Tag Archives: Libya

Does the Humanitarian Industry Have a Future in The Digital Age?

I recently had the distinct honor of being on the opening plenary of the 2012 Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The panel, “Innovation in Times of Flux: Opportunities on the Heels of Crisis” was moderated by Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. I’ve spent the past six years creating linkages between the humanitarian space and technology community, so the conversations we began during the panel prompted me to think more deeply about innovation in the humanitarian industry. Clearly, humanitarian crises have catalyzed a number of important innovations in recent years. At the same time, however, these crises extend the cracks that ultimately reveal the inadequacies of existing organiza-tions, particularly those resistant to change; and “any organization that is not changing is a battle-field monument” (While 1992).

These cracks, or gaps, are increasingly filled by disaster-affected communities themselves thanks in part to the rapid commercialization of communication technology. Question is: will the multi-billion dollar humanitarian industry change rapidly enough to avoid being left in the dustbin of history?

Crises often reveal that “existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive [since] response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities” (Leonard and Howitt 2007). More formally, “the ‘symmetry-breaking’ effects of disasters undermine linearly designed and centralized administrative activities” (Corbacioglu 2006). This may explain why “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster” (Manyena 2006).

But disaster-affected populations have always self-organized in times of crisis. Indeed, first responders are by definition those very communities affected by disasters. So local communities—rather than humanitarian professionals—save the most lives following a disaster (Gilbert 1998). Many of the needs arising after a disaster can often be met and responded to locally. One doesn’t need 10 years of work experience with the UN in Darfur or a Masters degree to know basic first aid or to pull a neighbor out of the rubble, for example. In fact, estimates suggest that “no more than 10% of survival in emergencies can be attributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hilhorst 2004).

This figure may be higher today since disaster-affected communities now benefit from radically wider access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). After all, a “disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). This communication challenge is far less acute today because disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital, and thus more and more the primary source of information communicated following a crisis. Of course, these communities were always sources of information but being a source in an analog world is fundamentally different than being a source of information in the digital age. The difference between “read-only” versus “read-write” comes to mind as an analogy. And so, while humanitarian organiza-tions typically faced a vacuum of information following sudden onset disasters—limited situational awareness that could only be filled by humanitarians on the ground or via established news organizations—one of the major challenges today is the Big Data produced by disaster-affected communities themselves.

Indeed, vacuums are not empty and local communities are not invisible. One could say that disaster-affected communities are joining the quantified self (QS) movement given that they are increasingly quantifying themselves. If inform-ation is power, then the shift of information sourcing and sharing from the select few—the humanitarian professionals—to the masses must also engender a shift in power. Indeed, humanitarians rarely have access to exclusive information any longer. And even though affected populations are increasingly digital, some groups believe that humanitarian organizations have largely failed at commu–nicating with disaster-affected communities. (Naturally, there are important and noteworthy exceptions).

So “Will Twitter Put the UN Out of Business?” (Reuters), or will humanitarian organizations cope with these radical changes by changing themselves and reshaping their role as institutions before it’s too late? Indeed, “a business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long—it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer,” whilst other actors fill the gaps (Reuters). “In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving” (Reuters).

The music and news industries were muddling along as well for decades. Today, however, they are facing tremendous pressures and are undergoing radical structural changes—none of them by choice. Of course, it would be different if affected communities were paying for humanitarian services but how much longer do humanitarian organizations have until they feel similar pressures?

Whether humanitarian organizations like it or not, disaster affected communities will increasingly communicate their needs publicly and many will expect a response from the humanitarian industry. This survey carried out by the American Red Cross two years ago already revealed that during a crisis the majority of the public expect a response to needs they communicate via social media. Moreover, they expect this response to materialize within an hour. Humanitarian organizations simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this surge in requests for help, nor are they organizationally structured to do so. But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian organizations have never been capable of dealing with this volume of requests in the first place. So “What Good is Crowd-sourcing When Everyone Needs Help?” (Reuters). Perhaps “crowdsourcing” is finally revealing all the cracks in the system, which may not be a bad thing. Surely by now it is no longer a surprise that many people may be in need of help after a disaster, hence the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness.

