Tag Archives: Digital

Reflections on Digital Humanitarians – The Book

In January 2014, I wrote this blog post announcing my intention to write a book on Digital Humanitarians. Well, it’s done! And launches this week. The book has already been endorsed by scholars at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, etc; by practitioners at the United Nations, World Bank, Red Cross, USAID, DfID, etc; and by others including Twitter and National Geographic. These and many more endorsements are available here. Brief summaries of each book chapter are available here; and the short video below provides an excellent overview of the topics covered in the book. Together, these overviews make it clear that this book is directly relevant to many other fields including journalism, human rights, development, activism, business management, computing, ethics, social science, data science, etc. In short, the lessons that digital humanitarians have learned (often the hard way) over the years and the important insights they have gained are directly applicable to fields well beyond the humanitarian space. To this end, Digital Humanitarians is written in a “narrative and conversational style” rather than with dense, technical language.

The story of digital humanitarians is a multifaceted one. Theirs is not just a story about using new technologies to make sense of “Big Data”. For the most part, digital humanitarians are volunteers; volunteers from all walks of life and who occupy every time zone. Many are very tech-savvy and pull all-nighters, but most simply want to make a difference using the few minutes they have with the digital technologies already at their fingertips. Digital humanitarians also include pro-democracy activists who live in countries ruled by tyrants. This story is thus also about hope and humanity; about how technology can extend our humanity during crises. To be sure, if no one cared, if no one felt compelled to help others in need, or to change the status quo, then no one even would bother to use these new, next generation humanitarian technologies in the first place.

I believe this explains why Professor Leysia Palen included the following in her very kind review of my book: “I dare you to read this book and not have both your heart and mind opened.” As I reflected to my editor while in the midst of book writing, an alternative tag line for the title could very well be “How Big Data and Big Hearts are Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.” It is personally and deeply important to me that the media, would-be volunteers  and others also understand that the digital humanitarians story is not a romanticized story about a few “lone heroes” who accomplish the impossible thanks to their super human technical powers. There are thousands upon thousands of largely anonymous digital volunteers from all around the world who make this story possible. And while we may not know all their names, we certainly do know about their tireless collective action efforts—they mobilize online from all corners of our Blue Planet to support humanitarian efforts. My book explains how these digital volunteers do this, and yes, how you can too.

Digital humanitarians also include a small (but growing) number of forward-thinking professionals from large and well-known humanitarian organizations. After the tragic, nightmarish earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, these seasoned and open-minded humanitarians quickly realized that making sense of “Big Data” during future disasters would require new thinking, new risk-taking, new partnerships, and next generation humanitarian technologies. This story thus includes the invaluable contributions of those change-agents and explains how these few individuals are enabling innovation within the large bureaucracies they work in. The story would thus be incomplete without these individuals; without their appetite for risk-taking, their strategic understanding of how to change (and at times circumvent) established systems from the inside to make their organizations still relevant in a hyper-connected world. This may explain why Tarun Sarwal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva included these words (of warning) in his kind review: “For anyone in the Humanitarian sector — ignore this book at your peril.”

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Today, this growing, cross-disciplinary community of digital humanitarians are crafting and leveraging ingenious crowdsourcing solutions with trail-blazing insights from advanced computing and artificial intelligence in order to make sense of “Big Data” generated during disasters. In virtually real-time, these new solutions (many still in early prototype stages) enable digital volunteers to make sense of vast volumes of social media, SMS and imagery captured from satellites & UAVs to support relief efforts worldwide.

All of this obviously comes with a great many challenges. I certainly don’t shy away from these in the book (despite my being an eternal optimist : ). As Ethan Zuckerman from MIT very kindly wrote in his review of the book,

“[Patrick] is also a careful scholar who thinks deeply about the limits and potential dangers of data-centric approaches. His book offers both inspiration for those around the world who want to improve our disaster response and a set of fertile challenges to ensure we use data wisely and ethically.”

