Tag Archives: Humanitarians

May the Crowd Be With You

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

May the Crowd be With You

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

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

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

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

bio

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

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

2025

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

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

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

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

bio

Video: Humanitarian Response in 2025

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

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

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

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

Bio

Digital Humanitarians and The Theory of Crowd Capital

An iRevolution reader very kindly pointed me to this excellent conceptual study: “The Theory of Crowd Capital”. The authors’ observations and insights resonate with me deeply given my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response. Over two years ago, I published this blog post in which I wrote that, “The value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) exists in the first place.” I was not very familiar with the concept of social capital at the time, but that’s precisely what I was describing. I’ve since written extensively about the very important role that social capital plays in disaster resilience and digital humanitarian response. But I hadn’t taken the obvious next step: “Crowd Capital.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 4.34.09 PM

John Prpić and Prashant Shukla, the authors of “The Theory of Crowd Capital,” find inspiration in F. A. Hayek, “who in 1945 wrote a seminal work titled: The Use of Knowledge in Society. In this work, Hayek describes dispersed knowledge as:

“The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. […] Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”

“Crowd Capability,” according to John and Prashant, “is what enables an organization to tap this dispersed knowledge from individuals. More formally, they define Crowd Capability as an “organizational level capability that is defined by the structure, content, and process of an organizations engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals—the Crowd.” From their perspective, “it is this engagement of dispersed knowledge through Crowd Capability efforts that endows organizations with data, information, and knowledge previously unavailable to them; and the internal processing of this, in turn, results in the generation of Crowd Capital within the organization.”

In other words, “when an organization defines the structure, content, and processes of its engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals, it has created a Crowd Capability, which in turn, serves to generate Crowd Capital.” And so, the authors contend, a Crowd Capable organization “puts in place the structure, content, and processes to access Hayek’s dispersed knowledge from individuals, each of whom has some informational advantage over the other, and thus forming a Crowd for the organization.” Note that a crowd can “exist inside of an organization, exist external to the organization, or a combination of the latter and the former.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-30 at 4.30.05 PM

The “Structure” component of Crowd Capability connotes “the geographical divisions and functional units within an organization, and the technological means that they employ to engage a Crowd population for the organization.” The structure component of Crowd Capability is always an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. The “Content” of Crowd Capability constitutes “the knowledge, information or data goals that the organization seeks from the population,” while the “Processes” of Crowd Capability are defined as “the internal procedures that the organization will use to organize, filter, and integrate the incoming knowledge, information, and/or data.” The authors observe that in each Crowd Capital case they’ve analyzed , “an organization creates the structure, content, and/or process to engage the knowledge of dispersed individuals through Information Systems.”

Like the other forms of capital, “Crowd Capital requires investments (for example in Crowd Capability), and potentially pays literal or figurative dividends, and hence, is endowed with typical ‘capital-like’ qualities.” But the authors are meticulous when they distinguish Crowd Capital from Intellectual Capital, Human Capital, Social Capital, Political Capital, etc. The main distinguishing factor is that Crowd Capability is strictly an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. “This is not to say that Crowd Capability could not be leveraged to create Social Capital for an organization. It likely could, however, Crowd Capability does not require Social Capital to function.”

That said, I would opine that Crowd Capability can function better thanks to Social Capital. Indeed, Social Capital can influence the “structure”, “content” and “processes” integral to Crowd Capability. And so, while the authors argue that  “Crowd Capital can be accrued without such relationship and network concerns” that are typical to Social Capital, I would counter that the presence of Social Capital certainly does not take away Crowd Capability but quite on the contrary builds greater capability. Otherwise, Crowd Capability is little else than the cultivation of cognitive surplus in which crowd workers can never unite. The Matrix comes to mind. So this is where my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response makes me diverge from the authors’ conceptualization of “Crowd Capital.” Take the Blue Pill to stay in the disenfranchised version of Crowd Capital; or take the Red Pill if you want to build the social capital required to hack the system.

MatrixBluePillRedPill

To be sure, the authors of Crowd Capital Theory point to Google’s ReCaptcha system for book digitization to demonstrate that Crowd Capability does not require a network of relationships for the accrual of Crowd Capital.” While I understand the return on investment to society both in the form of less spam and more digitized books, this mediated information system is authoritarian. One does not have a choice but to comply, unless you’re a hacker, perhaps. This is why I share Jonathan Zittrain’s point about “The future of the Internet and How To Stop It.” Zittrain promotes the notion of a “Generative Technologies,” which he defines as having the ability “to produce unprompted, user-driven change.”

Krisztina Holly makes a related argument in her piece on crowdscaling. “Like crowdsourcing, crowdscaling taps into the energy of people around the world that want to contribute. But while crowdsourcing pulls in ideas and content from outside the organization, crowdscaling grows and scales its impact outward by empowering the success of others.” Crowdscaling is possible when Crowd Capa-bility generates Crowd Capital by the crowd, for the crowd. In contrast, said crowd cannot hack or change a ReCaptcha requirement if they wish to proceed to the page they’re looking for. In The Matrix, Crowd Capital accrues most directly to The Matrix rather than to the human cocoons being farmed for their metrics. In the same vein, Crowd Capital generated by ReCaptcha accrues most directly to Google Inc. In short, ReCaptcha doesn’t even ask the question: “Blue Pill or Red Pill?” So is it only a matter of time until the users that generate the Crowd Capital unite and revolt, as seems to be the case with the lawsuit against CrowdFlower?