Naturally, humanitarian organizations could very well chose to continue ignoring calls for help and decide that communicating with disaster affected communities is simply not tenable. In the analog world of the past, the humanitarian industry was protected by the fact that their “clients” did not have a voice because they could not speak out digitally. So the cracks didn’t show. Today, “many traditional humanitarian players see crowdsourcing as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they are already overwhelmed. They worry that the noise-to-signal ration is just too high” (Reuters). I think there’s an important disconnect here worth emphasizing. Crowdsourced information is simply user-generated content. If humanitarians are to ignore user-generated content, then they can forget about two-way communications with disaster-affected communities and drop all the rhetoric. On the other hand, “if aid agencies are to invest time and resources in handling torrents of crowdsourced information in disaster zones, they should be confident it’s worth their while” (Reuters).

This last comment is … rather problematic for several reasons (how’s that for being diplomatic?). First of all, this kind of statement continues to propel the myth that we the West are the rescuers and aid does not start until we arrive (Barrs 2006). Unfortunately, we rarely arrive: how many “neglected crises” and so-called “forgotten emergencies” have we failed to intervene in? This kind of mindset may explain why humanitarian interventions often have the “propensity to follow a paternalistic mode that can lead to a skewing of activities towards supply rather than demand” and towards informing at the expense of listening (Manyena 2006).

Secondly, the assumption that crowdsourced data would be for the exclusive purpose of the humanitarian cavalry is somewhat arrogant and ignores the reality that local communities are by definition the first responders in a crisis. Disaster-affected communities (and Diasporas) are already collecting (and yes crowdsourcing) information to create their own crisis maps in times of need as a forthcoming report shows. And they’ll keep doing this whether or not humanita-rian organizations approve or leverage that information. As my colleague Tim McNamara has noted “Crisis mapping is not simply a technological shift, it is also a process of rapid decentralization of power. With extremely low barriers to entry, many new entrants are appearing in the fields of emergency and disaster response. They are ignoring the traditional hierarchies, because the new entrants perceive that there is something that they can do which benefits others.”

Thirdly, humanitarian organizations are far more open to using free and open source software than they were just two years ago. So the resources required to monitor and map crowdsourced information need not break the bank. Indeed, the Syria Crisis Map uses a free and open source data-mining platform called HealthMap, which has been monitoring some 2,000 English-based sources on a daily basis for months. The technology powering the map itself, Ushahidi, is also free and open source. Moreover, the team behind the project is comprised of just a handful of volunteers doing this in their own free time (for almost an entire year now). And as a result of this initiative, I am collaborating with a colleague from UNDP to pilot HealthMap’s data mining feature for conflict monitoring and peacebuilding purposes.

Fourth, other than UN Global Pulse, humanitarian agencies are not investing time and resources to manage Big (Crisis) Data. Why? Because they have neither the time nor the know-how. To this end, they are starting to “outsource” and indeed “crowdsource” these tasks—just as private sector businesses have been doing for years in order to extend their reach. Anyone actually familiar with this space and developments since Haiti already knows this. The CrisisMappers Network, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and Crisis Commons (CC) are four volunteer/technical networks that have already collaborated actively with a number of humanitarian organizations since Haiti to provide the “surge capacity” requested by the latter; this includes UN OCHA in Libya and Colombia, UNHCR in Somalia and WHO in Libya, to name a few. In fact, these groups even have their own acronym: Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

As the former head of OCHA’s Information Services Section (ISS) noted after the SBTF launched the Libya Crisis Map, “Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is not easy task” (March 8, 2011). Furthermore, the crowdsourced social media information mapped on the Libya Crisis Map was integrated into official UN OCHA information products. I dare say activating the SBTF was worth OCHA’s while. And it cost the UN a grand total of $0 to benefit from this support.

Credit: Chris Bow

The rapid rise of V&TC’s has catalyzed the launch of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), formerly called the Humanitarian Standby Task Force (H-SBTF). Digital Humanitarians is a network-of-network catalyzed by the UN and comprising some of the most active members of the volunteer & technical co-mmunity. The purpose of the Digital Humanitarian platform (powered by Ning) is to provide a dedicated interface for traditional humanitarian organizations to outsource and crowdsource important information management tasks during and in-between crises. OCHA has also launched the Communities of Interest (COIs) platform to further leverage volunteer engagement in other areas of humanitarian response.

