Tag Archives: mapping

Map or Be Mapped: Otherwise You Don’t Exist

“There are hardly any street signs here. There are no official zip codes. No addresses. Just word of mouth” (1). Such is the fate of Brazil’s Mare shanty-town and that of most shantytowns around the world where the spoken word is king (and not necessarily benevolent). “The sprawling complex of slums, along with the rest of Rio de Janerio’s favelas, has hung in a sort of ‘legal invisibility’ since 1937, when a city ordinance ruled that however unsightly, favelas should be kept off maps because they were merely ‘temporary’” (2).

shantytown

The socio-economic consequences were far-reaching. For decades, this infor-mality meant that “entire neighborhoods did not receive mail. It had also blocked people from giving required information on job applications, getting a bank account or telling the police or fire department where to go in an emergency call. Favela residents had to pick up their mail from their neighborhood associations, and entire slums housing a small town’s worth of residents had to use the zip code of the closest officially recognized street” (3).

All this is starting to change thanks to a grassroots initiative that is surveying Mare’s 16 favelas, home to some 130,000 people. This community-driven project has appropriated the same survey methodology used by the Brazilian government’s Institute of Geography and Statistics. The collected data includes “not only street names but the history of the original smaller favelas that make up the community” (4). This data is then “formatted into pocket guides and distributed gratis to residents. These guides also offer background on certain streets’ namesakes, but leave some blank so that residents can fill them in as Mare [...] continues shifting out from the shadows of liminal space to a city with distinct identities” (5). And so, “residents of Rio’s famed favelas are undergoing their first real and ‘fundamental step toward citizenship’” (6).

These bottom-up, counter-mapping efforts are inherently political—call it guerrilla mapping. Traditionally, maps have represented “not just the per-spective of the cartographer herself, but of much larger institutions—of corporations, organizations, and governments” (7). The scale was fixed at one and only one scale, that of the State. Today, informal communities can take matters into their own hands and put themselves on the map; at the scale of their choosing. But companies like Google still have the power to make these communities vanish. In Brazil, Google said it “would tweak the site’s [Google Maps'] design, namely its text size and district labeling to show favela names only after users zoomed in on those areas.”

GmapNK

Meanwhile, Google is making North Korea’s capital city more visible. But I had an uncomfortable feeling after reading National Geographic’s take on Google’s citizen mapping expedition to North Korea. The Director for National Geographic Maps, Juan José Valdéscautions that, “In many parts of the world such citizen mapping has proven challenging, if not downright dangerous. In many places, little can be achieved without the approval of local and or national authorities—especially in North Korea.” Yes, but in many parts of the world citizen mapping is safe and possible. More importantly, citizen mapping can be a powerful tool for digital activism. My entire doctoral dissertation focuses on exactly this issue.

Yes, Valdés is absolutely correct when he writes that “In many countries, place-names, let alone the alignment of boundaries, remain a powerful symbol of independence and national pride, and not merely indicators of location. This is where citizen cartographers need to understand the often subtle nuances and potential pitfalls of mapping.” As the New Yorker notes, “Maps are so closely associated with power that dictatorships regard information on geography as a state secret.” But map-savvy digital activists already know this better than most, and they deliberately seek to exploit this to their advantage in their struggles for democracy.

National Geographic’s mandate is of course very different. “From National Geographic’s perspective, all a map should accomplish is the actual portrayal of national sovereignty, as it currently exists. It should also reflect the names as closely as possible to those recognized by the political entities of the geographic areas being mapped. To do otherwise would give map readers an unrealistic picture of what is occurring on the ground.”

natgeomaps

This makes perfect sense for National Geographic. But as James Scott reminds us in his latest book, “A great deal of the symbolic work of official power is precisely to obscure the confusion, disorder, spontaneity, error, and improvisation of political power as it is in fact exercised, beneath a billiard-ball-smooth surface of order, deliberation, rationality, and control. I think of this as the ‘miniaturization of order.’” Scott adds that, “The order, rationality, abstractness and synoptic legibility of certain kinds of schemes of naming, landscape, architecture, and work processes lend themselves to hierarchical power [...] ‘landscapes of control and appropriation.’”

