Tag Archives: Humanitarian

Live: Crowdsourced Crisis Map of UAV/Aerial Videos for Disaster Response

The first version of the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Crisis Map of UAV/aerial videos is now live on the Network’s website. The crowdsourced map features dozens of aerial videos of recent disasters. Like social media, this new medium—user-generated (aerial) content—can be used by humanitarian organizations to complement their damage assessments and thus improve situational awareness.

UAViators Map

The purpose of this Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) map is not only to provide humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected communities with an online repository of aerial information on disaster damage to augment their situational awareness; this crisis map also serves to raise awareness on how to safely & responsibly use small UAVs for rapid damage assessments. This explains why users who upload new content to the map must confirm that they have read the UAViator‘s Code of Conduct. They also have to confirm that the videos conform to the Network’s mission and that they do not violate privacy or copyrights. In sum, the map seeks to crowdsource both aerial footage and critical thinking for the responsible use of UAVs in humanitarian settings.

UAViators Map 4

As noted above, this is the first version of the map, which means several other features are currently in the works. These new features will be rolled out incrementally over the next weeks and months. In the meantime, feel free to suggest any features you’d like to see in the comments section below. Thank you.

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  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • Using UAVs for Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]

The Rise of the Humanitarian Drone: Giving Content to an Emerging Concept

Kristin Bergtora, who directs the Norwegian Center for Humanitarian Studies (and sits on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, UAViators), just co-authored this important study on the growing role of UAVs or drones in the humanitarian space. Kristin and fellow co-author Kjersti Lohne consider the mainstreaming of UAVs as a technology-transfer from the global battlefield. “Just as drones have rapidly become intrinsic to modern warfare, it appears that they will increasingly find their place as part of the humanitarian governance apparatus.” The co-authors highlight the opportunities that drones offer for humanitarian assistance and explore how the notion of the humanitarian UAV will change humanitarian practices.

CorePhil DSI

Kristin and Kjersti are particularly interested in two types of discourse around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. The first relates to the technical and logistical functions that UAVs might potentially fulfill as humanitarian functions. The second relates to the discourse around ethical uses of UAVs. The co-authors “analyze these two types of discourse” along with “their broader implications for humanitarian action.” The co-authors make the following two assumptions prior to carrying out there analysis. First, technologies change the balance of power (institutional power). Second, “although UAV technology may still be relatively primitive, it will evolve and proliferate as a technological paradigm.” To this end, the authors assume that the use of UAVs will “permeate the humanitarian field, and that the drones will be operated not only by states or intergovernmental actors, but also by NGOs.”

The study recognizes that the concept of the “humanitarian drone” is a useful one for military vendors who are urgently looking for other markets given continuing cuts in the US defense budget. “As the UAV industry tries to influence regulators and politicians [...] by promoting the UAV as a humanitarian technology,” the co-authors warn that the humanitarian enterprise “risks becoming an important co-constructor of the UAV industry’s moral-economy narrative.” They stress the need for more research on the political economy of the humanitarian UAV.

That being said, while defense contractors are promoting their large surveillance drones for use in humanitarian settings, “a different group of actors—who might be seen as a new breed of ‘techie humanitarians’—have entered the race. Their aim is to develop small drones to conduct SAR [search and rescue] or to provide data about emergencies, as part of the growing field of crisis mapping.” This “micro-UAV” space is the one promoted by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), not only for imaging but for multi-sensing and payload delivery. Indeed, as “the functions of UAV technologies evolve from relief-site monitoring to carrying cargo, enabling UAVs to participate more directly in field operations, ‘civil UAV technologies will be able to aid considerably in human relief [...].”

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As UAVs continue collecting more information on disasters and the impact of humanitarian assistance, they will “part of the ongoing humanitarian challenge of securing, making sense of and maintaining Big Data, as well as developing processes for leveraging credible and actionable information in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the humanitarian enterprise is gradually becoming concerned about the privacy implications of surveillance, and the possible costs of witnessing.” This an area that the Humanitarian UAV Network is very much concerned about, so I hope that Kristen will continue to push for this given that she is also on the Advisory Board of UAViators.

