Tag Archives: InSTEDD

Location Based Mobile Alerts for Disaster Response in Haiti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Philippe Meier

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global System of Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patrick Philippe Meier

Moving Forward with Swift River

This is an update on the latest Swift River open group meeting that took place this morning at the InSTEDD office in Palo Alto. Ushahidi colleague Kaushal Jhalla first proposed the idea behind Swift River after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai last November. Ushahidi has since taken on the initiative as a core project since the goal of Swift River is central to the group’s mission: the crowdsourcing of crisis information.

Kaushal and Chris Blow gave the first formal presentation of Swift River during our first Ushahidi strategy meeting in Orlando last March where we formally established the Swift River group, which includes Andrew Turner, Sean Gourely, Erik Hersman and myself in addition to Kaushal and Chris. Andrew has played a pivotal role in getting Swift River and Vote Report India off the ground and I highly recommend reading his blog post on the initiative.

The group now includes several new friends of Ushahidi, a number of whom kindly shared their time and insights this morning after Chris kicked off the meeting to bring everyone up to speed.  The purpose of this blog post is to outline how I hope Swift River moves forward based on this morning’s fruitful session. Please see my previous blog post for an overview of the basic methodology.

The purpose of the Swift River platform, as I proposed this morning, is to provide two core services. The first, to borrow Guarva Mishra‘s description, is to crowdsource the tagging of crisis information. The second is to triangulate the tagged information to assign reality scores to individual events. Confused? Not to worry, it’s actually really straightforward.

Crowdsourcing Tagging

Information on a developing crisis can be captured from several text-based sources such articles from online news media, Tweets and SMS, for example. Of course, video footage, pictures and satellite imagery can also provide important information, but we’re more interested in text-based data for now.

The first point to note is that information can range from being very structured to highly unstructured. The word structure is simply another way of describing how organized information is. A few examples are in order vis-a-vis text-based information.

A book is generally highly structured information. Why? Well, because the author hopefully used page numbers, chapter headings, paragraphs, punctuation, an index and table of contents. The fact that the book is structured makes it easier for the reader to find the information she is looking for. The other end of the “structure spectrum” would be a run-on sentence with nospacesandpunctuation. Not terribly helpful.

Below is a slide from a seminar I taught on disaster and conflict early warning back in 2006; ignore the (c).

ewstructure

The slide above depicts the tradeoff between control and structure. We can impose structure on data collected if we control the data entry process. Surveys are an example of a high-control process that yields high-structure. We want high structure because this allows us to find and analyze the data more easily (c.f. entropy). This has generally been the preferred approach, particularly amongst academics.

If we give up control, as one does when crowdsourcing crisis information, we open ourselves up to the possibility of having to deal with a range of structured and unstructured information. To make sense of this information typically requires data mining and natural language processing (NLP) techniques that can identify structure in said information. For example, we would want to identify nouns, verbs, places and dates in order to extra event-data.

One way to do this would be to automatically tag an article with the parameters “who, what, where and when.” A number of platforms such as Open Calais and Virtual Research Associate’s FORECITE already do this. However, these platforms are not customized for crowdsourcing of crisis information and most are entirely closed. (Note: I did consulting work for VRA many years ago).

So we need to draw (and modify) relevant algorithms that are publically available and provide and a user-friendly interface for human oversight of the automated tagging (what we also referred to as crowdsourcing the filter). Here’s a proposed interface that Chris recently designed for Swift River.

swiftriver

The idea would be to develop an algorithm that parses the text (on the left) and auto-suggests answers for the tags (on the right). The user would then confirm or correct the suggested tags and the algorithm would learn from it’s mistakes. In other words, the algorithm would become more accurate over time and the need for human oversight would decrease. In short, we’d be developing a data-driven ontology backed up by Freebase to provide semantic linkages.

VRA already does this but, (1) the data validation is carried out by one (poor) individual, (2) the articles were restricted to the headlines from Reuters and Agence France Press (AFP) newswires, and (3) the project did not draw on semantic analysis. The validation component entailed making sure that events described in the headlines were correctly coded by the parser and ensuring there were no duplicates. See VRA’s patent for the full methodology (PDF).

