Tag Archives: World

World Disaster Report: Next Generation Humanitarian Technology

This year’s World Disaster Report was just released this morning. I had the honor of authoring Chapter 3 on “Strengthening Humanitarian Information: The Role of Technology.” The chapter focuses on the rise of “Digital Humanitarians” and explains how “Next Generation Humanitarian Technology” is used to manage Big (Crisis) Data. The chapter complements the groundbreaking report “Humanitarianism in the Network Age” published by UN OCHA earlier this year.

The key topics addressed in the chapter include:

  • Big (Crisis) Data
  • Self-Organized Disaster Response
  • Crowdsourcing & Bounded Crowdsourcing
  • Verifying Crowdsourced Information
  • Volunteer & Technical Communities
  • Digital Humanitarians
  • Libya Crisis Map
  • Typhoon Pablo Crisis Map
  • Syria Crisis Map
  • Microtasking for Disaster Response
  • MicroMappers
  • Machine Learning for Disaster Response
  • Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR)
  • American Red Cross Digital Operations Center
  • Data Protection and Security
  • Policymaking for Humanitarian Technology

I’m particularly interested in getting feedback on this chapter, so feel free to pose any comments or questions you may have in the comments section below.

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See also:

  • What is Big (Crisis) Data? [link]
  • Humanitarianism in the Network Age [link]
  • Predicting Credibility of Disaster Tweets [link]
  • Crowdsourced Verification for Disaster Response [link]
  • MicroMappers: Microtasking for Disaster Response [link]
  • AIDR: Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response [link]
  • Research Agenda for Next Generation Humanitarian Tech [link]

Opening World Bank Data with QCRI’s GeoTagger

My colleagues and I at QCRI partnered with the World Bank several months ago to develop an automated GeoTagger platform to increase the transparency and accountability of international development projects by accelerating the process of opening key development and finance data. We are proud to launch the first version of the GeoTagger platform today. The project builds on the Bank’s Open Data Initiatives promoted by former President, Robert Zoellick, and continued under the current leadership of Dr. Jim Yong Kim.

QCRI GeoTagger 1

The Bank has accumulated an extensive amount of socio-economic data as well as a massive amount of data on Bank-sponsored development projects worldwide. Much of this data, however, is not directly usable by the general public due to numerous data format, quality and access issues. The Bank therefore launched their “Mapping for Results” initiative to visualize the location of Bank-financed projects to better monitor development impact, improve aid effectiveness and coordination while enhancing transparency and social accountability. The geo-tagging of this data, however, has been especially time-consuming and tedious. Numerous interns were required to manually read through tens of thousands of dense World Bank project documentation, safeguard documents and results reports to identify and geocode exact project locations. But there are hundreds of thousands of such PDF documents. To make matters worse, these documents make seemingly “random” passing references to project locations, with no sign of any  standardized reporting structure whatsoever.

QCRI GeoTagger 2

The purpose of QCRI’s GeoTagger Beta is to automatically “read” through these countless PDF documents to identify and map all references to locations. GeoTagger does this using the World Bank Projects Data API and the Stanford Name Entity Recognizer (NER) & Alchemy. These tools help to automatically search through documents and identify place names, which are then geocoded using the Google GeocoderYahoo! Placefinder & Geonames and placed on a de-dicated map. QCRI’s GeoTagger will remain freely available and we’ll be making the code open source as well.

Naturally, this platform could be customized for many different datasets and organizations, which is why we’ve already been approached by a number of pro-spective partners to explore other applications. So feel free to get in touch should this also be of interest to your project and/or organization. In the meantime, a very big thank you to my colleagues at QCRI’s Big Data Analytics Center: Dr. Ihab Ilyas, Dr. Shady El-Bassuoni, Mina Farid and last but certainly not least, Ian Ye for their time on this project. Many thanks as well to my colleagues Johannes Kiess, Aleem Walji and team from the World Bank and Stephen Davenport at Development Gateway for the partnership.

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How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive

“Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive — And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help” is an excellent report pub-lished by the BBC World Service Trust earlier this year. It is a follow up to the BBC’s 2008 study “Left in the Dark: The Unmet Need for Information in Humanitarian Emergencies.” Both reports are absolute must-reads. I highlight the most important points from the 2012 publication below.

Are Humanitarians Being Left in the Dark?