In conclusion, the authors believe that the “focus on weaponized drones fails to capture the transformative potential of humanitarian drones and their possible impact on humanitarian action, and the associated pitfalls.” They also emphasize that “the notion of the humanitarian drone is still an immature concept, forming around an immature technology. It is unclear whether the integration of drones into humanitarian action will be cost-effective, ethical or feasible.” I agree with this but only in part since Kristin and Kjersti do not include small or micro-UAVs in their study. The latter are already being integrated in a cost-effective & ethical manner, which is in line with the Humanitarian UAV Network’s mission.

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More research is needed on the role of small-UAVs in the humanitarian space and in particular on the new actors deploying them: from citizen journalists and local, grassroots communities to international humanitarian organizations & national NGOs. Another area ripe for research is the resulting “Big Data” that is likely to be generated by these new data collection technologies.

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See Also:

  •  Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

What Humanitarians Can Learn from Conservation UAVs

I recently joined my fellow National Geographic Emergency Explorer colleague Shah Selbe on his first expedition of SoarOcean, which seeks to leverage low-cost UAVs for Ocean protection. Why did I participate in an expedition that seemingly had nothing to do with humanitarian response? Because the conservation space is well ahead of the humanitarian sector when it comes to using UAVs. To this end, we have a lot to learn from colleagues like Shah and others outside our field. The video below explains this further & provides a great overview of SoarOcean.

And here’s my short amateur aerial video from the expedition:

My goal, by the end of the year, is to join two more expeditions led by members of the Humanitarian UAV Network Advisory Board. Hopefully one of these will be with Drone Adventures (especially now that I’ve been invited to volunteer as “Drone Adventures Ambassador”, possibly the coolest title I will ever have). I’m also hoping to join my colleague Steve from the ShadowView Foundation in one of his team’s future expeditions. His Foundation has extensive experience in the use of UAVs for anti-poaching and wildlife conservation.

In sum, I learned heaps during Shah’s SoarOcean expedition; there’s just no substitute for hands-on learning and onsite tinkering. So I really hope I can join Drone Adventures and ShadowView later this year. In the meantime, big thanks to Shah and his awesome team for a great weekend of flying and learning.

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See Also:

  • Welcome to the Humanitarian UAV Network [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

Welcome to the Humanitarian UAV Network

UAViators Logo

The Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) is now live. Click here to access and join the network. Advisors include representatives from 3D Robotics, AirDroids, senseFly & DroneAdventures, OpenRelief, ShadowView Foundation, ICT4Peace Foundation, the United Nations and more. The website provides a unique set of resources, including the most comprehensive case study of humanitarian UAV deployments, a directory of organizations engaged in the humanitarian UAV space and a detailed list of references to keep track of ongoing research in this rapidly evolving area. All of these documents along with the network’s Code of Conduct—the only one of it’s kind—are easily accessible here.

UAViators 4 Teams

The UAViators website also includes 8 action-oriented Teams, four of which are displayed above. The Flight Team, for example, includes both new and highly experienced UAV pilots while the Imagery Team comprises members interested in imagery analysis. Other teams include the Camera, Legal and Policy Teams. In addition to this Team page, the site also has a dedicated Operations page to facilitate & coordinate safe and responsible UAV deployments in support of humanitarian efforts. In between deployments, the website’s Global Forum is a place where members share information about relevant news, events and more. One such event, for example, is the upcoming Drone/UAV Search & Rescue Challenge that UAViators is sponsoring.

When first announcing this initiative,  I duly noted that launching such a network will at first raise more questions than answers, but I welcome the challenge and believe that members of UAViators are well placed to facilitate the safe and responsible use of UAVs in a variety of humanitarian contexts.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to colleagues and members of the Advisory Board who provided invaluable feedback and guidance in the lead-up to this launch. The Humanitarian UAV Network is result of collective vision and effort.