Triangulation and Scoring

The above tagging process would yield a highly structured event dataset like the example depicted below.

dataset

We could then use simple machine analysis to cluster the same events together and thereby do away with any duplicate event-data. The four records above would then be collapsed into one record:

datafilter2

But that’s not all. We would use a simple weighting or scoring schema to assign a reality score to determine the probability that the event reported really happened. I already described this schema in my previous post so will just give one example: An event that is reported by more than one source is more likely to have happened. This increases the reality score of the event above and pushes it higher up the list. One could also score an event by the geographical proximity of the source to the reported event, and so on. These scores could be combined to give an overall score.

Compelling Visualization

The database output above is not exactly compelling to most people. This is where we need some creative visualization techniques to render the information more intuitive and interesting. Here are a few thoughts. We could draw on Gapminder to visualize the triangulated event-data over time. We could also use the idea of a volume equalizer display.

equalize

This is not the best equalizer interface around for sure, but hopefully gets the point across. Instead of decibels on the Y-axis, we’d have probability scores that an event really happened. Instead of frequencies on the X-axis, we’d have the individual events. Since the data coming in is not static, the bars would bounce up and down as more articles/tweets get tagged and dumped into the event database.

I think this would be an elegant way to visualize the data, not least because the animation would resemble the flow or waves of a swift river but the idea of using a volume equalizer could be used as analogy to quiet the unwanted noise. For the actual Swift River interface, I’d prefer using more colors to denote different characteristics about the event and would provide the user with the option of double-clicking on a bar to drill down to the event sources and underlying text.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Conference Proposal

Bridging the Divide in Crisis Mapping

As mentioned in a recent blog post, my colleague Jen Ziemke and I are organizing a workshop on the topic of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bring together a small group of scholars and practitioners who are pioneering the new field of crisis mapping. We are currently exploring funding opportunities with a number of donors and welcome any suggestions you might have for specific sponsors.

The new field of crisis mapping encompasses the collection, dynamic visualization and subsequent analysis of georeferenced information on contemporary conflicts and human rights violations.  A wide range of sources are used to create these crisis maps, (e.g. events data,  newspaper and intelligence parsing, satellite imagery, interview and survey data, SMS, etc). Scholars have developed several analytical methodologies to identify patterns in dynamic crisis maps. These range from computational methods and visualization techniques to spatial econometrics and “hot spot” analysis.

While scholars employ these sophisticated methods in their academic research, operational crisis mapping platforms developed by practitioners are completely devoid of analytical tools. At the same time, scholars often assume that humanitarian practitioners are conversant in quantitative spatial analysis, which is rarely the case. Furthermore, practitioners who are deploying crisis mapping platforms do not have time to the academic literature on this topic.

Mobile Crisis Mapping and Crisis Mapping Analytics

In other words, there is a growing divide between scholars and practitioners in the field of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bridge this divide by bringing scholars and practitioners together to shape the future of crisis mapping. At the heart of this lies two new developments: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA). See previous blog posts on MCM and CMA here and here.

I created these terms to highlight areas in need for further applied research. As MCM platforms like Ushahidi‘s become more widely available, the amount of crowdsourced data will substantially increase and so mays of the challenges around data validation and analysis. This is why we need to think now about developing a field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) to make sense of the incoming data and identify new and recurring patterns in human rights abuses and conflict.

This entails developing user-friendly metrics for CMA that practitioners can build in as part of their MCM platforms. However, there is no need to reinvent the circle since scholars who analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict already employ sophisticated metrics that can inform the development of CMA metrics. In sum, a dedicated workshop that brings these practitioners and scholars together would help accelerate the developing field of crisis mapping.

Proposed Agenda

Here is a draft agenda that we’ve been sharing with prospective donors. We envisage the workshop to take place over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Feedback is very much welcomed.

