Tag Archives: Disaster Response

New Tech in Emergencies and Conflicts: Role of Information and Social Networks

I had the distinct pleasure of co-authoring this major new United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Report with my distinguished colleague Diane Coyle. The report looks at innovation in the use of technology along the time line of crisis response, from emergency preparedness and alerts to recovery and rebuilding.

“It profiles organizations whose work is advancing the frontlines of innovation, offers an overview of international efforts to increase sophistication in the use of IT and social networks during emergencies, and provides recommendations for how governments, aid groups, and international organizations can leverage this innovation to improve community resilience.”

Case studies include:

  • Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS)
  • European Media Monitor (EMM, aka OPTIMA)
  • Emergency Preparedness Information Center (EPIC)
  • Ushahidi Crowdsourcing Crisis Information
  • Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF)
  • Impact of Social Networks in Iran
  • Social Media, Citizen Journalism and Mumbai Terrorist Attacks
  • Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS)
  • InSTEDD RIFF
  • UNOSAT
  • AAAS Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights
  • Info Technology for Humanitarian Assistance, Cooperation and Action (ITHACA)
  • Camp Roberts
  • OpenStreetMap and Walking Papers
  • UNDP Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis project (TRMA)
  • Geo-Spatial Info Analysis for Global Security, Stability Program (ISFEREA)
  • FrontlineSMS
  • M-PESA and M-PAISA
  • Souktel

I think this long and diverse list of case studies clearly shows that the field of humanitarian technology is coming into it’s own.  Have a look at the report to learn how all these fit in the ecosystem of humanitarian technologies. And check out the tag #Tech4Dev on Twitter or the UN Foundation’s Facebook page to discuss the report and feel free to add any comments to this blog post below. I’m happy to answer all questions. In the meantime, I salute the UN Foundation for producing a forward looking report on projects that are barely two years old, and some just two months old.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Applying Technology to Crisis Mapping and Early Warning in Humanitarian Settings

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) just published a working paper I co-authored with my colleague Dr. Jennifer Leaning. Jennifer and I co-founded the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) back in 2007 with the generous support of Humanity United (HU).

During this two-year period, HU commissioned a series of internal working papers to inform their thinking in the field of crisis mapping. The report just published by HHI is one of the first internal papers we produced for HU. I am particularly indebted to my HHI colleague Enzo Bollettino for pushing this initiative working paper series at HHI.

This inaugural working paper presents a conceptual framework that distinguishes between the “big world” and “small world” to assess the use of ICTs for communication in conflict zones. The study does so by delineating the multiple information pathways relevant for conflict early warning, crisis mapping and humanitarian response.

The second and third working paper in the series will address information collection and visual analysis respectively. Each working paper will highlight existing projects or case studies; draw on informative anecdotes; and/or relay the most recent thinking on future applications of ICTs.

This working paper series is not meant to be exhaustive since humanitarian tech as a field of study and practice is still in formative phases. The analysis that follows is simply one step forward in trying to understand where the field is headed. We very much welcome feedback and input from fellow colleagues in the community. Feel free to use the comments section below to share your thoughts.

The working paper is available on the website of HHI’s Crisis Mapping Program.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

I’ve already blogged about what an ecosystem approach to conflict early warning and response entails. But I have done so with a country focus rather than thinking globally. This blog post applies a global perspective to the ecosystem approach given the proliferation of new platforms with global scalability.

Perhaps the most apt analogy here is one of food webs where the food happens to be information. Organisms in a food web are grouped into primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers. Primary producers such as grass harvest an energy source such as sunlight that they turn into biomass. Herbivores are primary consumers of this biomass while carnivores are secondary consumers of herbivores. There is thus a clear relationship known as a food chain.

This is an excellent video visualizing food web dynamics produced by researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI):

Our information web (or Info Web) is also composed of multiple producers and consumers of information each interlinked by communication technology in increasingly connected ways. Indeed, primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers also crawl and dynamically populate the Info Web. But the shock of the information revolution is altering the food chains in our ecosystem. Primary consumers of information can now be primary producers, for example.

At the smallest unit of analysis, individuals are the most primary producers of information. The mainstream media, social media, natural language parsing tools, crowdsourcing platforms, etc, arguably comprise the primary consumers of that information. Secondary consumers are larger organisms such as the global Emergency Information Service (EIS) and the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS).