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See also:

  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search and Rescue [link]

Humanitarian Response in 2025

I’ve been invited to give a “very provocative talk” on what humanitarian response will look like in 2025 for the annual Global Policy Forum organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York. I first explored this question in early 2012 and my colleague Andrej Verity recently wrote up this intriguing piece on the topic, which I highly recommend; intriguing because he focuses a lot on the future of the pre-deployment process, which is often overlooked.

2025

I only have 7 minutes to give my talk so am thinking of leading with one or two of the following ideas−but I’m very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers and welcome additional ideas about what 2025 might look like for OCHA.

•  Situational Awareness: damage & needs assessments are instantaneous and 3D Crisis Maps are updated in real-time along with 3W’s information. Global communication networks are now hyper resilient, thus enabling uninterrupted communications after major disasters. More than 90% of the world’s population generates a readable, geo-referenced and multimedia digital footprint, which is used to augment 3D situational awareness; Fully 100% of all news media and citizen journalism content is now on the web and automatically translated & analyzed every second; high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery for 90% of the planet is updated and automatically analyzed every minute; Billions of physical sensors provide feedback loops on transportation, infrastructure, public health, weather-related and environmental dynamics in real-time. Big Data Analytics & advances in predictive modeling enables situational awareness to be predicted, allowing for IDP/refugee flows and disease outbreaks to be anticipated well ahead of any displacement.

•  Operational Response: disaster response is predominately driven by local communities. The real first responders, after all, have always been the disaster-affected communities. In 2025, this grassroots response is highly networked and hyper-tech enabled, thus significantly accelerating and improving the efficiency of self-help and mutual-aid. The Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) is no longer a purely virtual network and has local chapters (with flocks of UAVs) in over 100 countries that each contribute to local response efforts. Meanwhile, close to 90% of the world’s population has an augmented-reality Personal Context Assistant (PCA), a wearable device that provides hyper-customized information (drawn in part from Quantified Self data) on urgent needs, available resources and logistics. National humanitarian response organizations have largely replaced the need for external assistance and coordination save for extreme events. International humanitarian organizations increasingly play a financial, certification and accountability role.

•  Early Recovery: There are more 3D printers than 2D printers in 2025. The former are extensively used for rapid reconstruction and post-disaster resilient development using local resources and materials. Mobile-money is automatically disbursed to enable this recovery based on personal insurance & real-time needs assessments. In addition, the Share Economy is truly global, which means that communication, transportation, accommodation and related local services are all readily available in the vast majority of urban areas. During disasters, Share Economy companies play an active role by offering free use of their platforms.

•  Data Access & Privacy: Telecommunications companies, satellite imagery firms and large technology & social media companies have all signed up to the International Data Philanthropy Charter, enabling them to share anonymized emergency data (albeit temporarily) that is directly relevant for humanitarian response. User-generated content is owned by the user who can limit the use of this data along the lines of the Open Paths model.

If you feel like this future is a little too rosy, that’s because I’m thinking of presenting two versions of the future, one that is optimistic and the other less so. The latter would be a world riddled with ad hoc decision-making based on very subjective damage & needs-assessments, highly restrictive data-sharing licenses and even the continued use of PDFs for data dissemination. This less-than pleasant world would also be plagued by data privacy, protection and security challenges. A new digital volunteer group called “Black Hat Humanitarians” rises to prominence and has little patience for humanitarian principles or codes of conduct. In this future world, digital data is collected and shared with no concern for informed consent. In addition, the vast majority of data relevant for saving lives in humanitarian crises remains highly proprietary. Meanwhile, open data that is publicly shared during disasters is used by tech-savvy criminals to further their own ends.

These two future worlds may be extremes but whether we lean towards one or the other will depend in part on enlightened leadership and policymaking. What do you think humanitarian response will look like in 2025? Where am I off and/or making unfounded assumptions? What aspects of the pictures I’m painting are more likely to become reality? What am I completely missing?