Day 1 – Friday

Welcome and Introductions

Keynote 1 - The Past & Future of Crisis Mapping

Roundtable 1 – Presentation of Academic and Operational Crisis Mapping projects with Q&A

Lunch

Track 1a – Introduction to Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination

Track 1b - Introduction to Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination

&

Track 2a – Special introduction for newly interested colleagues  and students on spatial thinking in social sciences, using maps to understand crisis, violence and war

Track 2b – Breakout session for students and new faculty: hands-on introduction to GIS and other mapping programs

Dinner

Day 2 – Saturday

Keynote 2 – Crisis Mapping and Patterns Analysis

Roundtable 2 – Interdisciplinary Applications: Innovations & Challenges

Roundtable 3 - Data Collection & Validations: Innovations & Challenges

Lunch

Roundtable 4 - Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA): Metrics and Taxonomies

Roundtable 5 - Crisis Mapping & Response: Innovations & Challenges

Dinner

Day 3 – Sunday

Keynote 3 – What Happens Next – Shaping the Future of Crisis Mapping

Self-organized Sessions

Wrap-Up

Proposed Participants

Here are some of the main academic institutes and crisis mapping organizations we had in mind:

Institutes

  • John Carrol University (JCU)
  • Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)
  • Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
  • International Conflict Research, ETH Zurich
  • US Institute for Peace (USIP)
  • Political Science Department, Yale University

Organizations

Next Steps

Before we can move forward on any of this, we need to identify potential donors to help co-sponsor the workshop. So please do get in touch if you have any suggestions and/or creative ideas.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Web4Dev: Innovation Track Day 2

The second day of the Innovation Track at Web4Dev focused on monitoring and evaluation. Robert Kirkpatrick from InSTEDD, Erik Hersman from Ushahidi and Christopher Strebel from UNESCO each gave a presentation.

Robert introduced InSTEDD’s Mesh4X and GeoChat which I’ve already blogged about here so won’t expand on. But Robert also introduced a new project I was not aware of called Evolve. This tool helps to synthesize data into actionable information, to collaborate around diverse data streams to detect, analyze, triage and track critical events as they unfold.

Erik introduced Ushahidi and described our increasing capacity to crowdsource eyewitness crisis data. However, the challenge is increasingly how to consume and make sense of the incoming data stream. There were thousands of Tweets per minute during the Mumbai attacks. Ushahidi is working on Swift River to explore ways to use crowdsourcing as a filter for data validation.

Christopher Strebel introduced GigaPan, a robotic camera that captures gigapixel images. The tool was developed for the Mars Rover program to take very high resolution images of Mars. UNESCO is introducing the technology for education purposes. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced about this project; not just because the camera costs $300-$400 but because I don’t see what such a sophisticated  tool adds over regular cameras in terms of education and participation.

In any case, while I found all three presentations interesting, none of them actually addressed the second topic of today’s workshop, namely evaluation. I spent most of December and January working with a team of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) experts to develop a framework for a multi-year project in Liberia. I can conclude from this experience that those of us who don’t have expertise in M&E have a huge amount to learn. Developing serious M&E frameworks is a rigorous process.

Patrick Philippe Meier

InSTEDD’s Mesh4X Explained

I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with InSTEDD’s Robert Kirkpatrick on several occasions this year and always come away from our conversations having learned something new. Robert has recently been presenting InSTEDD’s new Mesh4X project. I confessed to him that I wasn’t entirely sure I fully grasped all the technical language he used to describe Mesh4X (which may serve as one answer to Paul Curion’s recent questions on The Innovation Fallacy).

Shortly after our recent CrisisMappers Meeting in Orlando, Robert kindly took the time to rework his description of Mesh4X for non techies. What follows is this description in Robert’s own words: “Having now heard the message a second time, I’m trying to clarify my description of Mesh4x for a lay audience. This version is more of a ‘product brochure’ in style, but I hope you find it useful in filling in any gaps.”

_____________________________________________

InSTEDD Mesh4X

Problem:  cross-organizational data sharing shouldn’t be this hard.

A major obstacle to effective humanitarian action today is that while advances in information technology have made it possible for individual organizations to collect, organize, and analyze data as never before, sharing of data between organizations remains problematic.  Organizations choose to adopt different information systems and software applications for many good reasons, yet a consequence of this is that data ends up fragmented across multiple organizations’ servers, PCs, and networks and remains “trapped” in different databases and formats.

This fragmentation incurs a high opportunity cost, as each organization working on a problem ends up having to act based on a fraction of what is actually known collectively. When data is shared today, it typically involves staff manually exporting from a database,  emailing spreadsheets files, and them importing them manually on the receiving end – a cumbersome and error-prone process further complicated by situations where Internet access is slow, unreliable, or completely unavailable.