These are not isolated efforts. During the massive Russian fires of 2010, volunteers launched their own citizen-based disaster response agency that was seen by many as more visible and effective than the Kremlin’s response. Back in Egypt, volunteers used IntaFeen.com to crowdsource and coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Libya, for example. The company LinkedIn has also taken innovative steps to enable the matching of volunteers with various needs. They recently added a “Volunteer and Causes” field to its member profile page, which is now available to 150 million LinkedIn users worldwide. Sparked.com is yet another group engaged in matching volunteers with needs. The company is the world’s first micro-volunteering network, sending challenges to registered volunteers that are targeted to their skill set and the causes that they are most passionate about.

It is not farfetched to envisage how these technologies could be repurposed or simply applied to facilitate and streamline volunteer management following a disaster. Indeed, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have already developed a new smart phone app to help mobilize and coordinate volunteer efforts during and following major disasters. The app not only provides information on preparedness but also gives real-time updates on volunteering opportunities by local area. For example, volunteers can register for a variety of tasks including community response to extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross just launched a Digital Operations Center in partnership with Dell Labs, which allows them to leverage digital volunteers and Dell’s social media monitoring platforms to reduce the noise-to-signal ratio. This is a novel “social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief, demonstrating the growing importance of social media in emergency situations.” As part of this center, the Red Cross also “announced a Digital Volunteer program to help respond to question from and provide information to the public during disasters.”

While important challenges do exist, there are many positive externalities to leveraging digital volunteers. As deputy high commissioner of UNHCR noted about this UNHCR-volunteer project in Somalia, these types of projects create more citizen-engagement and raises awareness of humanitarian organizations and projects. This in part explains why UNHCR wants more, not less, engage-ment with digital volunteers. Indeed, these volunteers also develop important skills that will be increasingly sought after by humanitarian organizations recruit-ing for junior full-time positions. Humanitarian organizations are likely to be come smarter and more up to speed on humanitarian technologies and digital humanitarian skills as a result. This change should be embraced.

So given the rise of “self-quantified” disaster-affected communities and digitally empowered volunteer communities, is there a future for traditional humani-tarian organizations? Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is seriously misguided and out of touch with innovation in the humanitarian space. Twitter will not put the UN out of business. Humanitarian organizations will continue to play some very important roles, especially those relating to logistics and coor-dination. These organizations will continue outsourcing some roles but will also take on some new roles. The issue here is simply one of comparative advantage. Humanitarian organizations used to have a comparative advantage in some areas, but this has shifted for all the reasons described above. So outsourcing in some cases makes perfect sense.

Interestingly, organizations like UN OCHA are also changing some of their own internal information management processes as a result of their collaboration with volunteer networks like the SBTF, which they expect will lead to a number of efficiency gains. Furthermore, OCHA is behind the Digital Humanitarians initiative and has also been developing a check-in app for humanitarian pro-fessionals to use in disaster response—clear signs of innovation and change. Meanwhile, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has just launched a $75+ million fund to leverage new technologies in support of humani-tarian response; this includes mobile phones, satellite imagery, Twitter as well as other social media technologies, digital mapping and gaming technologies. Given that crisis mapping integrates these new technologies and has been at the cutting edge of innovation in the humanitarian space, I’ve invited DfID to participate in this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012).

In conclusion, and as argued two years ago, the humanitarian industry is shifting towards a more multi-polar system. The rise of new actors, from digitally empowered disaster-affected communities to digital volunteer networks, has been driven by the rapid commercialization of communication technology—particularly the mobile phone and social networking platforms. These trends are unlikely to change soon and crises will continue to spur innovations in this space. This does not mean that traditional humanitarian organizations are becoming obsolete. Their roles are simply changing and this change is proof that they are not battlefield monuments. Of course, only time will tell whether they change fast enough.

Crowdsourcing Humanitarian Convoys in Libya

Many activists in Egypt donated food and medical supplies to support the Libyan revolution in early 2011. As a result, volunteers set up and coordinated humanitarian convoys from major Egyptian cities to Tripoli. But these convoys faced two major problems. First, volunteers needed to know where the convoys were in order to communicate this to Libyan revolutionists so they could wait for the fleet at the border and escort them to Tripoli. Second, because these volunteers were headed into a war zone, their friends and family wanted to keep track of them to make sure they were safe. The solution? IntaFeen.com.

