Tag Archives: news

Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs

Update: I just realized after reading Helena Puig Larrauri’s excellent post on UAVs for conflict prevention that my post below does not explicitly state that I’m only responding to misconceptions related to UAV-use in response to natural hazards, not armed or violent conflict.

Superficial conversations on the challenges and opportunities of using UAVs in humanitarian settings reveal just how many misconceptions remain on the topic. This is admittedly due to the fact that humanitarian UAVs are a relatively recent innovation. There are of course legitimate and serious concerns around the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. But superficial conversations tend to obfuscate intelligent discourse on what the potential solutions to these challenges might be.

SkyEyeGrassRoots

I would thus like to address some of the more common misconceptions in the hopes that we can move beyond the repetitive, superficial statements that have been surfacing in recent discussions on humanitarian UAVs. This will hopefully help improve the quality of discourse on the topic and encourage more informed conversations.

  • UAVs are expensive: Yes, military drones cost millions of dollars. But small, civilian UAVs range from a few hundred dollars to the price of a small car.  The fixed-wing UAV used by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Haiti and by Medair in the Philippines cost $20,000. Contrast this to UN Range Rovers that cost over $50,000. The rotary-wing UAV (quadcopter) purchased by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian (OCHA) costs $1,200 (the price of a laptop). The one pictured above now costs around $500. (And balloon mapping costs even less). Like other technologies, UAVs are clearly becoming cheaper every year, which is why they’re increasingly used in humanitarian settings.
  • UAVs are limited in range: So are cars. In other words, whether UAVs are “too limited” depends on what their intended use is. Small, fixed-wing UAVs have a flight time of about an hour while small rotary-wing UAVs typically remain airborne for half-an-hour (on 1 battery). Naturally, more expensive UAVs will have longer flight-times. For targeted damage assessments, current ranges are easily manageable with several batteries. With one team and a few batteries, IOM covered 45 square kilometers in 6 days of flying. As more groups use UAVs in humanitarian settings, the opportunities to collaborate on flight plans and data sharing will necessarily expand both range and coverage. Then again, if all I need is 25 minutes of flight-time to rapidly assess disaster damage in rural village, then a rotary-wing UAV is a perfect fit. And if I bring 5 batteries along, I’ll have more than two hours’ worth of very high-resolution imagery.
  • UAVs are dangerous: Cars cause well over 1 million deaths every year. There are safe ways to use cars and reckless ways, regardless of whether you have a license. The same holds true for UAVs: there are safety guidelines and best practices that need to be followed. Obviously, small, very light-weight UAVs pose far less physical danger than larger UAVs. Newer UAVs also include a number of important fail-safe mechanisms and automated flight-plan options, thus drastically reducing pilot error. There is of course the very real danger of UAVs colliding with piloted-aircraft. At the same time, I for one don’t see the point of flying small UAVs in urban areas with complex airspaces. I’m more interested in using UAVs in areas that have been overlooked or ignored by international relief efforts. These areas are typically rural and hard to access; they are not swarmed by search and rescue helicopters or military aircraft delivering aid. Besides as one UAV expert recently noted at a leading UAV conference, the best sense-and-avoid systems (when flying visual line-of-site) are your eyes and ears. Helicopters and military aircraft are loud and can be heard from miles away. If you or your spotter hear and/or see them, it takes you 10 seconds to drop to a safer altitude. In any event, flying UAVs near airports is pure idiocy. Risks (and idiocy) cannot be eliminated, but they can be managed. There are a number of protocols that provide guidance on the safe use of UAVs such as the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct and Operational Check-List available here. In sum, both education and awareness-raising are absolutely key.
  • UAVs are frightening: Compare the UAV pictured above with UN military helicopters and aircraft. What looks more scary? Talk to any UAV professional who actually has experience in flying small UAVs in developing countries and virtually all will tell you that their UAVs are almost always perceived as toys by both kids and adults alike. CartONG & OSM who use UAVs for community mapping note that UAVs in Haiti bring communities together. Meanwhile, SkyEye and partners in the Philippines use the excitement that UAVs provoke in kids to teach them about science,  maths and aeronautics. Do the kids in the picture above look scared to you? This doesn’t mean that process—reassurance, awareness raising & community engagement— isn’t important. It simply means that critics who play on fear to dismiss the use of UAVs following natural disasters don’t know what they’re talking about; but they’re great at “Smart Talk”.
  • UAVs are not making a difference: This final misconception is simply due to ignorance. Humanitarian UAVs are already a game-changer. Anyone who follows this space will know that UAVs have already made a difference in Haiti, Philippines and in the Balkans, for example. Their use in Search and Rescue efforts have already saved lives. As such, critics who question the added value of humanitarian UAVs don’t know what they’re talking about. Acquiring and analyzing satellite imagery after a disaster still takes between 48-72 hours. And if clouds are lingering after a major Typhoon, for example, then humanitarians have to wait several days longer. In any event, the resulting imagery is expensive and comes with a host of data-sharing restrictions. These limitations explain why disaster responders are turning to UAVs. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need more evidence of impact (and failure), we certainly do since this is still a new space. But suggesting that there is no evidence to begin with is precisely the kind of ignorance that gets in the way of intelligent discourse.

