Tag Archives: Darpa

Verily: Crowdsourced Verification for Disaster Response

Social media is increasingly used for communicating during crises. This rise in Big (Crisis) Data means that finding the proverbial needle in the growing haystack of information is becoming a major challenge. Social media use during Hurricane Sandy produced a “haystack” of half-a-million Instagram photos and 20 million tweets. But which of these were actually relevant for disaster response and could they have been detected in near real-time? The purpose of QCRI’s experimental Twitter Dashboard for Disaster Response project is to answer this question. But what about the credibility of the needles in the info-stack?

10-Red-Balloons

To answer this question, our Crisis Computing Team at QCRI has partnered with the Social Computing & Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. This applied research project began with a series of conversations in mid-2012 about DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge. This challenge posted in 2009 offered $40K to the individual or team that could find the correct location of 10 red weather balloons discretely placed across the continental United States, an area covering well over 3 million square miles (8 million square kilometers). My friend Riley Crane at MIT spearheaded the team that won the challenge in 8 hours and 52 minutes by using social media.

Riley and I connected right after the Haiti Earthquake to start exploring how we might apply his team’s winning strategy to disaster response. But we were pulled in different directions due to PhD & post-doc obligations and start-up’s. Thank-fully, however, Riley’s colleague Iyad Rahwan got in touch with me to continue these conversations when I joined QCRI. Iyad is now at the Masdar Institute. We’re collaborating with him and his students to apply collective intelligence insights from the balloon to address the problem of false or misleading content shared on social media during  disasters.

Screen Shot 2013-02-16 at 2.26.41 AM

If 10 balloons planted across 3 million square miles can be found in under 9 hours, then surely the answer to the question “Did Hurricane Sandy really flood this McDonald’s in Virginia?” can be found in under 9 minutes given that  Virginia is 98% smaller than the “haystack” of the continental US. Moreover, the location of the restaurant would already be known or easily findable. The picture below, which made the rounds on social media during the hurricane is in reality part of an art exhibition produced in 2009. One remarkable aspect of the social media response to Hurricane Sandy was how quickly false information got debunked and exposed as false—not only by one good (digital) Samaritan, but by several.

SandyFake

Having access to accurate information during a crisis leads to more targeted self-organized efforts at the grassroots level. Accurate information is also important for emergency response professionals. The verification efforts during Sandy were invaluable but disjointed and confined to the efforts of a select few individuals. What if thousands could be connected and mobilized to cross-reference and verify suspicious content shared on social media during a disaster?

Say an earthquake struck Santiago, Chile a few minutes ago and contradictory reports begin to circulate on social media that the bridge below may have been destroyed. Determining whether transportation infrastructure is still useable has important consequences for managing the logistics of a disaster response opera-tion. So what if instead of crowdsourcing the correct location of  balloons across an entire country, one could crowdsource the collection of evidence in just one city struck by a disaster to determine whether said bridge had actually been destroyed in a matter of minutes?

santiagobridge

To answer these questions, QCRI and Masdar have launched an experimental  platform called Verily. We are applying best practices in time-critical crowd-sourcing coupled with gamification and reputation mechanisms to leverage the good will of (hopefully) thousands of digital Samaritans during disasters. This is experimental research, which means it may very well not succeed as envisioned. But that is a luxury we have at QCRI—to innovate next-generation humanitarian technologies via targeted iteration and experimentation. For more on this project, our concept paper is available as a Google Doc here. We invite feedback and welcome collaborators.

In the meantime, we are exploring the possibility of integrating the InformCam mobile application as part of Verily. InformaCam adds important metadata to images and videos taken by eyewitnesses. “The metadata includes information like the user’s current GPS coordinates, altitude, compass bearing, light meter readings, the signatures of neighboring devices, cell towers, and wifi net-works; and serves to shed light on the exact circumstances and contexts under which the digital image was taken.” We are also talking to our partners at MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab in Boston about other mobile solutions that may facilitate the use of Verily.

Again, this is purely experimental and applied research at this point. We hope to have an update on our progress in the coming months.

Bio

See also:

  •  Crowdsourcing Critical Thinking to Verify Social Media During Crises [Link]
  •  Using Crowdsourcing to Counter Rumors on Social Media [Link]

Six Degrees of Separation: Implications for Verifying Social Media

The Economist recently published this insightful article entitled” Six Degrees of Mobilisation: To what extent can social networking make it easier to find people and solve real-world problems?” The notion, six degrees of separation, comes from Stanley Milgram’s experiment in the 1960s which found that there were, on average, six degrees of separation between any two people in the US. Last year, Facebook found that users on the social network were separated by an average of 4.7 hops. The Economist thus asks the following, fascinating question:

“Can this be used to solve real-world problems, by taking advantage of the talents and connections of one’s friends, and their friends? That is the aim of a new field known as social mobilisation, which treats the population as a distributed knowledge resource which can be tapped using modern technology.”

The article refers to DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge, which I already blogged about here: “Time-Critical Crowdsourcing for Social Mobilization and Crowd-Solving.”  The Economist also references DARPA’s TagChallenge. In both cases, the winning teams leveraged social media using crowdsourcing and clever incentive mechanisms. Can this approach also be used to verify social media content during a crisis?

This new study on disasters suggests that the “degrees of separation” between any two organizations in the field is 5. So if the location of red balloons and individuals can be crowdsourced surprisingly quickly, then can the evidence necessary to verify social media content during a disaster be collected as rapidly and reliably? If we are only separated by four-to-six degrees, then this would imply that it only takes that many hops to find someone connected to me (albeit indirectly) who could potentially confirm or disprove the authenticity of a particularly piece of information. This approach was used very successfully in Kyrgyzstan a couple years ago. Can we develop a platform to facilitate this process? And if so, what design features (e.g., gamification) are necessary to mobilize participants and make this tool a success?

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!