Digital humanitarians are not perfect, they’re human, they make mistakes, they fail; innovation, after all, takes experimenting, risk-taking and failing. But most importantly, these digital pioneers learn, innovate and over time make fewer mistakes. In sum, this book charts the sudden and spectacular rise of these digital humanitarians and their next generation technologies by sharing their remarkable, real-life stories and the many lessons they have learned and hurdles both cleared & still standing. In essence, this book highlights how their humanity coupled with innovative solutions to “Big Data” is changing humanitarian response forever. Digital Humanitarians will make you think differently about what it means to be humanitarian and will invite you to join the journey online. And that is what it’s ultimately all about—action, responsible & effective action.

Why did I write this book? The main reason may perhaps come as a surprise—one word: hope. In a world seemingly overrun by heart-wrenching headlines and daily reminders from the news and social media about all the ugly and cruel ways that technologies are being used to spy on entire populations, to harass, oppress, target and kill each other, I felt the pressing need to share a different narrative; a narrative about how selfless volunteers from all walks of life, from all ages, nationalities, creeds use digital technologies to help complete strangers on the other side of the planet. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing this digital good-will first hand and repeatedly over the years. This goodwill is what continues to restore my faith in humanity and what gives me hope, even when things are tough and not going well. And so, I wrote Digital Humanitarians first and fore-most to share this hope more widely. We each have agency and we can change the world for the better. I’ve seen this and witnessed the impact first hand. So if readers come away with a renewed sense of hope and agency after reading the book, I will have achieved my main objective.

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For updates on events, talks, trainings, webinars, etc, please click here. I’ll be organizing a Google Hangout on March 5th for readers who wish to discuss the book in more depth and/or follow up with any questions or ideas. If you’d like additional information on this and future Hangouts, please click on the previous link. If you wish to join ongoing conversations online, feel free to do so with the FB & Twitter hashtag #DigitalJedis. If you’d like to set up a book talk and/or co-organize a training at your organization, university, school, etc., then do get in touch. If you wish to give a talk on the book yourself, then let me know and I’d be happy to share my slides. And if you come across interesting examples of digital humanitarians in action, then please consider sharing these with other readers and myself by using the #DigitalJedis hashtag and/or by sending me an email so I can include your observation in my monthly newsletter and future blog posts. I also welcome guest blog posts on iRevolutions.

Naturally, this book would never have existed were it for digital humanitarians volunteering their time—day and night—during major disasters across the world. This book would also not have seen the light of day without the thoughtful guidance and support I received from these mentors, colleagues, friends and my family. I am thus deeply and profoundly grateful for their spirit, inspiration and friendship. Onwards!

Digital Jedis: There Has Been An Awakening…

May the Crowd Be With You

Three years ago, 167 digital volunteers and I combed through satellite imagery of Somalia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on this joint project. The purpose of this digital humanitarian effort was to identify how many Somalis had been displaced (easily 200,000) due to fighting and violence. Earlier this year, 239 passengers and crew went missing when Malaysia Flight 370 suddenly disappeared. In response, some 8 million digital volunteers mobilized as part of the digital search & rescue effort that followed.

May the Crowd be With You

So in the first case, 168 volunteers were looking for 200,000+ people displaced by violence and in the second case, some 8,000,000 volunteers were looking for 239 missing souls. Last year, in response to Typhoon Haiyan, digital volunteers spent 200 hours or so tagging social media content in support of the UN’s rapid disaster damage assessment efforts. According to responders at the time, some 11 million people in the Philippines were affected by the Typhoon. In contrast, well over 20,000 years of volunteer time went into the search for Flight 370’s missing passengers.

What to do about this heavily skewed distribution of volunteer time? Can (or should) we do anything? Are we simply left with “May the Crowd be with You”?The massive (and as yet unparalleled) online response to Flight 370 won’t be a one-off. We’re entering an era of mass-sourcing where entire populations can be mobilized online. What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).

As we continue heading towards this new era of mass-sourcing, those with the ability to mobilize entire populations online will indeed yield an impressive new form of power. And as millions of volunteers continue tagging, tracing various features, this volunteer-generated data combined with machine learning will be used to automate future tagging and tracing needs of militaries and multi-billion dollar companies, thus obviating the need for large volumes of volunteers (especially handy should volunteers seek to boycott these digital operations).