I hope we can move beyond the above misconceptions and discuss topics that are grounded in reality; like issues around legislation, coordination, data privacy and informed consent, for example. We’ll be focusing on these and several other critical issues at the upcoming “Experts Meeting on Humanitarian UAVs” co-organized by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which is being held in November at UN Headquarters in New York.

My advocacy around the use of humanitarian UAVs should obviously not be taken to suggest that UAVs are the answer to every and all humanitarian problems; UAVs, like other novel technologies used in humanitarian settings, obviously pose a number of risks and challenges that need to be managed. As always, the key is to accurately identify and describe the challenge first; and then to assess potential technology solutions and processes that are most appropriate—if any—while keeping in mind the corner stone principle of Do No Harm.

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  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using MicroMappers to Make Sense of UAV/Aerial Imagery During Disasters [link]

Web App Tracks Breaking News Using Wikipedia Edits

A colleague of mine at Google recently shared a new and very interesting Web App that tracks breaking news events by monitoring Wikipedia edits in real-time. The App, Wikipedia Live Monitor, alerts users to breaking news based on the frequency of edits to certain articles. Almost every significant news event has a Wikipedia page that gets updated in near real-time and thus acts as a single, powerful cluster for tacking an evolving crisis.

Wikipedia Live Monitor

Social media, in contrast, is far more distributed, which makes it more difficult to track. In addition, social media is highly prone to false positives. These, however, are almost immediately corrected on Wikipedia thanks to dedicated editors. Wikipedia Live Monitor currently works across several dozen languages and also “cross-checks edits with social media updates on Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook to help users get a better sense of what is trending” (1).

I’m really excited to explore the use of this Live Monitor for crisis response and possible integration with some of the humanitarian technology platforms that my colleagues and I at QCRI are developing. For example, the Monitor could be used to supplement crisis information collected via social media using the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform. In addition, the Wikipedia Monitor could also be used to triangulate reports posted to our Verily platform, which leverages time-critical crowdsourcing techniques to verify user-generated content posted on social media during disasters.

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Perils of Crisis Mapping: Lessons from Gun Map

Any CrisisMapper who followed the social firestorm surrounding the gun map published by the Journal News will have noted direct parallels with the perils of Crisis Mapping. The digital and interactive gun map displayed the (lega-lly acquired) names and addresses of 33,614 handgun permit holders in two counties of New York. Entitled “The Gun Owner Next Door,” the project was launched on December 23, 2012 to highlight the extent of gun proliferation in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown. The map has been viewed over 1 million times since. This blog post documents the consequences of the gun map and explains how to avoid making the same mistakes in the field of Crisis Mapping.

gunmap

The backlash against Journal News was swift, loud and intense. The interactive map included the names and addresses of police officers and other law enforcement officials such as prison guards. The latter were subsequently threatened by inmates who used the map to find out exactly where they lived. Former crooks and thieves confirmed the map would be highly valuable for planning crimes (“news you can use”). They warned that criminals could easily use the map either to target houses with no guns (to avoid getting shot) or take the risk and steal the weapons themselves. Shotguns and hand-guns have a street value of $300-$400 per gun. This could lead to a proliferation of legally owned guns on the street.

The consequences of publishing the gun map didn’t end there. Law-abiding citizens who do not own guns began to fear for their safety. A Democratic legislator told the media: “I never owned a gun but now I have no choice [...]. I have been exposed as someone that has no gun. And I’ll do anything, anything to protect my family.” One resident feared that her ex-husband, who had attempted to kill her in the past, might now be able to find her thanks to the map. There were also consequences for the journalists who published the map. They began to receive death threats and had to station an armed guard outside one of their offices. One disenchanted blogger decided to turn the tables (reverse panopticon) by publishing a map with the names and addresses of key editorial staffers who work at  Journal News. The New York Times reported that the location of the editors’ children’s schools had also been posted online. Suspicious packages containing white powder were also mailed to the newsroom (later found to be harmless).

