Tag Archives: Reliefweb

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

I’ve already blogged about what an ecosystem approach to conflict early warning and response entails. But I have done so with a country focus rather than thinking globally. This blog post applies a global perspective to the ecosystem approach given the proliferation of new platforms with global scalability.

Perhaps the most apt analogy here is one of food webs where the food happens to be information. Organisms in a food web are grouped into primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers. Primary producers such as grass harvest an energy source such as sunlight that they turn into biomass. Herbivores are primary consumers of this biomass while carnivores are secondary consumers of herbivores. There is thus a clear relationship known as a food chain.

This is an excellent video visualizing food web dynamics produced by researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI):

Our information web (or Info Web) is also composed of multiple producers and consumers of information each interlinked by communication technology in increasingly connected ways. Indeed, primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers also crawl and dynamically populate the Info Web. But the shock of the information revolution is altering the food chains in our ecosystem. Primary consumers of information can now be primary producers, for example.

At the smallest unit of analysis, individuals are the most primary producers of information. The mainstream media, social media, natural language parsing tools, crowdsourcing platforms, etc, arguably comprise the primary consumers of that information. Secondary consumers are larger organisms such as the global Emergency Information Service (EIS) and the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS).

These newly forming platforms are at different stages of evolution. EIS and GIVAS are relatively embryonic while the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems (GDACS) and Google Earth are far more evolved. A relatively new organism in the Info Web is the UAV as exemplified by ITHACA. The BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is further along the information chain while Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping platform and the Swift River driver are more mature but have not yet deployed as a global instance.

InSTEDD’s GeoChat, Riff and Mesh4X solutions have already iterated through a number of generations. So have ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). There are of course additional organisms in this ecosystem, but the above list should suffice to demonstrate my point.

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts? Before we can answer this question in any reasonable way, we need to know the characteristics of each organism in the ecosystem. These organisms represent the threads that may be woven into the GSS, a global web of crisis mapping and early warning systems.

Global System of Systems

Emergency Information Service (EIS) is slated to be a unified communications solution linking citizens, journalists, governments and non-governmental organizations in a seamless flow of timely, accurate and credible information—even when local communication infrastructures are rendered inoperable. This feature will be made possible by utilizing SMS as the communications backbone of the system.

In the event of a crisis, the EIS team would sift, collate, make sense of and verify the myriad of streams of information generated by a large humanitarian intervention. The team would gather information from governments, local media, the military, UN agencies and local NGOs to develop reporting that will be tailored to the specific needs of the affected population and translated into local languages. EIS would work closely with local media to disseminate messages of critical, life saving information.

Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) is being designed to closely monitor vulnerabilities and accelerate communication between the time a global crisis hits and when information reaches decision makers through official channels. The system is mandated to provide the international community with early, real-time evidence of how a global crisis is affecting the lives of the poorest and to provide decision-makers with real time information to ensure that decisions take the needs of the most vulnerable into account.

BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is specifically designed for UN field-based agencies to improve real time situational awareness. The dynamic mapping platform enables humanitarians to easily and quickly map infrastructure relevant for humanitarian response such as airstrips, bridges, refugee camps, IDP camps, etc. The SensorWeb is also used to map events of interest such as cholera outbreaks. The platform leverages mobile technology as well as social networking features to encourage collaborative analytics.

Ushahidi integrates web, mobile and dynamic mapping technology to crowdsource crisis information. The platform uses FrontlineSMS and can be deployed quickly as a crisis unfolds. Users can visualize events of interest on a dynamic map that also includes an animation feature to visualize the reported data over time and space.

Swift River is under development but designed to validate crowdsourced information in real time by combining machine learning for predictive tagging with human crowdsourcing for filtering purposes. The purpsose of the platform is to create veracity scores to denote the probability of an event being true when reported across several media such as Twitter, Online news, SMS, Flickr, etc.

GeoChat and Mesh4X could serve as the nodes connecting the above platforms in dynamic ways. Riff could be made interoperable with Swift River.

Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate. This is one of the main reasons I am co-organizing the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) next week.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Conference Proposal

Bridging the Divide in Crisis Mapping

As mentioned in a recent blog post, my colleague Jen Ziemke and I are organizing a workshop on the topic of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bring together a small group of scholars and practitioners who are pioneering the new field of crisis mapping. We are currently exploring funding opportunities with a number of donors and welcome any suggestions you might have for specific sponsors.

The new field of crisis mapping encompasses the collection, dynamic visualization and subsequent analysis of georeferenced information on contemporary conflicts and human rights violations.  A wide range of sources are used to create these crisis maps, (e.g. events data,  newspaper and intelligence parsing, satellite imagery, interview and survey data, SMS, etc). Scholars have developed several analytical methodologies to identify patterns in dynamic crisis maps. These range from computational methods and visualization techniques to spatial econometrics and “hot spot” analysis.

While scholars employ these sophisticated methods in their academic research, operational crisis mapping platforms developed by practitioners are completely devoid of analytical tools. At the same time, scholars often assume that humanitarian practitioners are conversant in quantitative spatial analysis, which is rarely the case. Furthermore, practitioners who are deploying crisis mapping platforms do not have time to the academic literature on this topic.

Mobile Crisis Mapping and Crisis Mapping Analytics

In other words, there is a growing divide between scholars and practitioners in the field of crisis mapping. The purpose of this workshop is to bridge this divide by bringing scholars and practitioners together to shape the future of crisis mapping. At the heart of this lies two new developments: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA). See previous blog posts on MCM and CMA here and here.