I realize that the authors may have intended to take the conversation on Crowd Capital in a different direction. But they do conclude with a number of inter-esting, open-ended questions that suggest various “flavors” of Crowd Capital are possible, and not just the dark one I’ve just described. I for one will absolutely make use of the term Crowd Capital, but will flavor it based on my experience with digital humanitarias, which suggests a different formula: Social Capital + Social Media + Crowdsourcing = Crowd Capital. In short, I choose the Red Pill.

bio

Summary: Digital Disaster Response to Philippine Typhoon

Update: How the UN Used Social Media in Response to Typhoon Pablo

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) on December 5th at 3pm Geneva time (9am New York). The activation request? To collect all relevant tweets about Typhoon Pablo posted on December 4th and 5th; identify pictures and videos of damage/flooding shared in those tweets; geo-locate, time-stamp and categorize this content. The UN requested that this database be shared with them by 5am Geneva time the following day. As per DHN protocol, the activation request was reviewed within an hour. The UN was informed that the request had been granted and that the DHN was formally activated at 4pm Geneva.

pablo_impact

The DHN is composed of several members who form Solution Teams when the network is activated. The purpose of Digital Humanitarians is to support humanitarian organizations in their disaster response efforts around the world. Given the nature of the UN’s request, both the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) and Humanity Road (HR) joined the Solution Team. HR focused on analyzing all tweets posted December 4th while the SBTF worked on tweets posted December 5th. Over 20,000 tweets were analyzed. As HR will have a blog post describing their efforts shortly (please check here), I will focus on the SBTF.

Geofeedia Pablo

The Task Force first used Geofeedia to identify all relevant pictures/videos that were already geo-tagged by users. About a dozen were identified in this manner. Meanwhile, the SBTF partnered with the Qatar Foundation Computing Research Institute’s (QCRI) Crisis Computing Team to collect all tweets posted on December 5th with the hashtags endorsed by the Philippine Government. QCRI ran algorithms on the dataset to remove (1) all retweets and (2) all tweets without links (URLs). Given the very short turn-around time requested by the UN, the SBTF & QCRI Teams elected to take a two-pronged approach in the hopes that one, at least, would be successful.

The first approach used  Crowdflower (CF), introduced here. Workers on Crowd-flower were asked to check each Tweet’s URL and determine whether it linked to a picture or video. The purpose was to filter out URLs that linked to news articles. CF workers were also asked to assess whether the tweets (or pictures/videos) provided sufficient geographic information for them to be mapped. This methodology worked for about 2/3 of all the tweets in the database. A review of lessons learned and how to use Crowdflower for disaster response will be posted in the future.

Pybossa Philippines

The second approach was made possible thanks to a partnership with PyBossa, a free, open-source crowdsourcing and micro-tasking platform. This effort is described here in more detail. While we are still reviewing the results of this approach, we expect that  this tool will become the standard for future activations of the Digital Humanitarian Network. I will thus continue working closely with the PyBossa team to set up a standby PyBossa platform ready-for-use at a moment’s notice so that Digital Humanitarians can be fully prepared for the next activation.

Now for the results of the activation. Within 10 hours, over 20,000 tweets were analyzed using a mix of methodologies. By 4.30am Geneva time, the combined efforts of HR and the SBTF resulted in a database of 138 highly annotated tweets. The following meta-data was collected for each tweet:

  • Media Type (Photo or Video)
  • Type of Damage (e.g., large-scale housing damage)
  • Analysis of Damage (e.g., 5 houses flooded, 1 damaged roof)
  • GPS coordinates (latitude/longitude)
  • Province
  • Region
  • Date
  • Link to Photo or Video

The vast majority of curated tweets had latitude and longitude coordinates. One SBTF volunteer (“Mapster”) created this map below to plot the data collected. Another Mapster created a similar map, which is available here.

Pablo Crisis Map Twitter Multimedia

The completed database was shared with UN OCHA at 4.55am Geneva time. Our humanitarian colleagues are now in the process of analyzing the data collected and writing up a final report, which they will share with OCHA Philippines today by 5pm Geneva time.

Needless to say, we all learned a lot thanks to the deployment of the Digital Humanitarian Network in the Philippines. This was the first time we were activated to carry out a task of this type. We are now actively reviewing our combined efforts with the concerted aim of streamlining our workflows and methodologies to make this type effort far easier and quicker to complete in the future. If you have suggestions and/or technologies that could facilitate this kind of digital humanitarian work, then please do get in touch either by posting your ideas in the comments section below or by sending me an email.

