Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS): A New Early Warning Initiative?

Update: This project is now called UN Global Pulse.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is calling for better real-time data on the impact of the financial crisis on the poor. To this end, he is committing the UN to the development of a Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (or GIVAS) in the coming months.  While I commend the initiative’s focus on innovative data collection, I’m concerned that this is yet another “early warning system” that will fail to bridge alert and operational response.

The platform is being developed in collaboration with the World Bank and will use real time data to assess the vulnerability of particular countries or populations. “This will provide the evidence needed to determine specific and appropriate responses,” according to UNDP. UN-Habitat opines that the GVA will be a “vital tool to know what is happening and to hold ourselves accountable to those who most need our help.”

According to sources, the objective for the GIVAS is to “ensure that in times of global crisis, the fate of the poorest and most vulnerable populations is not marginalized in the international community’s response. By closely monitoring emerging and dramatically worsening vulnerabilities on the ground, the Alert would fill the information gap that currently exists between the point when a global crisis hits vulnerable populations and when information reaches decision makers through official statistical channels.”

GIVAS will draw on both high frequency and low frequency indicators:

The lower frequency contextual indicators would allow the Alert system to add layers of analysis to the real time “evidence” generated by the high frequency indicators. Contextual indicators would provide information, for example, on a country’s capacity to respond to a crisis (resilience) or its exposure to a crisis (transmission channels). Contextual indicators could be relatively easily drawn from existing data bases. Given their lesser crisis sensitivity, they are generally collected less frequently without losing significantly in relevance.”

The high frequency indicators would allow the system to pick up significant and immediately felt changes in vulnerability at sentinel sites in specific countries. This data would constitute the heart of the Alert system, and would provide the real-time evidence – both qualitative and quantitative – of the effects of external shocks on the most vulnerable populations. Data would be collected by participating partners and would be uploaded into the Alert’s technical platform.”

The pulse indicators would have to be highly crisis sensitive (i.e. provide early signals that there is a significant impact), should be available in high periodicity and should be able to be collected with relative ease and at a reasonable cost. Data would be collected using a variety of methodologies, including mobile communication tools (i.e. text messaging), quick impact assessment surveys, satellite imagery and sophisticated media tracking systems.”

The GIVAS is also expected to use natural language processing (NLP) to extract data from the web. In addition, GIVAS will also emphasize the importance of data presentation and possibly draw on Gapminder’s Trendalyzer software.

There’s a lot more to say on GIVAS and I will definitely blog more about this new initiative as more information becomes public. My main question at this point is simple: How will GIVAS seek to bridge the alert-response gap? Oh, and a related question: has the GIVAS team reviewed past successes and failures of early warning/response systems?

Patrick Philippe Meier

27 responses to “Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS): A New Early Warning Initiative?

  1. From what I can tell from your (wonderfully mysterious) report and UN statements last week (extract below), this is:

    A) not Open Source or even reusable software
    B) developed by the World Bank and
    C) tightly controlled by UN personnel who
    D) will produce “reports.”

    None of which gives me a great deal of confidence, though this quote does (at least rhetorically) touch on your concerns, Patrick:

    “The UN development system has an important role to play in articulating and supporting a coherent global response to the crisis, and in seeing that translated into action at the country level. …. The UN system is also working with other development partners to establish a “Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System”, to track the impact of global crises on the most vulnerable, and to provide decision makers with evidence which can guide specific, rapid, and appropriate responses to countries suffering from the crisis. … By September, both the response mechanism should be agreed and a first report of the “Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System” will be ready.”

  2. Thanks Chris. Was just reminded of the “CNN effect” idea which made me think of GVA:

    “While there was once a common assumption that real-time coverage – once labeled the CNN effect – created an imperative that ‘something must be done’, often that ‘something’ was an active decision to do nothing or as little as possible, with a good chance of getting away with it.”

