Tag Archives: OCHA

Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response

The following is a presentation that I recently gave at the 2014 Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Conference (RPAS 2014) held in Brussels, Belgium. The case studies on the Philippines and Haiti are also featured in my upcoming book on “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.” The book is slated to be published in January/February 2015.

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Good afternoon and many thanks to Peter van Blyenburgh for the kind invitation to speak on the role of UAVs in humanitarian contexts beyond the European region. I’m speaking today on behalf of the Humanitarian UAV Network, which brings together seasoned humanitarian professionals with UAV experts to facilitate the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. I’ll be saying more about the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators, pronounced “way-viators”) at the end of my talk.

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The view from above is key for humanitarian response. Indeed, satellite imagery has played an important role in relief operations since Hurricane Mitch in 1998. And the Indian Ocean Tsunami was the first to be captured from space as the way was still propagating. Some 650 images were produced using data from 15 different sensors. During the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami, satellite images were used at headquarters to assess the extent of the emergency. Later, satellite images were used in the field directly, distributed by the Humanitarian Information Center (HIC) and others to support and coordinate relief efforts. 

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Satellites do present certain limitations, of course. These include cost, the time needed to acquire images, cloud cover, licensing issues and so on. In any event, two years after the Tsunami, an earlier iteration of the UN’s DRC Mission (MONUC) was supported by a European force (EUFOR), which used 4 Belgian UAVs. But I won’t be speaking about this type of UAV. For a variety of reasons, particularly affordability, ease of transport, regulatory concerns, and community engagement, UAVs used in humanitarian response are smaller systems or micro-UAVs that weigh just a few kilograms, such as one fixed-wing displayed below.

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The World Food Program’s UAVs were designed and built at the University of Torino “way back” in 2007. But they’ve been grounded until this year due to lack of legislation in Italy.

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In June 2014, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) purchased a small quadcopter for use in humanitarian response and advocacy. Incidentally, OCHA is on the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network, or UAViators. 

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Now, there are many uses cases for the operation of UAVs in humanitarian settings (those listed above are only a subset). All of you here at RPAS 2014 are already very familiar with these applications. So let me jump directly to real world case studies from the Philippines and Haiti.

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Typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it was known locally, was the most powerful Typhoon in recorded human history to make landfall. The impact was absolutely devastated. I joined UN/OCHA in the Philippines following the Typhoon and was struck by how many UAV projects were being launched. What follows is just a few of said projects.

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Danoffice IT, a company based in Lausanne, Switzerland, used the Sky-Watch Huginn X1 Quadcopter to support the humanitarian response in Tacloban. The rotary-wing UAV was used to identify where NGOs could set up camp. Later on, the UAV was used to support a range of additional tasks such as identifying which roads were passable for transportation/logistics. The quadcopter was also flown up the coast to assess the damage from the storm surge and flooding and to determine which villages had been most affected. This served to speed up the relief efforts and made the response more targeted vis-a-vis the provision of resources and assistance. Danoffice IT is also on the Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators).

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A second UAV project was carried out by local UAV start-up called CorePhil DSI. The team used an eBee to capture aerial imagery of downtown Tacloban, one of the areas hardest-hit by Typhoon Yolanda. They captured 22 Gigabytes of imagery and shared this with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) who are also on the Board of UAViators. HOT subsequently crowdsourced the tracing of this imagery (and satellite imagery) to create the most detailed and up-to-date maps of the area. These maps were shared with and used by multiple humanitarian organizations as well as the Filipino Government.

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In a third project, the Swiss humanitarian organization Medair partnered with Drone Adventures to create a detailed set of 2D maps and 3D terrain models of the disaster-affected areas in which Medair works. These images were used to inform the humanitarian organization’s recovery and reconstruction programs. To be sure, Medair used the maps and models of Tacloban and Leyte to assist in assessing where the greatest need was and what level of assistance should be given to affected families as they continued to recover. Having these accurate aerial images of the affected areas allowed the Swiss organization to address the needs of individual households and—equally importantly—to advocate on their behalf when necessary.

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Drone Adventures also flew their fixed-wing UAVs (eBee’s) over Dulag, just north of Leyte, where more than 80% of homes and croplands were destroyed during the Typhoon. Medair is providing both materials and expertise to help build new shelters in Dulag. So the aerial imagery is proving invaluable to identify just how much material is needed and where. The captured imagery is also enabling community members themselves to better understand both where the greatest needs are an also what the potential solutions might be.

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The partners are also committed to Open Data. The imagery captured was made available online and for free, enabling community leaders and humanitarian organizations to use the information to coordinate other reconstruction efforts. In addition, Drone Adventures and Medair presented locally-printed maps to community leaders within 24 hours of flying the UAVs. Some of these maps were printed on rollable, water proof banners, which make them more durable when used in the field.

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In yet another UAV project, the local Filipino start-up SkyEye Inc partnered with the University of the Philippines in Manila to develop expendable UAVs or xUAVs. The purpose of this initiative is to empower grassroots communities to deploy their own low-cost xUAVs and thus support locally-deployed response efforts. The team has trained 4 out of 5 teams across the Philippines to locally deploy UAVs in preparation for the next Typhoon season. In so doing, they are also transferring math, science and engineering skills to local communities. It is worth noting that community perceptions of UAVs in the Philippines and elsewhere has always been very positive. Indeed, local communities perceive small UAVs as toys more than anything else.

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SkyEye worked with this group from the University of Hawaii to create disaster risk reduction models of flood-prone areas.

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Moving to Haiti, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has partnered with Drone Adventures and other to produce accurate topographical and 3D maps of disaster prone areas in the Philippines. These aerial images have been used to inform disaster risk reduction and community resilience programs. The UAVs have also enabled IOM to assess destroyed houses and other types of damage caused by floods and droughts. In addition, UAVs have been used to monitor IDP camps, helping aid workers identify when shelters are empty and thus ready to be closed. Furthermore, the high resolution aerial imagery has been used to support a census survey of public building, shelters, hospitals as well as schools.

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After Hurricane Sandy, for example, aerial imagery enabled IOM to very rapidly assess how many houses had collapsed near Rivière Grise and how many people were affected by the flooding. The aerial imagery was also used to identify areas of standing water where mosquitos and epidemics could easily thrive. Throughout their work with UAVs, IOM has stressed that regular community engagement has been critical for the successful use of UAVs. Indeed, informing local communities of the aerial mapping projects and explaining how the collected information is to be used is imperative. Local capacity building is also paramount, which is why Drone Adventures has trained a local team of Haitians to locally deploy and maintain their own eBee UAV.

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The pictures above and below are some of the information products produced by IOM and Drone Adventures. The 3D model above was used to model flood risk in the area and to inform subsequent disaster risk reduction projects.

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Several colleagues of mine have already noted that aerial imagery presents a Big Data challenge. This means that humanitarian organizations and others will need to use advanced computing (human computing and machine computing) to make sense of Big (Aerial) Data.

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My colleagues at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) are already beginning to apply advanced computing to automatically analyze aerial imagery. In the example from Haiti below, the JRC deployed a machine learning classifier to automatically identify rubble left over from the massive earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. Their classifier had an impressive accuracy of 92%, “suggesting that the method in its simplest form is sufficiently reliable for rapid damage assessment.”

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Human computing (or crowdsourcing) can also be used to make sense of Big Data. My team and I at QCRI have partnered with the UN (OCHA) to create the MicroMappers platform, which is a free and open-source tool to make sense of large datasets created during disasters, like aerial data. We have access to thousands of digital volunteers who can rapidly tag and trace aerial imagery; the resulting analysis of this tagging/tracing can be used to increase the situational awareness  of humanitarian organizations in the field.