The disruptive impact of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) is hardly a surprise. Back in 2007, researchers studying the use of social media during “forest fires in California concluded that ‘these emergent uses of social media are pre-cursors of broader future changes to the institutional and organizational arrangements of disaster response.’” While the main danger in 2008 was that disaster-affected communities would continue to be left in the dark since humanitarian organizations were not prioritizing information delivery, in 2012, “it may now be the humanitarian agencies themselves […] who risk being left in the dark.” Why? “Growing access to new technologies make it more likely that those affected by disaster will be better placed to access information and communicate their own needs.” Question is: “are humanitarian agencies prepared to respond to, help and engage with those who are communicating with them and who demand better information?” Indeed, “one of the consequences of greater access to, and the spread of, communications technology is that communities now expect—and demand—interaction.”

Monitoring Rumors While Focusing on Interaction and Listening

The BBC Report invites humanitarian organizations to focus on meaningful interaction with disaster-affected communities, rather than simply on message delivery. “Where agencies do address the question of communication with affected communities, this still tends to be seen as a question of relaying infor-mation (often described as ‘messaging’) to an unspecified ‘audience’ through a channel selected as appropriate (usually local radio). It is to be delivered when the agency thinks that it has something to say, rather than in response to demand. In an environment in which […] interaction is increasingly expected, this approach is becoming more and more out of touch with community needs. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and potential of many technological tools particularly Twitter, which work on a real time many-to-many information model rather than a simple broadcast.”

Two-way communication with disaster-affected communities requires two-way listening. Without listening, there can be no meaningful communication. “Listening benefits agencies, as well as those with whom they communicate. Any agency that does not monitor local media—including social media—for misinformation or rumors about their work or about important issues, such as cholera awareness risks, could be caught out by the speed at which information can move.” This is an incredibly important point. Alas, humanitarian organ-izations have not caught up with recent advances in social computing and big data analytics. This is one of the main reasons I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI); i.e., to spearhead the development of next-generation humani-tarian technology solutions.

Combining SMS with Geofencing for Emergency Alerts

Meanwhile, in Haiti, “phone company Digicel responded to the 2010 cholera outbreak by developing methods that would send an SMS to anyone who travelled through an identified cholera hotspot, alerting them to the dangers and advising on basic precautions.” The later is an excellent example of geofencing in action. That said, “while responders tend to see communication as a process either of delivering information (‘messaging’) or extracting it, disaster survivors seem to see the ability to communicate and the process of communication itself as every bit as important as the information delivered.”

Communication & Community-Based Disaster Response Efforts

As the BBC Report notes, “there is also growing evidence that communities in emergencies are adept at leveraging communications technology to organize their own responses.” This is indeed true as these recent examples demonstrate:

“Communications technology is empowering first responders in new and extremely potent ways that are, at present, little understood by international humanitarians. While aid agencies hesitate, local communities are using commu-nications technology to reshape the way they prepare for and respond to emergencies.” There is a definite payoff to those agencies that employ an “integrated approach to communicating and engaging with disaster affected communities […]” since they are “viewed more positively by beneficiaries than those that [do] not.” Indeed, “when disaster survivors are able to communicate with aid agencies their perceptions become more positive.”

Using New Technologies to Manage Local Feedback Mechanisms

So why don’t more agencies follow suite? Many are concerned that establishing feedback systems will prove impossible to manage let alone sustain. They fear that “they would not be able to answer questions asked, that they [would] not have the skills or capacity to manage the anticipated volume of inputs and that they [would be] unequipped to deal with people who would (it is assumed) be both angry and critical.”

I wonder whether these aid agencies realize that many private sector companies have feedback systems that engage millions of customers everyday; that these companies are using social media and big data analytics to make this happen. Some are even crowdsourcing their customer service support. It is high time that the humanitarian community realize that the challenges they face aren’t that unique and that solutions have already been developed in other sectors.

There are only a handful of examples of positive deviance vis-a-vis the setting up of feedback systems in the humanitarian space. Oxfam found that simply com-bining the “automatic management of SMS systems” with “just one dedicated local staff member […] was enough to cope with demand.” When the Danish Refugee Council set up their own SMS complaints mechanism, they too expected be overwhelmed with criticisms. “To their surprise, more than half of the SMS’s they received via their feedback system […] have been positive, with people thanking the agency for their assistance […].” This appears to be a pattern since “many other agencies reported receiving fewer ‘difficult’ questions than anticipated.”

