Tag Archives: Google

Project Loon: Google Blimps for Disaster Response (Updated)

A blimp is a floating airship that does not have any internal supporting framework or keel. The airship is typically filled with helium and is controlled remotely using steerable fans. Projet Loon is a Google initiative to launch a fleet of Blimps to extend Internet/wifi access across Africa and Asia. Some believe that “these high-flying networks would spend their days floating over areas outside of major cities where Internet access is either scarce or simply nonexistent.” Small-scale prototypes are reportedly being piloted in South Africa “where a base station is broadcasting signals to wireless access boxes in high schools over several kilometres.” The US military has been using similar technology for years.


Google notes that the technology is “well-suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas.” Might Google Blimps also be used by Google’s Crisis Response Team in the future? Indeed, Google Blimps could be used to provide Internet access to disaster-affected communities. The blimps could also be used to capture very high-resolution aerial imagery for damage assessment purposes. Simply adding a digital camera to said blimps would do the trick. In fact, they could simply take the fourth-generation cameras used for Google Street View and mount them on the blimps to create Google Sky View. As always, however, these innovations are fraught with privacy and data protection issues. Also, the use of UAVs and balloons for disaster response has been discussed for years already.


Crowdsourcing Crisis Response Following Philippine Floods

Widespread and heavy rains resulting from Typhoon Haikui have flooded the Philippine capital Manila. Over 800,000 have been affected by the flooding and some 250,000 have been relocated to evacuation centers. Given the gravity of the situation, “some resourceful Filipinos put up an online spreadsheet where concerned citizens can list down places where help is most urgently needed” (1). Meanwhile, Google’s Crisis Response Team has launched this resource page  which includes links to News updates, Emergency contact information, Person Finder and this shelter map.

Filipinos volunteers are using an open (but not editable) Google Spreadsheet and crowdsourcing reports using this Google Form to collect urgent reports on needs. The spreadsheet (please click the screenshot below to enlarge) includes time of incident, location (physical address), a description of the alert (many include personal names and phone numbers) and the person it was reported by. Additional fields include status of the alert, the urgency of this alert and whether action has been taken. The latter is also color coded.

“The spreadsheet can easily be referenced by any rescue group that can access the web, and is constantly updated by volunteers real-time” (2). This reminds me a lot of the Google Spreadsheets we used following the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) continues to use Google Spreadsheets in similar aways but for the purposes of media monitoring and these are typically not made public. What is noteworthy about these important volunteer efforts in the Philippines is that the spreadsheet was made completely public in order to crowdsource the response.

As I’ve noted before, emergency management professionals cannot be every-where at the same time, but the crowd is always there. The tradeoff with the use of open data to crowdsource crisis response is obviously privacy and data protection. Volunteers may therefore want to let those filling out the Google Form know that any information they provide will or may be made public. I would also recommend that they create an “About Us” or “Who We Are” link to cultivate a sense of trust with the initiative. Finally, crowdsourcing offers-for-help may facilitate the “matchmaking” of needs and available resources.

I would give the same advice to volunteers who recently setup this Crowdmap of the floods. I would also suggest they set up their own Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in order to deploy again in the future. In the meantime, reports on flood levels can be submitted to the crisis map via webform, email and SMS.

Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently announced a new partnership with Google that will apparently empower citizen cartographers in 150 countries worldwide. This has provoked some concern among open source enthusiasts. Under this new agreement, the Bank, UN agencies and developing country governments will be able to “access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.”

So what’s the catch? Google’s licensing agreement for Google Map Maker stipulates the following: Users are not allowed to access Google Map Maker data via any platform other than those designated by Google. Users are not allowed to make any copies of the data, nor can they translate the data, modify it or create a derivative of the data. In addition, users cannot publicly display any Map Maker data for commercial purposes. Finally, users cannot use Map Maker data to create a service that is similar to any already provided by Google.

There’s a saying in the tech world that goes like this: “If the product is free, then you are the product.” I fear this may be the case with the Google-Bank partnership. I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data, which will carry all the licensing restrictions described above. Does this really empower citizen cartographers?

Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes? Will Google push Map Maker data to Google Maps & Google Earth products, i.e., expanding market share & commercial interests? Contrast this with the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), which uses open source software and open data to empower local communities and disaster risk managers. Also, the Google-Bank partnership is specifically with UN agencies and governments, not exactly citizens or NGOs.

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

“In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

 Here’s another version:

“In the 21st century, for-profit companies like Google Inc have an advantage over local communities. They can use big license restrictions. With the Google-Bank partnership, Google can use local communities to collect information for free and make the biggest profit. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

The Google-Bank partnership points to another important issue being ignored in this debate. Let’s not pretend that technology alone determines whether participatory mapping truly empowers local communities. I recently learned of an absolutely disastrous open source “community” mapping project in Africa which should one day should be written up in a blog post entitled “Open Source Community Mapping #FAIL”.

So software developers (whether from the open source or proprietary side) who want to get involved in community mapping and have zero experience in participatory GIS, local development and capacity building should think twice: the “do no harm” principle also applies to them. This is equally true of Google Inc. The entire open source mapping community will be watching every move they make on this new World Bank partnership.

I do hope Google eventually realizes just how much of an opportunity they have to do good with this partnership. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will draft a separate licensing agreement for the World Bank partnership. In fact, I hope they openly invite the participatory GIS and open source mapping communities to co-draft an elevated licensing agreement that will truly empower citizen cartographers. Google would still get publicity—and more importantly positive publicity—as a result. They’d still get the data and have their brand affiliated with said data. But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?

Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

Facebook is increasingly used to crowdsource crisis information and response, as is Twitter. So is it just a matter of time until we see similar use cases with Google+? Another question I have is whether such uses cases will simply reflect more of the same or whether we’ll see new, unexpected applications and dynamics? Of course, it may be premature to entertain the role that Google+ might play in disaster response just days after it’s private beta launch, but the company seems fully committed to making  this new venture succeed. Entertain-ing how Google+ (G+) might be used as a humanitarian technology thus seems worthwhile.

The fact that G+ is open and searchable is probably one of the starkest differences with the walled-garden that is Facebook; that, and their Data Liberation policy. This will make activity on G+ relatively easier to find—Google is the King of Search, after all. This openness will render serendipity and synergies more likely.

The much talked about “Circles” feature is also very appealing for the kind of organic and collaborative crowdsourcing work that we see emerging following a crisis. Think about these “Circles” not only as networks but also as “honeycombs” for “flash” projects—i.e., short-term and temporary—very much along the lines that Skype is used for live collaborative crisis mapping operations.

Google+’s new Hangout feature could also be used instead of Skype chat and video, with the advantage of having multi-person video-conferencing. With a little more work, the Sparks feature could facilitate media monitoring—an important component of live crisis mapping. And then there’s Google+ mobile, which is accessible on most phones with a browser and already includes a “check-in” feature as well as geo-referenced status updates. The native app for the Android is already available and the iPhone app is coming soon.

Clicking on my status update above, produces the Google Maps page below. What’s particularly telling about this is how “underwhelming” the use of Google Maps currently is within G+.  There’s no doubt this will change dramatically as G+ evolves. The Google+ team has noted that they already have dozens of new features ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So expect G+ to make full use of Google’s formidable presence on the Geo Web—think MapMaker+ and Earth Engine+. This could be a big plus for live crowdsourced crisis mapping, especially of the multimedia kind.

One stark difference with Facebook’s status updates and check-in’s is that G+ allows you to decide which Circles (or networks of contacts) to share your updates and check-in’s with. This is an important difference that could allow for more efficient information sharing in near real-time. You could set up your Circles as different teams, perhaps even along UN Cluster lines.

As the G+ mobile website reveals, the team will also be integrating SMS, which is definitely key for crisis response. I imagine there will also be a way to connect your Twitter feed with Google+ in the near future. This will make G+ even more compelling as a mobile humanitarian technology platform. In addition, I expect there are also plans to integrate Google News, Google Reader, Google Groups, Google Docs and Google Translate with G+. GMail, YouTube and Picasa are already integrated.