Update: Video of presentation available here.

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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.

ImageClicker

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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Mining Mainstream Media for Emergency Management 2.0

There is so much attention (and hype) around the use of social media for emergency management (SMEM) that we often forget about mainstream media when it comes to next generation humanitarian technologies. The news media across the globe has become increasingly digital in recent years—and thus analyzable in real-time. Twitter added little value during the recent Pakistan Earthquake, for example. Instead, it was the Pakistani mainstream media that provided the immediate situational awareness necessary for a preliminary damage and needs assessment. This means that our humanitarian technologies need to ingest both social media and mainstream media feeds. 

Newspaper-covers

Now, this is hardly revolutionary. I used to work for a data mining company ten years ago that focused on analyzing Reuters Newswires in real-time using natural language processing (NLP). This was for a conflict early warning system we were developing. The added value of monitoring mainstream media for crisis mapping purposes has also been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years. In this study from 2008, I showed that a crisis map of Kenya was more complete when sources included mainstream media as well as user-generated content.

So why revisit mainstream media now? Simple: GDELT. The Global Data Event, Language and Tone dataset that my colleague Kalev Leetaru launched earlier this year. GDELT is the single largest public and global event-data catalog ever developed. Digital Humanitarians need no longer monitor mainstream media manually. We can simply develop a dedicated interface on top of GDELT to automatically extract situational awareness information for disaster response purposes. We’re already doing this with Twitter, so why not extend the approach to global digital mainstream media as well?

GDELT data is drawn from a “cross-section of all major international, national, regional, local, and hyper-local news sources, both print and broadcast, from nearly every corner of the globe, in both English and vernacular.” All identified events are automatically coded using the CAMEO coding framework (although Kalev has since added several dozen additional event-types). In short, GDELT codes all events by the actors involved, the type of event, location, time and other meta-data attributes. For example, actors include “Refugees,” “United Nations,” and “NGO”. Event-types include variables such as “Affect” which captures everything from refugees to displaced persons,  evacuations, etc. Humanitarian crises, aid, disasters, disaster relief, etc. are also included as an event-type. The “Provision of Humanitarian Aid” is another event-type, for example. GDELT data is currently updated every 24 hours, and Kalev has plans to provide hourly updates in the near future and ultimately 30-minute updates.

GDELT GKG

If this isn’t impressive enough, Kalev and colleagues have just launched the GDELT Global Knowledge Graph (GKG). “To sum up the GKG in a single sentence, it connects every person, organization, location, count, theme, news source, and event across the planet into a single massive network that captures what’s happening around the world, what its context is and who’s involved, and how the world is feeling about it, every single day.” The figure above (click to enlarge) is based on a subset of a single day of the GDELT Knowledge Graph, showing “how the cities of the world are connected to each other in a single day’s worth of news. A customized version of the GKG could perhaps prove useful for UN OCHA’s “Who Does What, Where” (3Ws) directory in the future. 

I’ve had long conversations with Kalev this month about leveraging GDELT for disaster response and he is very supportive of the idea. My hope is that we’ll be able to add a GDELT feed to MicroMappers next year. I’m also wondering whether we could eventually create a version of the AIDR platform that ingests GDELT data instead (or in addition to) Twitter. There is real potential here, which is why I’m excited that my colleagues at OCHA are exploring GDELT for humanitarian response. I’ll be meeting with them this week and next to explore ways to collaborate on making the most of GDELT for humanitarian response.

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Note: Mainstream media obviously includes television and radio as well. Some colleagues of mine in Austria are looking at triangulating television broadcasts with text-based media and social media for a European project.

New! Humanitarian Computing Library

The field of “Humanitarian Computing” applies Human Computing and Machine Computing to address major information-based challengers in the humanitarian space. Human Computing refers to crowdsourcing and microtasking, which is also referred to as crowd computing. In contrast, Machine Computing draws on natural language processing and machine learning, amongst other disciplines. The Next Generation Humanitarian Technologies we are prototyping at QCRI are powered by Humanitarian Computing research and development (R&D).