Lastly, but definitely most importantly, a big HUGE thanks to everyone who volunteered their time to support the UN’s disaster response efforts in the Philippines at such short notice! We want to publicly recognize everyone who came to the rescue, so here’s a list of volunteers who contributed their time (more to be added!). Without you, there would be no database to share with the UN, no learning, no innovating and no demonstration that digital volunteers can and do make a difference. Thank you for caring. Thank you for daring.

PeopleBrowsr: Next-Generation Social Media Analysis for Humanitarian Response?

As noted in this blog post on “Data Philanthropy for Humanitarian Response,” members of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork) are still using manual methods for media monitoring. When the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) activated the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) to crisis map Libya last year, for example, SBTF volunteers manually monitored hundreds of Twitter handles, news sites for several weeks.

SBTF volunteers (Mapsters) do not have access to a smart microtasking platform that could have distributed the task in more efficient ways. Nor do they have access to even semi-automated tools for content monitoring and information retrieval. Instead, they used a Google Spreadsheet to list the sources they were manually monitoring and turned this spreadsheet into a sign-up sheet where each Mapster could sign on for 3-hour shifts every day. The SBTF is basically doing “crowd computing” using the equivalent of a typewriter.

Meanwhile, companies like Crimson Hexagon, NetBase, RecordedFuture and several others have each developed sophisticated ways to monitor social and/or mainstream media for various private sector applications such as monitoring brand perception. So my colleague Nazila kindly introduced me to her colleagues at PeopleBrowsr after reading my post on Data Philanthropy. Last week, Marc from PeopleBrowsr gave me a thorough tour of the platform. I was definitely impressed and am excited that Marc wants us to pilot the platform in support of the Digital Humanitarian Network. So what’s the big deal about PeopleBrowsr? To begin with, the platform has access to 1,000 days of social media data and over 3 terabytes of social data per month.

To put this in terms of information velocity, PeopleBrowsr receives 10,000 social media posts per second from a variety of sources including Twitter, Facebook, fora and blogs. On the latter, they monitor posts from over 40 million blogs including all of Tumblr, Posterious, Blogspot and every WordPress-hosted site. They also pull in content from YouTube and Flickr. (Click on the screenshots below to magnify them).

Lets search for the term “tsunami” on Twitter. (One could enter a complex query, e.g., and/or, not, etc., and also search using twitter handles, word or hashtag clouds, top URLs, videos, pictures, etc). PeopleBrowsr summarizes the result by Location and Community. Location simply refers to where those generating content referring to a tsunami are located. Of course, many Twitter users may tweet about an event without actually being eye-witness accounts (think of Diaspora groups, for example). While PeopleBrowsr doesn’t geo-tag the location of reports events, you can very easily and quickly identify which twitter users are tweeting the most about a given event and where they are located.

As for Community, PeopleBrowsr has  indexed millions of social media users and clustered them into different communities based on their profile/bio information. Given our interest in humanitarian response, we could create our own community of social media users from the humanitarian sector and limit our search to those users only. Communities can also be created based on hashtags. The result of the “tsunami” search is displayed below.

This result can be filtered further by gender, sentiment, number of twitter followers, urgent words (e.g., alert, help, asap), time period and location, for example. The platform can monitor and view posts in any language that is posted. In addition, PeopleBrowsr have their very own Kred score which quantifies the “credibility” of social media users. The scoring metrics for Kred scores is completely transparent and also community driven. “Kred is a transparent way to measure influence and outreach in social media. Kred generates unique scores for every domain of expertise. Regardless of follower count, a person is influential if their community is actively listening and engaging with their content.”

Using Kred, PeopleBrows can do influence analysis using Twitter across all languages. They’ve also added Facebook to Kred, but only as an opt in option.  PeopleBrowsr also has some great built-in and interactive data analytics tools. In addition, one can download a situation report in PDF and print that off if there’s a need to go offline.

What appeals to me the most is perhaps the full “drill-down” functionality of PeopleBrowsr’s data analytics tools. For example, I can drill down to the number of tweets per month that reference the word “tsunami” and drill down further per week and per day.

Moreover, I can sort through the individual tweets themselves based on specific filters and even access the underlying tweets complete with twitter handles, time-stamps, Kred scores, etc.

This latter feature would make it possible for the SBTF to copy & paste and map individual tweets on a live crisis map. In fact, the underlying data can be downloaded into a CSV file and added to a Google Spreadsheet for Mapsters to curate. Hopefully the Ushahidi team will also provide an option to upload CSVs to SwiftRiver so users can curate/filter pre-existing datasets as well as content generated live. What if you don’t have time to get on PeopleBrowsr and filter, download, etc? As part of their customer support, PeopleBrowsr will simply provide the data to you directly.

So what’s next? Marc and I are taking the following steps: Schedule online demo of PeopleBrowsr of the SBTF Core Team (they are for now the only members of the Digital Humanitarian Network with a dedicated and experienced Media Monitoring Team); SBTF pilots PeopleBrowsr for preparedness purposes; SBTF deploys  PeopleBrowsr during 2-3 official activations of the Digital Humanitarian Network; SBTF analyzes the added value of PeopleBrowsr for humanitarian response and provides expert feedback to PeopleBrowsr on how to improve the tool for humanitarian response.