Citizen mapping, especially in repressive environments, often seeks to change that balance of power by redirecting the compass of political power with the  use of subversive digital maps. Take last year’s example of Syrian pro-democracy activists changing place & street names depicted on on the Google Map of Syria. They did this intentionally as an act of resistance and defiance. Again, I fully understand and respect that National Geographic’s mandate is completely different to that of pro-democracy activists fighting for freedom. I just wish that Valdés had a least added one sentence to acknowledge the importance of maps for the purposes of resistance and pro-democracy movements. After all, he is himself a refugee from Cuba’s political repression.

There is of course a flip side to all this. While empowering, visibility and legibility can also undermine a community’s autonomy. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously put it, “To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.” To be digitally mapped is to be governed, but perhaps at multiple scales including the preferred scale of self-governance and self-determination.

And so, we find ourselves repeating the words of Shakespeare’s famous character Hamlet: “To be, or not to be,” to map, or not to map.

 

See also:

  • Spying with Maps [Link]
  • How to Lie With Maps [Link]
  • Folksomaps for Community Mapping [Link]
  • From Social Mapping to Crisis Mapping [Link]
  • Crisis Mapping Somalia with the Diaspora [Link]
  • Perils of Crisis Mapping: Lessons from Gun Map [Link]
  • Crisis Mapping the End of Sudan’s Dictatorship? [Link]
  • Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis in the Sudan [Link]
  • Rise of Amateur Professionals & Future of Crisis Mapping [Link]
  • Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers? [Link]

Note: Readers interested in the topics discussed above may also be interested in a forthcoming book to be published by Oxford University Press entitled “Information and Communication Technologies in Areas of Limited State-hood.” I have contributed a chapter to this book entitled “Crisis Mapping in Areas of Limited Statehood,” which analyzes how the rise of citizen-genera-ted crisis mapping replaces governance in areas of limited statehood. The chapter distills the conditions for the success of these crisis mapping efforts in these non-permissive and resource-restricted environments. 

Wow: How Road Maps Were Made in the 1940s!

This short video is absolutely a must-watch for today’s digital and crowdsourced-mapping enthusiasts. Produced by Chevrolet in the 1940s, Caught Mapping is an educational film that provides a truly intriguing and at times amusingly enter-taining view into how road maps were made at the time. The contrasts with today’s live, crowdsourced, social-media maps rich with high-resolution satellite imagery are simply staggering. This is definitely worth the watch!

Compare the roadmap-making of yesteryear with OpenStreetMap’s impressive map-making efforts in Haiti 2010 (video below) and Japan 2011, for example.

What do you think map-making will look like in 2040? Will we still be making maps? Or will automated sensors be live mapping 24/7? Will 2D interfaces disappear entirely and be replaced by 3D maps? Will all geo-tagged data simply be embedded within augmented reality platforms and updated live? Will we even be using the word “map” anymore?

Does Digital Crime Mapping Work? Insights on Engagement, Empowerment & Transparency

In 2008, police forces across the United Kingdom (UK) launched an online crime mapping tool “to help improve the credibility and confidence that the public had in police-recorded crime levels, address perceptions of crime, promote community engagement and empowerment, and support greater public service transparency and accountability.” How effective has this large scale digital mapping effort been? “There continues to be a lack of evidence that publishing crime statistics using crime mapping actually supports improvements in community engagement and empowerment.” This blog post evaluates the project’s impact by summarizing the findings from a recent peer-reviewed study entitled: “Engagement, Empowerment and Transparency: Publishing Crime Statistics using Online Crime Mapping.” Insights from this study have important implications for crisis mapping projects.

