitarian technologies and embracing new ways to engage those who want to make a difference. Again, Crowdsourcing is simply a new term for the old African proverb, that it takes a village. Let us not close the doors to that village.

So on this note, I thank *you* for participating in ICCM and for being a global village that cares, both on and offline. Big thanks as well to our current team of sponsors for caring about this community and making sure that our village does continue to meet in person every year. And now for the next 3 days, we have an amazing line-up of speakers, panelists & technologies for you. So please use these days to plot, partner and disrupt. And always remember: be tough on ideas, but gentle on people.

Thanks again, and keep caring.

Stranger than Fiction: A Few Words About An Ethical Compass for Crisis Mapping

The good people at the Sudan Sentinel Project (SSP), housed at my former “alma matter,” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), have recently written this curious piece on crisis mapping and the need for an “ethical compass” in this new field. They made absolutely sure that I’d read the piece by directly messaging me via the @CrisisMappers twitter feed. Not to worry, good people, I read your masterpiece. Interestingly enough, it was published the day after my blog post reviewing IOM’s data protection standards.

To be honest, I was actually not going to spend any time writing up a response because the piece says absolutely nothing new and is hardly pro-active. Now, before any one spins and twists my words: the issues they raise are of paramount importance. But if the authors had actually taken the time to speak with their fellow colleagues at HHI, they would know that several of us participated in a brilliant workshop last year which addressed these very issues. Organized by World Vision, the workshop included representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care International, Oxfam GB, UN OCHA, UN Foundation, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Ushahidi, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and obviously Word Vision. There were several data protection experts at this workshop, which made the event one of the most important workshops I attended in all of 2011. So a big thanks again to Phoebe Wynn-Pope at World Vision for organizing.

We discussed in-depth issues surrounding Do No Harm, Informed Consent, Verification, Risk Mitigation, Ownership, Ethics and Communication, Impar-tiality, etc. As expected, the outcome of the workshop was the clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowdsourcing and volunteer geographical informa-tion. Our colleagues at the ICRC have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital. We expect to review this latest draft in the coming weeks (after Oxfam GB has added their comments to the document). Incidentally, the summary report of the workshop organized by World Vision is available here (PDF) and highly recommended. It was also shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group. By the way, my conversations with Phoebe about these and related issues began at this conference in November 2010, just a month after the SBTF launched.

I should confess the following: one of my personal pet peeves has to do with people stating the total obvious and calling for action but actually doing absolutely nothing else. Talk for talk’s sake just makes it seem like the authors of the article are simply looking for attention. Meanwhile, many of us are working on these new data protection challenges in our own time, as volunteers. And by the way, the SSP project is first and foremost focused on satellite imagery analysis and the Sudan, not on crowdsourcing or on social media. So they’re writing their piece as outsiders and, well, are hence less informed as a result—particularly since they didn’t do their homework.

Their limited knowledge of crisis mapping is blatantly obvious throughout the article. Not only do the authors not reference the World Vision workshop, which HHI itself attended, they also seem rather confused about the term “crisis mappers” which they keep using. This is somewhat unfortunate since the Crisis Mappers Network is an offshoot of HHI. Moreover, SSP participated and spoke at last year’s Crisis Mappers Conference—just a few months ago, in fact. One outcome of this conference was the launch of a dedicated Working Group on Security and Privacy, which will now become two groups, one addressing security issues and the other data protection. This information was shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group and one of the authors is actually part of the Security Working Group.

To this end, one would have hoped, and indeed expected, that the authors would write a somewhat more informed piece about these issues. At the very least, they really ought to have documented some of the efforts to date in this innovative space. But they didn’t and unfortunately several statements they make in their article are, well… completely false and rather revealing at the same time. (Incidentally, the good people at SSP did their best to disuade the SBTF from launching a Satellite Team on the premise that only experts are qualified to tag satellite imagery; seems like they’re not interested in citizen science even though some experts I’ve spoken to have referred to SSP as citizen science).

