Monthly Archives: April 2010

Crowdsourcing and the Veil of Ignorance: A Question of Morality?

Patrick Ball and I had a series of long email exchanges this past week on the much talked-about-issue of crowdsourcing versus representative sampling. It’s an old issue that keeps coming up. But there’s really no debate, in my opinion. Crowdsourced data is not necessarily representative. That really should not be breaking news.

Also, it is worth repeating that Ushahidi is a platform, not a methodology. So an election-monitoring organization like the National Democratic Institute (NDI) could certainly generate representative polling data using Ushahidi by applying random sampling methods, for example. I already blogged about this several months ago in a post titled “Three Common Misconceptions About Ushahidi.” So I’m not going to rehash this here. Instead, I’d like to take a more “philosophical” approach.

In a “Theory of Justice,” the philosopher John Rawls introduces the “veil of ignorance“, a thought-experiment designed to determine the morality of a certain issue. The idea goes something like this: imagine that you have to decide on the morality of an issue before you are born, i.e., you stand behind a veil of ignorance as you don’t know where you will be born, what race, with what kind of family, etc.

As put by John Rawls himself … “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

For example, in the imaginary society, you might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since you may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, this theory encourages thinking about society from the perspective of all members. The veil of ignorance is part of the long tradition of thinking in terms of a social contract.

What does this have to do with crowdsourcing? If you were standing behind this metaphorical veil of ignorance, would you outlaw the crowdsourcing of crisis information on the basis that the data may not be  representative? Or would you still like to receive SMS alerts from crowdsourced information? The text messages sent to Ushahidi-Haiti by Haitians in life-and-death situations were not necessarily statistically representative, but they saved lives.

What would you choose?

Patrick Philippe Meier

My TEDx Talk: From Photosynth to ALLsynth

I just gave a TEDx talk and my presentation played off a recent blog post of mine entitled “Wag The Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Information can be a Pain.” I introduced some new ideas and angles to the topic so here is basically a blog post version of the presentation.

We all know that open crowdsourcing platforms are susceptible to information vandalism, i.e., false information deliberately used to mislead. For example, if an Ushahidi platform were used in Iran, the government there could start reporting events to Ushahidi that never happened; perhaps events that suggest protesters attacked first and that riot police were just acting in self defense. But, I’m going to argue that falsifying crowdsourced information can actually be a pain. And I’m going to use the analogy of “Wag the Dog” to explain why. If you haven’t watched the movie, the story is based on a White House Administration that pretends a war has broken out in Albania to divert public opinion and hopefully increase the President’s ratings prior to re-election.

Here’s a 30 second highlight on how they created a fake war:

In a way, Wag the Dog already happened for real. Except the story was called “The War of the Worlds” and it was played as a radio broadcast in 1938. “War of the Worlds” is drama about a Martian invasion of Earth. What was particularly fun about this radio broadcast was that the first 2/3 of the 1-hr long story was just a series of simulated news bulletins. And the story ran uninterrupted, ie, without commercials. So many radio listeners in the US freaked out, thinking a real invasion was taking place!

The panic this caused even made it on the front page of the New York Times! Clearly, pulling of a Wag-the-Dog in the 1930s was a piece of cake!

And that’s because the information ecosystem looked something like this in the 1930s. Largely disconnected and broadcast only, ie, one-to-many. Can anyone point out an important node that should be included in this ecosystem? That’s right, the newspaper. But the paper would not have been printed at the speed that the radio broadcast was taking place to help counter fears; unlike today, of course, thanks to online news.

Today’s information ecosystem obviously looks little different. Many-to-many, peer-to-peer, 2-way, real-time information and communication technologies. Now, we might argue that this kind of ecosystem makes it easier for repressive regimes to game since the system is closely integrated and interoperable, which means information can propagate very quickly. Secretary Clinton recently called our information ecosystem the new nervous system of the planet. But then again, these diverse sources of user-generated content could also make it easier to triangulate and filter out false information.

For example, in the case of Iran, the high volume of pictures and videos posted on Flickr and YouTube made it rather difficult for the government to claim nothing was happening. Information blockades are likely to join the Berlin Walls of history. Today, you can get pictures of the same incident from three different camera phones, in addition to tweets and text messages, etc.