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Digital volunteers can trace features of interest such as shelters without roofs. Our plan is to subsequently use these traced features as training data to develop machine learning classifiers that can automatically identify these features in future aerial images. We’re also exploring the second use-case depicted below, ie, the rapid transcription of imagery, which can then be automatically geo-tagged and added to a crisis map.

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The increasing use of UAVs during humanitarian disasters is why UAViators, the Humanitarian UAV Network, was launched. Recall the relief operations in response to Typhoon Yolanda; an unprecedented number of UAV projects were in operation. But most operators didn’t know about each other, so they were not coordinating flights let alone sharing imagery with local communities. Since the launch of UAViators, we’ve developed the first ever Code of Conduct for the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings, which includes guidelines on data protection and privacy. We have also drafted an Operational Check-List to educate those who are new to humanitarian UAVs. We are now in the process of carrying out a comprehensive evaluation of UAV models along with cameras, sensors, payload mechanism and image processing software. The purpose of this evaluation is to identify which are the best fit for use by humanitarians in the field. Since the UN and others are looking for training and certification programs, we are actively seeking partners to provide these services.

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The above goals are all for the medium to long term. More immediately, UAViators is working to educate humanitarian organizations on both the opportunities and challenges of using UAVs in humanitarian settings. UAViators is also working to facilitate the coordinate UAV flights during major disasters, enabling operators to share their flight plans and contact details with each other via the UAViators website. We are also planning to set up an SMS service to enable direct communication between operators and others in the field during UAV flights. Lastly, we are developing an online map for operators to easily share the imagery/videos they are collecting during relief efforts.

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Data collection (imagery capture) is certainly not the only use case for UAVs in humanitarian contexts. The transportation of payloads may play an increasingly important role in the future. To be sure, my colleagues at UNICEF are actively exploring this with a number of partners in Africa.

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Other sensors also present additional opportunities for the use of UAVs in relief efforts. Sensors can be used to assess the impact of disasters on communication infrastructure, such as cell phone towers, for example. Groups are also looking into the use of UAVs to provide temporary communication infrastructure (“aerial cell phone towers”) following major disasters.

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The need for Sense and Avoid systems (a.k.a. Detection & Avoid solutions) has been highlighted in almost every other presentation given at RPAS 2014. We really need this new technology earlier rather than later (and that’s a major  understatement). At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the main added value of UAVs in humanitarian settings is to capture imagery of areas that are overlooked or ignored by mainstream humanitarian relief operations; that is, of areas that are partially or completely disconnected logistically. By definition, disaster-affected communities in these areas are likely to be more vulnerable than others in urban areas. In addition, the airspaces in these disconnected regions are not complex airspaces and thus present fewer challenges around safety and coordination, for example.

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UAVs were ready to go following the mudslides in Oso, Washington back in March of this year. The UAVs were going to be used to look for survivors but the birds were not allowed to fly. The decision to ground UAVs and bar them from supporting relief and rescue efforts will become increasingly untenable when lives are at stake. I genuinely applaud the principle of proportionality applied by the EU and respective RPAS Associations vis-a-vis risks and regulations, but there is one very important variable missing in the proportionality equation: social benefit. Indeed, the cost benefit calculus of UAV risk & regulation in the context of humanitarian use must include the expected benefit of lives saved and suffering alleviated. Let me repeat this to make sure I’m crystal clear: risks must be weighed against potential lives saved.

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At the end of the day, the humanitarian context is different from precision agriculture or other commercial applications of UAVs such as film making. The latter have no relation to the Humanitarian Imperative. Having over-regulation stand in the way of humanitarian principles will simply become untenable. At the same time, the principle of Do No Harm must absolutely be upheld, which is why it features prominently in the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct. In sum, like the Do No Harm principle, the cost benefit analysis of proportionality must include potential or expected benefits as part of the calculus.

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To conclude, a new (forthcoming) policy brief by the UN (OCHA) publicly calls on humanitarian organizations to support initiatives like the Humanitarian UAV Network. This is an important, public endorsement of our work thus far. But we also need support from non-humanitarian organizations like those you represent in this room. For example, we need clarity on existing legislation. Our partners like the UN need to have access to the latest laws by country to inform their use of UAVs following major disasters. We really need your help on this; and we also need your help in identifying which UAVs and related technologies are likely to be a good fit for humanitarians in the field. So if you have some ideas, then please find me during the break, I’d really like to speak with you, thank you!

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See Also:

  • Crisis Map of UAV/Aerial Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • How UAVs are Making a Difference in Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians Using UAVs for Post Disaster Recovery [link]
  • Grassroots UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Using UAVs for Search & Rescue [link]
  • Debrief: UAV/Drone Search & Rescue Challenge [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Analysis of UAV Imagery for Search/Rescue [link]
  • Check-List for Flying UAVs in Humanitarian Settings [link]

Picture Credits:

  • Danoffice IT; Drone Adventures, SkyEye, JRC

 

Video: Humanitarian Response in 2025

I gave a talk on “The future of Humanitarian Response” at UN OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Policy Forum (#aid2025) in New York yesterday. More here for context. A similar version of the talk is available in the video presentation below.

Some of the discussions that ensued during the Forum were frustrating albeit an important reality check. Some policy makers still think that disaster response is about them and their international humanitarian organizations. They are still under the impression that aid does not arrive until they arrive. And yet, empirical research in the disaster literature points to the fact that the vast majority of survivals during disasters is the result of local agency, not external intervention.

In my talk (and video above), I note that local communities will increasingly become tech-enabled first responders, thus taking pressure off the international humanitarian system. These tech savvy local communities already exit. And they already respond to both “natural” (and manmade) disasters as noted in my talk vis-a-vis the information products produced by tech-savvy local Filipino groups. So my point about the rise of tech-enabled self-help was a more diplomatic way of conveying to traditional humanitarian groups that humanitarian response in 2025 will continue to happen with or without them; and perhaps increasingly without them.

This explains why I see OCHA’s Information Management (IM) Team increasingly taking on the role of “Information DJ”, mixing both formal and informal data sources for the purposes of both formal and informal humanitarian response. But OCHA will certainly not be the only DJ in town nor will they be invited to play at all “info events”. So the earlier they learn how to create relevant info mixes, the more likely they’ll still be DJ’ing in 2025.

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MicroMappers Launched for Pakistan Earthquake Response (Updated)

Update 1: MicroMappers is now public! Anyone can join to help the efforts!
Update 2: Results of MicroMappers Response to Pakistan Earthquake [Link]

MicroMappers was not due to launch until next month but my team and I at QCRI received a time-sensitive request by colleagues at the UN to carry out an early test of the platform given yesterday’s 7.7 magnitude earthquake, which killed well over 300 and injured hundreds more in south-western Pakistan.

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Shortly after this request, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Pakistan officially activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to rapidly assess the damage and needs resulting from the earthquake. The award-winning Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a founding member of the DHN. teamed up with QCRI to use MicroMappers in response to the request by OCHA-Pakistan. This exercise, however, is purely for testing purposes only. We made this clear to our UN partners since the results may be far from optimal.

MicroMappers is simply a collection of microtasking apps (we call them Clickers) that we have customized for disaster response purposes. We just launched both the Tweet and Image Clickers to support the earthquake relief and may also launch the Tweet and Image GeoClickers as well in the next 24 hours. The TweetClicker is pictured below (click to enlarge).

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Thanks to our partnership with GNIP, QCRI automatically collected over 35,000 tweets related to Pakistan and the Earthquake (we’re continuing to collect more in real-time). We’ve uploaded these tweets to the TweetClicker and are also filtering links to images for upload to the ImageClicker. Depending on how the initial testing goes, we may be able to invite help from the global digital village. Indeed, “crowdsourcing” is simply another way of saying “It takes a village…” In fact, that’s precisely why MicroMappers was developed, to enable anyone with an Internet connection to become a digital humanitarian volunteer. The Clicker for images is displayed below (click to enlarge).