One feature that will be important for humanitarian applications is offline functionality. Google Reader and GMail already have this feature (Google Gears), which I imagine could be added to G+’s Stream and perhaps eventually with Google Maps? In addition, if Google can provide customizable uses of G+, then this could also make the new platform more compelling for humanitarian organizations, e.g., if OCHA could have their own G+ (“iG+”) by customizing and branding their G+ interface; much like the flexibility afforded by the Ning platform. One first step in that direction might be to offer a range of “themes” for G+, just like Google does with GMail.

Finally, the ability to develop third party apps for G+ could be a big win. Think of a G+ store (in contrast to an App Store). I’d love to see a G+ app for Ushahidi and OSM, for example.

If successful, G+ could be the best example of “What Technology Wants” to date. G+ is convergence technology par excellence. It is a hub that connects many of Google’s excellent products and from the looks of it, the G+ team is just getting warmed up with the converging.

I’d love to hear from others who are also brainstorming about possible applications of Google+ in the humanitarian space. Am I off on any of the ideas above? What am I missing? Maybe we could set up a Google+ 4 Disaster Response Circle and get on Hangout to brainstorm together?

A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies

I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days. At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshpos. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead? Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. There were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level. Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

LIFT09: Vint Cerf on InterPlaNetary Internet (IPN)

Google’s Vice President and Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf gave the closing talk of LIFT09. The topic? Nothing too ambitious, just “The Future of Information and Communication Technology.” Vint touched on a number of issues ranging from mobile technology to inter-cloud communications. “For most people in the world, their first experience with the Internet will be through mobile technology.”

On inter-cloud communication, Vint highlighted the following key questions:

  • How to refer to other clouds?
  • How to refer to data in other clouds?
  • How to make data references persistent (unlike urls)?
  • How to protect Clouds from various forms of attack (inside, between clouds)?

He argued that we need a global agreement about privacy issues as we shift to cloud computing. He compared this with the Law of the Sea agreement. But what he really wanted to talk about was the InterPlaNetary Internet (IPN).


“The objective of the Interplanetary Internet project is to define the architecture and protocols necessary to permit interoperation of the Internet resident on Earth with other remotely located internets resident on other planets or spacecraft in transit.

While the Earth’s Internet is basically a ‘network of connected networks’ the Interplanetary Internet may therefore be thought of as a “network of disconnected Internets”. Inter-working in this environment will require new techniques to be developed.

Many elements of the current terrestrial Internet suite of protocols are expected to be useful in low-delay space environments, such as local operations on and around other planets or within free flying space vehicles. However, the speed-of-light delays, intermittent and unidirectional connectivity, and error-rates characteristic of deep-space communication make their use unfeasible across deep-space distances.

It is also anticipated that the architecture and protocols developed by this project will be useful in many terrestrial environments in which a dependence on real-time interactive communication is either unfeasible or inadvisable.”

For further information, see the project website here.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Netting War Criminals using Web 2.0?

The Aegis Trust in London has turned to Facebook and Google Maps/Earth to track the movements of Sudanese Government Minister Ahmad Harun and Janjaweed leader Ali Kushayb. The two are charged by the International Criminal Court (ICC) with organizing the destruction of Darfur’s town during which more than 100 civilians were murdered, and women and girls raped. Some 34,000 people were forced to flee in the mayhem which also saw the destruction of food stores and the mosque.

Could this be the beginnings of Michele Foucault’s Panopticon albeit reversed? The panopticon is a prison structure originally designed by Jeremy Bentham in which well-lit prison cells surround a central watchtower. Guards can monitor any prisoner’s activities without the latter knowing they are being watched. Foucault uses Bentham’s panopticon as a metaphor for power dynamics in society more generally. However, the information revolution potentially challenges this metaphor, allowing the multitude to observe elites.

While the predominant feature of the information society in the West is the spread of the Internet this is not the case for the majority of developing countries with repressive regimes. Indeed, mobile phones are the most widely spread ICT in developing countries and also the technology of choice for activist networks in these regions. To this end, I hope the Aegis Trust will include SMS text messaging as a way to report sightings of individuals charged with crimes against humanity.

Patrick Philippe Meier