In any case, the authors keep on referring to “crisis mappers this” and “crisis mappers that” throughout their article. But who exactly are they referring to? Who knows. On the one hand, there is the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which is a loose, decentralized, and informal network of some 3,500 members and 1,500 organizations spanning 150+ countries. Then there’s the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a distributed, global network of 750+ volunteers who partner with established organizations to support live mapping efforts. And then, easily the largest and most decentralized “group” of all, are all those “anonymous” individuals around the world who launch their own maps using whatever technologies they wish and for whatever purposes they want. By the way, to define crisis mapping as mapping highly volatile and dangerous conflict situations is really far from being accurate either. Also, “equating” crisis mapping with crowdsourcing, which the authors seem to do, is further evidence that they are writing about a subject that they have very little understanding of. Crisis mapping is possible without crowdsourcing or social media. Who knew?

Clearly, the authors are confused. They appear to refer to “crisis mappers” as if the group were a legal entity, with funding, staff, administrative support and brick-and-mortar offices. Furthermore, and what the authors don’t seem to realize, is that much of what they write is actually true of the formal professional humanitarian sector vis-a-vis the need for new data protection standards. But the authors have obviously not done their homework, and again, this shows. They are also confused about the term “crisis mapping” when they refer to “crisis mapping data” which is actually nothing other than geo-referenced data. Finally, a number of paragraphs in the article have absolutely nothing to do with crisis mapping even though the authors seem insinuate otherwise. Also, some of the sensationalism that permeates the article is simply unnecessary and poor taste.

The fact of the matter is that the field of crisis mapping is maturing. When Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded and co-directed HHI’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning from 2007-2009, the project was very much an exploratory, applied-research program. When Dr. Jen Ziemke and I launched the Crisis Mappers Network in 2009, we were just at the beginning of a new experiment. The field has come a long way since and one of the consequences of rapid innovation is obviously the lack of any how-to-guide or manual. These certainly need to be written and are being written.

So, instead of  stating the obvious, repeating the obvious, calling for the obvious and making embarrassing factual errors in a public article (which, by the way, is also quite revealing of the underlying motives), perhaps the authors could actually have done some research and emailed the Crisis Mappers Google Group. Two of the authors also have my email address; one even has my private phone number; oh, and they could also have DM’d me on Twitter like they just did.

My Opening Speech at CrisisMappers 2011 in Geneva

Good Afternoon Crisis Mappers!

It is my great pleasure and honor to open the third International Conference of CrisisMappers. Thank you very much for being here and for contributing both your time and expertise to ICCM 2011. This past year has been a challenging and busy year for all of us in the CrisisMappers community. So the timing of this conference and its location in this quiet and scenic region of Switzerland provides the perfect opportunity to pause, take a deep breath and gently reflect on the past 12 months.

As many of you already know, the CrisisMappers Community is an informal network of members who operate at the cutting edge of crisis mapping and humanitarian technology. We are not a formal entity; we have no office, no one location, no staff, and no core funding to speak of. And yet, more than 3,000 individuals representing over 1,500 organizations in 140 countries around the world have joined this growing and thriving network.

Some of you here today were also with us in Cleveland for ICCM 2009, which is where and when, this Crisis Mappers Community was launched. We collectively founded this network for a very simple reason: to advance the study, practice and impact of crisis mapping by catalyzing information sharing and forming unique partnerships between members. A lot has happened since Cleveland, and yes, that is indeed an understatement. Take the following as just a simple proxy: shortly before ICCM 2009, I did a Google search for “crisis mapping”; this returned some 8,000 hits. Today, just two short years later, this number is well over a quarter million and growing rapidly. Much of this new content and activity is a direct result of our combined efforts, particularly in 2011.

To be sure, we have seen many new exciting developments in the field of crisis mapping and humanitarian technology in just the past 12 months. In fact, there are simply too many to highlight in these short introductory remarks, so I invite you to visit the CrisisMappers website for the full list of projects that you yourselves have ranked as most important in 2011. Over the next two days, many of these projects will be featured in Ignite Talks, demo’s and posters in the Techmology Fair and in the self-organized sessions as well.