These newly forming platforms are at different stages of evolution. EIS and GIVAS are relatively embryonic while the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems (GDACS) and Google Earth are far more evolved. A relatively new organism in the Info Web is the UAV as exemplified by ITHACA. The BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is further along the information chain while Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping platform and the Swift River driver are more mature but have not yet deployed as a global instance.

InSTEDD’s GeoChat, Riff and Mesh4X solutions have already iterated through a number of generations. So have ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). There are of course additional organisms in this ecosystem, but the above list should suffice to demonstrate my point.

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts? Before we can answer this question in any reasonable way, we need to know the characteristics of each organism in the ecosystem. These organisms represent the threads that may be woven into the GSS, a global web of crisis mapping and early warning systems.

Global System of Systems

Emergency Information Service (EIS) is slated to be a unified communications solution linking citizens, journalists, governments and non-governmental organizations in a seamless flow of timely, accurate and credible information—even when local communication infrastructures are rendered inoperable. This feature will be made possible by utilizing SMS as the communications backbone of the system.

In the event of a crisis, the EIS team would sift, collate, make sense of and verify the myriad of streams of information generated by a large humanitarian intervention. The team would gather information from governments, local media, the military, UN agencies and local NGOs to develop reporting that will be tailored to the specific needs of the affected population and translated into local languages. EIS would work closely with local media to disseminate messages of critical, life saving information.

Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) is being designed to closely monitor vulnerabilities and accelerate communication between the time a global crisis hits and when information reaches decision makers through official channels. The system is mandated to provide the international community with early, real-time evidence of how a global crisis is affecting the lives of the poorest and to provide decision-makers with real time information to ensure that decisions take the needs of the most vulnerable into account.

BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is specifically designed for UN field-based agencies to improve real time situational awareness. The dynamic mapping platform enables humanitarians to easily and quickly map infrastructure relevant for humanitarian response such as airstrips, bridges, refugee camps, IDP camps, etc. The SensorWeb is also used to map events of interest such as cholera outbreaks. The platform leverages mobile technology as well as social networking features to encourage collaborative analytics.

Ushahidi integrates web, mobile and dynamic mapping technology to crowdsource crisis information. The platform uses FrontlineSMS and can be deployed quickly as a crisis unfolds. Users can visualize events of interest on a dynamic map that also includes an animation feature to visualize the reported data over time and space.

Swift River is under development but designed to validate crowdsourced information in real time by combining machine learning for predictive tagging with human crowdsourcing for filtering purposes. The purpsose of the platform is to create veracity scores to denote the probability of an event being true when reported across several media such as Twitter, Online news, SMS, Flickr, etc.

GeoChat and Mesh4X could serve as the nodes connecting the above platforms in dynamic ways. Riff could be made interoperable with Swift River.

Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate. This is one of the main reasons I am co-organizing the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) next week.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Proposing the Field of Crisis Mapping

There are no books on Crisis Mapping, no peer-reviewed journals, no undergraduate or graduate courses, no professional seminars. And yet, after co-directing the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning (CM&EW) for 2-years, I can confirm that an informal field and community of crisis mapping is veritably thriving.

The incredible interest around the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) is further testament to this effect. Over 50 organizations are expected to participate and three leading donors have come together to generously support the formalization of Crisis Mapping as a field of study and practice. The conference is co-organized by myself at HHI and my colleague Professor Jen Ziemke at John Carroll University (JCU).

The findings from HHI’s 2-year program on Crisis Mapping were invaluable in developing a proposed research agenda for the field. This agenda serves the basis of ICCM 2009. I regularly refer to this research agenda when asked by colleagues: “What is crisis mapping?” Crisis Mapping is more than mapping crisis data. There are three key pillars that I have identified as being integral to crisis mapping.

1. Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS)
2. Crisis Mapping Analysis (CMA)
3. Crisis Mapping Response (CMR)

Each of these three pillars constitutes an important area of research for crisis mapping. I briefly describe what each of these constitutes below. Professor Ziemke and I are working together to further develop the crisis mapping taxonomy I crafted at HHI. If we are to begin formalizing the field, then the community may benefit from a common language. So we’re co-authoring a paper on the topic and look forward to sharing it in the near future.