Inta feen? means “where are you?” in Arabic and IntaFeen.com is a mobile check-in service like Foursquare but localized for the Arab World. Convoy drivers used IntaFeen to check-in at different stops along the way to Tripoli to provide regular updates on the situation. This is how volunteers back in Egypt who coordinated the convoy kept track of their progress and communicated updates in real-time to their Libyan counterparts. Volunteers who went along with the convoys also used IntaFeen and their check-in’s would also get posted on Twitter and Facebook, allowing families and friends in Egypt to track their whereabouts.

Al Amain Road is a highway between Alexandria and Tripoli. These tweets and check-in’s acted as a DIY fleet management system for volunteers and activists.

The use of IntaFeen combined with Facebook and Twitter also created an interesting side-effect in terms of social media marketing to promote activism. The sharing of these updates within and across various social networks galvanized more Egyptians to volunteer their time and resulted in more convoys.

I wonder whether these activists knew about another crowdsourced volunteer project taking place at exactly the same time in support of the UN’s humanitarian relief operations: Libya Crisis Map. Much of the content added to the map was sourced from social media. Could the #LibyaConvoy project have benefited from the real-time situational awareness provided by the Libya Crisis Map?

Will we see more convergence between volunteer-run crisis maps and volunteer-run humanitarian response in the near future?

Big thanks to Adel Youssef from IntaFeen.com who spoke about this fascinating project (and Ushahidi) at Where 2.0 this week. More information on #Libya Convoy is available here. See also my earlier blog posts on the use of check-in’s for activism and disaster response.

Some Thoughts on Real-Time Awareness for Tech@State

I’ve been invited to present at Tech@State in Washington DC to share some thoughts on the future of real-time awareness. So I thought I’d use my blog to brainstorm and invite feedback from iRevolution readers. The organizers of the event have shared the following questions with me as a way to guide the conver-sation: Where is all of this headed?  What will social media look like in five to ten years and what will we do with all of the data? Knowing that the data stream can only increase in size, what can we do now to prepare and prevent being over-whelmed by the sheer volume of data?

These are big, open-ended questions, and I will only have 5 minutes to share some preliminary thoughts. I shall thus focus on how time-critical crowdsourcing can yield real-time awareness and expand from there.

Two years ago, my good friend and colleague Riley Crane won DARPA’s $40,000 Red Balloon Competition. His team at MIT found the location of 10 weather balloons hidden across the continental US in under 9 hours. The US covers more than 3.7 million square miles and the balloons were barely 8 feet wide. This was truly a needle-in-the-haystack kind of challenge. So how did they do it? They used crowdsourcing and leveraged social media—Twitter in particular—by using a “recursive incentive mechanism” to recruit thousands of volunteers to the cause. This mechanism would basically reward individual participants financially based on how important their contributions were to the location of one or more balloons. The result? Real-time, networked awareness.

Around the same time that Riley and his team celebrated their victory at MIT, another novel crowdsourcing initiative was taking place just a few miles away at The Fletcher School. Hundreds of students were busy combing through social and mainstream media channels for actionable and mappable information on Haiti following the devastating earthquake that had struck Port-au-Prince. This content was then mapped on the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map, providing real-time situational awareness to first responders like the US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora were busy translating and geo-coding tens of thousands of text messages from disaster-affected communities in Haiti who were texting in their location & most urgent needs to a dedicated SMS short code. Fletcher School students filtered and mapped the most urgent and actionable of these text messages as well.

One year after Haiti, the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asked the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) , a global network of 700+ volunteers, for a real-time map of crowdsourced social media information on Libya in order to improve their own situational awareness. Thus was born the Libya Crisis Map.

The result? The Head of OCHA’s Information Services Section at the time sent an email to SBTF volunteers to commend them for their novel efforts. In this email, he wrote:

“Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is no easy task. The Task Force has given us an output that is manageable and digestible, which in turn contributes to better situational awareness and decision making.”

These three examples from the US, Haiti and Libya demonstrate what is already possible with time-critical crowdsourcing and social media. So where is all this headed? You may have noted from each of these examples that their success relied on the individual actions of hundreds and sometimes thousands of volunteers. This is primarily because automated solutions to filter and curate the data stream are not yet available (or rather accessible) to the wider public. Indeed, these solutions tend to be proprietary, expensive and/or classified. I thus expect to see free and open source solutions crop up in the near future; solutions that will radically democratize the tools needed to gain shared, real-time awareness.

