Tag Archives: Microsoft

Analyzing Call Dynamics to Assess the Impact of Earthquakes

Earthquakes can cripple communication infrastructure and influence the number of voice calls relayed through cell phone towers. Data from cell phone traffic can thus be used as a proxy to infer the epicenter of an earthquake and possibly the needs of the disaster affected population. In this blog post, I summarize the findings from a recent study carried out by Microsoft Research and the Santa Fe Institute (SFI).

The study assesses the impact of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake near Lac Kivu in February 2008 on Rwandan call data to explore the possibility of inferring the epicenter and potential needs of affected communities. Cellular networks continually generate “Call Data Records (CDR) for billing and maintenance purposes” which can be used can be used to make inferences following a disaster. Since the geographic spread of cell phones and towers is not randomly distributed, the authors used methods to capture propagating uncertainties about their inferences from the data. This is important to prioritize the collection of new data.

The study is based on the following 3 assumptions:

1. Cell tower traffic deviates statistically from the normal patterns and trends in case of an unusual event.
2. Areas that suffer larger disruptions experience deviations in call volume that persist for a longer period of time.
3. Disruptions are overall inversely proportional to the distance from the center(s) of a catastrophe.

Based on these assumptions, the authors develop algorithms to detect earthquakes, predict their epicenter and infer opportunities for assistance. The results? Using call data to detect when in February 2008 the earthquake took place yields a highly accurate result. The same is true for predicting the epicenter. This means that call activity and cell phone towers can be used as a large-scale seismic system.

As for inferring hardest hit areas, the authors find that their “predicted model is far superior to the baseline and provides predictions that are significantly better for k = 3, 4 and 5″ where k represents the number of days post-earthquake. In sum, “the results highlight the promise of performing predictive analysis with existing telecommunications infrastructure.” The study is available on the Artificial Intelligence for Development (AI-D) website.

In the future, combining call traffic data with crowdsourced SMS data (see this study on Haiti text messages) could perhaps provide even more detailed information on near real-time impact and needs following a disaster. I’d be very interested to see this kind of study done on call/SMS data before, during and after a contested election or major armed conflict. Could patterns in call/SMS data in one country provide distinct early warning signatures for elections and conflict in other crises?

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

3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training

I recently had a fascinating meeting in Seattle with Larry Pixa, Microsoft’s Senior Manager for Disaster Preparedness & Response Program. What I thought would be a half-hour meeting turned into an engaging two-hour conversation. I wish we had had even more time.

Acron

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) co-Chair Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I had a conversation two years ago on the need to merge disaster training with serious gaming and 3-D crisis mapping. Her vision, for example, was to recreate downtown Monrovia as a virtual world with avatars and have both live and manual data feeds simulate the virtual environment, a.k.a. immersive realism meets reality mining.

This world would then be used to create scenarios for disaster preparedness and response training, much like my colleagues at ICNC have done by developing a serious game called “A Force More Powerful” which uses artificial intelligence and real-world scenarios to train nonviolent activists.

Force More Powerful

Larry and his colleagues at Acron are pushing the envelope of disaster simulation for training purposes. They are integrating Acron’s serious games know-how with Microsoft ESP and the video game engine of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator platform with dynamic crisis mapping to develop a pilot that closely resembles the vision set out by Jennifer back in 2006. I personally thought we were still a year or two away from having a pilot. Not so. Larry will be presenting the pilot at HHI’s Humanitarian Health Summit in March 2009.

The goal for the pilot, or as we the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) call it, the “software-based proof of concept,” is to establish the proof of concept into a “training platform” to be combined with training materials that will serve as a demonstrate the tool to governments and international organizations worldwide; particularly vis-a-vis training to build preparedness & response capabilities and informed decision making for the adoption of technologies to enable or improve disaster response and crisis management.

So our goal is to engage with any/all appropriate agencies to provide training against the “training platform”; the training will be based on some key scenarios in Bangladesh acquired through the partnership between WFP and Microsoft.

Successful training requires that we actually remember the training. But we all know from conventional class learning that we retain little of what we read. On the other hand, our memory retains almost all of what we do and that, according to Larry, is what his new disaster simulations platform seeks to achieve.

Microsoft

What I find particularly compelling about Larry’s work is that the tool he is developing can be used for both disaster training and actual disaster response. That is, once trainees become familiar with the platform, they can use it for in situ disaster response thanks to live data feeds rendering the “virtual” world in quasi-real time. This should eventually enable disaster responders to test out several response scenarios and thereby select the most effective one, all in quasi-real time.

Patrick Philippe Meier