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Now, whether this very first test of the Clickers goes well remains to be seen. As mentioned, we weren’t planning to launch until next month. But we’ve already learned heaps from the past few hours alone. For example, while the Clickers are indeed ready and operational, our automatic pre-processing filters are not yet optimized for rapid response. The purpose of these filters is to automatically identify tweets that link to images and videos so that they can be uploaded to the Clickers directly. In addition, while our ImageClicker is operational, our VideoClicker is still under development—as is our TranslateClicker, both of which would have been useful in this response. I’m sure will encounter other issues over the next 24-36 hours. We’re keeping track of these in a shared Google Spreadsheet so we can review them next week and make sure to integrate as much of the feedback as possible before the next disaster strikes.

Incidentally, we (QCRI) also teamed up with the SBTF to test the very first version of the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform for about six hours. As far as we know, this test represents the first time that machine learning classifiers for disaster resposne were created on the fly using crowdsourcing. We expect to launch AIDR publicly at the 2013 CrisisMappers conference this November (ICCM 2013). We’ll be sure to share what worked and didn’t work during this first AIDR pilot test. So stay tuned for future updates via iRevolution. In the meantime, a big, big thanks to the SBTF Team for rallying so quickly and for agreeing to test the platforms! If you’re interested in becoming a digital humanitarian volunteer, simply join us here.

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The First Ever Spam Filter for Disaster Response

While spam filters provide additional layers of security to websites, they can also be used to process all kinds of information. Perhaps most famously, for example, the reCAPTCHA spam filter was used to transcribe the New York Times’ entire paper-based archives. See my previous blog post to learn how this was done and how spam filters can also be used to process information for disaster response. Given the positive response I received from humanitarian colleagues who read the blog post, I teamed up with my colleagues at QCRI to create the first ever spam filter for disaster response.

During international disasters, the humanitarian community (often lead by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA) needs to carry out rapid damage assessments. Recently, these assessments have included the analysis of pictures shared on social media following a disaster. For example, OCHA activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to collect and quickly tag pictures that capture evidence of damage in response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines (as described here and TEDx talk above). Some of these pictures, which were found on Twitter, were also geo-referenced by DHN volunteers. This enabled OCHA to create (over night) the unique damage assessment map below.

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OCHA intends to activate the DHN again in future disasters to replicate this type of rapid damage assessment operation. This is where spam filters come in. The DHN often needs support to quickly tag these pictures (which may number in the tens of thousands). Adding a spam filter that requires email users to tag which image captures disaster damage not only helps OCHA and other organizations carry out a rapid damage assessment, but also increases the security of email systems at the same time. And it only takes 3 seconds to use the spam filter.

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My team and I at QCRI have thus developed a spam filter plugin that can be easily added to email login pages like OCHA’s as shown above. When the Digital Humanitarian Network requires additional hands on deck to tag pictures during disasters, this plugin can simply be switched on. My team at QCRI can easily push the images to the plugin and pull data on which images have been tagged as showing disaster damage. The process for the end user couldn’t be simpler. Enter your username and password as normal and then simply select the picture below that shows disaster damage. If there are none, then simply click on “None” and then “Login”. The spam filter uses a predictive algorithm and an existing data-base of pictures as a control mechanism to ensure that the filter cannot be gamed. On that note, feel free to test the plugin here. We’d love your feedback as we continue testing.

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The desired outcome? Each potential disaster picture is displayed to 3 different email account users. Only if each of the 3 users tag the same picture as capturing disaster damage does that picture get automatically forwarded to members of the Digital Humanitarian Network. To tag more pictures after logging in, users are invited to do so via MicroMappers, which launches this September in partnership with OCHA. MicroMappers enables members of the public to participate in digital disaster response efforts with a simple click of the mouse.

I would ideally like to see an innovative and forward-thinking organization like OCHA pilot the plugin for a two week feasibility test. If the results are positive and promising, then I hope OCHA and other UN agencies engaged in disaster response adopt the plugin more broadly. As mentioned in my previous blog post, the UN employs well over 40,000 people around the world. Even if “only” 10% login in one day, that’s still 4,000 images effortlessly tagged for use by OCHA and others during their disaster relief operations. Again, this plugin would only be used in response to major disasters when the most help is needed. We’ll be making the code for this plugin freely available and open source.

Please do get in touch if you’d like to invite your organization to participate in this innovative humanitarian technology project. You can support disaster response efforts around the world by simply logging into your email account, web portal, or Intranet!

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TEDx: Microtasking for Disaster Response

My TEDx talk on Digital Humanitarians presented at TEDxTraverseCity. I’ve automatically forwarded the above video to a short 4 minute section of the talk in which I highlight how the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) used micro-tasking to support the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines. See this blog post to learn more about the operation. As a result of this innovative use of micro-tasking, my team and I at QCRI are collaborating with UN OCHA colleagues to launch MicroMappers—a dedicated set of microtasking apps specifically designed for disaster response. These will go live in September 2013.


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Humanitarianism in the Network Age: Groundbreaking Study

My colleagues at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have just published a groundbreaking must-read study on Humanitarianism in the Network Age; an important and forward-thinking policy document on humanitarian technology and innovation. The report “imagines how a world of increasingly informed, connected and self-reliant communities will affect the delivery of humanitarian aid. Its conclusions suggest a fundamental shift in power from capital and headquarters to the people [that] aid agencies aim to assist.” The latter is an unsettling prospect for many. To be sure, Humanitarianism in the Network Age calls for “more diverse and bottom-up forms of decision-making—something that most Governments and humanitarian organizations were not designed for. Systems constructed to move information up and down hierarchies are facing a new reality where information can be generated by any-one, shared with anyone and acted by anyone.”

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The purpose of this blog post (available as a PDF) is to summarize the 120-page OCHA study. In this summary, I specifically highlight the most important insights and profound implications. I also fill what I believe are some of the report’s most important gaps. I strongly recommend reading the OCHA publication in full, but if you don’t have time to leaf through the study, reading this summary will ensure that you don’t miss a beat. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes and figures below are taken directly from the OCHA report.

All in all, this is an outstanding, accurate, radical and impressively cross-disciplinary study. In fact, what strikes me most about this report is how far we’ve come since the devastating Haiti Earthquake of 2010. Just three short years ago, speaking the word “crowdsourcing” was blasphemous, like “Voldermort” (for all you Harry Potter fans). This explains why some humanitarians called me the CrowdSorcerer at the time (thinking it was a derogatory term). CrisisMappers was only launched three months before Haiti. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) didn’t even exist at the time and the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) was to be launched 2 years hence. And here we are, just three short years later, with this official, high-profile humanitarian policy document that promotes crowdsourcing, digital humanitarian response and next generation humanitarian technology. Exciting times. While great challenges remain, I dare say we’re trying our darned best to find some solutions, and this time through collaboration, CrowdSorcerers and all. The OCHA report is a testament to this collaboration.

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Summary

the Rise of big (crisis) data

Over 100 countries have more mobile phone subscriptions than they have people. One in four individuals in developing countries use the Internet. This figure will double within 20 months. About 70% of Africa’s total population are mobile subscribers. In short, “The planet has gone online, producing and sharing vast quantities of information.” Meanwhile, however, hundreds of millions of people are affected by disasters every year—more than 250 million in 2010 alone. There have been over 1 billion new mobile phone subscriptions since 2010. In other words, disaster affected communities are becoming increasingly “digital” as a result of the information revolution. These new digital technologies continue are evolving new nervous system for our planet, taking the pulse of our social, economic and political networks in real-time.