The rationale for publishing up-to-date crime statistics online was to address the “reassurance gap” which “relates to the counterintuitive relationship between fear of crime and the reality of crime.” While crime in the UK has decreased steadily over the past 15 years, there was no corresponding in the public’s fear of crime during this period. Studies subsequently found a relationship between a person’s confidence in the criminal justice system and the level to which a person felt informed about crime and justice issue. “Hence, barriers to accurate information were one of the main reasons why the reassurance gap, and lack of confidence in the police, was believed to exist.”

A related study  found that people’s opinions on crime levels were “heavily influenced by media depictions, demographic qualities, and personal ex- perience.” Meanwhile, “the countervailing source of information—nationally reported crime statistics—was not being heard. Simply put, the message that crime levels were falling was not getting through to the populace over the cacophony of competing information.” Hence the move to publish crime statistics online using a crime map.

Studies have long inferred that “publically disseminating crime information engages the public and empowers them to get involved in their communities. This has been a key principle in the adoption of community policing, where the public are considered just as much a part of community safety as the police themselves. Increasing public access to crime information is seen as integral to this whole agenda.” In addition, digital crime mapping was “seen as a ‘key mechanism for encouraging the public to take greater responsibility for holding the local police to account for their performance.’ In other words, it is believed that publishing information on crime at a local level facilitates greater public scrutiny of how well the police are doing at suppressing local crime and serves as a basis for dialogue between the public and their local police.”

While these are all great reasons to launch a nationwide crime mapping initiative online, “the evidence base that should form the foundations of the policy to pub- lish crime statistics using crime maps is distinctly absent.” When the project launched, “no police force had conducted a survey (robust or anecdotal) that had measured the impact that publishing crime statistics had on improving the credibility of these data or the way in which the information was being used to inform, reassure, and engage with the public.” In fact, “the only research-derived knowledge available on the impact of crime maps on public perceptions of crime was generated in the USA, on a small and conveniently selected sample.”

Moreover, many practitioners had “concerns with the geocoding accuracy of some crime data and how this would be represented on the national crime mapping site (i.e. many records cannot be geographically referenced to the exact location where the crime took place) [...] which could make the interpretation of street-level data misleading and confusing to the public.” The authors thus argue that “an areal visualization method such as kernel density estimation that is commonly used in police forces for visualizing the geographic distribution of crime would have been more appropriate.”

The media was particularly critical of the confusion provoked by the map and the negative media attention “may have done long-term damage to the reputation of crime statistics. Whilst these inaccuracies are few in number, they have been high profile and risk undermining the legitimacy and confidence in the accuracy of all the crime statistics published on the site. Indeed, these concerns were highlighted further in October 2011 when the crime statistics for the month of August appeared to show no resemblance to the riots [...].”

Furthermore, “contemporary research has stressed that information provision needs to be relevant to the recipients, and should emphasize police responsive-ness to local issues to chime with the public’s priorities.” Yet the UK’s online crime map does not “taylor sub-neighborhood reassurance messages alongside the publishing of crime statistics (e.g., saying how little crime there is in your neighborhood). General messages of reassurance and crime prevention often fail to resonate. This also under-scores the need for tailored information that is actively passed on to local communities at times of heightened crime risk, which local residents can then use to minimize their own immediate risk of victimization and improve local public safety.”

In addition, the presentation of “crime statistics on the national website is very passive, offering little that will draw people back and keep them interested on crime trends and policing in their area.” For example, the project did not require users to register their email addresses and home post (zip) codes when using the map. This meant the police had no way to inform interested audiences with locally relevant crime information such as “specific and tailored crime prevention advice regarding a known local crime issue (e.g. a spate of burglaries), directly promoting messages of reassurance and used as a means to publicize police activity.” I would personally argue for the use of automated alerts and messages of reassurance via geo-fencing. (The LA Crime Map provides automated alerts, for example). I would also recommend social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter to the map.