Solution: Mesh4X – critical data when you need it, where you need it.

  • Imagine if that spreadsheet on your desktop, filled with health surveys, supply requests, or project status reports, were seamlessly linked to databases, programs, map software, websites and PDAs of others you want to share with, so that whenever you add or update data, the changes end up  being reflected everyone else as well, and all of their changes would also show up in your spreadsheet automatically.
  • Imagine being able to see all of this collective information on a map – a map that updates itself whenever anyone makes a change  to shared data.
  • Now imagine being able to exchange data with others even when no Internet access is available.

InSTEDD Mesh4X is a technology designed to create seamless cross-organizational information sharing between different databases, desktop applications, websites, and devices. It allows you to create or join a shared “data mesh” that links together disparate software and servers and synchronizes data between them automatically. You choose the data you wish to share, others do the same, and now everyone’s data ends up everywhere it needs to be.

  • Using Mesh4X, changes to data in any one location in the mesh are automatically synchronized to every other location.
  • If you’re offline at the time, all of your data will synchronize the next time you connect to the network.
  • For cases where no Internet access is available at all, there is no longer any need for the slow transport of files physically between locations.  Mesh4X gives you the option to synchronize all data via a series of SMS text messages – just plug a compatible phone into your laptop, and Mesh4X does the rest.
Using Mesh4X, you’ll have access to more information, and sooner, when making critical decisions.  When you need to collaborate with multiple organizations toward a shared goal, everyone will have a more complete and up-to-date understanding of needs, resources, and who is doing what where.

_____________________________________________

Thanks again to Robert for pulling this version together. I’m now more assured that I did grasp the in’s and out’s of Mesh4X. My next question to Robert and the InSTEDD team is whether Mesh4X is at point where it’s “plug and play”? That is, as easy to download and set up as, say, a blog on wordpress? Will the setup process be facilitated by a Microsoft-like-wizard for easy guidance and implementation?

InSTEDD’s Mesh4X Explained

I’ve had the pleasure of crossing paths with InSTEDD’s Robert Kirkpatrick on several occasions this year and always come away from our conversations having learned something new. Robert has recently been presenting InSTEDD’s new Mesh4X project. I confessed to him that I wasn’t entirely sure I fully grasped all the technical language he used to describe Mesh4X (which may serve as one answer to Paul Curion’s recent questions on The Innovation Fallacy).

Shortly after our recent CrisisMappers Meeting in Orlando, Robert kindly took the time to rework his description of Mesh4X for non techies. What follows is this description in Robert’s own words: “Having now heard the message a second time, I’m trying to clarify my description of Mesh4x for a lay audience. This version is more of a ‘product brochure’ in style, but I hope you find it useful in filling in any gaps.”

_____________________________________________

InSTEDD Mesh4X

Problem:  cross-organizational data sharing shouldn’t be this hard.

A major obstacle to effective humanitarian action today is that while advances in information technology have made it possible for individual organizations to collect, organize, and analyze data as never before, sharing of data between organizations remains problematic.  Organizations choose to adopt different information systems and software applications for many good reasons, yet a consequence of this is that data ends up fragmented across multiple organizations’ servers, PCs, and networks and remains “trapped” in different databases and formats.

This fragmentation incurs a high opportunity cost, as each organization working on a problem ends up having to act based on a fraction of what is actually known collectively. When data is shared today, it typically involves staff manually exporting from a database,  emailing spreadsheets files, and them importing them manually on the receiving end – a cumbersome and error-prone process further complicated by situations where Internet access is slow, unreliable, or completely unavailable.

Solution: Mesh4X – critical data when you need it, where you need it.

  • Imagine if that spreadsheet on your desktop, filled with health surveys, supply requests, or project status reports, were seamlessly linked to databases, programs, map software, websites and PDAs of others you want to share with, so that whenever you add or update data, the changes end up  being reflected everyone else as well, and all of their changes would also show up in your spreadsheet automatically.
  • Imagine being able to see all of this collective information on a map – a map that updates itself whenever anyone makes a change  to shared data.
  • Now imagine being able to exchange data with others even when no Internet access is available.