“Filipinos sent an average of 2 billion SMS messages every day in early 2012,” for example. When disaster strikes, many of these messages are likely to relay crisis information. In Japan, over half-a-million new users joined Twitter the day after the 2011 Earthquake. More than 177 million tweets about the disaster were posted that same day—that is, 2,000 tweets per second on average. Welcome to “The Rise of Big (Crisis) Data.” Meanwhile, back in the US, 80% of the American public expects emergency responders to monitor social media; and almost as many expect them to respond within three hours of posting a request on social media (1). These expectations have been shown to increase year-on year. “At the same time,” however, the OCHA report notes that “there are greater numbers of people […] who are willing and able to respond to needs.”

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A few brave humanitarian organizations are embracing these changes and new realities, “reorienting their approaches around the essential objectives of helping people to help themselves.” That said, “the frontline of humanitarian action has always consisted of communities helping themselves before outside aid arrives.” What is new, however, is “affected people using technology to communicate, interact with and mobilize their social networks quicker than ever before […].” To this end, “by rethinking how aid agencies work and communicate with people in crisis, there is a chance that many more lives can be saved.” In sum, “the increased reach of communications networks and the growing network of people willing and able to help, are defining a new age—a network age—for humanitarian assistance.”

This stands in stark contrast to traditional notions of humanitarian assistance, which refer to “a small group of established international organizations, often based in and funded by high-income countries, providing help to people in a major crisis. This view is now out of date.” As my colleague Tim McNamara noted on the CrisisMappers list-serve, (cited in the OCHA report), this is “…not simply a technological shift [but] 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 they can do which benefits others.” In other words, the humanitarian “world order” is shifting towards a more multipolar system. And so, while Tim was “referring to the specific case of volunteer crisis mappers […], the point holds true across all types of humanitarian work.”

Take the case of Somalia Speaks, for example. A journalist recently asked me to list the projects I am most proud of in this field. Somalia Speaks ranks very high. I originally pitched the idea to my Al-Jazeera colleagues back in September 2011; the project was launched three months later. Together with my colleagues at Souktelwe texted 5,000 Somalis across the country to ask how were personally affected by the crisis.

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As the OCHA study notes, we received over 3,000 responses, which were translated into English and geotagged by the Diaspora and subsequently added to a crisis map hosted on the Al-Jazeera website. From the OCHA report: “effective communication can also be seen as an end itself in promoting human dignity. More than 3,000 Somalis responded to the Somalia Speaks project, and they seemed to feel that speaking out was a worthwhile activity.” In sum, “The Somalia Speaks project enabled the voices of people from one of the world’s most inaccessible, conflict-ridden areas, in a language known to few outside their community, to be heard by decision makers from across the planet.” The project has since been replicated several times; see Uganda Speaks for example. The OCHA study refers to Somalia Speaks at least four times, highlighting the project as an example of networked humanitarianism.

PRIVACY, SECURITY & PROTECTION

The report also emphasizes the critical importance of data security, privacy and protection in the network age. OCHA’s honest and balanced approach to the topic is another reason why this report is so radical and forward thinking. “Concern over the protection of information and data is not a sufficient reason to avoid using new communications technologies in emergencies, but it must be taken into account. To adapt to increased ethical risks, humanitarian responders and partners need explicit guidelines and codes of conduct for managing new data sources.” This is precisely why I worked with GSMA’s Disaster Response Program to draft and publish the first ever Code of Conduct for the Use of SMS in Disaster Response. I have also provided extensive feedback to the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) latest edition of the “Professional Standards for Protection Work,” which was just launched in Geneva this month. My colleagues Emmanuel Letouzé and Patrick Vinck also included a section on data security and ethics in our recent publication on the use of Big Data for Conflict Prevention. In addition, I have blogged about this topic quite a bit: herehere and here, for example.

crisis in decision making

“As the 2010 Haiti crisis revealed, the usefulness of new forms of information gathering is limited by the awareness of responders that new data sources exist, and their applicability to existing systems of humanitarian decision-making.” The fact of the matter is that humanitarian decision-making structures are simply not geared towards using Big Crisis Data let alone new data sources. More pointedly, however, humanitarian decision-making processes are often not based on empirical data in the first place, even when the data originate from traditional sources. As DfID notes in this 2012 strategy document, “Even when good data is available, it is not always used to inform decisions. There are a number of reasons for this, including data not being available in the right format, not widely dispersed, not easily accessible by users, not being transmitted through training and poor information management. Also, data may arrive too late to be able to influence decision-making in real time operations or may not be valued by actors who are more focused on immediate action.”

This is the classic warning-response gap, which has been discussed ad nauseum for decades in the field of famine early warning systems and conflict early warning systems. More data in no way implies action. Take the 2011 Somalia Famine, which was one of the best documented crises yet. So the famine didn’t occur because data was lacking. “Would more data have driven a better decision making process that could have averted disaster? Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. There had, in fact, been eleven months of escalating warnings emanating from the famine early warning systems that monitor Somalia. Somalia was, at the time, one of the most frequently surveyed countries in the world, with detailed data available on malnutrition prevalence, mortality rates, and many other indicators. The evolution of the famine was reported in almost real time, yet there was no adequate scaling up of humanitarian intervention until too late” (2).

At other times, “Information is sporadic,” which is why OCHA notes that “decisions can be made on the basis of anecdote rather than fact.” Indeed, “Media reports can significantly influence allocations, often more than directly transmitted community statements of need, because they are more widely read or better trusted.” (It is worth keeping in mind that the media makes mistakes; the New York Times alone makes over 7,000 errors every year). Furthermore, as acknowledged, by OCHA, “The evidence suggests that new information sources are no less representative or reliable than more traditional sources, which are also imperfect in crisis settings.” This is one of the most radical statements in the entire report. OCHA should be applauded for their remarkable fortitude in plunging into this rapidly shifting information landscape. Indeed, they go on to state that, “Crowdsourcing has been used to validate information, map events, translate text and integrate data useful to humanitarian decision makers.”

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The vast major of disaster datasets are not perfect, regardless of whether they are drawn from traditional or non-traditional sources. “So instead of criticizing the lack of 100% data accuracy, we need to use it as a base and ensure our Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) and community engagement pieces are strong enough to keep our programming relevant” (Bartosiak 2013). And so, perhaps the biggest impact of new technologies and recent disasters on the humanitarian sector is the self disrobing of the Emperor’s Clothes (or Data). “Analyses of emergency response during the past five years reveal that poor information management has severely hampered effective action, costing many lives.” Disasters increasingly serve as brutal audits of traditional humanitarian organizations; and the cracks are increasingly difficult to hide in an always-on social media world. The OCHA study makes clear that  decision-makers need to figure out “how to incorporate these sources into decisions.”

Fact is, “To exploit the opportunity of the network age, humanitarians must understand how to use the new range of available data sources and have the capacity to transform this data into useful information.” Furthermore, it is imperative “to ensure new partners have a better understanding of how [these] decisions are made and what information is useful to improve humanitarian action.” These new partners include the members of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), for example. Finally, decision-makers also need to “invest in building analytic capacity across the entire humanitarian network.” This analytic capacity can no longer rest on manual solutions alone. The private sector already makes use of advanced computing platforms for decision-making purposes. The humanitarian industry would be well served to recognize that their problems are hardly unique. Of course, investing in greater analytic capacity is an obvious solution but many organizations are already dealing with limited budgets and facing serious capacity constraints. I provide some creative solutions to this challenge below, which I refer to as “Data Science Philanthropy“.

Commentary

Near Perfection

OCHA’s report is brilliant, honest and forward thinking. This is by far the most important official policy document yet on humanitarian technology and digital humanitarian response—and thus on the very future of humanitarian action. The study should be required reading for everyone in the humanitarian and technology communities, which is why I plan to organize a panel on the report at CrisisMappers 2013 and will refer to the strategy document in all of my forthcoming talks and many a future blog post. In the meantime, I would like to highlight and address a some of the issues that I feel need to be discussed to take this discussion further.