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My QCRI colleagues and I  just launched the first ever Humanitarian Computing Library which is publicly available here. The purpose of this library, or wiki, is to consolidate existing and future research that relate to Humanitarian Computing in order to support the development of next generation humanitarian tech. The repository currently holds over 500 publications that span topics such as Crisis Management, Trust and Security, Software and Tools, Geographical Analysis and Crowdsourcing. These publications are largely drawn from (but not limited to) peer-reviewed papers submitted at leading conferences around the world. We invite you to add your own research on humanitarian computing to this growing collection of resources.

Many thanks to my colleague ChaTo (project lead) and QCRI interns Rahma and Nada from Qatar University for spearheading this important project. And a special mention to student Rachid who also helped.

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Zooniverse: The Answer to Big (Crisis) Data?

Both humanitarian and development organizations are completely unprepared to deal with the rise of “Big Crisis Data” & “Big Development Data.” But many still hope that Big Data is but an illusion. Not so, as I’ve already blogged here, here and here. This explains why I’m on a quest to tame the Big Data Beast. Enter Zooniverse. I’ve been a huge fan of Zooniverse for as long as I can remember, and certainly long before I first mentioned them in this post from two years ago. Zooniverse is a citizen science platform that evolved from GalaxyZoo in 2007. Today, Zooniverse “hosts more than a dozen projects which allow volunteers to participate in scientific research” (1). So, why do I have a major “techie crush” on Zooniverse?

Oh let me count the ways. Zooniverse interfaces are absolutely gorgeous, making them a real pleasure to spend time with; they really understand user-centered design and motivations. The fact that Zooniverse is conversent in multiple disciplines is incredibly attractive. Indeed, the platform has been used to produce rich scientific data across multiple fields such as astronomy, ecology and climate science. Furthermore, this citizen science beauty has a user-base of some 800,000 registered volunteers—with an average of 500 to 1,000 new volunteers joining every day! To place this into context, the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a digital humanitarian group has about 1,000 volunteers in total. The open source Zooniverse platform also scales like there’s no tomorrow, enabling hundreds of thousands to participate on a single deployment at any given time. In short, the software supporting these pioneering citizen science projects is well tested and rapidly customizable.

At the heart of the Zooniverse magic is microtasking. If you’re new to microtasking, which I often refer to as “smart crowdsourcing,” this blog post provides a quick introduction. In brief, Microtasking takes a large task and breaks it down into smaller microtasks. Say you were a major (like really major) astro-nomy buff and wanted to tag a million galaxies based on whether they are spiral or elliptical galaxies. The good news? The kind folks at the Sloan Digital Sky Survey have already sent you a hard disk packed full of telescope images. The not-so-good news? A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals it would take 3-5 years, working 24 hours/day and 7 days/week to tag a million galaxies. Ugh!

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But you’re a smart cookie and decide to give this microtasking thing a go. So you upload the pictures to a microtasking website. You then get on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and invite (nay beg) your friends (and as many strangers as you can find on the suddenly-deserted digital streets), to help you tag a million galaxies. Naturally, you provide your friends, and the surprisingly large number good digital Samaritans who’ve just show up, with a quick 2-minute video intro on what spiral and elliptical galaxies look like. You explain that each participant will be asked to tag one galaxy image at a time by simply by clicking the “Spiral” or “Elliptical” button as needed. Inevitably, someone raises their hands to ask the obvious: “Why?! Why in the world would anyone want to tag a zillion galaxies?!”