  3. Hi Patrick and Chris,

    While we personally like the idea of being “wonderfully mysterious”, this is not an attribute we are looking for to characterize the GIVAS project.

    GIVAS — while a bit long and wordy — stands for Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System. The idea for it arose from the realization that there is a pretty wide gap between when a crisis hits the most vulnerable and when information on what’s happening finally emerges — we have seen this both during the food crisis and now again during the financial/economic crisis. Actions can’t be based on anecdotes …

    The GIVAS is intended to help fill this gap by linking together existing early warning systems and making better use of new innovative ways of collecting real time data. The system is both intended to show impact (i.e. what’s happening now) and raise alarm bells as to potentially dramatically worsening vulnerabilities (i.e. what could happen if we don’t act). Sure, knowing what’s happening is not a guarantee for action — but certainly better than not knowing what’s going on …

    However, Patrick has hit on a key point — how do we ensure that we bridge the alert-response gap … we have had many discussions on this, especially with our colleagues from the humanitarian agencies. I guess our answer is partly “we leave this to others”, partly “we provide back-up”… On the former, one of the objectives of the GIVAS is to be an open information network that links real time data from various sources — its data is free and can be used to raise awareness about what’s happening (the more voices, the better …). On the latter, the UN Secretary-General will also be using data provided by GIVAS to issue his own alerts (that’s the “A” in GIVAS). These will be directed at global leaders at strategic times — his messages will be “big picture” (i.e. with a focus on global and regional trends). We hope that these SG’s Alerts will help keep the plight of the most vulnerable in the global spotlight (when attention has moved on — another CNN effect … ) and serve as a reminder/accountability check.

    On a more humble note, we want to emphasize that this project has been around for only 12 weeks or so — hence we are still very much in the conceptual stages. Lots of ideas that need to be further refined … Innovative thinking from different communities will be crucial for GIVAS to work — such inputs (ideas, but also critical comments) will help us develop something worthwhile. One idea we are thinking about is to set up a wiki space/chat room where such ideas could be further discussed. We will keep you posted.

    To respond to a few of Chris’ points (and again, from the perspective of something that is only in ideation):

    A) “not open source or even reusable software”. As mentioned above, the system is intended as a public good – the frameworks and protocols developed would be open source and follow the philosophy of free and open source software. Clearly for a system this big and inclusive, this is the only way to proceed.

    B) “developed by the World Bank …”. The idea to develop this system has come from many different directions. The UN system (not one agency but probably at least 20+ UN agencies) has started to brainstorm how to develop its broad conceptual parameters. Because of the F/OSS nature of it, it should definitely be an inclusive partnership that can also bring in other parties external to the UN as appropriate. Undoubtedly a lot of the innovation comes from outside the UN …

    C) “tightly controlled by UN personnel”. Parts of the system – which are the non-software parts – would be managed by the UN (e.g. data quality checks and the SG’s Alert outputs)… but that has nothing to do with the larger framework, which would be open and accessible, both in terms of data access and software.

    D) “will produce reports”. As mentioned above, the SG will issue periodic alerts — or situation reports. These will be short and hopefully quite powerful in terms of their messages. But these are only one possible output of a system that is designed to be accessible, mine-able, and interactive in its protocols, api’s, frameworks and data…so you could take the data and use it for whatever you want.

    One last comment, Patrick asked whether we had looked at any existing early warning and response systems — especially what has made them successful or fail (and there are unfortunately quite a few in the latter category)… What we have done is start compiling an inventory of what’s out there and started speaking to those who have worked on setting up these systems. Any experiences (do’s and don’ts) you can share would be greatly appreciated.

    We are really excited that the blogging community is picking this up. We hope that you can share your experiences and suggestions with us across a range of issues as we work on this exciting new UN effort.

  4. Dear GIVAS Team,

    Many thanks for your collaborative reply and feedback, I definitely share your spirit of open collaboration and very much appreciate your interest in having the blogging community support your new UN effort.