Ironically, some of these gaps appear to reflect a rather limited understanding of advanced computing & next generation humanitarian technology. The following topics, for example, are missing from the OCHA report: Microtasking, Sentiment Analysis and Information Forensics. In addition, the report does not relate OCHA’s important work to disaster resilience and people-centered early warning. So I’m planning to expand on the OCHA report in the technology chapter for this year’s World Disaster Report (WDR 2013). This high-profile policy document is an ideal opportunity to amplify OCHA’s radical insights and to take these to their natural and logical conclusions vis-à-vis Big (Crisis) Data. To be clear, and I must repeat this, the OCHA report is the most important forward thinking policy document yet on the future of humanitarian response. The gaps I seek to fill in no way make the previous statement any less valid. The team at OCHA should be applauded, recognized and thanked for their tremendous work on this report. So despite some of the key shortcomings described below, this policy document is by far the most honest, enlightened and refreshing look at the state of the humanitarian response today; a grounded and well-researched study that provides hope, leadership and a clear vision for the future of humanitarianism in the network age.

BIG DATA HOW

OCHA recognizes that “there is a significant opportunity to use big data to save lives,” and they also get that, “finding ways to make big data useful to humanitarian decision makers is one of the great challenges, and opportunities, of the network age.” Moreover, they realize that “While valuable information can be generated anywhere, detecting the value of a given piece of data requires analysis and understanding.” So they warn, quite rightly, that “the search for more data can obscure the need for more analysis.” To this end, they correctly conclude that “identifying the best uses of crowdsourcing and how to blend automated and crowdsourced approaches is a critical area for study.” But the report does not take these insights to their natural and logical conclusions. Nor does the report explore how to tap these new data sources let alone analyze them in real time.

Yet these Big Data challenges are hardly unique. Our problems in the humanitarian space are not that “special” or  different. OCHA rightly notes that “Understanding which bits of information are valuable to saving lives is a challenge when faced with this ocean of data.” Yes. But such challenges have been around for over a decade in other disciplines. The field of digital disease detection, for example, is years ahead when it comes to real-time analysis of crowdsourced big data, not to mention private sector companies, research institutes and even new startups whose expertise is Big Data Analytics. I can also speak to this from my own professsional experience. About a decade ago, I worked with a company specializing in conflict forecasting and early using Reuters news data (Big Data).

In sum, the OCHA report should have highlighted the fact that solutions to many of these Big Data challenges already exist, which is precisely why I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI). What’s more, a number of humanitarian technology projects at QCRI are already developing prototypes based on these solutions; and OCHA is actually the main partner in one such project, so it is a shame they did not get credit for this in their own report.

sentiment analysis

While I introduced the use of sentiment analysis during the Haiti Earthquake, this has yet to be replicated in other humanitarian settings. Why is sentiment analysis key to humanitarianism in the network age? The answer is simple: “Communities know best what works for them; external actors need to listen and model their response accordingly.” Indeed, “Affected people’s needs must be the starting point.” Actively listening to millions of voices is a Big Data challenge that has already been solved by the private sector. One such solution is real-time sentiment analysis to capture brand perception. This is a rapidly growing multimillion dollar market, which is why many companies like Crimson Hexagon exist. Numerous Top 500 Fortune companies have been actively using automated sentiment analysis for years now. Why? Because these advanced listening solutions enable them to better understand customer perceptions.

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In Haiti, I applied this approach to tens of thousands of text messages sent by the disaster-affected population. It allowed us to track the general mood of this population on a daily basis. This is important because sentiment analysis as a feedback loop works particularly well with Big Data, which explains why the private sector is all over it. If just one or two individuals in a community are displeased with service delivery during a disaster, they may simply be “an outlier”  or perhaps exaggerating. But if the sentiment analysis at the community level suddenly starts to dip, then this means hundreds, perhaps thousands of affected individuals are now all feeling the same way about a situation. In other words, sentiment analysis serves as a triangulating mechanism. The fact that the OCHA report makes no mention of this existing solution is unfortunate since sentiment feedback loops enable organizations to assess the impact of their interventions by capturing their clients’ perceptions.

Information forensics

“When dealing with the vast volume and complexity of information available in the network age, understanding how to assess the accuracy and utility of any data source becomes critical.” Indeed, and the BBC’s User-Generated Content (UGC) Hub has been doing just this since 2005—when Twitter didn’t even exist. The field of digital information forensics may be new to the humanitarian sector, but that doesn’t mean it is new to every other sector on the planet. Furthermore, recent research on crisis computing has revealed that the credibility of social media reporting can be modeled and even predicted. Twitter has even been called a “Truth Machine” because of the self-correcting dynamic that has been empirically observed. Finally, one of QCRI’s humanitarian technology projects, Verily, focuses precisely on the issue of verifying crowdsourced social media information from social media. And the first organization I reached out to for feedback on this project was OCHA.

microtasking

The OCHA report overlooks microtasking as well. Yes, the study does address and promote the use of crowdsourcing repeatedly, but again, this  tends to focus on the collection of information rather than the processing of said information. Microtasking applications in the humanitarian space are not totally unheard of, however. Microtasking was used to translate and geolocate tens of thousands of text messages following the Haiti Earthquake. (As the OCHA study notes, “some experts estimated that 90 per cent [of the SMS's] were ‘repetition’, or ‘white noise’, meaning useless chatter”). There have been several other high profile uses of microtasking for humanitarian operations such as this one thanks to OCHA’s leadership in response to Typhoon Pablo. In sum, microtasking has been used extensively in other sectors to manage the big data and quality control challenge for many years now. So this important human computing solution really ought to have appeared in the OCHA report along with the immense potential of microtasking humanitarian information using massive online multiplayer games (more here).

Open Data is Open Power

OCHA argues that “while information can be used by anyone, power remains concentrated in the hands of a limited number of decision makers.” So if the latter “do not use this information to make decisions in the interests of the people they serve, its value is lost.” I don’t agree that the value is lost. One of the reports’ main themes is the high-impact agency and ingenuity of disaster-affected communities. As OCHA rightly points out, “The terrain is continually shifting, and people are finding new and brilliant ways to cope with crises every day.” Openly accessible crisis information posted on social media has already been used by affected populations for almost a decade now. In other words, communities affected by crises are (quite rightly) taking matters into their own hands in today’s networked world—just like they did in the analog era of yesteryear. As noted earlier, “affected people [are] using technology to communicate, interact with and mobilize their social networks quicker than ever before […].” This explains why “the failure to share [information] is no longer a matter of institutional recalcitrance: it can cost lives.”

creative partnerships

The OCHA study emphasizes that “Humanitarian agencies can learn from other agencies, such as fire departments or militaries, on how to effectively respond to large amounts of often confusing information during a fast-moving crisis.” This is spot on. Situational awareness is first and foremost a military term. The latest Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) provides important insights into the future of humanitarian technology—see these recent developments, for example. Mean-while, the London Fire Brigade has announced plans to add Twitter as a communication channel, which means city residents will have the option of reporting a fire alert via Twitter. Moreover, the 911 service in the US (999 in the UK) is quite possibly the oldest and longest running crowdsourced emergency service in the world. So there much that humanitarian can learn from 911. But the fact of the matter is that most domestic emergency response agencies are completely unprepared to deal with the tidal wave of Big (Crisis) Data, which is precisely why the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) and San Francisco City’s Emergency Response Team have recently reached out to me.

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But some fields are way ahead of the curve. The OCHA report should thus have pointed to crime mapping and digital disease detection since these fields have more effectively navigated the big data challenge. As for the American Red Cross’s Digital Operations Center, the main technology they are using, Radian6, has been used by private sector clients for years now. And while the latter can afford the very expensive licensing fees, it is unlikely that cash-strapped domestic emergency response officers and international humanitarian organizations will ever be able to afford these advanced solutions. This is why we need more than just “Data Philanthropy“.