News about a burglary possibly tied to the gun map began to circulate (although I’m not sure whether the link was ever confirmed). But according to one report, “said burglars broke in Saturday evening, and went straight for the gun safe. But they could not get it open.” Even if there was no link between this specific burglary and the gun map, many county residents fear that their homes have become a target. The map also “demonized” gun owners.

gunmap2

After weeks of fierce and heated “debate” the Journal News took the map down. But were the journalists right in publishing their interactive gun map in the first place? There was nothing illegal about it. But should the map have been published? In my opinion: No. At least not in that format. The rationale behind this public map makes sense. After all, “In the highly charged debate over guns that followed the shooting, the extent of ownership was highly relevant. [...] By publishing the ‘gun map,’ the Journal News gave readers a visceral understanding of the presence of guns in their own community.” (Politico). It was the implementation of the idea that was flawed.

I don’t agree with the criticism that suggests the map was pointless because criminals obviously don’t register their guns. Mapping criminal activity was simply not the rationale behind the map. Also, while Journal News could simply have published statistics on the proliferation of gun ownership, the impact would not have been as … dramatic. Indeed, “ask any editor, advertiser, artist or curator—hell, ask anyone whose ever made a PowerPoint presentation—which editorial approach would be a more effective means of getting the point across” (Politico). No, this is not an endorsement of the resulting map, simply an acknowledgement that the decision to use mapping as a medium for data visualization made sense.

The gun map could have been published without the interactive feature and without corresponding names and addresses. This is eventually what the jour-nalists decided to do, about four weeks later. Aggregating the statistics would have also been an option in order to get away from individual dots representing specific houses and locations. Perhaps a heat map that leaves enough room for geographic ambiguity would have been less provocative but still effective in de-picting the extent of gun proliferation. Finally, an “opt out” feature should have been offered, allowing those owning guns to remove themselves from the map (still in the context of a heat map). Now, these are certainly not perfect solutions—simply considerations that could mitigate some of the negative consequences that come with publishing a hyper-local map of gun ownership.

The point, quite simply, is that there are various ways to map sensitive data such that the overall data visualization is rendered relatively less dangerous. But there is another perhaps more critical observation that needs to be made here. The New York Time’s Bill Keller gets to the heart of the matter in this piece on the gun map:

“When it comes to privacy, we are all hypocrites. We howl when a newspaper publishes public records about personal behavior. At the same time, we are acquiescing in a much more sweeping erosion of our privacy —government surveillance, corporate data-mining, political micro-targeting, hacker invasions—with no comparable outpouring of protest. As a society we have no coherent view of what information is worth defending and how to defend it. When our personal information is exploited this way, we may grumble, or we may seek the largely false comfort of tweaking our privacy settings [...].”

In conclusion, the “smoking guns” (no pun intended) were never found. Law enforcement officials and former criminals seemed to imply that thieves would go on a rampage with map in hand. So why did we not see a clear and measurable increase in burglaries? The gun map should obviously have given thieves the edge. But no, all we have is just one unconfirmed report of an unsuccessful crime that may potentially be linked to the map. Surely, there should be an arsenal of smoking guns given all the brouhaha.

In any event, the controversial gun map provides at least six lessons for those of us engaged in crisis mapping complex humanitarian emergencies:

First, just because data is publicly-accessible does not mean that a map of said data is ethical or harmless. Second, there are dozens of ways to visualize and “blur” sensitive data on a map. Third, a threat and risk mitigation strategy should be standard operating procedure for crisis maps. Fourth, since crisis mapping almost always entails risk-taking when tracking conflicts, the benefits that at-risk communities gain from the resulting map must always and clearly outweigh the expected costs. This means carrying out a Cost Benefit Analysis, which goes to the heart of the “Do No Harm” principle. Fifth, a code of conduct on data protection and data security for digital humanitarian response needs to be drafted, adopted and self-enforced; something I’m actively working on with both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and GSMA’s  Disaster Response Program. Sixth, the importance of privacy can—and already has—been hijacked by attention-seeking hypocrites who sensationalize the issue to gain notoriety and paralyze action. Non-action in no way implies no-harm.

Update: Turns out the gan ownership data was highly inaccurate!