At the same time, however, the rise of this artificial intelligence may level the playing field. But few players out there have ready access to high resolution satellite imagery and the actual technical expertise to turn volunteer-generated tags/traces into machine learning classifiers. To this end, perhaps one way forward is to try and “democratize” access to both satellite imagery and the technology needed to make sense of this “Big Data”. Easier said than done. But maybe less impossible than we may think. Perhaps new, disruptive initiatives like Planet Labs will help pave the way forward.

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Yes, I’m Writing a Book (on Digital Humanitarians)

I recently signed a book deal with Taylor & Francis Press. The book, which is tentatively titled “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Disaster Response,” is slated to be published next year. The book will chart the rise of digital humanitarian response from the Haiti Earthquake to 2015, highlighting critical lessons learned and best practices. To this end, the book will draw on real-world examples of digital humanitarians in action to explain how they use new technologies and crowdsourcing to make sense of “Big (Crisis) Data”. In sum, the book will describe how digital humanitarians & humanitarian technologies are together reshaping the humanitarian space and what this means for the future of disaster response. The purpose of this book is to inspire and inform the next generation of (digital) humanitarians while serving as a guide for established humanitarian organizations & emergency management professionals who wish to take advantage of this transformation in humanitarian response.

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The book will thus consolidate critical lessons learned in digital humanitarian response (such as the verification of social media during crises) so that members of the public along with professionals in both international humanitarian response and domestic emergency management can improve their own relief efforts in the face of “Big Data” and rapidly evolving technologies. The book will also be of interest to academics and students who wish to better understand methodological issues around the use of social media and user-generated content for disaster response; or how technology is transforming collective action and how “Big Data” is disrupting humanitarian institutions, for example. Finally, this book will also speak to those who want to make a difference; to those who of you who may have little to no experience in humanitarian response but who still wish to help others affected during disasters—even if you happen to be thousands of miles away. You are the next wave of digital humanitarians and this book will explain how you can indeed make a difference.

The book will not be written in a technical or academic writing style. Instead, I’ll be using a more “storytelling” form of writing combined with a conversational tone. This approach is perfectly compatible with the clear documentation of critical lessons emerging from the rapidly evolving digital humanitarian space. This conversational writing style is not at odds with the need to explain the more technical insights being applied to develop next generation humanitarian technologies. Quite on the contrary, I’ll be using intuitive examples & metaphors to make the most technical details not only understandable but entertaining.

While this journey is just beginning, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to my mentors for their invaluable feedback on my book proposal. I’d also like to express my deep gratitude to my point of contact at Taylor & Francis Press for championing this book from the get-go. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to sincerely thank the Rockefeller Foundation for providing me with a residency fellowship this Spring in order to accelerate my writing.

I’ll be sure to provide an update when the publication date has been set. In the meantime, many thanks for being an iRevolution reader!

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Video: Humanitarian Response in 2025

I gave a talk on “The future of Humanitarian Response” at UN OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Policy Forum (#aid2025) in New York yesterday. More here for context. A similar version of the talk is available in the video presentation below.

Some of the discussions that ensued during the Forum were frustrating albeit an important reality check. Some policy makers still think that disaster response is about them and their international humanitarian organizations. They are still under the impression that aid does not arrive until they arrive. And yet, empirical research in the disaster literature points to the fact that the vast majority of survivals during disasters is the result of local agency, not external intervention.

In my talk (and video above), I note that local communities will increasingly become tech-enabled first responders, thus taking pressure off the international humanitarian system. These tech savvy local communities already exit. And they already respond to both “natural” (and manmade) disasters as noted in my talk vis-a-vis the information products produced by tech-savvy local Filipino groups. So my point about the rise of tech-enabled self-help was a more diplomatic way of conveying to traditional humanitarian groups that humanitarian response in 2025 will continue to happen with or without them; and perhaps increasingly without them.

This explains why I see OCHA’s Information Management (IM) Team increasingly taking on the role of “Information DJ”, mixing both formal and informal data sources for the purposes of both formal and informal humanitarian response. But OCHA will certainly not be the only DJ in town nor will they be invited to play at all “info events”. So the earlier they learn how to create relevant info mixes, the more likely they’ll still be DJ’ing in 2025.