Crisis Map Sourcing

How does one collect information in such a way that mapping can add value? There are four principal methodologies in crisis map sourcing: (1) Crisis Map Coding, (2) Participatory Crisis Mapping, (3) Mobile Crisis Mapping and (4) Automated Crisis Mapping. The common thread between the three is that they each look to extract event-data for crisis mapping purposes.

Crisis Map Coding (CMC) draws on hand-coding geo-referenced event-data like the project ACLED at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). This methodology is widely used by political scientists as evidenced by the peer-reviewed literature on the topic.  See also Jen Ziemke’s work on hand-coding conflict data on the Angolan civil war. While manually coding event data is certainly not a new approach, the focus on geo-referencing this data is relatively recent.

Participatory Crisis Mapping (PCM) is participatory mapping with a focus on crises. A good example is the UNDP’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan, which uses focus groups to map local knowledge on threats and risks at the community level.

Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) seeks to leverage mobile technologies for crisis mapping. This includes the use of mobile phones, geospatial technologies and unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs). Ushahidi, AAAS and ITHACA are all good examples of mobile crisis mapping in action. These different technologies enable us to experiment with new methodologies such as the crowdsourcing of crisis information, automated change detection using satellite imagery and real-time mashups with UAVs. More information on MCM is available here.

Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) looks at natural language processing and computational linguistics to extract event-data. While this field of study is not new, it has been progressing rapidly over the years as evidenced by Crimson Hexagon’s work on sentiment extraction and the European Media Monitor’s (EMM) clustering algorithms. What is new in this area is the focus on automated mapping like GDACS and the use  semantic web parsing like BioCaster.

Crisis Mapping Analysis

How does one analyze crisis mapping data to identify patterns over space and time? There are three principle approaches in crisis mapping analysis: (1) Crisis Mapping Visualization, (2) Crisis Mapping Analytics and (3) Crisis Map Modeling. Note that there is a pressing need to enable more collaboration in the analytical process. Platforms that facilitate collaborative analytics are far and few between. In addition, there is a shift towards mobile crisis mapping analysis. That is, leveraging mobile technologies to carry out analysis such as Folksomaps and Cartagen.

Crisis Mapping Visualization (CMV) seeks to visualize data in such a way that patterns are identifiable through visual analysis, i.e., using the human eye. For example, patterns may be discernible at one spatial and/or temporal scale, but not at another. Or patterns may not appear using 2D visualization but instead using 3D, like GeoTime. Varying the speed of data animation over time may also shed light on certain patterns. More on visualization here and here.

Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) is GIS analysis applied to crisis data. This approach draws on applied geo-statistics and spatial econometrics to identify crisis patterns otherwise hidden to the human eye. This includes Exploratory Spatial Data Analysis (ESDA). A good example of crisis mapping analytics is HunchLab and other crime mapping analysis platforms like GeoSurveillance.

Crisis Map Modeling (CMM) combines GIS analysis with agent-based modeling. See this example published in Science. While the conclusions of the article are suspect, the general approach highlights the purpose of crisis map modeling. The point is to use empirical data to simulate different scenarios using agent-based models. My colleague Nils Wiedmann is doing some of the most interesting work in this area.

Crisis Mapping Response

Like early warning, there is little point in doing crisis mapping if it is not connected to strategic and/or operational response. There are three principle components of crisis mapping response: (1) Crisis Map Dissemination, (2) Crisis Map Decision Support, and (3) Crisis Map Monitoring and Evaluation.

Crisis Map Dissemination (CMD) seeks to disseminate maps and/or share information provided by maps. Maps can be shared in hard copy format, such as with Walking Papers. They can also be shared electronically and the underlying data synchronized using Mesh4X. Another approach is crowdfeeding, where indicator alerts are subscribed to via email or SMS.

Crisis Map Decision Support (CMDS) leverages decision-support tools specifically for crisis mapping response. This approach entails the use of interactive mapping platforms that users can employ to query crisis data. There is thus a strong link with crisis mapping analysis since the decision process is informed by the patterns identified using crisis mapping analytics. In other words, the point is to identify patterns so we can amplify, mitigate or change them. It is vital that crisis map decision support platforms have well designed user interfaces.