Well, only cause analyzing the resulting data could yield significant insights that may force a major rethink of cosmology and our place in the Universe. “Good enough for us,” they say. You breathe a sigh of relief and see them off, cruising towards deep space to bolding go where no one has gone before. But before you know it, they’re back on planet Earth. To your utter astonishment, you learn that they’re done with all the tagging! So you run over and check the data to see if they’re pulling your leg; but no, not only are 1 million galaxies tagged, but the tags are highly accurate as well. If you liked this little story, you’ll be glad to know that it happened in real life. GalaxyZoo, as the project was called, was the flash of brilliance that ultimately launched the entire Zooniverse series.

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No, the second Zooniverse project was not an attempt to pull an Oceans 11 in Las Vegas. One of the most attractive features of many microtasking platforms such as Zooniverse is quality control. Think of slot machines. The only way to win big is by having three matching figures such as the three yellow bells in the picture above (righthand side). Hit the jackpot and the coins will flow. Get two out three matching figures (lefthand side), and some slot machines may toss you a few coins for your efforts. Microtasking uses the same approach. Only if three participants tag the same picture of a galaxy as being a spiral galaxy does that data point count. (Of course, you could decide to change the requirement from 3 volunteers to 5 or even 20 volunteers). This important feature allows micro-tasking initiatives to ensure a high standard of data quality, which may explain why many Zooniverse projects have resulted in major scientific break-throughs over the years.

The Zooniverse team is currently running 15 projects, with several more in the works. One of the most recent Zooniverse deployments, Planet Four, received some 15,000 visitors within the first 60 seconds of being announced on BBC TV. Guess how many weeks it took for volunteers to tag over 2,000,0000 satellite images of Mars? A total of 0.286 weeks, i.e., forty-eight hours! Since then, close to 70,000 volunteers have tagged and traced well over 6 million Martian “dunes.” For their Andromeda Project, digital volunteers classified over 7,500 star clusters per hour, even though there was no media or press announce-ment—just one newsletter sent to volunteers. Zooniverse de-ployments also involve tagging earth-based pictures (in contrast to telescope imagery). Take this Serengeti Snapshot deployment, which invited volunteers to classify animals using photographs taken by 225 motion-sensor cameras in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. Volunteers swarmed this project to the point that there are no longer any pictures left to tag! So Zooniverse is eagerly waiting for new images to be taken in Serengeti and sent over.

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One of my favorite Zooniverse features is Talk, an online discussion tool used for all projects to provide a real-time interface for volunteers and coordinators, which also facilitates the rapid discovery of important features. This also allows for socializing, which I’ve found to be particularly important with digital humanitarian deployments (such as these). One other major advantage of citizen science platforms like Zooniverse is that they are very easy to use and therefore do not require extensive prior-training (think slot machines). Plus, participants get to learn about new fields of science in the process. So all in all, Zooniverse makes for a great date, which is why I recently reached out to the team behind this citizen science wizardry. Would they be interested in going out (on a limb) to explore some humanitarian (and development) use cases? “Why yes!” they said.

Microtasking platforms have already been used in disaster response, such as MapMill during Hurricane SandyTomnod during the Somali Crisis and CrowdCrafting during Typhoon Pablo. So teaming up with Zooniverse makes a whole lot of sense. Their microtasking software is the most scalable one I’ve come across yet, it is open source and their 800,000 volunteer user-base is simply unparalleled. If Zooniverse volunteers can classify 2 million satellite images of Mars in 48 hours, then surely they can do the same for satellite images of disaster-affected areas on Earth. Volunteers responding to Sandy created some 80,000 assessments of infrastructure damage during the first 48 hours alone. It would have taken Zooniverse just over an hour. Of course, the fact that the hurricane affected New York City and the East Coast meant that many US-based volunteers rallied to the cause, which may explain why it only took 20 minutes to tag the first batch of 400 pictures. What if the hurricane had hit a Caribbean instead? Would the surge of volunteers may have been as high? Might Zooniverse’s 800,000+ standby volunteers also be an asset in this respect?