InSTEDD Mesh4X is a technology designed to create seamless cross-organizational information sharing between different databases, desktop applications, websites, and devices. It allows you to create or join a shared “data mesh” that links together disparate software and servers and synchronizes data between them automatically. You choose the data you wish to share, others do the same, and now everyone’s data ends up everywhere it needs to be.

  • Using Mesh4X, changes to data in any one location in the mesh are automatically synchronized to every other location.
  • If you’re offline at the time, all of your data will synchronize the next time you connect to the network.
  • For cases where no Internet access is available at all, there is no longer any need for the slow transport of files physically between locations.  Mesh4X gives you the option to synchronize all data via a series of SMS text messages – just plug a compatible phone into your laptop, and Mesh4X does the rest.
Using Mesh4X, you’ll have access to more information, and sooner, when making critical decisions.  When you need to collaborate with multiple organizations toward a shared goal, everyone will have a more complete and up-to-date understanding of needs, resources, and who is doing what where.

_____________________________________________

Thanks again to Robert for pulling this version together. I’m now more assured that I did grasp the in’s and out’s of Mesh4X. My next question to Robert and the InSTEDD team is whether Mesh4X is at point where it’s “plug and play”? That is, as easy to download and set up as, say, a blog on wordpress? Will the setup process be facilitated by a Microsoft-like-wizard for easy guidance and implementation?

Crisis Mappers Meeting

Our first CrisisMappers meeting took place in Orlando, Florida this past weekend. The meeting brought together a small group of tech professionals who are at the very cutting edge of crisis mapping. It truly was a powerhouse. Ushahidi, Development Seed, NiJEL, Emergencity, GeoCommons, InSTEDD, In.itiative and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). This meeting was mostly self-funded and scheduled on a Saturday. The fact that everyone showed up is a clear testament to the commitment we all have to pushing the new field of crisis mapping forward to the next frontier.

img_0001

Andrew Turner gave a typical tour de force presentation on some of the most exciting tech-innovations in mapping. I highly recommend viewing his slide show presentations available on Slideshare here. I gave the second introductory talk and chose to highlight two major themes in the future of crisis mapping: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA).

The former focuses on our understanding of dynamic mapping platforms as communication tools. In other words, all our communication tools should be fully integrated within our dynamic mapping platforms. Imagine a Google Map interface from which I can receive geo-referenced text messages and forward those messages by SMS broadcast or email right back to the field, without ever having to navigate away from the map. InSTEDD’s GeoChat is a good example of what I have in mind.

Understanding mapping platforms as communication tools poses two challenges common to communication in crisis zones. The first is connectivity while the second is data security. In terms of connectivity, we urgently need to move towards meshed-networked peer-to-peer communication that obviates the need for cell phone towers. As for encryption, SMS encryption should be the default setting on all our communications. Anything less is simply unsatisfactory.

I’ve written about Crisis Mapping Analytics before, so won’t go into detail here. I just want to point out that as our crisis mapping platforms continue to crowdsource data, we will need to make sense of this information in terms of trends over both space and time. We are still far from having any user friendly  point-and-click statistical tools for identifying such trends.

Since I was the only token humanitarian-wanna-be-geek at the meeting, I closed my introductory talk with the following three reminders: (1) if our crisis mapping tools work in humanitarian crises, they’ll work anywhere; (2) we need to identify methods and metrics to evaluate the impact of our crisis mapping platforms; (3) if you don’t keep your crisis mappers as simple as Fisher Price, they are unlikely to be adopted by the humanitarian community; call it the Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping.

Let me expand on the latter point. What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. Most of my humanitarian colleagues have done a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Affairs, International Development, etc. I guarantee you that 99.9% of these graduate programs do not include any seminar on humanitarian information management systems let alone computer science.

The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces. What we in the humanitarian field want are interfaces as simple as computer games. We want software packages that are simply plug-and-play. Say an iGoogle approach which allows us humanitarians to import various “widgets” such as 2-way SMS broadcasting, wiki-mapping, etc.

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The rest of the CrisisMappers meeting was dedicated to a series of thought-provoking presentations on individual crisis mapping projects that each organization is working on. I shan’t attempt a summary here but shall close with the following. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Ushahidi’s David Kobia during the meeting. At one point, he turns to me and motions to his laptop screen: “Look, just got a text message from someone in the DRC.”