We also need “Data Science Philanthropy“. As the OCHA report states, decision-makers need to “invest in building analytic capacity across the entire humanitarian network.” This is an obvious recommendation, but perhaps not particularly realistic given the limited budgets and capacity constraints in the humanitarian space. This means we need to create more partnerships with Data Science groups like DataKind, Kaggle and the University of Chicago’s Data Science for Social Good program. I’m in touch with these groups and others for this reason. I’ve also been (quietly) building a global academic network called “Data Science for Humanitarian Action” which will launch very soon. Open Source solutions are also imperative for building analytic capacity, which is why the humanitarian technology platforms being developed by QCRI will all be Open Source and freely available.

DISASTER RESILIENCE

This points to the following gap in the OCHA report: there is no reference whatsoever to resilience. While the study does recognize that collective self-help behavior is typical in disaster response and should be amplified, the report does not make the connection that this age-old mutual-aid dynamic is the humanitarian sector’s own lifeline during a major disaster. Resilience has to do with a community’s capacity for self-organization. Communication technologies increasingly play a pivotal role in self-organization. This explains why disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction programs ought to place greater emphasis on building the capacity of at-risk communities to self-organize and mitigate the impact of disasters on their livelihoods. More about this here. Creating resilience through big data is also more academic curiosity, as explained here.

DECENTRALIZING RESPONSE

As more and more disaster-affected communities turn to social media in time of need, “Governments and responders will soon need answers to the questions: ‘Where were you? We Facebooked/tweeted/texted for help, why didn’t someone come?'” Again, customer support challenges are hardly unique to the humanitarian sector. Private sector companies have had to manage parallel problems by developing more advanced customer service platforms. Some have even turned to crowdsourcing to manage customer support. I blogged about this here to drive the point home that solutions to these humanitarian challenges already exist in other sectors.

Yes, that’s right, I am promoting the idea of crowdsourcing crisis response. Fact is, disaster response has always been crowdsourced. The real first responders are the disaster affected communities themselves. Thanks to new technologies, this crowdsourced response can be accelerated and made more efficient. And yes, there’s an app (in the making) for that: MatchApp. This too is a QCRI humanitarian technology project (in partnership with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab). The purpose of MatchApp is to decentralize disaster response. After all, the many small needs that arise following a disaster rarely require the attention of paid and experienced emergency responders. Furthermore, as a colleague of mine at NYU shared based on her disaster efforts following Hurricane Sandy, “Solving little challenges can make the biggest differences” for disaster-affected communities.

As noted above, more and more individuals believe that emergency responders should monitor social media during disasters and respond accordingly. This is “likely to increase the pressure on humanitarian responders to define what they can and cannot provide. The extent of communities’ desires may exceed their immediate life-saving needs, raising expectations beyond those that humanitarian responders can meet. This can have dangerous consequences. Expectation management has always been important; it will become more so in the network age.”

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PEOPLE-CENTERED

“Community early warning systems (CEWS) can buy time for people to implement plans and reach safety during a crisis. The best CEWS link to external sources of assistance and include the pre-positioning of essential supplies.” At the same time, “communities do not need to wait for information to come from outside sources, […] they can monitor local hazards and vulnerabilities themselves and then shape the response.” This sense and shaping capacity builds resilience, which explains why “international humanitarian organizations must embrace the shift of warning systems to the community level, and help Governments and communities to prepare for, react and respond to emergencies using their own resources and networks.”

This is absolutely spot on and at least 7 years old as far as  UN policy goes. In 2006, the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) published this policy document advocating for a people-centered approach to early warning and response systems. They defined the purpose of such as systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

Unfortunately, the OCHA report does not drive these insights to their logical conclusion. Disaster-affected communities are even more ill-equipped to manage the rise of Big (Crisis) Data. Storing, let alone analyzing Big Data Analytics in real-time, is a major technical challenge. As noted here vis-à-vis Big Data Analytics on Twitter, “only corporate actors and regulators—who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race—can afford to participate […].” Indeed, only a handful of research institutes have the technical ability and large funding base carry out the real-time analysis of Big (Crisis) Data. My team and I at QCRI, along with colleagues at UN Global Pulse and GSMA are trying to change this. In the meantime, however, the “Big Data Divide” is already here and very real.

information > Food

“Information is not water, food or shelter; on its own, it will not save lives. But in the list of priorities, it must come shortly after these.” While I understand the logic behind this assertion, I consider it a step back, not forward from the 2005 World Disaster Report (WDR 2005), which states that “People need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources.” In fact, OCHA’s assertion contradicts an earlier statement in the report; namely that “information in itself is a life-saving need for people in crisis. It is as important as water, food and shelter.” Fact is: without information, how does one know where/when and from whom clean water and food might be available? How does one know which shelters are open, whether they can accommodate your family and whether the road to the shelter is safe to drive on?

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OCHA writes that, “Easy access to data and analysis, through technology, can help people make better life-saving decisions for themselves and mobilize the right types of external support. This can be as simple as ensuring that people know where to go and how to get help. But to do so effectively requires a clear understanding of how information flows locally and how people make decisions.” In sum, access to information is paramount, which means that local communities should have easy access to next generation humanitarian technologies that can manage and analyze Big Crisis Data. As a seasoned humanitarian colleague recently told me, “humanitarians sometimes have a misconception that all aid and relief comes through agencies.  In fact, (especially with things such a shelter) people start to recover on their own or within their communities. Thus, information is vital in assuring that they do this safely and properly.  Think of the Haiti, build-back-better campaign and the issues with cholera outbreaks.”

Them not us

The technologies of the network age should not be restricted to empowering second- and third-level responders. Unfortunately, as OCHA rightly observes, “there is still a tendency for people removed from a crisis to decide what is best for the people living through that crisis.” Moreover, these paid responders cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the crowd is always there. And as OCHA points out, there are “growing groups of people willing able to help those in need;” groups that unlike their analog counterparts of yesteryear now operate in the “network age with its increased reach of communications networks.” So information is not simply or “primarily a tool for agencies to decide how to help people, it must be understood as a product, or service, to help affected communities determine their own priorities.” Recall the above definition of people-centered early warning. This definition does not all of a sudden become obsolete in the network age. The purpose of next generation technologies is to “empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

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Digital humanitarian volunteers are also highly unprepared to deal with the rise of Big Crisis Data, even though they are at the frontlines and indeed the pioneers of digital response. This explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a network of digital volunteers that OCHA refers to half-a-dozen times throughout the report, are actively looking to becoming early adopters of next generation humanitarian technologies. Burn out is a serious issue with digital volunteers. They too require access to these next generation technologies, which is precisely why the American Red Cross equips their digital volunteers with advanced computing platforms as part of their Digital Operations Center. Unfortunately, some humanitarians still think that they can just as easily throw more (virtual) volunteers at the Big Crisis Data challenge. Not only are they terribly misguided but also insensitive, which is why, As OCHA notes, “Using new forms of data may also require empowering technical experts to overrule the decisions of their less informed superiors.” As the OCHA study concludes, “Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool, but ensuring that scarce volunteer and technical resources are properly deployed will take further research and the expansion of collaborative models, such as SBTF.”