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Clearly, there is huge potential here, and not only vis-a-vis humanitarian use-cases but development one as well. This is precisely why I’ve already organized and coordinated a number of calls with Zooniverse and various humanitarian and development organizations. As I’ve been telling my colleagues at the United Nations, World Bank and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, Zooniverse is the Ferrari of Microtasking, so it would be such a big shame if we didn’t take it out for a spin… you know, just a quick test-drive through the rugged terrains of humanitarian response, disaster preparedness and international development. 

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Postscript: As some iRevolution readers may know, I am also collaborating with the outstanding team at  CrowdCrafting, who have also developed a free & open-source microtasking platform for citizen science projects (also for disaster response here). I see Zooniverse and CrowCrafting as highly syner-gistic and complementary. Because CrowdCrafting is still in early stages, they fill a very important gap found at the long tail. In contrast, Zooniverse has been already been around for half-a-decade and can caters to very high volume and high profile citizen science projects. This explains why we’ll all be getting on a call in the very near future. 

A Research Framework for Next Generation Humanitarian Technology and Innovation

Humanitarian donors and organizations are increasingly championing innovation and the use of new technologies for humanitarian response. DfID, for example, is committed to using “innovative techniques and technologies more routinely in humanitarian response” (2011). In a more recent strategy paper, DfID confirmed that it would “continue to invest in new technologies” (2012). ALNAP’s important report on “The State of the Humanitarian System” documents the shift towards greater innovation, “with new funds and mechanisms designed to study and support innovation in humanitarian programming” (2012). A forthcoming land-mark study by OCHA makes the strongest case yet for the use and early adoption of new technologies for humanitarian response (2013).

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These strategic policy documents are game-changers and pivotal to ushering in the next wave of humanitarian technology and innovation. That said, the reports are limited by the very fact that the authors are humanitarian professionals and thus not necessarily familiar with the field of advanced computing. The purpose of this post is therefore to set out a more detailed research framework for next generation humanitarian technology and innovation—one with a strong focus on information systems for crisis response and management.

In 2010, I wrote this piece on “The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It.” This divide became increasingly clear to me when I co-founded and co-directed the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping & Early Warning (2007-2009). So I co-founded the annual Inter-national CrisisMappers Conference series in 2009 and have continued to co-organize this unique, cross-disciplinary forum on humanitarian technology. The CrisisMappers Network also plays an important role in bridging the humanitarian and technology divide. My decision to join Ushahidi as Director of Crisis Mapping (2009-2012) was a strategic move to continue bridging the divide—and to do so from the technology side this time.

The same is true of my move to the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) at the Qatar Foundation. My experience at Ushahidi made me realize that serious expertise in Data Science is required to tackle the major challenges appearing on the horizon of humanitarian technology. Indeed, the key words missing from the DfID, ALNAP and OCHA innovation reports include: Data Science, Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Machine Translation and Human Computing. This current divide between the humanitarian and data science space needs to be bridged, which is precisely why I joined the Qatar Com-puting Research Institute as Director of Innovation; to develop and prototype the next generation of humanitarian technologies by working directly with experts in Data Science and Advanced Computing.

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My efforts to bridge these communities also explains why I am co-organizing this year’s Workshop on “Social Web for Disaster Management” at the 2013 World Wide Web conference (WWW13). The WWW event series is one of the most prestigious conferences in the field of Advanced Computing. I have found that experts in this field are very interested and highly motivated to work on humanitarian technology challenges and crisis computing problems. As one of them recently told me: “We simply don’t know what projects or questions to prioritize or work on. We want questions, preferably hard questions, please!”

Yet the humanitarian innovation and technology reports cited above overlook the field of advanced computing. Their policy recommendations vis-a-vis future information systems for crisis response and management are vague at best. Yet one of the major challenges that the humanitarian sector faces is the rise of Big (Crisis) Data. I have already discussed this here, here and here, for example. The humanitarian community is woefully unprepared to deal with this tidal wave of user-generated crisis information. There are already more mobile phone sub-scriptions than people in 100+ countries. And fully 50% of the world’s population in developing countries will be using the Internet within the next 20 months—the current figure is 24%. Meanwhile, close to 250 million people were affected by disasters in 2010 alone. Since then, the number of new mobile phone subscrip-tions has increased by well over one billion, which means that disaster-affected communities today are increasingly likely to be digital communities as well.