    In response to your call for suggestions, I would certainly be happy to share what I have learned from working in the crisis mapping and conflict early warning over the past 5+ years. You’re absolutely right that most initiatives have failed and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has just completed an intense and comprehensive 2-year Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning to identify some of these factors and associated lessons learned.

    I’m very pleased to note that you have begun to compile an inventory of what’s out there and would be happy to provide feedback on the early warning/response systems that I have consulted on and/or evaluated, e.g., ORCI, OCHA Early Warning Unit, FAST, GeoMonitor, Forecite, KEDS, EnvSec, CEWARN, FCE, FTI, ECOWARN, CEWS, ECCAS/MARAC, IFES/Belun, Ushahidi, UNDP/TRMA, Colombia Early Warning System, etc. I plan to be in New York in early August for other UN meetings and would be happy to meet with you. In the meantime, may I point you to my other blog specifically on conflict early warning/response?

    This blog contains much of what I have learned in the field over that past 8 years. I also manage a Google Group of 100+ leading expert practitioners and scholars in the field of conflict early warning/response and conflict prevention from around the world. I’d of course be happy to add you as well.

    Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts and for opening the conversation. I hope to have the opportunity to meet in person in the near future. I would certainly value having a conversation on the challenges and opportunities for bridging the warning-response gap.

    I can also be reached at my Harvard Humanitarian Initiative email:

  5. This is an impressive response, particularly regarding the platform being FOSS and API accessible.

    Can’t wait to see it develop; I would particularly like to see the outcome of your research into existing early warning system designs.

    Is there a release date?

  6. Sorry for our delayed reply — we are not quite real-time yet …

    Chris, the research into existing early warning systems is currently more of an inventory that’s still evolving … (I see from Patrick’s response several systems we should add). Once we have something more solid, we are happy to share, if it’s useful.

    Patrick, it would be great to meet when you are in New York. Same for you, Chris, if you ever come to the East Coast.

  7. Video for the GIVAS system…

  8. Also of potential interest to folks is that SPIDER ( is being built with Drupal, PostGIS/Mapserver, and CiviCRM .

  9. I forgot to mention that the mapping services will incorporate industrial-strength ArcGIS server as well shortly.

  10. I’ve featured this today at the Public Intelligence Blog, and am getting in touch directly. I’m the guy that put Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) on the table in 1988 and have helped 90 countries migrate toward better use of sources and methods that can be shared. Now our non-profit sponsor, Earth Intelligence Network, is seeing $12 a year to create the World Brain with an embedded EarthGame designed by Madard Gabel, which would integrate both real-time everything and true-cost everything by enabling any individual to enter data into the system, to include creating a Global Range of Needs online table that would allow multiple parties to resolve a need (tourist posts need for part for Rumanian 1950’s water pump; Rumanian engineer offers up the part; German family pays for shipping, an NGO person takes responsibility for delivering; another tourist confirms closure so karma points can be awarded.

    I think the GIVAS team would be well-advised to host a small round-table of at least 12 people including those active here in comments and the blog sponsor, Medard Gabel, General Patrick Cammaert who created JMAC and whoever is in charge of the UN Situation Centre, etc.

    Am in Madrid right now raising money for the World Brain/EarthGame, which should be a UN program, and we have been talking about the instant scalability of F/OSS with OSINT *and* Open Spectrum. I have introduce the idea of local clouds where every device is inherently capable of local wireless, such that the Internet can never again be shut down by order of government.

    I publish books as a hobby. Patrick, I’d like to talk to you about a book edited by you that pulls together the best of the best. See what we did for PhD student Mark Tovey in COLLECTIVE INTELLIGENCE: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace. Ideal would be for your book to be the GIVAS strategic, operational, tactical, and technical handbook, free online, translatable into all languages.

    I’ll be back in Virginia Friday.