In addition to these fine projects, a number of important and recurring themes have emerged over the past year. So I’d like to briefly touch on just five of these as a way to inform some of our conversations over the next two days.

The first is validation. We need to better assess the impact of our work. More specifically, we need independent experts who specialize in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to critically assess our crisis mapping deployments. I thus urge our donors, many of you are here today, to make independent evaluations a requirement for all your grantees who actively deploy crisis mapping platforms. Rigorous evaluations do cost money so I strongly encourage you to make funding available in 2012 so we can validate our work.

A second theme is security. We all know that the majority of crisis mapping platforms and the technologies they integrate were not designed for highly hostile environments. At the same time, computer security is a highly specialized field and we are in serious need for security experts to lend their direct support at the coding level to resolve existing security risks. Talking is important, but coding is more important. Security experts who are members of the Crisis Mappers community already know what needs to be done. So lets get this done. What we do need to talk about is developing a clear and well defined set guidelines on how to handle Open (Social) Data that is crowdsourced from conflict zones. To be sure, we urgently need a code of conduct and one endorsed by an established and credible organization to hold ourselves accountable.

The third theme I would like to highlight is the consolidation of key partnerships between formal humanitarian organizations and informal volunteer networks. We began this conversation together exactly 12 months ago at ICCM 2010. And a considerable amount of time and energy has since gone into developing the initial scaffolding necessary to streamline these partnerships. But we still have much work to do. There is absolutely no doubt that these partnerships will continue to be critical in 2012, so we need to have these collaboration mechanisms in place earlier rather than later. To do this, we need to participate in joint crisis response simulations now to ensure that we end up with appropriate, and robust but flexible mechanisms in 2012.

A fourth recurring theme this year has been the increasing need to scale our crisis mapping efforts. This requires a change in data licensing, particularly around satellite imagery and the data derived thereof. We also need both micro-tasking platforms and automated filtering mechanisms to scale our efforts. On filtering, for example, we need natural language processing (NLP) tools to help us monitor, aggregate, triangulate and verify large volumes of social media data and text messages in real time. While these solutions already exist in the private sector and increasingly in public health, they are still not accessible or widely used by many members of the CrisisMappers community. This needs to change. The good news is that a number of colleagues who are here at ICCM have been actively working on developing micro-tasking and automated filtering solutions. I sincerely hope they’ll share their platforms more widely with the CrisisMappers community in 2012.

A fifth and final theme is of course “Mainstreaming Crisis Mapping,” the theme of this year’s international conference. Our co-hosts ICT4Peace and the JRC will discuss this theme in detail in their keynote address. So let me now turn it over to my fellow colleague and co-founder, Professor Jen Ziemke, to tell you more about our co-hosts and what to expect over the next two days…

The Horn of Africa and the Crisis Mapping Community

“… the Horn of Africa famine and the associated crises gravely affecting millions of people has not animated the crisis-mapping community and its online platforms to the extent of post-Haiti or, more recently, following the 2011 earthquake in Japan.”

I’m somewhat concerned by the phrasing of this statement, which comes from this recent article published by ICT4Peace. Perhaps the author is simply unaware of the repeated offers made by the crisis mapping community to provide crisis mapping solutions, mobile information collection platforms, short codes, call center services, etc., to several humanitarian organizations including UN OCHA, UNDP and WFP over the past three months.

In the case of OCHA, the team in Somalia replied that they had everything under control. In terms of UNDP, the colleagues we spoke with simply did/do not have the capacity, time or skill-set to leverage new crisis mapping solutions to improve their situational awareness or better communicate with disaster affected comm-unities. And WFP explained that lack of access rather than information was the most pressing challenge they were facing (at least two months ago), an issue echoed by two other humanitarian organizations.

This excellent report by Internews details the complete humanitarian tech-nology failure in Dadaab refugee camp and underscores how limited and behind some humanitarian organizations still are vis-a-vis the prioritization of “new” in-formation and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve humanitarian response and the lives of refugees in crisis situations. These organizations require support and core funding to “upgrade”. Throwing crisis mapping technologies at the problem is not going to solve many problems if the under-lying humanitarian mechanisms are not in place to leverage these solutions.