Crisis Map Monitoring and Evaluation (CMME) combines crisis mapping with monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to produce basemaps (baselines mapped in space and time). This approach seeks to identify project impact or lack thereof by comparing basemaps with new data being collected throughout the project cycle. More information on this approach is available here.

I’d be grateful for feedback on this proposed taxonomy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Media, Accuracy and Balance of Power in Crises

I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests  that took place in 2007.

yournewmedia001_3

Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”

Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.’” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that [...] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”

However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.

Time Lines out of Sync

Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”

New Media and Accuracy

I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”

“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.

There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.

In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.

Low Tech Power

Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”

burmaprotests1

During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”

The Question

This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.

Patrick Philippe Meier

OCHA’s Humanitarian Dashboard

I recently gave a presentation on Crisis Mapping for UN-OCHA in Nairobi and learned a new initiative called the Humanitarian Dashboard. The Dashboard is still in its development phase so the content of this post is subject to change in the near future.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Nick Haan, a colleague from years back, is behind the initiative. I had consulted Nick on a regular basis back in 2004-2005 when working on CEWARN. He was heading the Food Security Assessment Unit (FSAU) at the time.

Here’s a quick introduction to the Humanitarian Dashboard:

The goal of the Dashboard is to ensure evidence-based humanitarian decision making for more needs-based, effective, and timely action.  The business world is well-accustomed to dashboards for senior executives in order to provide them with a real-time overview of core business data, alert them of potential problems, and keep operations on-track for desired results.

Stephen Few, a leader in dashboard design defines a dashboard as “a single-screen display of the most important information people need to do a job, presented in a way that allows them to monitor what’s going on in an instant.”   Such a single-screen or single-page overview, updated in real time, does not currently exist in the humanitarian world.”

The added values of the Dashboard:

  1. It would allow humanitarian decision-makers to more quickly access the core and common humanitarian information that they require and to more easily compare this information across various emergencies;
  2. It would provide a common platform from which essential big picture and cross sectoral information can be discussed and debated among key stakeholders, fostering greater consensus and thus a more coordinated and effective humanitarian response;
  3. It would provide a consolidated platform of essential information with direct linkages to underlying evidence in the form of reports and data sets, thus providing a much needed organizational tool for the plethora of humanitarian information;
  4. It would provide a consistently structured core data set that would readily enable a limitless range of humanitarian analysis across countries and over-time.

I look forward to fully evaluating this new tool, which is currently being piloted in Somalia, Kenya and Pakistan.

Patrick Philippe Meier

OCHA’s Humanitarian Dashboard

I recently gave a presentation on Crisis Mapping for UN-OCHA in Nairobi and learned a new initiative called the Humanitarian Dashboard. The Dashboard is still in its development phase so the content of this post is subject to change in the near future.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Nick Haan, a colleague from years back, is behind the initiative. I had consulted Nick on a regular basis back in 2004-2005 when working on CEWARN. He was heading the Food Security Assessment Unit (FSAU) at the time.

Here’s a quick introduction to the Humanitarian Dashboard:

The goal of the Dashboard is to ensure evidence-based humanitarian decision making for more needs-based, effective, and timely action.  The business world is well-accustomed to dashboards for senior executives in order to provide them with a real-time overview of core business data, alert them of potential problems, and keep operations on-track for desired results.

Stephen Few, a leader in dashboard design defines a dashboard as “a single-screen display of the most important information people need to do a job, presented in a way that allows them to monitor what’s going on in an instant.”   Such a single-screen or single-page overview, updated in real time, does not currently exist in the humanitarian world.”

The added values of the Dashboard:

  1. It would allow humanitarian decision-makers to more quickly access the core and common humanitarian information that they require and to more easily compare this information across various emergencies;
  2. It would provide a common platform from which essential big picture and cross sectoral information can be discussed and debated among key stakeholders, fostering greater consensus and thus a more coordinated and effective humanitarian response;
  3. It would provide a consolidated platform of essential information with direct linkages to underlying evidence in the form of reports and data sets, thus providing a much needed organizational tool for the plethora of humanitarian information;
  4. It would provide a consistently structured core data set that would readily enable a limitless range of humanitarian analysis across countries and over-time.

I look forward to fully evaluating this new tool, which is currently being piloted in Somalia, Kenya and Pakistan.