Naturally, “a systematic and resourced approach for feedback” is needed either way. Interestingly, “many aid agencies are in fact now running de facto feedback and information line systems without realizing it. […] most staff who work directly with disaster survivors will be asked for contact details by those they interact with, and will give their own personal mobile numbers.” These ad hoc “systems” are hardly efficient, well-resourced or systematic, however.

User-Generated Content, Representativeness and Ecosystems

Obviously, user-generated content shared via social media may not be represen-tative. “But, as costs fall and coverage increases, all the signs are that usage will increase rapidly in rural areas and among poorer people. […] As one Somali NGO staff member commented […], ‘they may not have had lunch — but they’ll have a mobile phone.’” Moreover, there is growing evidence that individuals turn to social media platforms for the first time as a result of crisis. “In Thailand, for example, the use of social media increased 20% when the 2010 floods began–with fairly equal increases found in metropolitan Bangkok and in rural provinces.”

While the vast majority of Haitians in Port-au-Prince are not on Twitter, “the city’s journalists overwhelmingly are and and see it as an essential source of news and updates.” Since most Haitians listen to radio, “they are, in fact, the indirect beneficiaries of Twitter information systems.” Another interesting fact: “In Kenya, 27% of radio listeners tune in via their mobile phones.” This highlights the importance of an ecosystem approach when communicating with disaster-affected communities. On a related note, recent statistics reveal that individuals in developing countries spend about 17.5% of their income on ICTs compared to just 1.5% in developing countries.

What United Airlines can Teach the World Bank about Mobile Accountability

Flight delays can sometimes lead to interesting discoveries. As my flight to DC was delayed for a third frustrating hour, I picked up the United Airlines in-flight magazine and saw this:

United just launched a novel feedback program that the World Bank and other development organizations may want to emulate given their interest in pro-moting upward accountability. From the United Press Release:

“Behind every great trip is an airline of great people. Now, when you receive excellent customer service from an eligible United [...] employee, you can enter him or her in United’s Outperform Recognition Program. If the employee you enter is a winner in our random drawing for cash prizes, you win, too. With just a few clicks on the United mobile app, you could have the chance to win MileagePlus award miles or even roundtrip tickets.”

“Eligible MileagePlus members can participate in the recognition program using the United mobile app, available for Apple and Android devices, to nominate eligible employees. MileagePlus members simply nominate the employee of their choice through the United mobile app.”

This participatory and crowdsourced recognition program is brilliant for several reasons. First, the focus is on identifying positive deviance rather than generating negative feedback. In other words, it is not a complaints but a rewards system. Second, the program is incentive-based with shared proceeds. Not only do United employees have the chance to make some extra cash (average salary of flight attendants is $36,128), those who nominate employees for outstanding service also share in the proceeds in the form of free tickets and airline miles.

Third, United didn’t develop a new, separate smartphone app or technology for this recognition program; they added the feature directly into the existing United app instead. (That said, they ought to give passengers the option of submitting an entry via United’s website as well since not everyone will be comfortable using a smartphone app). I’d also recommend they make some of the submissions available on a decidate section of the United website to give users the option to browse through some of the feedback (and even digg up those they like the most).

I wonder whether other airlines in the StarAlliance network will adopt the same (or similar) recognition program. I also wonder whether donors like the World Bank ought to develop a similar solution (perhaps SMS-based) and require the use of this service for all projects funded by the Bank.

How to Crowdsource Better Governance in Authoritarian States

I was recently asked to review this World Bank publication entitled: “The Role of Crowdsourcing for Better Governance in Fragile States Contexts.” I had been looking for just this type of research on crowdsourcing for a long time and was therefore well pleased to read this publication. This blog posts focuses more on the theoretical foundations of the report, i.e., Part 1. I highly recommend reading the full study given the real-world case studies that are included.

“[The report serves] as a primer on crowdsourcing as an information resource for development, crisis response, and post-conflict recovery, with a specific focus on governance in fragile states. Inherent in the theoretical approach is that broader, unencumbered participation in governance is an objectively positive and democratic aim, and that governments’ accountability to its citizens can be increased and poor-performance corrected, through openness and empowerment of citizens. Whether for tracking aid flows, reporting on poor government performance, or helping to organize grassroots movements, crowdsourcing has potential to change the reality of civic participation in many developing countries. The objective of this paper is to outline the theoretical justifications, key features and governance structures of crowdsourcing systems, and examine several cases in which crowdsourcing has been applied to complex issues in the developing world.”