But automated natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning alone are not likely to succeed, in my opinion. The data stream is actually not a stream, it is a massive torent of non-indexed information, a 24-hour global firehose of real-time, distributed multi-media data that continues to outpace our ability to produce actionable intelligence from this torrential downpour of 0’s and 1’s. To turn this data tsunami into real-time shared awareness will require that our filtering and curation platforms become more automated and collaborative. I believe the key is thus to combine automated solutions with real-time collabora-tive crowdsourcing tools—that is, platforms that enable crowds to collaboratively filter and curate real-time information, in real-time.

Right now, when we comb through Twitter, for example, we do so on our own, sitting behind our laptop, isolated from others who may be seeking to filter the exact same type of content. We need to develop free and open source platforms that allow for the distributed-but-networked, crowdsourced filtering and curation of information in order to democratize the sense-making of the firehose. Only then will the wider public be able to win the equivalent of Red Balloon competitions without needing $40,000 or a degree from MIT.

I’d love to get feedback from readers about what other compelling cases or arguments I should bring up in my presentation tomorrow. So feel free to post some suggestions in the comments section below. Thank you!

Passing the I’m-Not-Gaddafi Test: Authenticating Identity During Crisis Mapping Operations

I’ve found myself telling this story so often in response to various questions that it really should be a blog post. The story begins with the launch of the Libya Crisis Map a few months ago at the request of the UN. After the first 10 days of deploying the live map, the UN asked us to continue for another two weeks. When I write “us” here, I mean the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), which is designed for short-term rapid crisis mapping support, not long term deploy-ments. So we needed to recruit additional volunteers to continue mapping the Libya crisis. And this is where the I’m-not-Gaddafi test comes in.

To do our live crisis mapping work, SBTF volunteers generally need password access to whatever mapping platform we happen to be using. This has typically been the Ushahidi platform. Giving out passwords to several dozen volunteers in almost as many countries requires trust. Password access means one could start sabotaging the platform, e.g., deleting reports, creating fake ones, etc. So when we began recruiting 200+ new volunteers to sustain our crisis mapping efforts in Libya, we needed a way to vet these new recruits, particularly since we were dealing with a political conflict. So we set up an I’m-not-Gaddafi test by using this Google Form:

So we placed the burden of proof on our (very patient) volunteers. Here’s a quick summary of the key items we used in our “grading” to authenticate volunteers’ identity:

Email address: Professional or academic email addresses were preferred and received a more favorable “score”.

Twitter handle: The great thing about Twitter is you can read through weeks’ worth of someone’s Twitter stream. I personally used this feature several times to determine whether any political tweets revealed a pro-Gaddafi attitude.

Facebook page: Given that posing as someone else or a fictitious person on Facebook violates their terms of service, having the link to an applicant’s Facebook page was considered a plus.

LinkedIn profile: This was a particularly useful piece of evidence given that the majority of people on LinkedIn are professionals.

Personal/Professional blog or website: This was also a great to way to authenticate an individual’s identity. We also encouraged applicants to share links to anything they had published which was available online.

For every application, we had two or more of us from the core team go through the responses. In order to sign off a new volunteer as vetted, two people had to write down “Yes” with their name. We would give priority to the most complete applications. I would say that 80% of the 200+ applications we received were able to be signed off on without requiring additional information. We did follow ups via email for the remaining 20%, the majority of whom provided us with extra info that enabled us to validate their identity. One individual even sent us a copy of his official ID. There may have been a handful who didn’t reply to our requests for additional information.

This entire vetting process appears to have worked, but it was extremely laborious and time-consuming. I personally spent hours and hours going through more than 100 applications. We definitely need to come up with a different system in the future. So I’ve been exploring some possible solutions—such as social authentication—with a number of groups and I hope to provide an update next month which will make all our lives a lot easier, not to mention give us more dedicated mapping time. There’s also the need to improve the Ushahidi platform to make it more like Wikipedia, i.e., where contributions can be tracked and logged. I think combining both approaches—identity authentication and tracking—may be the way to go.

Analyzing the Libya Crisis Map Data in 3D (Video)

I first blogged about GeoTime exactly two years ago in a blog post entitled “GeoTime: Crisis Mapping in 3D.” The rationale for visualizing geospatial data in 3D very much resonates with me and in my opinion becomes particularly compelling when analyzing crisis mapping data.