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Early Results of MicroMappers Response to Typhoon Yolanda (Updated)

We have completed our digital humanitarian operation in the Philippines after five continuous days with MicroMappers. Many, many thanks to all volunteers from all around the world who donated their time by clicking on tweets and images coming from the Philippines. Our UN OCHA colleagues have confirmed that the results are being shared widely with their teams in the field and with other humanitarian organizations on the ground. More here.

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In terms of preliminary figures (to be confirmed):

  • Tweets collected during first 48 hours of landfall = ~230,000
  • Tweets automatically filtered for relevancy/uniqueness = ~55,000
  • Tweets clicked using the TweetClicker = ~ 30,000
  • Relevant tweets triangulated using TweetClicker = ~3,800
  • Triangulated tweets published on live Crisis Map = ~600
  • Total clicks on TweetClicker = ~ 90,000
  • Images clicked using the ImageClicker = ~ 5,000
  • Relevant images triangulated using TweetClicker = ~1,200
  • Triangulated images published on live Crisis Map = ~180
  • Total clicks on ImageClicker = ~15,000
  • Total clicks on MicroMappers (Image + Tweet Clickers) = ~105,000

Since each single tweet and image uploaded to the Clickers was clicked on by (at least) three individual volunteers for quality control purposes, the number of clicks is three times the total number of tweets and images uploaded to the respective clickers. In sum, digital humanitarian volunteers have clocked a grand total of ~105,000 clicks to support humanitarian operations in the Philippines.

While the media has largely focused on the technology angle of our digital humanitarian operation, the human story is for me the more powerful message. This operation succeeded because people cared. Those ~105,000 clicks did not magically happen. Each and every single one of them was clocked by humans, not machines. At one point, we had over 300 digital volunteers from the world over clicking away at the same time on the TweetClicker and more than 200 on the ImageClicker. This kind of active engagement by total strangers—good “digital Samaritans”—explains why I find the human angle of this story to be the most inspiring outcome of MicroMappers. “Crowdsourcing” is just a new term for the old saying “it takes a village,” and sometimes it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground.

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 operational humanitarian response on the ground by simply clicking on MicroMappers. In other words, you can translate your private wish into direct, online public action, which in turn translates into supporting offline collective action in the disaster-affected areas.

Clicking is so simple that anyone with Internet access can help. We had high schoolers in Qatar clicking away, fire officers in Belgium, graduate students in Boston, a retired couple in Kenya and young Filipinos clicking away. They all cared and took the time to try and help others, often from thousands of miles away. That is the kind of world I want to live in. So if you share this vision, then feel free to join the MicroMapper list-serve.

Yolanda TweetClicker4

Considering that MicroMappers is still very much under development, we are all pleased with the results. There were of course many challenges; the most serious was the CrowdCrafting server which hosts our Clickers. Unfortunately, that server was not able to handle the load and traffic generated by digital volunteers. So their server crashed twice and also slowed our Clickers to a complete stop at least a dozen times during the past five days. At times, it would take 10-15 seconds for a new tweet or image to load, which was frustrating. We were also limited by the number of tweets and images we could upload at any given time, usually ~1,500 at most. Any larger load would seriously slow down the Clickers. So it is rather remarkable that digital volunteers managed to clock more than 100,000 clicks given the repeated interruptions. 

Besides the server issue, the other main bottleneck was the geo-location of the ~30,000 tweets and ~5,000 images tagged using the Clickers. We do have a Tweet and Image GeoClicker but these were not slated to launch until next week at CrisisMappers 2013, which meant they weren’t ready for prime time. We’ll be sure to launch them soon. Once they are operational, we’ll be able to automatically push triangulated tweets and images from the Tweet and Image Clickers directly to the corresponding GeoClickers so volunteers can also aid humanitarian organizations by mapping important tweets and images directly.

There’s a lot more that we’ve learned throughout the past 5 days and much room for improvement. We have a long list of excellent suggestions and feedback from volunteers and partners that we’ll be going through starting tomorrow. The most important next step is to get a more powerful server that can handle a lot more load and traffic. We’re already taking action on that. I have no doubt that our clicks would have doubled without the server constraints.