The research is grounded in the philosophy of Open-Source Governance, “which advocates an intellectual link between the principles of open-source and open-content movements, and basic democratic principles.” The report argues that “open-source governance theoretically provides more direct means to affect change than do periodic elections,” for example. According to the authors of the study, “crowdsourcing is increasingly seen as a core mechanism of a new systemic approach of governance to address the highly complex, globally interconnected and dynamic challenges of climate change, poverty, armed conflict, and other crises, in view of the frequent failures of traditional mechanisms of democracy and international diplomacy with respect to fragile state contexts.”

That said, how exactly is crowdsourcing supposed to improve governance? The authors argues that “in general, ‘transparency breeds self-correcting behavior’ among all types of actors, since neither governments nor businesses or  individuals want to be caught at doing something embarrassing and or illegal.” Furthermore, “since crowdsourcing is in its very essence based on universal participation, it is supporting the empowerment of people. Thus, in a pure democracy or in a status of anarchy or civil war (Haiti after the earthquake, or Libya since February 2011), there are few external limitations to its use, which is the reason why most examples are from democracies and situations of crisis.” On the other hand, an authoritarian regime will “tend to oppose and interfere with crowdsourcing, perceiving broad-based participation and citizen empowerment as threats to its very existence.”

So how can crowdsourcing improve governance in an authoritarian state? “Depending on the level of citizen-participation in a given state,” the authors argue that “crowdsourcing can potentially support governments’ and/or civil society’s efforts in informing, consulting, and collaborating, leading to empowerment of citizens, and encouraging decentralization and democrati-zation. By providing the means to localize, visualize, and publish complex, aggregated data, e.g. on a multi-layer map, and the increasing speed of genera-ting and sharing data up to real-time delivery, citizens and beneficiaries of government and donors become empowered to provide feedback and even become information providers in their own right.”

According to the study, this transformation can take place in three ways:

1) By sharing, debating and contributing to publicly available government, donor and other major actors’ databases, data can be distributed directly through customized web and mobile applications and made accessible and meaningful to citizens.

2) By providing independent platforms for ‘like-minded people’ to connect and collaborate, builds potential for the emergence of massive, internationally connected grassroots movements.

3) By establishing platforms that aggregate and compare data provided by the official actors such as governments, donors, and companies with crowdsourced primary data and feedback.

“The tracking of data by citizens increases transparency as well as pressure for better social accountability. Greater effectiveness of state and non-state actors can be achieved by using crowdsourced data and deliberations* to inform the provision of their services. While the increasing volume of data generated as well as the speed of transactions can be attractive even to fragile-state governments, the feature of citizen empowerment is often considered as serious threat (Sudan, Egypt, Syria,Venezuela etc.).” *The authors argue that this need to be done through “web-based deliberation platforms (e.g. DiscourseDB) that apply argumentative frameworks for issue-based argument instead of simple polling.”

The second part of the report includes a section on Crisis Mapping in which two real-world case studies are featured: the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map & Mission4636 and the Libya Crisis Map. Other case studies include the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) initiative in the Sudan, Participatory GIS and Community Forestry in Nepal; Election Monitoring in Guinea; Huduma and Open Data in Kenya; Avaaz and other emergent applications of crowd-sourcing for economic development and good governance. The third and final part of the study provides recommendations for donors on how to apply crowd-sourcing and interactive mapping for socio-economic recovery and development in fragile states.

Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently announced a new partnership with Google that will apparently empower citizen cartographers in 150 countries worldwide. This has provoked some concern among open source enthusiasts. Under this new agreement, the Bank, UN agencies and developing country governments will be able to “access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.”

So what’s the catch? Google’s licensing agreement for Google Map Maker stipulates the following: Users are not allowed to access Google Map Maker data via any platform other than those designated by Google. Users are not allowed to make any copies of the data, nor can they translate the data, modify it or create a derivative of the data. In addition, users cannot publicly display any Map Maker data for commercial purposes. Finally, users cannot use Map Maker data to create a service that is similar to any already provided by Google.

There’s a saying in the tech world that goes like this: “If the product is free, then you are the product.” I fear this may be the case with the Google-Bank partnership. I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data, which will carry all the licensing restrictions described above. Does this really empower citizen cartographers?

Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes? Will Google push Map Maker data to Google Maps & Google Earth products, i.e., expanding market share & commercial interests? Contrast this with the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), which uses open source software and open data to empower local communities and disaster risk managers. Also, the Google-Bank partnership is specifically with UN agencies and governments, not exactly citizens or NGOs.

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

“In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

 Here’s another version:

“In the 21st century, for-profit companies like Google Inc have an advantage over local communities. They can use big license restrictions. With the Google-Bank partnership, Google can use local communities to collect information for free and make the biggest profit. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

The Google-Bank partnership points to another important issue being ignored in this debate. Let’s not pretend that technology alone determines whether participatory mapping truly empowers local communities. I recently learned of an absolutely disastrous open source “community” mapping project in Africa which should one day should be written up in a blog post entitled “Open Source Community Mapping #FAIL”.

So software developers (whether from the open source or proprietary side) who want to get involved in community mapping and have zero experience in participatory GIS, local development and capacity building should think twice: the “do no harm” principle also applies to them. This is equally true of Google Inc. The entire open source mapping community will be watching every move they make on this new World Bank partnership.

I do hope Google eventually realizes just how much of an opportunity they have to do good with this partnership. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will draft a separate licensing agreement for the World Bank partnership. In fact, I hope they openly invite the participatory GIS and open source mapping communities to co-draft an elevated licensing agreement that will truly empower citizen cartographers. Google would still get publicity—and more importantly positive publicity—as a result. They’d still get the data and have their brand affiliated with said data. But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?

Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping World War I

I came across some interesting finds at the National Air and Space Museum this weekend. The World War One (WWI) exhibit had this large, back-lit crisis map:

Now, war maps are nothing new. In this previous blog post, I noted that, “In 1668, Louis XIV of France commissioned three-dimensional scale models of eastern border towns, so that his generals in Paris and Versailles could plan realistic maneuvers. [...] As late as World War II, the French government guarded them as military secrets with the highest security classification” (see picture). What struck me about the crisis map of WWI was the text above the title:

“To satisfy the public’s desire for information about the war, newspapers published war maps that provided the locations and military capabilities of the warring nations. This map, published at the outbreak of hostilities illustrates the British view of the war’s global scope.” I’m intrigued by this find and wonder how often these maps were updated and what sources were used. Would public opinion at the time have differed had live crowdsourced crisis maps existed?

Towards the end of the WWI exhibit, I came across this sign, originally posted near the entrances of the London Underground. The warning relates to hostile German aircraft that had begun to bomb London in early 1915. On September 8, a Zepellin raid on the city cause more than half a million pounds of damage.

What stuck me about this warning were the following instructions: “In the event of a hostile aircraft being seen in country districts, the nearest Naval, Military or Police Authorities should, if possible, be advised immediately by Telephone of the time of appearance, the direction of flight, and whether the aircraft is an Airship or an Aeroplane.” Crowdsourcing early warnings of WWI attacks.

Know of other interesting examples of crowsourcing during the first (or second) world war? If so, please feel free to share in the comments section below, I’d love to compile more examples.

On Synchrony, Technology and Revolutions: The Political Power of Synchronized Resistance

Synchronized action is a powerful form of resistance against repressive regimes. Even if the action itself is harmless, like walking, meditation or worship, the public synchrony of that action by a number of individuals can threaten an authoritarian state. To be sure, synchronized public action demonstrates independency which may undermine state propaganda, reverse information cascades and thus the shared perception that the regime is both in control and unchallenged.

This is especially true if the numbers participating in synchrony reaches a tipping point. As Karl Marx writes in Das Kapital, “Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” We call this “emergent behavior” or “phase transitions” in the field of complexity science. Take a simple example from the physical world: the heating of water. A one degree increase in temperature is a quantitative change. But keep adding one degree and you’ll soon reach the boiling point of water and surprise! A physical phase transition occurs: liquid turns into gas.

In social systems, information creates friction and heat. Moreover, today’s information and communication technologies (ICTs) are perhaps the most revolutionary synchronizing tools for “creating heat” because of their scalability. Indeed, ICTs today can synchronize communities in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. As one Egyptian activist proclaimed shortly before the fall of Mubarak, “We use Facebook to scheduled our protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” The heat is already on.