This is why I invited my GeoTime colleague Adeel Khamisa to present their platform at the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009). Adeel used the Ushahidi-Haiti data to demonstrate the added value of using a 3D approach, which you can watch in the short video below.

Earlier this year, I asked Adeel whether he might be interested in analyzing the Libya Crisis Map data using GeoTime. He was indeed curious and kindly produced the short video below on his preliminary findings.

The above visual overview of the Libya data is really worth watching. I hope that fellow Crisis Mappers will consider making more use of GeoTime in their projects. The platform really is ideal for Crisis Mapping Analysis.

Live Crisis Mapping: Update on Libya and Japan

Update: The Japan Crisis Map team is now partnering with government officials. Government staff will be using iPads with the Ushahidi iPad app to report information from the field. Also, one of the Japanese cell phone operators has pledged to lend over 12,000 cell phones to volunteers.

All of us had really hoped that 2011 would be a quieter year for crisis mapping. The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti during the very first month of 2010 in many ways created a new generation of volunteer crisis mappers. This was followed rapidly by crisis mapping operations for the US, Chile, Pakistan, Russia and Colombia among other crises, which prompted the launch of the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping in October 2010.

This year is unfortunately no less busy for Crisis Mappers around the world. The Standby Task Force was activated to provide mapping support to Sudan Vote Monitor for the Sudan referendum, the Christchurch Recovery Map for New Zealand earthquake and most recently the Libya Crisis Map. The latter was requested by the Information Services Section of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an unprecedented move by the UN to engage directly with volunteer technical communities like the Task Force.

In order to provide the UN with more long term crisis mapping support in Libya, we teamed up with the UN’s Online Volunteer Service program to scale the number of Task Force volunteers considerably. We more than doubled our size in a week and now have more than 400 volunteers from over 50 different countries around the world. It was a huge challenge to train so many new crisis mappers, and that’s an understatement. But our seasoned volunteers did a formidable job and our new crisis mappers are doing an absolutely stellar job. The team has now mapped over 1,000 reports and continue to provide OCHA, UNHCR, WFP, IRC, Red Cross and others with a real time crisis map of Libya.

In the midst of this transition in Libya, one of the most devastating earthquakes in centuries hit northern Japan, causing one of the most destructive tsunamis in recent memory. Just hours after the earthquake, a member of Japan’s OpenStreetMap community launched a dedicated Crisis Map for the mega-disaster. A few hours later, Japanese students at The Fletcher School (which is where the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map was launched) got in touch with the Tokyo-based OpenStreetMap team to provide round-the-clock crisis mapping support.

The Fletcher Team, which now includes Japanese students from Harvard and MIT, have been combing the Twittersphere for relevant updates on the situation in Japan. I have spent several hours over the past few days on the phone or Skype with members of the team to answer as many questions as I can on how to manage large scale crisis mapping efforts. They are doing a stellar job and it’s amazing that they’re able to balance these efforts while being in the middle of mid-term exams.

Over 4,000 reports have been mapped in just 6 days. That’s an astounding figure. Put differently, that’s over 600 reports per day, or one report almost every two minutes for 24 hours straight over 6 days. What’s important about the Japan Crisis Map is that the core operations are being run directly from Tokyo and the team there is continuing to scale it’s operations. It’s very telling that the Tokyo team did not require any support from the Standby Volunteer Task Force. They’re doing an excellent job in the midst of the biggest disaster they’ve ever faced. I’m just amazed.

As for who is using the map, it’s hard to get updates from our colleagues because they are completely swamped, but we have confirmed reports that several foreign Embassies in Tokyo are using the live map. One Embassy official asked that the map be kept “as up to date as possible because this picture is worth the proverbial 1,000.”

The Volunteers Behind the Libya Crisis Map: A True Story

My colleague Clay Shirky calls it “Cognitive Surplus” in his recent book. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams refer to it as “MacroWikinomics” in theirs. What is cognitive surplus? The trillion hours of free time enjoyed by the world’s educated population every year. Don and Tony describe MacroWikinomics as mass distributed collaboration on scales we’ve never seen before thanks to technology. We’re familiar with deficits and shortages, writes, Clay, but when it comes to surplus social capital, things quickly become unpredictable—especially when this capital scales thanks to the use of social networking platforms and Web 2.0 technologies. But then again, says Clay, “Many of the unexpected uses of communication tools are surprising because our old beliefs about human nature were so lousy.”