Conclusion

So will next generation humanitarian technology solve everything? Of course not, I don’t know anyone naïve enough to make this kind of claim. (But it is a common tactic used by the ignorant to attack humanitarian innovation). I have already warned about techno-centric tendencies in the past, such as here and here (see epilogue). Furthermore, one of the principal findings from this OECD report published in 2008 is that “An external, interventionist, and state-centric approach in early warning fuels disjointed and top down responses in situations that require integrated and multilevel action.” You can throw all the advanced computing technology you want at this dysfunctional structural problem but it won’t solve a thing. The OECD thus advocates for “micro-level” responses to crises because “these kinds of responses save lives.” Preparedness is obviously central to these micro-level responses and self-organization strategies. Shockingly, however, the OCHA study reveals that, “only 3% of humanitarian aid goes to disaster prevention and preparedness,” while barely “1% of all other development assistance goes towards disaster risk reduction.” This is no way to build disaster resilience. I doubt these figures will increase substantially in the near future.

This reality makes it even more pressing to ensure that “responders listen to affected people and find ways to respond to their priorities will require a mindset change.” To be sure, “If aid organizations are willing to listen, learn and encourage innovation on the front lines, they can play a critical role in building a more inclusive and more effective humanitarian system.” This need to listen and learn is why next generation humanitarian technologies are not optional. Ensuring that first, second and third-level responders have access to next generation humanitarian technologies is critical for the purposes of self-help, mutual aid and external response.

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Using CrowdFlower to Microtask Disaster Response

Cross-posted from CrowdFlower blog

A devastating earthquake struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. Two weeks later, on January 27th, a CrowdFlower was used to translate text messages from Haitian Creole to English. Tens of thousands of messages were sent by affected Haitians over the course of several months. All of these were heroically translated by hundreds of dedicated Creole-speaking volunteers based in dozens of countries across the globe. While Ushahidi took the lead by developing the initial translation platform used just days after the earthquake, the translation efforts were eventually rerouted to CrowdFlower. Why? Three simple reasons:

  1. CrowdFlower is one of the leading and most highly robust micro-tasking platforms there is;
  2. CrowdFlower’s leadership is highly committed to supporting digital humanitarian response efforts;
  3. Haitians in Haiti could now be paid for their translation work.

While the CrowdFlower project was launched 15 days after the earthquake, i.e., following the completion of search and rescue operations, every single digital humanitarian effort in Haiti was reactive. The key takeaway here was the proof of concept–namely that large-scale micro-tasking could play an important role in humanitarian information management. This was confirmed months later when devastating floods inundated much of Pakistan. CrowdFlower was once again used to translate incoming messages from the disaster affected population. While still reactive, this second use of CrowdFlower demonstrated replicability.

The most recent and perhaps most powerful use of CrowdFlower for disaster response occurred right after Typhoon Pablo devastated the Philippines in early December 2012. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to rapidly deliver a detailed dataset of geo-tagged pictures and video footage (posted on Twitter) depicting the damage caused by the Typhoon. The UN needed this dataset within 12 hours, which required that 20,000 tweets to be analyzed as quickly as possible. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a member of Digital Huma-nitarians, immediately used CrowdFlower to identify all tweets with links to pictures & video footage. SBTF volunteers subsequently analyzed those pictures and videos for damage and geographic information using other means.

This was the most rapid use of CrowdFlower following a disaster. In fact, this use of CrowdFlower was pioneering in many respects. This was the first time that a member of the Digital Humanitarian Network made use of CrowdFlower (and thus micro-tasking) for disaster response. It was also the first time that Crowd-Flower’s existing workforce was used for disaster response. In addition, this was the first time that data processed by CrowdFlower contributed to an official crisis map produced by the UN for disaster response (see above).

These three use-cases, Haiti, Pakistan and the Philippines, clearly demonstrate the added value of micro-tasking (and hence CrowdFlower) for disaster response. If CrowdFlower had not been available in Haiti, the alternative would have been to pay a handful of professional translators. The total price could have come to some $10,000 for 50,000 text messages (at 0.20 cents per word). Thanks to CrowdFlower, Haitians in Haiti were given the chance to make some of that money by translating the text messages themselves. Income generation programs are absolutely critical to rapid recovery following major disasters. In Pakistan, the use of CrowdFlower enabled Pakistani students and the Diaspora to volunteer their time and thus accelerate the translation work for free. Following Typhoon Pablo, paid CrowdFlower workers from the Philippines, India and Australia categorized several thousand tweets in just a couple hours while the volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force geo-tagged the results. Had CrowdFlower not been available then, it is highly, highly unlikely that the mission would have succeeded given the very short turn-around required by the UN.

While impressive, the above use-cases were also reactive. We need to be a lot more pro-active, which is why I’m excited to be collaborating with CrowdFlower colleagues to customize a standby platform for use by the Digital Humanitarian Network. Having a platform ready-to-go within minutes is key. And while digital volunteers will be able to use this standby platform, I strongly believe that paid CrowdFlower workers also have a key role to play in the digital huma-nitarian ecosystem. Indeed, CrowdFlower’s large, multinational and multi-lingual global workforce is simply unparalleled and has the distinct advantage of being very well versed in the CrowdFlower platform.

In sum, it is high time that the digital humanitarian space move from crowd-sourcing to micro-tasking. It has been three years since the tragic earthquake in Haiti but we have yet to adopt micro-tasking more widely. CrowdFlower should thus play a key role in promoting and enabling this important shift. Their con-tinued important leadership in digital humanitarian response should also serve as a model for other private sector companies in the US and across the globe.

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How the UN Used Social Media in Response to Typhoon Pablo (Updated)

Our mission as digital humanitarians was to deliver a detailed dataset of pictures and videos (posted on Twitter) which depict damage and flooding following the Typhoon. An overview of this digital response is available here. The task of our United Nations colleagues at the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was to rapidly consolidate and analyze our data to compile a customized Situation Report for OCHA’s team in the Philippines. The maps, charts and figures below are taken from this official report (click to enlarge).

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This map is the first ever official UN crisis map entirely based on data collected from social media. Note the “Map data sources” at the bottom left of the map: “The Digital Humanitarian Network’s Solution Team: Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) and Humanity Road (HR).” In addition to several UN agencies, the government of the Philippines has also made use of this information.

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The cleaned data was subsequently added to this Google Map and also made public on the official Google Crisis Map of the Philippines.

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One of my main priorities now is to make sure we do a far better job at leveraging advanced computing and microtasking platforms so that we are better prepared the next time we’re asked to repeat this kind of deployment. On the advanced computing side, it should be perfectly feasible to develop an automated way to crawl twitter and identify links to images  and videos. My colleagues at QCRI are already looking into this. As for microtasking, I am collaborating with PyBossa and Crowdflower to ensure that we have highly customizable platforms on stand-by so we can immediately upload the results of QCRI’s algorithms. In sum, we have got to move beyond simple crowdsourcing and adopt more agile micro-tasking and social computing platforms as both are far more scalable.

In the meantime, a big big thanks once again to all our digital volunteers who made this entire effort possible and highly insightful.

Disaster Relief 2.0: Between a Signac and a Picasso

The United Nations Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, OCHA and my “alma matter” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative just launched an important report that seeks to chart the future of disaster response based on critical lessons learned from Haiti. The report, entitled “Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies,” builds on a previous UN/Vodafone Foundation Report co-authored by Diane Coyle and myself just before the Haiti earthquake: “New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflict: The Role of Information and Social Networks.”

The authors of the new study begin with a warning: “this report sounds an alarm bell. If decision makers wish to have access to (near) real-time assessments of complex emergencies, they will need to figure out how to process information flows from many more thousands of individuals than the current system can handle.” In any given crisis, “everyone has a piece of information, everyone has a piece of that picture.” And more want to share their piece of the picture. So part of the new challenge lies in how to collect and combine multiple feeds of information such that the result paints a coherent and clear picture of an evolving crisis situation. What we need is a Signac, not a Picasso.

The former, Paul Signac, is known for using “pointillism,” a technique in which “small, distinct dots of pure color are applied in patterns to form an image.” Think of these dots as data points drawn from diverse pallets but combined to depict an appealing and consistent whole. In contrast, Pablo Picasso’s paintings from his Cubism and Surrealism period often resemble unfinished collages of fragmented objects. A Picasso gives the impression of impossible puzzle pieces in contrast to the single legible harmony of a Signac.