This is not a criticism of humanitarian organizations but rather hard reality. I’ve had numerous conversations with both technology and humanitarian colleagues over the past three months about how to reach for low hanging fruits and catalyze quick-wins with even the most minimal ICT interventions. But as is often the case, the humanitarian community is understandably overwhelmed and genu-inely trying to do the best they can given the very difficult circumstances. Indeed, Somalia presents a host of obvious challenges and risks that were not present in either Haiti or Japan. (Incidentally, only a fraction of the crisis mapping commu-nity was involved in Japan compared to overall efforts in Somalia).

Perhaps ICT4Peace is also unaware that some colleagues and I spent many long days and nights in August and September preparing the launch of a live crisis map for Somalia, which ESRI, Google, Nethope and several other groups provided critical input on. See my blog post on this initiative here. But the project was torpedoed by a humanitarian organization that was worried about the conse-quences of empowering the Somali Diaspora, i.e., that they would become more critical of the US government’s perceived inaction as a result of the information they collected—a consequence I personally would have championed as an indica-tor of success.

Maybe ICT4Peace is also unaware that no humanitarian organization formally requested the activation of the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in August. That said, the SBTF did engage in this pilot project to crowdsource the geo-tagging of shelters in Somalia in September as a simple trial run. Since then, the SBTF has officially partnered with UNHCR and the Joint Research Center (JRC) to geo-tag IDP camps in specific regions in Somalia next month. Digital Globe is a formal partner in this project, as is Tomnod. Incidentally, JRC is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011).

ICT4Peace is perhaps also not aware of a joint project between Ushahidi and UN OCHA Kenya to provide crisis mapping support, or of recent conversations with Al Jazeera, Souktel, the Virgin Group, K’naan, PopTech, CeaseFire, PeaceTXT, GSMA, DevSeed and others on implementing crisis mapping and SMS solutions for Somalia. In addition, the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team (HOT) has been busy improving the data for Somalia and the only reason they haven’t been able to go full throttles forward is because of data licensing issues beyond their control. Colleagues from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) have also been offering their help where and when they can.

In sum, to say that the crisis mapping community has not been as “animated” in response to the crisis in the Horn is misleading and rather unfortunate given that ICT4Peace is co-hosting this year’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2011). All ICT4Peace had to do was to send one simple email to the CrisisMappers.net membership to get all the above information (and likely more). Just because these efforts are not captured on CNN or on the front pages of the UN Chronicle does not mean that there haven’t been numerous ongoing efforts behind the scenes by dozens of different partners and members of the crisis mapping community.

I would therefore not be so quick to dismiss the perceived inaction of this comm-unity. I would also not make an automatic assumption that crisis mapping platforms and mobile technology solutions will always be “easy” or feasible to deploy in every context, especially if this is attempted reactively in the middle of a complex humanitarian crisis. Both Haiti and Japan provided permissive envi-ronments, unlike recent crisis mapping projects in Libya, Egypt and the Sudan which present serious security challenges. Finally, if direct offers of support by the crisis mapping community are not leveraged by field-based humanitarian organizations, then how exactly is said crisis mapping community supposed to be more animated?

Disaster Relief 2.0: Between a Signac and a Picasso

The United Nations Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, OCHA and my “alma matter” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative just launched an important report that seeks to chart the future of disaster response based on critical lessons learned from Haiti. The report, entitled “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies,” builds on a previous UN/Vodafone Foundation Report co-authored by Diane Coyle and myself just before the Haiti earthquake: “New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflict: The Role of Information and Social Networks.”

The authors of the new study begin with a warning: “this report sounds an alarm bell. If decision makers wish to have access to (near) real-time assessments of complex emergencies, they will need to figure out how to process information flows from many more thousands of individuals than the current system can handle.” In any given crisis, “everyone has a piece of information, everyone has a piece of that picture.” And more want to share their piece of the picture. So part of the new challenge lies in how to collect and combine multiple feeds of information such that the result paints a coherent and clear picture of an evolving crisis situation. What we need is a Signac, not a Picasso.