David was pointing to Ushahidi’s admin interface, and indeed, someone on the ground had gotten wind of Ushahidi’s new deployment and had texted the dedicated Ushahidi DRC number. The texter was expressing her/his concern that the DRC site was in English which posed problems for French speakers. The text message itself was in French. The Ushahidi team has been working diligently on a French version of the interface and are nearly finished. David asked me if I might be able to reply (in French) to the person and let them know that the completed interface will be ready next week. I did so, and pointed the texter to the “French Flag” icon on the Ushahidi DRC interface.

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Here’s what I find particularly neat about this exchange. First, here we were sitting in a conference room in Florida on a Saturday afternoon getting a text message from someone in the DRC interested in reporting events using Ushahidi’s DRC platform. Second, the admin interface that David had up set up was simple and clear to understand. Third, David had included two optional buttons to send one-click replies to the text messages he receives: (1) please send us more information on the event; (2) please send us more information on the location event. Simple yet elegant. After I finished typing my reply to the sender of the text message, I clicked on send and off went my message, right back to the field. All this took place in less than five minutes.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping at Mobile Active ‘08

Erik Hersman (Ushahidi), Robert Kirkpatrick (InSTEDD) and Christopher Fabian (UNICEF) led an excellent panel on mobile technology in disasters and crises. Erik gave an superb presentation on Ushahidi 2.0 due to be released in the coming weeks. The functionalities that the Ushahidi team has added to the platform are just spot on and really well thought through. I’m very excited for the open source tool to get out into public hands very soon. In the meantime, I will be helping the team test the upgraded tool over the coming weeks.

Robert gave a more technical-oriented presentation on InSTEDD’s latest toy, Mash4X. While I think I grasped the basics and ultimate purpose of the new tool, much of the platform’s description was rather technical. Robert did mention to me later on that they (InSTEDD) are still trying to hit the right notes when they present their work to a non-technical audience. I suggested he give more basic examples, real-world scenarios in which the tool could be used. Robert also showed screenshots of GeoChat which he had described to me back in November 2007.

Christopher presented some of the projects UNICEF is engaged in such as the development of a new laptop computer that can be used in crisis environments. He emphasized the importance of collaborating with groups like Ushahidi and InSTEDD.

Patrick Philippe Meier

InSTEDD Edited: Humanitarian Technology Review

At TED 2006, Google.org’s Executive Director Larry Brilliant made a wish called InSTEDD: to use the Internet as an early warning system for the outbreak of diseases. Larry’s InSTEDD originally stood for the International System for Total Early Disease Detection. He based his wish on Canada’s Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN) which had detected the early outbreak of SARS by crawling the web (including blogs) for key words (symptoms) in multiple languages.

Larry got his wish and put Peter Carpenter at the helm of InSTEDD. In early 2007, Peter and his team held a number of meetings with UN agencies in Geneva and New York (which I actively participated in) to map out current gaps in the humanitarian community vis-a-vis information communication technology. The winds began to change around mid-2007 and by the Fall an entirely new team lead by Eric Rasmussen (former Navy Fleet Surgeon) and Robert Kirkpatrick (formerly with Microsoft) changed InSTEDD’s course. I have had several engaging conversations with them in both Boston and Geneva. Robert is particularly keen on taking a more decentralized approach to early warning and response; rather refreshing and rare.

In between my meetings with Peter’s team and Eric’s, InSTEDD was edited to mean “Innovative Solutions to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters,” and subsequently re-edited with the word Solutions switched to Support. This editing necessarily expanded InSTEDD’s focus and within a few short months, the new InSTEDD team quickly positioned itself as the new doctor on the block for the humanitarian community’s ailing information communication technologies (ICTs).

At TED 2008, the InSTEDD team officially announced their plan to spearhead a new journal entitled “Humanitarian Technology Review“. While I share some of the same concerns articulated by Paul Curion, the public health and disaster management communities have almost always been ahead in their adoption of new ICTs compared to the conflict prevention and conflict early warning community. At the end of the day, whether in disaster or conflict zones, ICTs can provide much needed real-time and geo-referenced information for situational awareness.

Patrick Philippe Meier