In the Philippines, a country highly prone to “natural” disasters, 92% of Filipinos who access the web use Facebook. In early 2012, Filipinos sent an average of 2 billion text messages every day. When disaster strikes, some of these messages will contain information critical for situational awareness & rapid needs assess-ment. The innovation reports by DfID, ALNAP and OCHA emphasize time and time again that listening to local communities is a humanitarian imperative. As DfID notes, “there is a strong need to systematically involve beneficiaries in the collection and use of data to inform decision making. Currently the people directly affected by crises do not routinely have a voice, which makes it difficult for their needs be effectively addressed” (2012). But how exactly should we listen to millions of voices at once, let alone manage, verify and respond to these voices with potentially life-saving information? Over 20 million tweets were posted during Hurricane Sandy. In Japan, over half-a-million new users joined Twitter the day after the 2011 Earthquake. More than 177 million tweets about the disaster were posted that same day, i.e., 2,000 tweets per second on average.

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Of course, the volume and velocity of crisis information will vary from country to country and disaster to disaster. But the majority of humanitarian organizations do not have the technologies in place to handle smaller tidal waves either. Take the case of the recent Typhoon in the Philippines, for example. OCHA activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to ask them to carry out a rapid damage assessment by analyzing the 20,000 tweets posted during the first 48 hours of Typhoon Pablo. In fact, one of the main reasons digital volunteer networks like the DHN and the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) exist is to provide humanitarian organizations with this kind of skilled surge capacity. But analyzing 20,000 tweets in 12 hours (mostly manually) is one thing, analyzing 20 million requires more than a few hundred dedicated volunteers. What’s more, we do not have the luxury of having months to carry out this analysis. Access to information is as important as access to food; and like food, information has a sell-by date.

We clearly need a research agenda to guide the development of next generation humanitarian technology. One such framework is proposed her. The Big (Crisis) Data challenge is composed of (at least) two major problems: (1) finding the needle in the haystack; (2) assessing the accuracy of that needle. In other words, identifying the signal in the noise and determining whether that signal is accurate. Both of these challenges are exacerbated by serious time con-straints. There are (at least) two ways too manage the Big Data challenge in real or near real-time: Human Computing and Artificial Intelligence. We know about these solutions because they have already been developed and used by other sectors and disciplines for several years now. In other words, our information problems are hardly as unique as we might think. Hence the importance of bridging the humanitarian and data science communities.

In sum, the Big Crisis Data challenge can be addressed using Human Computing (HC) and/or Artificial Intelligence (AI). Human Computing includes crowd-sourcing and microtasking. AI includes natural language processing and machine learning. A framework for next generation humanitarian technology and inno-vation must thus promote Research and Development (R&D) that apply these methodologies for humanitarian response. For example, Verily is a project that leverages HC for the verification of crowdsourced social media content generated during crises. In contrast, this here is an example of an AI approach to verification. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) has used HC (micro-tasking) to analyze satellite imagery (Big Data) for humanitarian response. An-other novel HC approach to managing Big Data is the use of gaming, something called Playsourcing. AI for Disaster Response (AIDR) is an example of AI applied to humanitarian response. In many ways, though, AIDR combines AI with Human Computing, as does MatchApp. Such hybrid solutions should also be promoted   as part of the R&D framework on next generation humanitarian technology. 

There is of course more to humanitarian technology than information manage-ment alone. Related is the topic of Data Visualization, for example. There are also exciting innovations and developments in the use of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), meshed mobile communication networks, hyper low-cost satellites, etc.. I am particularly interested in each of these areas will continue to blog about them. In the meantime, I very much welcome feedback on this post’s proposed research framework for humanitarian technology and innovation.

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