See also:

  • Does Digital Crime Mapping Work? Insights on Engagement, Empowerment & Transparency [Link]
  • On Crowdsourcing, Crisis Mapping & Data Protection [Link]
  • What do Travel Guides and  Nazi Germany have to do with Crisis Mapping and Security? [Link]

MAQSA: Social Analytics of User Responses to News

Designed by QCRI in partnership with MIT and Al-Jazeera, MAQSA provides an interactive topic-centric dashboard that summarizes news articles and user responses (comments, tweets, etc.) to these news items. The platform thus helps editors and publishers in newsrooms like Al-Jazeera’s better “understand user engagement and audience sentiment evolution on various topics of interest.” In addition, MAQSA “helps news consumers explore public reaction on articles relevant to a topic and refine their exploration via related entities, topics, articles and tweets.” The pilot platform currently uses Al-Jazeera data such as Op-Eds from Al-Jazeera English.

Given a topic such as “The Arab Spring,” or “Oil Spill”, the platform combines time, geography and topic to “generate a detailed activity dashboard around relevant articles. The dashboard contains an annotated comment timeline and a social graph of comments. It utilizes commenters’ locations to build maps of comment sentiment and topics by region of the world. Finally, to facilitate exploration, MAQSA provides listings of related entities, articles, and tweets. It algorithmically processes large collections of articles and tweets, and enables the dynamic specification of topics and dates for exploration.”

While others have tried to develop similar dashboards in the past, these have “not taken a topic-centric approach to viewing a collection of news articles with a focus on their user comments in the way we propose.” The team at QCRI has since added a number of exciting new features for Al-Jazeera to try out as widgets on their site. I’ll be sure to blog about these and other updates when they are officially launched. Note that other media companies (e.g., UK Guardian) will also be able to use this platform and widgets once they become public.

As always with such new initiatives, my very first thought and question is: how might we apply them in a humanitarian context? For example, perhaps MAQSA could be repurposed to do social analytics of responses from local stakeholders with respect to humanitarian news articles produced by IRIN, an award-winning humanitarian news and analysis service covering the parts of the world often under-reported, misunderstood or ignored. Perhaps an SMS component could also be added to a MAQSA-IRIN platform to facilitate this. Or perhaps there’s an application for the work that Internews carries out with local journalists and consumers of information around the world. What do you think?

Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map

Update: http://irevolution.net/2011/12/08/somaliaspeaks

I recently had the pleasure to meet with Al-Jazeera’s Social Media Team in Doha, Qatar. It was immediately clear that they were also interested in partnering on a joint project in Somalia when I suggested a few ideas. Several weeks later, this project is almost ready to launch. The purpose of this initiative is to let Somalis speak for themselves and to amplify those voices in the international media.

As Al-Jazeera has noted, Somalia is quickly slipping from global media attention. With Somalia out of the headline news, however, advocacy and lobbying groups will find it increasingly difficult to place pressure on policymakers and humanitarian organiza-tions to scale their intervention in this major crisis. This project therefore offers a direct and innovative way to keep Somalia in the international news. The project described below is the product of a novel collaborative effort between Al-Jazeera, Ushahidi, Souktel and Crowdflower in direct partnership with the Somali Diaspora.

The project will “interview” ordinary Somalis in Somalia and let them speak for themselves in the international media space. Interview questions drafted by Al-Jazeera will be broadcast via SMS by Souktel to 10% of their existing 50,000+ subscribers in the country. The interview questions will also invite Somalis to share in which town they are based. (Note that we are reviewing the security protocols for this). The Somali Diaspora will then translate and geolocate incoming text messages from Somali to English using a customized Crowdflower plugin. The processed messages will then be pushed (in both Somali and English) to a live Ushahidi map. Al-Jazeera will promote the live map across their main-stream and social media channels. Mapped SMS’s will each have a comments section for viewers and readers to share their thoughts. Al-Jazeera will then select the most compelling responses and text these back to the original senders in Somalia. This approach is replicable and scalable given that the partners and technologies are largely in place already.

In sum, the purpose of this project is to increase global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then lets invite Somalis speak to the world themselves. The project will highlight these voices on a live, public map for the world to engage in a global conversation with the people of Somalia, a conversation in which Somalis and the Diaspora are themselves at the centerfold.

If you want to help out with this initiative, we’re looking for Somali-English speakers to translate and map the incoming text messages. It’s important that volunteers are familiar with the location of many cities, towns, etc., in Somalia in order to map the SMS’s. If you have the skills and time, then please add your name, email address and short bio here—would be great to have you on the team!