Synchrony requires that individuals be connected in order to synchronize. Well guess what? ICTs are mass, real-time connection technologies. There is conse-quently little doubt in my mind that “the advent and power of connection technologies—tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another—will make the twenty-first century all about surprises;” surprises that take the form of “social phase transitions” (Schmidt and Cohen 2011). Indeed, ICTs can  dramatically increase the number of synchronized participants while sharply reducing the time it takes to reach the social boiling point. Some refer to this as “punctuated equilibria” or “reversed information cascades” in various academic literatures. Moreover, this can all happen significantly faster than ever before, and as argued in this previous blog post on digital activism, faster is indeed different.

Clay Shirky argues that “this basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public [...].” But to understand the inherent power of synchrony and then leverage it, we must first recognized that synchrony is a fundamental force of nature that goes well beyond social systems.

In his TED Talk from 2004, American mathematician Steven Strogatz argues that synchrony may be one of the most pervasive drivers in all of nature, extending from the subatomic scale to the farthest reaches of the cosmos. In many ways, this deep tendency towards spontaneous order is what pushes back against the second law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy. 

Strogatz shares example from nature and shows a beautiful ballet of hundreds of birds flocking in unison. He explains that this display of synchrony has to do with defense. “When you’re small and vulnerable [...] it helps to swarm to avoid and/or confuse predators.” When a predator strikes, however, all bets are off, and everyone disperses—but only temporarily. “The law of attraction,” says Strogatz, brings them right back together in synchrony within seconds. “There’s this constant splitting and reforming,” grouping and dispersion—swarming—which has several advantages. If you’re in a swarm, the odds of getting caught are far lower. There are also many eyes to spot the danger.

What’s spectacular about these ballets is how quickly they phase from one shape to another, dispersing and regrouping almost instantaneously even across vast distances. Individual changes in altitude, speed and direction are communicated and acted on across half-a-kilometer within just seconds. The same is true of fireflies in Borneo that synchronize their blinking across large distances along the river banks. Thousands and thousands of fireflies somehow overcoming the communication delay between the one firefly at one end of the bank and the other firefly at the furthest opposite end. How is this possible? The answer to this question may perhaps provide insights for social synchrony in the context of resistance against repressive regimes.

Strogatz and Duncan Watts eventually discovered the answer, which they published in their seminal paper entitled “Collective dynamics of small-world networks.” Published in the prestigious journal Nature,  the paper became the most highly cited article about networks for 10 years and the sixth most cited paper in all of physics. A small-world network is a type of network in which even though most nodes are not neighbors of one another, most can still be reached from other nodes by a small number of hops or steps. In the context of social systems, this type of network results in the “small world phenomenon of strangers being linked by a mutual acquaintance.”

These types of networks often arise out of preferential attachment, an inherently social dynamic. Indeed, small world networks pervade social systems. So what does this mean for synchrony as applied to civil resistance? Are smart-mobs synonymous with synchronized mobs? Do ICTs increase the prevalence of small world networks in social systems—thus increasing robustness and co-synchrony between social networks. Will meshed-communication technologies and features like check-in’s alter the topology of small world networks?

Examples of synchrony from nature clearly show that real-time communication and action across large distances don’t require mobile phones. Does that mean the same is possible in social systems? Is it possible to disseminate information instantaneously within a large crowd without using communication technologies? Is strategic synchrony possible in this sense? Can social networks engage in instantaneous dispersion and cohesion tactics to confuse the repressive regime and remain safe?

I recently spoke with a colleague who is one of the world’s leading experts on civil resistance, and was astonished when she mentioned (without my prompting) that many of the tactics around civil resistance have to do with synchronizing cohesion and dispersion. On a different note, some physicists argue that small world networks are more robust to perturbations than other network structures. Indeed, the small work structure may represent an evolutionary advantage.

But how are authoritarian networks structured? Are they too of the small world variety? If not, how do they compare in terms of robustness, flexibility and speed? In many ways, state repression is a form of synchrony itself—so is genocide. Synchrony is clearly not always a good thing. How is synchrony best interrupted or sabotaged? What kind of interference strategies are effective in this context?

On Technology and Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters

I recently caught up with a colleague at the World Bank and learned that “resilience” is set to be the new “buzz word” in the international development community. I think this is very good news. Yes, discourse does matter. A single word can alter the way we frame problems. They can lead to new conceptual frameworks that inform the design and implementation of development projects and disaster risk reduction strategies.
 

The term resilience is important because it focuses not on us, the development and disaster community, but rather on local at-risk communities. The terms “vulnerability” and “fragility” were used in past discourse but they focus on the negative and seem to invoke the need for external protection, overlooking the possibility that local coping mechanisms do exist. From the perspective of this top-down approach, international organizations are the rescuers and aid does not arrive until they arrive.

