Tag Archives: EIS

Location Based Mobile Alerts for Disaster Response in Haiti

Using demand-side and supply-side economics as an analogy for the use of communication and information technology (ICT) in disaster response may yield some interesting insights. Demand-side economics (a.k.a. Keynesian economics) argues that government policies should seek to “increase aggregate demand, thus increasing economic activity and reducing unemployment.” Supply-side economics, in contrast, argues that “overall economic well-being is maximized by lowering the barriers to producing goods and services.”

I’d like to take this analogy and apply it to the subject of text messaging in Haiti. The 4636 SMS system was set up in Haiti by the Emergency Information Service or EIS (video) with InSTEDD (video), Ushahidi (video) and the US State Department. The system allows for both demand-side and supply-side disaster response. Anyone in the country can text 4636 with their location and needs, i.e., demand-side. The system is also being used to supply some mobile phone users with important information updates, i.e., supply-side.

Both communication features are revolutionizing disaster response. Lets take the supply-side approach first. EIS together with WFP, UNICEF, IOM, the Red Cross and others are using the system to send out SMS to all ~7,500 mobile phones (the number is increasing daily) with important information updates. Here are screen shots of the latest messages sent out from the EIS system:

The supply-side approach is possible thanks to the much lower (technical and financial) barriers to disseminating this information in near real-time. Providing some beneficiaries with this information can serve to reassure them that aid is on the way and to inform them where they can access various services thus maximizing overall economic well-being.

Ushahidi takes both a demand-side and supply-side approach by using the 4636 SMS system. 4636 is used to solicit text messages from individuals in urgent need. These SMS’s are then geo-tagged in near real-time on Ushahidi’s interactive map of Haiti. In addition, Ushahidi provides a feature for users to receive alerts about specific geographic locations. As the screen shot below depicts, users can specify the location and geographical radius they want to receive information on via automated email and/or SMS alerts; i.e., supply-side.

The Ushahidi Tech Team is currently working to allow users to subscribe to specific alert categories/indicators based on the categories/indicators already being used to map the disaster and humanitarian response in Haiti. See the Ushahidi Haiti Map for the list. This will enable subscribers to receive even more targeted location based mobile alerts,  thus further improving their situational awareness, which will enable them to take more informed decisions about their disaster response activities.

Both the demand- and supply-side approaches are important. They comprise an unprecedented ability to provide location-based mobile alerts for disaster response; something not dissimilar to location based mobile advertising, i.e., targeted communication based on personal preferences and location. The next step, therefore, is to make all supply-side text messages location based when necessary. For example, the following SMS broadcast would only go to mobile phone subscribers in Port-au-Prince:

It is important that both demand- and supply-side mobile alerts be location based when needed. Otherwise, we fall prey to Seeing Like a State.

“If we imagine a state that has no reliable means of enumerating and locating its population, gauging its wealth, and mapping its land, resources, and settlements, we are imagining a state whose interventions in that society are necessarily crude.”

In “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” James Scott uses the following elegant analogy to emphasize the importance of locality.

“When a large freighter or passenger liner approaches a major port, the captain typically turns the control of his vessel over to a local pilot, who brings it into the harbor and to its berth. The same procedure is followed when the ship leaves its berth until it is safely out into the sea-lanes. This sensible procedure, designed to avoid accidents, reflects the fact that navigation on the open sea (a more “abstract” space) is the more general skill. While piloting a ship through traffic in a particular port is a highly contextual skill. We might call the art of piloting a “local and situated knowledge.”

An early lesson learned in the SMS deployment in Haiti is that more communication between the demand- and supply-side organizations need to happen. We are sharing the 4636 number,  so we are dependent on each other and need to ensure that changes to the system be up for open discussion. This lack of joint outreach has been the single most important challenge in my opinion. The captains are just not talking to the local pilots.

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