We saw cognitive surplus and macrowikinomics in action in the wake of the Haiti earthquake when more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti. The map above depicts the location of each digital volunteer based on their ISP address.

As I noted in my talk at PopTech last year, it was an emotional reaction to the breaking news on CNN that prompted me to call my colleague David Kobia at Ushahidi to launch a crisis map of Haiti. But it was access to social networks, cognitive surplus, free social networking and easy mapping tools that translated that initially private, emotional reaction into public, collective action. And this was by no means a one-off, as I recently noted in my blog post on Changing the World One Map at a Time.

The Standby Task Force volunteers behind the Libya crisis map have been equally inspiring. They come from diverse backgrounds and live in some 30 countries. The map above doesn’t (yet) include all the 220+ Task Force volunteers, but it  gives you an idea of just how global this initiative is.

Just yesterday, I found out that one volunteer is an airside manager at Heathrow airport in charge of real-time crisis management and incident control. He jumps on Skype to help out on the Libya crisis map after the last aircraft have taken off around midnight. Another is 63 and was part of an initial group that put the pieces together leading to the modern tour business of rock and roll concerts back in the 1970s. He did the setup for the Simon & Garfunkle tour in the early 80s. A third volunteer brings 16 years of disaster management experience to the Task Force and has lead a number of international search & rescue teams around the world. I could go on, and on—there are more than 200 of such profiles!

It’s also great to see that the Task Force is nowhere close to just being a “Global North” initiative. We have volunteers from (or based in) Haiti, Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, Samoa, Colombia and Brazil. And this is again just a subset.

These volunteers have accomplished so much over the past 7 days. An hour after UN/OCHA requested activation of the Task Force, the Tech Team launched the technical platform for the crisis map using Ushahidi, which they’ve been customizing (front-end and back-end) every day since. They launched a second map for the public just days later and in the first 3 days of that launch, the site received 18,000+ unique visitors and 44,000+ pageviews from 65 countries.

The Media Monitoring Team, Geolocation Team, Reports Team and Verification Team have mapped some 500 individual reports in just 7 days. They’ve been monitoring over 70 individual online sources almost around the clock for relevant content that can be added to the map. The Geolocation Team has found GPS coordinates for all the reports that end up on the map thanks to the Reports Team. The Analysis Team has produced a number of important heat maps and trends analysis reports for OCHA. The Verification Team has been providing quality control for the mapped data and triangulating reports whenever possible.

Meanwhile, the Task Team has focused on two core and urgent research projects solicited by the UN to improve the crisis map and their preparedness operations. The Humanitarian Liaison Team is composed of Task Force coordinators and representatives from the UN and other humanitarian groups. They facilitate communication between the teams listed above and our humanitarian partners. Between them, all of these teams have written over 1,200 Word document pages, font size 10, based on their exchanges on the Skype—again in just 7 days. Did I mention that these are all volunteers contributing their own “cognitive surplus” above and beyond their current jobs, classes, family lives?

It’s incredible to think that the Task Force only launched last October. And it’s only going to keep getting better, keep growing. Indeed, we’re now in touch with the coordinators of the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) program after I suggested to the UN in a phone conversation and my previous blog post that we tap into that resource to scale the Task Force’s support for Libya and beyond. It turns out the UN has an Online Volunteers Service (OVS) website!

According to our contacts at OVS,

“Many NGOs, governments and United Nations agencies already recognize the value of online volunteering, their satisfaction with the collaboration with online volunteers runs at 90%.  In 2010, our three person OVS staff team mobilized 10,000 online volunteers from 168 countries who completed 15,000 assignments, amongst them online volunteers who supported UN OCHA Colombia in the area of disaster related data gathering and management.”

To say I’m super, super excited about this potential collaboration would be an understatement. In fact, I always grin when writing the following to recruit new volunteers: “So, you want to be a Crisis Mapper?” Totally stealing Yoda’s line from StarWars when he asks young Luke Skywalker: “So, you want to be a Jedi, hmmmm?” For me, today’s Jedis are definitely the crisis mappers I work with on the Task Force. So as I’m fond of saying:

“May the Crowd be with you, always.”