In conclusion, the authors question the “assumption that all police-recorded crime data are fit for purpose for mapping at street level.” They recommend using the Management of Police Information (MOPI) protocol, which states that “information must fulfill a necessary purpose for it to be recorded and retained by the police.” MOPI would “help to qualify what should and what should not be published, and the mechanism by which it is published.” Instead of mapping everything and anything, the authors advocate for the provision of “better quality information that the public can actually do something with to minimize their risk of victimization, or use as a basis for dialogue with their local policing teams.” In sum, “the purpose of publishing the crime statistics must not lose sight of the important potential it can contribute to improving the dialogue and involvement of local communities in improving community safety, and must avoid becoming an exercise in promoting political transparency when the data it offers provides little that encourages the public to react.”

For more on crime mapping, see:

The Future of Crisis Mapping? Full-Sized Arcade Pinball Machines

Remember those awesome pinball machines (of the analog kind)? You’d launch the ball and see it bounce all over, reacting wildly to various fun objects as you accumulate bonus points. The picture below hardly does justice so have a look on YouTube for some neat videos. I wish today’s crisis maps were that dynamic. Instead, they’re still largely static and hardly as interactive or user-friendly.

Do we live in an inert, static universe? No, obviously we don’t, and yet the state of our crisis mapping platforms would seem to suggest otherwise; a rather linear and flat world, which reminds me more of this game:

Things are always changing and interacting around us. So we need maps with automated geo-fencing alerts that can trigger kinetic and non-kinetic actions. To this end, dynamic check-in features should be part and parcel of crisis mapping platforms as well. My check-in at a certain location and time of day should trigger relevant messages to certain individuals and things (cue the Internet of Things) both nearby and at a distance based on the weather and latest crime statistics, for example. In addition, crisis mapping platforms need to have more gamification options and “special effects”. Indeed, they should be more game-like in terms of consoles and user-interface design. They also ought to be easier to use and be more rewarding.

This explains why I blogged about the “Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping” back in 2008. We’ve made progress over the past four years, for sure, but the ultimate pinball machine of crisis mapping still seems to be missing from the arcade of humanitarian technology.

Crisis Mapping Climate Change, Conflict and Aid in Africa

I recently gave a guest lecture at the University of Texas, Austin, and finally had the opportunity to catch up with my colleague Josh Busby who has been working on a promising crisis mapping project as part of the university’s Climate Change and African Political Stability Program (CCAPS).

Josh and team just released the pilot version of its dynamic mapping tool, which aims to provide the most comprehensive view yet of climate change and security in Africa. The platform, developed in partnership with AidData, enables users to “visualize data on climate change vulnerability, conflict, and aid, and to analyze how these issues intersect in Africa.” The tool is powered by ESRI technology and allows researchers as well as policymakers to “select and layer any combination of CCAPS data onto one map to assess how myriad climate change impacts and responses intersect. For example, mapping conflict data over climate vulnera-bility data can assess how local conflict patterns could exacerbate climate-induced insecurity in a region. It also shows how conflict dynamics are changing over time and space.”

The platform provides hyper-local data on climate change and aid-funded interventions, which can provide important insights on how development assistance might (or might not) be reducing vulnerability. For example, aid projects funded by 27 donors in Malawi (i.e., aid flows) can be layered on top of the climate change vulnerability data to “discern whether adaptation aid is effectively targeting the regions where climate change poses the most significant risk to the sustainable development and political stability of a country.”

If this weren’t impressive enough, I was positively amazed when I learned from Josh and team that the conflict data they’re using, the Armed Conflict Location Event Data (ACLED), will be updated on a weekly basis as part of this project, which is absolutely stunning. Back in the day, ACLED was specifically coding historical data. A few years ago they closed the gap by updating some conflict data on a yearly basis. Now the temporal lag will just be one week. Note that the mapping tool already draws on the Social Conflict in Africa Database (SCAD).

This project is an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and I look forward to following CCAPS’s progress closely over the next few months. I’m hoping that Josh will present this project at the 2012 International Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM 2012) later this year.