Patrick Philippe Meier

JRC: Geo-Spatial Analysis for Global Security

The European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) is doing some phenomenal work on Geo-Spatial Information Analysis for Global Security and Stability. I’ve had several meetings with JRC colleagues over the years and have always been very impressed with their projects.

The group is not very well known outside Europe so the purpose of this blog post is to highlight some of the Center’s projects.

  • Enumeration of Refugee Camps: The project developed an operational methodology to estimate refugee populations using very high resolution (VHR) satellite imagery. “The methodology relies on a combination of machine-assisted procedures, photo-interpretation and statistical sampling.”

jrc1

  • Benchmarking Hand Held Equipment for Field Data Collection: This project tested new devices for the collection for geo-referenced information. “The assessment of the instruments considered their technical characteristics, like the availability of necessary instruments or functionalities, technical features, hardware specifics, software compatibility and interfaces.”

jrc3

  • GEOCREW – Study on Geodata and Crisis Early Warning: This project analyzed the use of geo-spatial technology in the decision-making process of institutions dealing with international crises. The project also aimed to show best practice in the use of geo-spatial technologies in the decision-making process.
  • Support to Peacekeeping Operations in the Sudan: Maps are generally not available or often are out of date for most of the conflict areas in which peacekeping personnel is deployed,  This UNDPKO Darfur mapping initiative aimed to create an alliance of partners that addressed this gap and shared the results.

jrc4

  • Temporary Settlement Analysis by Remote Sensing: The project analyzes different types of refugee and IDP settlements to identify single structures inside refugee settlements. “The objective of the project is to establish the first comprehensive catalog of image interpretation keys, based on last-generation satellite data and related to the analysis of transitional settlements.”

JRC colleagues often publish papers on their work and I highly recommend having a look at this book when it comes out in June 2009:

jrc5

Patrick Philippe Meier

Video Introduction to Crisis Mapping

I’ve given many presentations on crisis mapping over the past two years but these were never filmed. So I decided to create this video presentation with narration in order to share my findings more widely and hopefully get a lot of feedback in the process. The presentation is not meant to be exhaustive although the video does run to about 30 minutes.

The topics covered in this presentation include:

  • Crisis Map Sourcing – information collection;
  • Mobile Crisis Mapping – mobile technology;
  • Crisis Mapping Visualization – data visualization;
  • Crisis Mapping Analysis – spatial analysis.

The presentation references several blog posts of mine in addition to several operational projects to illustrate the main concepts behind crisis mapping. The individual blog posts featured in the presentation are listed below:

This research is the product of a 2-year grant provided by Humanity United  (HU) to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, where I am a doctoral fellow.

I look forward to any questions/suggestions you may have on the video primer!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Internews, Ushahidi and Communication in Crises

I had the pleasure of participating in two Internews sponsored meetings in New York today. Fellow participants included OCHA, Oxfram, Red Cross, Save the Children, World Vision, BBC World Service Trust, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Humanitarian Media Foundation, International Media Support and several others.

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The first meeting was a three-hour brainstorming session on “Improving Humanitarian Information for Affected Communities” organized in preparation for the second meeting on “The Unmet Need for Communication in Humanitarian Response,” which was held at the UN General Assembly.

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The meetings presented an ideal opportunity for participants to share information on current initiatives that focus on communications with crisis-affected populations. Ushahidi naturally came to mind so I introduced the concept of crowdsourcing crisis information. I should have expected the immediate push back on the issue of data validation.

Crowdsourcing and Data Validation

While I have already blogged about overcoming some of the challenges of data validation in the context of crowdsourcing here, there is clearly more to add since the demand for “fully accurate information” a.k.a. “facts and only facts” was echoed during the second meeting in the General Assembly. I’m hoping this blog post will help move the discourse beyond the black and white concepts that characterize current discussions on data accuracy.

Having worked in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response for the past seven years, I fully understand the critical importance of accurate information. Indeed, a substantial component of my consulting work on CEWARN in the Horn of Africa specifically focused on the data validation process.

To be sure, no one in the humanitarian and human rights community is asking for inaccurate information. We all subscribe to the notion of “Do No Harm.”

Does Time Matter?

What was completely missing from today’s meetings, however, was a reference to time. Nobody noted the importance of timely information during crises, which is rather ironic since both meetings focused on sudden onset emergencies. I suspect that our demand (and partial Western obsession) for fully accurate information has clouded some of our thinking on this issue.