The former, Paul Signac, is known for using “pointillism,” a technique in which “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.” Think of these dots as data points drawn from diverse pallets but combined to depict an appealing and consistent whole. In contrast, Pablo Picasso’s paintings from his Cubism and Surrealism period often resemble unfinished collages of fragmented objects. A Picasso gives the impression of impossible puzzle pieces in contrast to the single legible harmony of a Signac.

This Picasso effect, or “information fragmentation” as the humanitarian community calls it, was one of the core information management challenges that the humanitarian community faced in Haiti: “the division of data resources and analysis into silos that are difficult to aggregate, fuse, or otherwise reintegrate into composite pictures.” This plagued information management efforts between and within UN clusters, which made absorbing new and alternative sources of information–like crowdsourced SMS reports–even less possible.

These new information sources exist in part thanks to new players in the disaster response field, the so-called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs). This shift towards a more multi-polar system of humanitarian response brings both new opportunities and new challenges. One way to overcome “information fragmentation” and create a Signac is for humanitarian organizations and VTCs to work more closely together. Indeed, as “volunteer and technical communities continue to engage with humanitarian crises they will increasingly add to the information overload problem. Unless they can become part of the solution.” This is in large part why we launched the Standby Volunteer Task Force at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010): to avoid information overload by creating a common canvas and style between volunteer crisis mappers and the humanitarian community.

What is perhaps most striking about this new report is the fact that it went to press the same month that two of the largest crisis mapping operations since Haiti were launched, namely the Libya and Japan Crisis Maps. One could already write an entirely new UN/Vodafone Foundation Report on just the past 3 months of crisis mapping operations. The speed with which learning and adaptation is happening in some VTCs is truly astounding. As I noted in this earlier blog post, “Crisis Mapping Libya: This is no Haiti“, we have come a long way since the Haiti response. Indeed, lessons from last year have been identified, they have been learned and operationally applied by VTCs like the Task Force. The fact that OCHA formally requested activation of the Task Force to provide a live crisis map of Libya just months after the Task Force was launched is a clear indication that we are on the right track. This is no Picasso.

Referring to lessons learned in Haiti will continue to be important, but as my colleague Nigel Snoad has noted, Haiti represents an outlier in terms of disasters. We are already learning new lessons and implementing better practices in response to crises that couldn’t be more different than Haiti, e.g., crisis mapping hostile, non-permissive environments like Egypt, Sudan and Libya. In Japan, we are also learning how a more hierarchical society with a highly developed and media rich environment presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for crisis mapping. This is why VTCs will continue to be at the forefront of Disaster 2.0 and why reports like this one are so key: they clearly show that a Signac is well within our reach if we continue working together.

Disaster Relief 2.0: Towards a Multipolar System?

My colleague Adele Waugaman from the UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnerships has kindly invited some colleagues and I to participate on the following panel at the Mashable Social Good Summit:

Disaster relief 2.0: collaborative technologies & the future of aid
In humanitarian crises, information-sharing and coordination among relief agencies is essential. But what about communications between aid groups and individuals? From Haiti to Pakistan, collaborative technologies are enabling survivors and concerned citizens alike to become important sources of information. Join innovation experts to discuss how new citizen-centered technologies are shaping the future of disaster relief.

I expect that the panel will set the stage and tone for the upcoming 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) in Boston in two weeks time. What follows then is a quick recap of where we are in the field of disaster 2.0 and where we might be headed. The recap is based on conversations with colleagues at OCHA and the Crisis Mappers Network, particularly with Oliver Hall and Nigel Snoad.

What Happened

I think it’s fair to say that the disaster response to Haiti was a departure from the past in more ways than one. The Crisis Mappers Network while relatively new played an impressive role in catalyzing rapid collaboration and open information sharing as detailed in this empirical study. In addition, the response to Haiti saw widespread and global volunteer involvement from the Haitian Diaspora and university students: more than 2,000 volunteers based in some 40 countries used their cognitive surplus to try and help those affected by the earthquake thousands of miles away. Ushahidi-Haiti and Mission4636 are both examples of volunteer based projects.

