Tag Archives: Satellites

Imagery and Humanitarian Assistance: Gems, Errors and Omissions

The Center for Technology and National Security Policy based at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies just published an 88-page report entitled “Constructive Convergence: Imagery and Humanitarian Assistance.” As noted by the author, “the goal of this paper is to illustrate to the technical community and interested humanitarian users the breadth of the tools and techniques now available for imagery collection, analysis, and distribution, and to provide brief recommendations with suggestions for next steps.” In addition, the report “presents a brief overview of the growing power of imagery, especially from volunteers and victims in disasters, and its place in emergency response. It also highlights an increasing technical convergence between professional and volunteer responders—and its limits.”

The study contains a number of really interesting gems, just a few errors and some surprising omissions. The point of this blog post is not to criticize but rather to provide constructive-and-hopefully-useful feedback should the report be updated in the future.

Lets begin with the important gems, excerpted below.

“The most serious issues overlooked involve liability protections by both the publishers and sources of imagery and its data. As far as our research shows there is no universally adopted Good Samaritan law that can protect volunteers who translate emergency help messages, map them, and distribute that map to response teams in the field.”

Whether a Good Samaritan law could ever realistically be universally adopted remains to be seen, but the point is that all of the official humanitarian data protection standards that I’ve reviewed thus far simply don’t take into account the rise of new digitally-empowered global volunteer networks (let alone the existence of social media). The good news is that some colleagues and I are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a consor-tium of major humanitarian organizations to update existing data protection protocols to take some of these new factors into account. This new document will hopefully be made publicly available in October 2012.

“Mobile devices such as tablets and mobile phones are now the primary mode for both collecting and sharing information in a response effort. A January 2011 report published by the Mobile Computing Promotion Consortium of Japan surveyed users of smart phones. Of those who had smart phones, 55 percent used a map application, the third most common application after Web browsing and email.”

I find this absolutely fascinating and thus read the January 2011 report, which is where I found the graphic below.

“The rapid deployment of Cellular on Wheels [COW] is dramatically improving. The Alcatel-Lucent Light Radio is 300 grams (about 10 ounces) and stackable. It also consumes very little power, eliminating large generation and storage requirements. It is capable of operating by solar, wind and/or battery power. Each cube fits into the size of a human hand and is fully integrated with radio processing, antenna, transmission, and software management of frequency. The device can operate on multiple frequencies simultaneously and work with existing infrastructure.”


“In Haiti, USSOUTHCOM found imagery, digital open source maps, and websites that hosted them (such as Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap) to occasionally be of greater value than their own assets.”


“It is recommended that clearly defined and restricted use of specialized #hashtags be implemented using a common crisis taxonomy. For example:

#country + location + emergency code + supplemental data

The above example, if located in Washington, DC, U.S.A., would be published as:


The specialized use of #hashtags could be implemented in the same cultural manner as 911, 999, and other emergency phone number systems. Metadata using these tags would also be given priority when sent over the Internet through communication networks (landline, broadband Internet, or mobile text or data). Abuse of ratified emergency #hashtag’s would be a prosecutable offense. Implementing such as system could reduce the amount of data that crisis mappers and other response organizations need to monitor and improve the quality of data to be filtered. Other forms of #Hashtags syllabus can also be implemented such as:

#country + location + information code (411) + supplemental data
#country + location + water (H20) + supplemental data
#country + location + Fire (FD) + supplemental data”

I found this very interesting and relevant to this earlier blog post: “Calling 911: What Humanitarians Can Learn from 50 Years of Crowdsourcing.” Perhaps a reference to Tweak the Tweet would have been worthwhile.

I also had not come across some of the platforms used in response to the 2011 earthquake in New Zealand. But the report did an excellent job sharing these.


Some errors that need correcting:

Open source mapping tools such as Google Earth use imagery as a foundation for layering field data.”

Google Earth is not an open source tool.

CrisisMappers.net, mentioned earlier, is a group of more than 1,600 volunteers that have been brought together by Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke. It is the core of collaboration efforts that can be deployed anywhere in the world. CrisisMappers has established workshops and steering committees to set guidelines and standardize functions and capabilities for sites that deliver imagery and layered datasets. This group, which today consists of diverse and talented volunteers from all walks of life, might soon evolve into a professional volunteer organization of trusted capabilities and skill sets and they are worth watching.”

CrisisMappers is not a volunteer network or an organization that deploys in any formal sense of the word. The CrisisMappers website explains what the mission and purpose of this informal network is. The initiative has some 3,500 members.


“Figure 16. How Ushahidi’s Volunteer Standby Task Force was Structured for Libya. Ushahidi’s platform success stems from its use by organized volunteers, each with skill sets that extract data from multiple sources for publication.”

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) does not belong to Ushahidi, nor is the SBTF an Ushahidi project. A link to the SBTF website would have been appropriate. Also, the majority of applications of the Ushahidi platform have nothing to do with crises, or the SBTF, or any other large volunteer networks. The SBTF’s original success stems from organized volunteers who where well versed in the Ushahidi platform.

“Ushahidi accepts KML and KMZ if there is an agreement and technical assistance resources are available. An end user cannot on their own manipulate a Ushahidi portal as an individual, nor can external third party groups unless that group has an arrangement with the principal operators of the site. This offers new collaboration going forward. The majority of Ushahidi disaster portals are operated by volunteer organizations and not government agencies.”

The first sentence is unclear. If someone sets up an Ushahidi platform and they have KML/KMZ files that they want to upload, they can go ahead and do so. An end-user can do some manipulation of an Ushahidi portal and can also pull the Ushahidi data into their own platform (via the GeoRSS feed, for example). Thanks to the ESRI-Ushahidi plugin, they can then perform a range of more advanced GIS analysis. In terms of volunteers vs government agencies, indeed, it appears the former is leading the way vis-a-vis innovation.

Finally, below are some omissions and areas that I would have been very interested to learn more about. For some reason, the section on the Ushahidi deployment in New Zealand makes no reference to Ushahidi.

Staying on the topic of the earthquake in Christchurch, I was surprised to see no reference to the Tomnod deployment:

I had also hoped to read more about the use of drones (UAVs) in disaster response since these were used both in Haiti and Japan. What about the rise of DIY drones and balloon mapping? Finally, the report’s reference to Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) doesn’t provide information on the range of costs associated with using BGANs in disasters.

In conclusion, the report is definitely an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and should be required reading.