This Picasso effect, or “information fragmentation” as the humanitarian community calls it, was one of the core information management challenges that the humanitarian community faced in Haiti: “the division of data resources and analysis into silos that are difficult to aggregate, fuse, or otherwise reintegrate into composite pictures.” This plagued information management efforts between and within UN clusters, which made absorbing new and alternative sources of information–like crowdsourced SMS reports–even less possible.

These new information sources exist in part thanks to new players in the disaster response field, the so-called Volunteer Technical Communities (VTCs). This shift towards a more multi-polar system of humanitarian response brings both new opportunities and new challenges. One way to overcome “information fragmentation” and create a Signac is for humanitarian organizations and VTCs to work more closely together. Indeed, as “volunteer and technical communities continue to engage with humanitarian crises they will increasingly add to the information overload problem. Unless they can become part of the solution.” This is in large part why we launched the Standby Volunteer Task Force at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010): to avoid information overload by creating a common canvas and style between volunteer crisis mappers and the humanitarian community.

What is perhaps most striking about this new report is the fact that it went to press the same month that two of the largest crisis mapping operations since Haiti were launched, namely the Libya and Japan Crisis Maps. One could already write an entirely new UN/Vodafone Foundation Report on just the past 3 months of crisis mapping operations. The speed with which learning and adaptation is happening in some VTCs is truly astounding. As I noted in this earlier blog post, “Crisis Mapping Libya: This is no Haiti“, we have come a long way since the Haiti response. Indeed, lessons from last year have been identified, they have been learned and operationally applied by VTCs like the Task Force. The fact that OCHA formally requested activation of the Task Force to provide a live crisis map of Libya just months after the Task Force was launched is a clear indication that we are on the right track. This is no Picasso.

Referring to lessons learned in Haiti will continue to be important, but as my colleague Nigel Snoad has noted, Haiti represents an outlier in terms of disasters. We are already learning new lessons and implementing better practices in response to crises that couldn’t be more different than Haiti, e.g., crisis mapping hostile, non-permissive environments like Egypt, Sudan and Libya. In Japan, we are also learning how a more hierarchical society with a highly developed and media rich environment presents a different set of opportunities and challenges for crisis mapping. This is why VTCs will continue to be at the forefront of Disaster 2.0 and why reports like this one are so key: they clearly show that a Signac is well within our reach if we continue working together.

Changing the World One Map at a Time

The response to last year’s crises in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan revealed an exciting potential. Volunteers from thousands of miles away could possibly play an important role in humanitarian operations by using social networking platforms and free, open source software to create live crisis maps. Today’s volunteer efforts on the Libya Crisis Map are turning that potential into reality.

When I called Ushahidi’s David Kobia to launch the Haiti Crisis Map just hours after the earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince, that was purely an emotional reaction. I had no plan. I just needed to do something because watching the first reports coming in on CNN was agonizing and unbearable. Some of my closest friends from The Fletcher School were in Haiti at the time and I had no idea whether they were still alive. Little did I know that several hundred volunteers from dozens of countries would soon join the efforts to create a live crisis map of the disaster-struck country.

I called David again a few weeks later just hours after another earthquake had struck, this time Chile. Unlike Haiti, I now had a better sense of what it would take to launch a crisis map, but I had no idea who might volunteer to keep this map alive around the clock since volunteers working on Haiti were either over-stretched or burnt out, or both (like I was). As luck would have it, I was due to give a talk at Columbia University that same day on our experience in Haiti. So I used my speaking slot to recruit volunteers for Chile. Several came up to me after the presentation and some sixty new volunteers were trained within 48 hours. This is how the Chile Crisis Map got started.

Pakistan was different. I didn’t launch a crisis map; someone else did, and from Karachi. But he needed volunteer support to create the Pakistan Crisis Map so we turned to the incredible volunteers who had helped out in Haiti and Chile and recruited new ones along the way. By now, we had a core set of volunteers with an impressive track record in live crisis mapping.

This is when I realized what the next logical step was. To give these volunteers a name and visibility. We needed to give them the opportunity to share what they had learned and train new recruits. Thus was born the Standby Volunteer Task Force: an online community for live mapping.

We got to work right away after launching in October 2010. Our first step was to create protocols and establish workflows in order to streamline crisis mapping processes and render them as efficient and effective as possible. We had the opportunity to test our first drafts thanks to the UN OCHA Colombia team who invited us to participate in an official earthquake disaster simulation exercise just weeks after we launched. This provided us with invaluable feedback which we used to revise our protocols.

In January of this year, we activated the Task Force to provide live mapping support to monitor the referendum in Southern Sudan. We also learned a lot from that experience and improved our workflows accordingly. Last month, New Zealand was struck by a powerful earthquake so we activated the Task Force at the request of local disaster response colleagues. Again, there were some important lessons gained from that deployment, and again we went back to our protocols and workflows to improve them further.

This week, the Information Services Section of OCHA in Geneva requested that the Task Force be activated for Libya. This was a first. Unlike Haiti, we had a direct channel from day one to the main coordinating body of the UN for humanitarian assistance. We also had a trained network of volunteers on standby with protocols and workflows that had already been revised and tested several times over almost half-a-year. It is also important to emphasize that many Task Force volunteers are skilled professionals, including humanitarian professionals. This is a self-selected group and while many new volunteers who join may have little experience in crisis mapping, they go through a structured training process managed by the most experienced volunteers on the team.

The result? A Crisis Map of Libya launched within hours and public institutional support expressed within days. Some of the awesome volunteers crisis mapping Libya brought their experience from the Haiti, Chile and Pakistan days. Most however, are newly trained and bring renewed energy, dedication and good cheer to the Task Force.

Below is a new interface option developed as a plugin for an Ushahidi project in Liberia that is being used for Libya as well. Our colleagues at OCHA are using this interface almost exclusively as it provides a number of important functionalities for data visualization and comparative analysis:

The public tweets below are amazing and unprecedented in so many ways! Thank you UN and Josette, we really appreciate your public support!

Note that Josette Sheeran is the Executive Director of WFP.

We still have a long way to go with the Task Force, but boy have we covered even more ground since Haiti. There are for me two powerful narratives in this story:

The first is a reminder that being human is about helping others in need. And thanks to today’s easy mapping platforms, volunteers can help respond to a crisis from thousands of miles away by collaborating online to create a live map that can be used to support humanitarian operations. They can use social networking platforms to connect, organize, recruit and train. There’s so much we as volunteers can do online to help, especially if we’re prepared and are ready to work hard. This is why I think it’s time for established volunteer networks like UN Volunteers (UNVs) to offer both field-based and web-based opportunities. Why not train UNVs in online crisis mapping so they can be activated to directly support UN operations via web?

The second powerful narrative for me is the collaboration between large established organizations and new decentralized volunteer networks. OCHA took a bold move when they decided to bet on the Volunteer Task Force for the Libya Crisis Map. They should be applauded. They’ve never done this before and neither have we (vis-a-vis direct collaboration with a UN office during a major crisis). I find this unprecedented move a powerful indication that learning by doing is almost always better than learning by just talking. This impromptu collaboration also shows that large organizations and small volunteer networks can work together in a way that creates more added value than flying solo does.

It’s the beginning of a new world for humanitarian response; The Prologue, if you will. I’m excited for what comes next. I know there’s a lot to figure out and many obstacles to overcome. I have no illusions of that. But I’m hopeful; as ready as I’ll ever be; and I have the honor and privilege to work with and learn from the best volunteer network of crisis mappers on the planet. They are the true heros, for without them the map would be barren. Onwards.