Craig Fugate is the head of FEMA

My friend and colleague Chris Blow described the change best in his phenomenal presentation on Crisis Mapping and Interaction Design. The following slides depict what we are all experiencing–the shift to a multipolar system:

In sum, the rise in informal volunteer networks is shifting the disaster response system towards a more multipolar one, not only in terms of actors but also in terms of the new technologies they employ.

Where To From Here

What does this mean for the future of disaster relief? I think this remains to be seen. The new “world order” brings new possibilities and new consequences. The shift will require both formal and informal actors to adapt and interface in different ways. If the analogy to international relations (unipolar vs multipolar world orders) is apt, then this suggests that new “institutions” are perhaps needed to manage the new constellation of actors.

The launch of the Crisis Mappers Network is a direct response to this transition. The network comprises some 900 members from both state and non-state, formal and informal actors including all the major humanitarian organizations and technology groups in the world. The newly established group Communications with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) is an important member. The purpose of the Crisis Mappers Network is to catalyze information sharing, collaboration, partnerships and joint learning in this rapidly changing space—hence the Crisis Mapping Conference series, Annual Meeting of the Crisis Mappers Group, Crisis Mapping Trainings, monthly webinars, blog posts, online discussions and the dedicated Crisis Mappers Google Group.

I believe the Crisis Mappers Group provides an ideal forum to help shape the new conversations, policies and applied research necessary to improve disaster relief 2.0. We need to consider new coordination and cooperation frameworks that connect formal actors with informal networks. As a community, we also need to catalyze joint learning so that informal actors deploying new technologies can learn from more experienced actors who have established best practices in disaster response.

Our Questions

The world of disaster relief 2.0 also brings new possibilities to render humanitarian response more effective and accountable. How can formal actors and informal networks collaborate to foster and implement innovations in humanitarian technology? How do we evaluate this collaboration and the impact of individual crisis mapping initiatives? Information sharing and interoperability are two additional challenges that need to be tackled by the Crisis Mapping Community. This inevitably means that some basic data standards need to be defined—or have existing ones communicated in an accessible manner to volunteer and informal networks.

Some of the most pressing questions in this new “world order” have to do with replicability and sustainability—not to mention leadership—of new crisis mapping initiatives. The challenge of future replicability (and hence reliability) is an issue that colleagues at OCHA communicated to me just weeks after Haiti; rightly so since Ushahidi-Haiti and Mission4636 were both self-organized volunteer driven efforts. I do believe there is room to professionalize some volunteer groups, hence the launch of Universities for Ushahidi (U4U) next month. It is also worth noting that Ushahidi-Chile deployed even more rapidly than Ushahidi-Haiti, even though the former was also purely volunteer driven. The same is true of the Ushahidi-Pakistan deployment called PakReport.

Sustainability in my opinion is less of a challenge if these volunteer groups are well organized and linked to local communities. In the case of Ushahidi-Haiti, for example, the project was successfully transitioned to Solutions.ht, a local software company in Port-au-Prince. But the question of leadership—or governance—is one that has not been sufficiently addressed. An accessible code of conduct is needed to guide informal actors who wish to volunteer their time in aid of disaster response projects. Not all volunteers will add value. Some may actually be disruptive if not destructive. How should state-actors and informal networks manage such situations? This code of conduct should also focus on establishing standards for local ownership, data privacy and data security.

In Sum…

The level of information sharing, collaboration and volunteer involvement in the disaster response to Haiti was unprecedented. This also means it was completely reactive, which is why the disaster relief 2.0 panel and Crisis Mapping Conference are important. They give us the opportunity to begin aligning expectations and catalyze new, responsible partnerships between established actors and informal networks so they can be more deliberate and less reactive in future responses.

In sum, while the transition to a multipolar system may initially bring some disruption, we can all choose to collaborate, iterate and learn quickly to become a more adaptive, transparent and effective community.