This is particularly ironic given that evidence-based policy-making and data-driven analysis are still the exception rather than the rule in the humanitarian community. Field-based organizations frequently make decisions on coordination, humanitarian relief and logistics without complete and fully accurate, real-time information, especially right after a crisis strikes.

So why is this same community holding crowdsourcing to a higher standard?

Time versus Accuracy

Timely information when a crisis strikes is a critical element for many of us in the humanitarian and human rights communities. Surely then we must recognize the tradeoff between accuracy and timeliness of information. Crisis information is perishable!

The more we demand fully accurate information, the longer the data validation process typically takes and thus the more likely the information will be become useless. Our public health colleagues who work in emergency medicine know this only too well.

The figure below represents the perishable nature of crisis information. Data validation makes sense during time-periods A and B. Continuing to carry out data validation beyond time B may be beneficial to us, but hardly to crisis affected communities. We may very well have the luxury of time. Not so for at-risk communities.

relevance_time

This point often gets overlooked when anxieties around inaccurate information surface. Of course we need to insure that information we produce or relay is as accurate as possible. Of course we want to prevent dangerous rumors from spreading. To this end, the Thomson Reuters Foundation clearly spelled out that their new Emergency Information Service (EIS) would only focus on disseminating facts and only facts. (See my previous post on EIS here).

Yes, we can focus all our efforts on disseminating facts, but are those facts communicated after time-period B above really useful to crisis-affected communities? (Incidentally, since EIS will be based on verifiable facts, their approach may well be liked to Wikipedia’s rules for corrective editing. In any event, I wonder how EIS might define the term “fact”).

Why Ushahidi?

Ushahidi was created within days of the Kenyan elections in 2007 because both the government and national media were seriously under-reporting widespread human rights violations. I was in Nairobi visiting my parents at the time and it was also frustrating to see the majority of international and national NGOs on the ground suffering from “data hugging disorder,” i.e., they had no interest whatsoever to share information with each other or the public for that matter.

This left the Ushahidi team with few options, which is why they decided to develop a transparent platform that would allow Kenyans to report directly, thereby circumventing the government, media and NGOs, who were working against transparency.

Note that the Ushahidi team is only comprised of tech-experts. Here’s a question: why didn’t the human rights or humanitarian community set up a platform like Ushahidi? Why were a few tech-savvy Kenyans without a humanitarian background able to set up and deploy the platform within a week and not the humanitarian community? Where were we? Shouldn’t we be the ones pushing for better information collection and sharing?

In a recent study for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), I mapped and time-stamped reports on the post-election violence reported by the mainstream media, citizen journalists and Ushahidi. I then created a Google Earth layer of this data and animated the reports over time and space. I recommend reading the conclusions.

Accuracy is a Luxury

Having worked in humanitarian settings, we all know that accuracy is more often luxury than reality, particularly right after a crisis strikes. Accuracy is not black and white, yes or no. Rather, we need to start thinking in terms of likelihood, i.e., how likely is this piece of information to be accurate? All of us already do this everyday albeit subjectively. Why not think of ways to complement or triangulate our personal subjectivities to determine the accuracy of information?

At CEWARN, we included “Source of Information” for each incident report. A field reporter could select from several choices: (1) direct observation; (2) media, and (3) rumor. This gave us a three-point weighted-scale that could be used in subsequent analysis.

At Ushahidi, we are working on Swift River, a platform that applies human crowdsourcing and machine analysis (natural language parsing) to filter crisis information produced in real time, i.e., during time-periods A and B above. Colleagues at WikiMapAid are developing similar solutions for data on disease outbreaks. See my recent post on WikiMapAid and data validation here.

Conclusion

In sum, there are various ways to rate the likelihood that a reported event is true. But again, we are not looking to develop a platform that insures 100% reliability. If full accuracy were the gold standard of humanitarian response (or military action for that matter), the entire enterprise would come to a grinding halt. The intelligence community has also recognized this as I have blogged about here.

The purpose of today’s meetings was for us to think more concretely about communication in crises from the perspective of at-risk communities. Yet, as soon as I mentioned crowdsourcing the discussion became about our own demand for fully accurate information with no concerns raised about the importance of timely information for crisis-affected communities.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Patrick Philippe Meier