Stranger than Fiction: A Few Words About An Ethical Compass for Crisis Mapping

The good people at the Sudan Sentinel Project (SSP), housed at my former “alma matter,” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), have recently written this curious piece on crisis mapping and the need for an “ethical compass” in this new field. They made absolutely sure that I’d read the piece by directly messaging me via the @CrisisMappers twitter feed. Not to worry, good people, I read your masterpiece. Interestingly enough, it was published the day after my blog post reviewing IOM’s data protection standards.

To be honest, I was actually not going to spend any time writing up a response because the piece says absolutely nothing new and is hardly pro-active. Now, before any one spins and twists my words: the issues they raise are of paramount importance. But if the authors had actually taken the time to speak with their fellow colleagues at HHI, they would know that several of us participated in a brilliant workshop last year which addressed these very issues. Organized by World Vision, the workshop included representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care International, Oxfam GB, UN OCHA, UN Foundation, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Ushahidi, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and obviously Word Vision. There were several data protection experts at this workshop, which made the event one of the most important workshops I attended in all of 2011. So a big thanks again to Phoebe Wynn-Pope at World Vision for organizing.

We discussed in-depth issues surrounding Do No Harm, Informed Consent, Verification, Risk Mitigation, Ownership, Ethics and Communication, Impar-tiality, etc. As expected, the outcome of the workshop was the clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowdsourcing and volunteer geographical informa-tion. Our colleagues at the ICRC have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital. We expect to review this latest draft in the coming weeks (after Oxfam GB has added their comments to the document). Incidentally, the summary report of the workshop organized by World Vision is available here (PDF) and highly recommended. It was also shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group. By the way, my conversations with Phoebe about these and related issues began at this conference in November 2010, just a month after the SBTF launched.

I should confess the following: one of my personal pet peeves has to do with people stating the total obvious and calling for action but actually doing absolutely nothing else. Talk for talk’s sake just makes it seem like the authors of the article are simply looking for attention. Meanwhile, many of us are working on these new data protection challenges in our own time, as volunteers. And by the way, the SSP project is first and foremost focused on satellite imagery analysis and the Sudan, not on crowdsourcing or on social media. So they’re writing their piece as outsiders and, well, are hence less informed as a result—particularly since they didn’t do their homework.

Their limited knowledge of crisis mapping is blatantly obvious throughout the article. Not only do the authors not reference the World Vision workshop, which HHI itself attended, they also seem rather confused about the term “crisis mappers” which they keep using. This is somewhat unfortunate since the Crisis Mappers Network is an offshoot of HHI. Moreover, SSP participated and spoke at last year’s Crisis Mappers Conference—just a few months ago, in fact. One outcome of this conference was the launch of a dedicated Working Group on Security and Privacy, which will now become two groups, one addressing security issues and the other data protection. This information was shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group and one of the authors is actually part of the Security Working Group.

To this end, one would have hoped, and indeed expected, that the authors would write a somewhat more informed piece about these issues. At the very least, they really ought to have documented some of the efforts to date in this innovative space. But they didn’t and unfortunately several statements they make in their article are, well… completely false and rather revealing at the same time. (Incidentally, the good people at SSP did their best to disuade the SBTF from launching a Satellite Team on the premise that only experts are qualified to tag satellite imagery; seems like they’re not interested in citizen science even though some experts I’ve spoken to have referred to SSP as citizen science).

In any case, the authors keep on referring to “crisis mappers this” and “crisis mappers that” throughout their article. But who exactly are they referring to? Who knows. On the one hand, there is the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which is a loose, decentralized, and informal network of some 3,500 members and 1,500 organizations spanning 150+ countries. Then there’s the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a distributed, global network of 750+ volunteers who partner with established organizations to support live mapping efforts. And then, easily the largest and most decentralized “group” of all, are all those “anonymous” individuals around the world who launch their own maps using whatever technologies they wish and for whatever purposes they want. By the way, to define crisis mapping as mapping highly volatile and dangerous conflict situations is really far from being accurate either. Also, “equating” crisis mapping with crowdsourcing, which the authors seem to do, is further evidence that they are writing about a subject that they have very little understanding of. Crisis mapping is possible without crowdsourcing or social media. Who knew?