I created these terms to highlight areas in need for further applied research. As MCM platforms like Ushahidi‘s become more widely available, the amount of crowdsourced data will substantially increase and so mays of the challenges around data validation and analysis. This is why we need to think now about developing a field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) to make sense of the incoming data and identify new and recurring patterns in human rights abuses and conflict.

This entails developing user-friendly metrics for CMA that practitioners can build in as part of their MCM platforms. However, there is no need to reinvent the circle since scholars who analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict already employ sophisticated metrics that can inform the development of CMA metrics. In sum, a dedicated workshop that brings these practitioners and scholars together would help accelerate the developing field of crisis mapping.

Proposed Agenda

Here is a draft agenda that we’ve been sharing with prospective donors. We envisage the workshop to take place over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Feedback is very much welcomed.

Day 1 – Friday

Welcome and Introductions

Keynote 1 - The Past & Future of Crisis Mapping

Roundtable 1 – Presentation of Academic and Operational Crisis Mapping projects with Q&A

Lunch

Track 1a – Introduction to Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination

Track 1b - Introduction to Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM): From information collection and data validation to dynamic visualization and dissemination

&

Track 2a – Special introduction for newly interested colleagues  and students on spatial thinking in social sciences, using maps to understand crisis, violence and war

Track 2b – Breakout session for students and new faculty: hands-on introduction to GIS and other mapping programs

Dinner

Day 2 – Saturday

Keynote 2 – Crisis Mapping and Patterns Analysis

Roundtable 2 – Interdisciplinary Applications: Innovations & Challenges

Roundtable 3 - Data Collection & Validations: Innovations & Challenges

Lunch

Roundtable 4 - Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA): Metrics and Taxonomies

Roundtable 5 - Crisis Mapping & Response: Innovations & Challenges

Dinner

Day 3 – Sunday

Keynote 3 – What Happens Next – Shaping the Future of Crisis Mapping

Self-organized Sessions

Wrap-Up

Proposed Participants

Here are some of the main academic institutes and crisis mapping organizations we had in mind:

Institutes

  • John Carrol University (JCU)
  • Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)
  • Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)
  • International Conflict Research, ETH Zurich
  • US Institute for Peace (USIP)
  • Political Science Department, Yale University

Organizations

Next Steps

Before we can move forward on any of this, we need to identify potential donors to help co-sponsor the workshop. So please do get in touch if you have any suggestions and/or creative ideas.

Patrick Philippe Meier

From Intellipedia, to Virtual Osocc to WikiWarning?

What can we in the humanitarian community learn from Intellipedia as described in my previous blog ?

Some thoughts:

  • Let go of our ego-centric tendencies for control
  • Decentralize user-generated content and access
  • Utilization of tagging, IM, online video posting
  • Use open source tools and make minimal modifications
  • Capture tacit and informal knowledge qualitatively via blogs and wikis
  • Keep user-interfaces simple and minimize use of sophisticated interfaces
  • Provide non-monetary incentives for information collection and sharing
  • Shift from quality control mindset to soap box approach

There are no doubt more insights to be gained from the Intellipedia project but do we have any parallel information management systems in the humanitarian community? The first one that comes to mind is Virtual Osocc:

There are currently 2,437 users. The site includes a bulletin board where discussions can take place vis-a-vis ongoing emergencies and/or issues. A photo library is also available as are sections on training and meetings. The site’s homepage points to breaking emergencies and ongoing crises. Users can subscribe to email and SMS alerts.

When I spoke with the team behind Virtual Osocc, I was surprised to learn that the project has received no official endorsement by any UN agencies. This is particularly telling since an indicator of success for humanitarian information systems is the size of the active user base. Other points worth mentioning from my conversations with the team since they relate directly to my previous blog on Intellipedia include:

  • Tensions between the UN and NGOs vis-vis information sharing is healthy since it keeps us honest;
  • Decision-making in disaster management is by consensus (so tools should be designed accordingly);
  • Our community is currently unable to communicate effectively with the beneficiaries themselves.

Another humanitarian information systems is of course ReliefWeb, which is very well known so I shan’t expand on the system here. I would just like to suggest that we think of ways to integrate more Web 2.0 tools into ReliefWeb; allowing a wiki and blogging space, for example. There’s also the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) manged out of the Joint Research Center (JRC) in Ispra, Italy. See my recent blog on the JRC’s satellite imagery change detection project here. The JRC is doing some phenomenal work and GDACS is an excellent reflection of this work. I will leave a more thorough overview of GDACS for a future blog entry.

Then there’s the new information system which was launched this past October 2007 in collaboration with the JRC. The system is a new web portal for leading situation centers including those at UN DPKO, the EU Council and NATO. The purpose of the new system is to facilitate the exchange and storage of unique and relevant information on emerging and ongoing crises and conflicts.The portal facilitates the exchange of unique documents including satellite images. Users can subscribe to specific email and SMS alerts. The system also include a Wiki mapping section. Needless to say, the new web portal is password protected and the user base limited to an elite few. This initiative may benefit from more Intellipedia think.

The issue that I find most pressing in all of this is the lack of two-communication (not to mention one-way) communication with beneficiaries. I find this gap upsetting. So I set up Wikiwarning some two years ago in the hope of finding the time, support and expertise to fully develop the concept and tool. Any takers?

My next blog will address the issue of intelligence for the stakeholders.

Patrick Philippe Meier