  11. also of potential interest is a concept paper I did with Lorant Czaran, Dave Gray, Chris Kosnik, Glenn Hyman, etc a while (5 yrs?) at:

    see the last section entitled “High Performance Computing”. looooong running debate with the folks of , , etc

    All comes down to funded projects.

    Speaking of which, a number of posibilities with this year’s EU FP7 call for Africa, but it will take a lot of time…anyone up for proposal writing?

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  13. Thanks for the UN Spider lead, I posted that at the Public Intelligence Blog.

    When I was on the Advanced Information Processing and Analysis Steering Group at CIA, I recall we inventoried all the efforts to create an “all-source analytic desktop toolkit” and found something like 20 projects, all isolated from each other, across 5-6 agencies, each with its own internal isolation of projects.

    GIVAS impresses me. This blog of Patrick’s has impressed me. I believe that GIVAS should gather a bunch of us together to scope out what a World Brain / Earth Game should like like, and then STEER other-people’s money as well as social capital toward this OS3 project (new acronym, I love it, stands for Open Source Software, Open Source Intelligence, Open Spectrum.

    I for one will gladly travel to Boston or NYC for such as event. There are 90 countries now that have official Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) units, the GIVAS team could start by asking each Member to identify their national, military, diplomatic, and commercial OSINT Points of Contact (POC), some will only have the one, generally in the military. Then an electronic dialog.

    As my own blog, which is the new front end to the 30,000 pages at, check out Historic Contributions, and Handbooks as well as Graphics. A lot of the homework has been done, I’m the guy that identified the eight tribes of information sharing and sense-making (Academic, Civil Society, Commercial, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Military, and Non-Governmental, and I think it would be quite spectacular if GIVAS would harness the distributed intelligence of the Earth, starting with us.

  14. Sorry, I’m a tech guy, and I still don’t know what GIVAS is, besides being 100% buzzword compliant. An email from SPIDER to their info email has gone unanswered.

    How does it, *SPECIFICLLY*, relate to actvities like: , etc.

    Having been on the inside of large-scale SMSC efforts with TCS, Verizon, ATT, etc, and now peripherally involved via friends at FOX, ESPN, etc, and, just gotta ask, in the words of an old commercial, “Where’s the beef?”

    now, back to hurricane PARMA…


  15. Wondering what’s up with the GIVAS FOSS release — is there a timeline toward having reusable code?

  16. Never heard from GIVAS on a round-table in NYC. Suspect this is a small bureaucratic effort and that nothing will come of it. ClimateGate has actually been a help, I have posted a two pager that went to the Secretary General of the UN, as well as the cover letter and the letter to the top 10 Ambassadors, at

    I would LOVE to do a round table at the UN, including the JMAC and JOC folks, the Situation Centre, UNICEF’s Rapid SMS folks, etcetera.

  17. The notion of a ‘Peace Game’ has been around for a long time; see the very last section of the paper: . I remember Will Wright, in T-shirt and flip-flops, presenting SimEarth to the Japanese National Space Agency on a visit to Sun Microsystems ~1990, most of whom were already SimCity addicts, and the endless discussions of a pluggable ‘SimCity Pro’ Closest thing actually build was SME3, as per: with STELLA models.

    Here at the OpenGIS meeting at Google (practically nobody from Google is here, they are all at CopenHagen; makes sense if they sent 30+ people to AfricaGIS) A lot of discussion in the MetOcean and Environmental working groups about coupled /hierarchical models, either Zieglar/DEVS style or otherwise. All the ESMF people will be in town for AGU next week as well.

  18. Chris,

    The big jump between past concepts (Peace Game, Sim, DoD spending today) comes from three things:

    1. For the first time, we have a Strategic Analytic Model that integrates the top ten threats to humanity, the twelve core policies that must be harmonized, and the eight demographic powers.

    2. For the first time, True Cost and Life Cycle Analysis are at a point where single individuals can make a difference

    3. For the first time, the Internet makes it possible to actually create a Global Game that connects all humans with all information in all languages all the time.

    Best wishes,

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