Clearly, the authors are confused. They appear to refer to “crisis mappers” as if the group were a legal entity, with funding, staff, administrative support and brick-and-mortar offices. Furthermore, and what the authors don’t seem to realize, is that much of what they write is actually true of the formal professional humanitarian sector vis-a-vis the need for new data protection standards. But the authors have obviously not done their homework, and again, this shows. They are also confused about the term “crisis mapping” when they refer to “crisis mapping data” which is actually nothing other than geo-referenced data. Finally, a number of paragraphs in the article have absolutely nothing to do with crisis mapping even though the authors seem insinuate otherwise. Also, some of the sensationalism that permeates the article is simply unnecessary and poor taste.

The fact of the matter is that the field of crisis mapping is maturing. When Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded and co-directed HHI’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning from 2007-2009, the project was very much an exploratory, applied-research program. When Dr. Jen Ziemke and I launched the Crisis Mappers Network in 2009, we were just at the beginning of a new experiment. The field has come a long way since and one of the consequences of rapid innovation is obviously the lack of any how-to-guide or manual. These certainly need to be written and are being written.

So, instead of  stating the obvious, repeating the obvious, calling for the obvious and making embarrassing factual errors in a public article (which, by the way, is also quite revealing of the underlying motives), perhaps the authors could actually have done some research and emailed the Crisis Mappers Google Group. Two of the authors also have my email address; one even has my private phone number; oh, and they could also have DM’d me on Twitter like they just did.

Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

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

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

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

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

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

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

 Here’s another version:

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

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

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

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

Crisis Mapping Somalia with the Diaspora

The state of Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in North America. Like any Diaspora, the estimated 25,000 Somalis who live there ar closely linked to family members back home. They make thousands of phone calls every week to numerous different locations across Somalia. So why not make the Somali Diaspora a key partner in the humanitarian response taking place half-way across the world?

In Haiti, Mission 4636 was launched to crowdsource micro needs assessments from the disaster affected population via SMS. The project could not have happened without hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora who translated and geo-referenced the incoming text messages. There’s no doubt that Diasporas can play a pivotal role in humanitarian response but they are typically ignored by large humanitarian organizations. This is why I’m excited to be part of an initiative that plans to partner with key members of the Diaspora to create a live crisis map of Somalia.

This is a mock-up for illustration only

The project is still in very early stages so there’s not much to show right now but I’m hopeful that the stars will align next week so we can formally launch the initiative. The basic game plan is as follows:

  • A short survey of some 10 questions is being drafted by public health professionals with experience in humanitarian response. These questions will try to capture the most essential indicators. More questions are be added at a later stage.
  • Humanitarian colleagues who have been working with the Somali Diaspora in Minnesota for years are now in the process of recruiting trusted members of the community.
  • These trusted members of the Diaspora will participate in a training this weekend on basic survey and interview methods. The training will also provide them with a hands-on introduction to the Ushahidi platform where they’ll  enter the survey results.
  • If everything goes well, these community members will each make several phone calls to friends and relatives back home next week. They’ll ask the questions from the survey and add the answers to the Ushahidi map. Elders in the community will fill out a paper-based form for other colleagues to enter online.
  • Trusted members of the Diaspora will continue to survey contacts back home on a weekly basis. New survey questions are likely to be added based on feedback from other humanitarian organizations. Surveys may also be carried out every other day or even on a daily basis for some of the questions.

If the pilot is successful, then colleagues in Minnesota may recruit additional trusted members of the community to participate in this live crisis mapping effort. There’s a lot more to the project including several subsequent phases but we’re still at the early stages so who knows where this will go. But yes, we’re thinking through the security implications, verification issues, data visualization features, necessary analytics, etc. If all goes well, there’ll be a lot more information to share next week in which case I’ll add more info here and also post an update on the Ushahidi blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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