Resilience, in contrast, implies radical self-sufficiency, and self-sufficien-cy suggests a degree of autonomy; self-dependence rather than dependence on an external entity that may or may not arrive, that may or may not be effective, and that may or may not stay the course. In the field of ecology, the term resilience is defined as “the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a perturbation or disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.” There are thus at least two ways for “social ecosystems” to be resilient:

  1. Resist damage by absorbing and dampening the perturbation.
  2. Recover quickly by bouncing back.

So how does a society resist damage from a disaster? As noted in an earlier blog post, “Disaster Theory for Techies“, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster”. There are natural hazards and there are social systems. If social systems are not sufficiently resilient to absorb the impact of a natural hazard such as an earthquake, then disaster unfolds. In other words, hazards are exogenous while disasters are the result of endogenous political, economic, social and cultural processes. Indeed, “it is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith 2006).

So how do we take this understanding of disasters and apply it to building more resilient communities? Focusing on people-centered early warning systems is one way to do this. In 2006, the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) recognized that top-down early warning systems for disaster response were increasingly ineffective. They therefore called for a more bottom-up approach in the form of people-centered early warning systems. The UN ISDR’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning 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.”

Information plays a central role here. Acting in sufficient time requires having timely information about (1) the hazard(s) and (2) how to respond. As some scholars have argued, a disaster is first of all “a crisis in communicating within a community—that is, a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). Improving ways for local communities to communicate internally is thus an important part of building more resilient societies. This is where information and communication technologies (ICTs) play an important role. Free and open source software like Ushahidi can also be used (the subject of a future blog post).

Open data is equally important. Local communities need to access data that will enable them to make more effective decisions on how to best minimize the impact of certain hazards on their livelihoods. This means accessing both internal community data in real time (the previous paragraph) and data external to the community that bears relevance to the decision-making calculus at the local level. This is why I’m particularly interested in the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) spearheaded by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). Institutionalizing OpenDRI at the state level will no doubt be a challenge in and of itself, but I do hope the initiative will also be localized using a people-centered approach like the one described above.

The second way to grow more resilient societies is by enabling them to recover quickly following a disaster. As Manyena wrote in 2006, “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster.” So what factors accelerate recovery in ecosystems in general? “To recover itself, a forest ecosystem needs suitable interactions among climate conditions and bio-actions, and enough area.” In terms of social ecosystems, these interactions can take the form of information exchange.

Identifying needs following a disaster and matching them to available resources is an important part of the process. Accelerating the rate of (1) identification; (2) matching and, (3) allocation, is one way to speed up overall recovery. In ecological terms, how quickly the damaged part of an ecosystem can repair itself depends on how many feedback loops (network connections) it has to the non- (or less-) damaged parts of the ecosystem(s). Some call this an adaptive system. This is where crowdfeeding comes in, as I’ve blogged about here (The Crowd is Always There: A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response) and here (Why Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding May be the Answer to Crisis Response).

Internal connectivity and communication is important for crowdfeeding to work, as is preparedness. This is why ICTs are central to growing more resilient societies. They can accelerate the identification of needs, matching and allocation of resources. Free and open source platforms like Ushahidi can also play a role in this respect, as per my recent blog post entitled “Check-In’s With a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response.” But without sufficient focus on disaster preparedness, these technologies are more likely to facilitate spontaneous response rather than a planned and thus efficient response. As Louis Pas-teur famously noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Hence the rationale for the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping (SBTF), for example. Open data is also important in this respect. The OpenDRI initiative is thus important for both damage resistance and quick recovery.

I’m enjoying the process of thinking through these issues again. It’s been a while since I published and presented on the topic of resilience and adaptation. So I plan to read through some of my papers from a while back that addressed these issues in the context of violent conflict and climate change. What I need to do is update them based on what I’ve learned over the past four or five years.

If you’re curious and feel like jumping into some of these papers yourself, I recommend these two as a start:

  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “New Strategies for Effective Early Response: Insights from Complexity Science.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago. Available online.
  • Meier, Patrick. 2007. “Networking Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems.” Paper prepared for the 48th Annual Convention of the Int’l Studies Association (ISA) in Chicago.  Available online.

More papers are available on my Publications page. This earlier blog post on “Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience” may also be of interest to some readers.