For now, though, BIG thanks to the SBTF Team and in particular Jus McKinnon, the QCRI et al team, in particular Ji Lucas, Hemant Purohit and Andrew Ilyas for putting in very, very long hours, day in and day out on top of their full-time jobs and studies. And finally, BIG thanks to the World Wide Crowd, to all you who cared enough to click and support the relief operations in the Philippines. You are the heroes of this story.

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Digital Humanitarians: From Haiti Earthquake to Typhoon Yolanda

We’ve been able to process and make sense of a quarter of a million tweets in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. Using both AIDR (still under development) and Twitris, we were able to collect these tweets in real-time and use automated algorithms to filter for both relevancy and uniqueness. The resulting ~55,000 tweets were then uploaded to MicroMappers (still under development). Digital volunteers from the world over used this humanitarian technology platform to tag tweets and now images from the disaster (click image below to enlarge). At one point, volunteers tagged some 1,500 tweets in just 10 minutes. In parallel, we used machine learning classifiers to automatically identify tweets referring to both urgent needs and offers of help. In sum, the response to Typhoon Yolanda is the first to make full use of advanced computing, i.e., both human computing and machine computing to make sense of Big (Crisis) Data.

ImageClicker YolandaPH

We’ve come a long way since the tragic Haiti Earthquake. There was no way we would’ve been able to pull off the above with the Ushahidi platform. We weren’t able to keep up with even a few thousand tweets a day back then, not to mention images. (Incidentally, MicroMappers can also be used to tag SMS). Furthermore, we had no trained volunteers on standby back when the quake struck. Today, not only do we have a highly experienced network of volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) who serve as first (digital) responders, we also have an ecosystem of volunteers from the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). In the case of Typhoon Yolanda, we also had a formal partner, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), that officially requested digital humanitarian support. In other words, our efforts are directly in response to clearly articulated information needs. In contrast, the response to Haiti was “supply based” in that we simply pushed out all information that we figured might be of use to humanitarian responders. We did not have a formal partner from the humanitarian sector going into the Haiti operation.

Yolanda Prezi

What this new digital humanitarian operation makes clear is that preparedness, partnerships & appropriate humanitarian technology go a long way to ensuring that our efforts as digital humanitarians add value to the field-based operations in disaster zones. The above Prezi by SBTF co-founder Anahi (click on the image to launch the presentation) gives an excellent overview of how these digital humanitarian efforts are being coordinated in response to Yolanda. SBTF Core Team member Justine Mackinnon is spearheading the bulk of these efforts.

While there are many differences between the digital response to Haiti and Yolanda, several key similarities have also emerged. First, neither was perfect, meaning that we learned a lot in both deployments; taking a few steps forward, then a few steps back. Such is the path of innovation, learning by doing. Second, like our use of Skype in Haiti, there’s no way we could do this digital response work without Skype. Third, our operations were affected by telecommunications going offline in the hardest hit areas. We saw an 18.7% drop in relevant tweets on Saturday compared to the day before, for example. Fourth, while the (very) new technologies we are deploying are promising, they are still under development and have a long way to go. Fifth, the biggest heroes in response to Haiti were the volunteers—both from the Haitian Diaspora and beyond. The same is true of Yolanda, with hundreds of volunteers from the world over (including the Philippines and the Diaspora) mobilizing online to offer assistance.

A Filipino humanitarian worker in Quezon City, Philippines, for example, is volunteering her time on MicroMappers. As is customer care advisor from Eurostar in the UK and a fire officer from Belgium who recruited his uniformed colleagues to join the clicking. We have other volunteer Clickers from Makati (Philippines), Cape Town (South Africa), Canberra & Gold Coast (Australia), Berkeley, Brooklyn, Citrus Heights & Hinesburg (US), Kamloops (Canada), Paris & Marcoussis (France), Geneva (Switzerland), Sevilla (Spain), Den Haag (Holland), Munich (Germany) and Stokkermarke (Denmark) to name just a few! So this is as much a human story is it is one about technology. This is why online communities like MicroMappers are important. So please join our list-serve if you want to be notified when humanitarian organizations need your help.

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