This is what Ushahidi is about, aggregating crisis information across different media and mapping that information in near real time to improve transparency, accountability and coordination.

Take the Ushahidi-Haiti map, for example. Crowdsourcing crisis information on Haiti allowed us to map several thousand incidents over just a few weeks, which actually saved lives on the ground. The incidents we mapped came from a myriad of sources: thousands of text messages directly from Haiti, hundreds of Tweets, information from Facebook Groups, online media, live Skype chats with the Search and Rescue Teams in Port-au-Prince, list serves, radio, you name it. Volunteers at The Fletcher School mapped this information in near real-time for several weeks and first responders used the map to save lives.

Check out this animation of the events unfolding from just a few hours after the quake.

What you see are events “overlapping” and clustering, ie, on several occasions we get two or more text messages from different numbers reporting the same event. And then a Tweet with similar information, for example. The crowdsourcing of crisis information allows us to triangulate and validate information thanks to the reporting coming from a myriad of sources in near real-time. This would hardly have been possible in the 1930s, which is what prompted my colleague Anand at the New York Times to write an article on our work and ask,

They say that history is written by the winners, will future history be written by the crowd?

Ushahidi’s crowded map of Haiti reminded me of Photosynth. Taking hundreds crowdsourced pictures and “stitching” them together to reproduce historical monuments. In 3D no less!

Here’s a quick 20 second video demo:

So the question is, can Ushahidi become the “ALLsynth” by stitching together crowdsourced crisis information across many different types of media? Ushahidi platforms have been deployed hundreds of times across the world. Here are just four examples.

From mapping the Swine Flu outbreak to reporting on the war in Gaza, to citizen-powered election monitoring in India and disaster response in the Philippines. Would stitching together these hundreds of platforms amount to creating an ALLsynth? What would it take to game an ALLsynth?

As I mentioned in my Wag the Dog post, perhaps some of the following:

  • Dozens of pictures from as many different camera phones of an event that never happened.
  • Text messages using different wording to describe an event that never happened.
  • Tweets (not retweets!).
  • Fake blog posts, Facebook groups and Wikipedia entries.
  • Fake video footage. Heck, you’d probably want to hack the international media and plant a fake article in the New York Times home page.
  • If you really want to go all out, you’d want to get hundreds of (paid?) actors like in The Truman Show.
  • You’d likely want to cordon off an entire area of the city or city outskirts.
  • Then you’d want to choreograph a few fight scenes with these actors.
  • A few rehearsals would probably be in order too.
  • Oh and of course props, plus lots of ketchup if you want things to look like they went badly.

In other words, you’d probably want to move to Hollywood to fabricate all this… That said, there’s another way that repressive regimes could deal with an unwanted Ushahidi platform, like this one being used by Sudanese civil society groups in the Sudan to monitor the elections currently taking place. We found out yesterday from our Sudanese colleagues that the site was no longer accessible in the Sudan (see official press release here in PDF). Blocking and censoring websites is really easy for governments to do, and we expected that Sudan would be no different.

So our Sudanese colleagues have been working with their tech-savvy friends to circumvent the censorship and continue mapping election irregularities—this is my applied dissertation research in action, I just never thought that my own actions would influence the data.  They set up a mirror site under an different domain name. This may become a cyber-game-of-cat-and-mouse, there is plenty of precedents for this: civil society finds a loophole, which is then blocked by the state, which prompts the search for another loophole, etc, etc. I expect that repressive regimes may eventually give up on blocking websites given the likely futility. Instead, they may try to game the platforms by falsifying crowdsourced information.

But as I have just argued, falsifying crowdsourced information can be a pain. So if repressive regimes start pouring money into their domestic film industries, particularly in blue screen technology, you’ll know why, and this is what you can expect to happen next:

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Response and SMS Systems Management for NGOs and Governments

Guest blog post: Bart Stidham is an enterprise architect committed to bringing positive change to the world via better information systems architecture. He has served as CTO of four companies including one of the largest communications companies in the world, been a senior executive at Accenture, and served as CIO of the largest NGO funded by USAID. He is an independent consultant and can be found in Washington, DC when he is not traveling.

This blog post builds off of and supports Patrick Meier’s previous post on developing an SMS Code of Conduct for Humanitarian Response. Patrick raises many important issues in his post and it is clear that with the success of Ushahidi-Haiti it is likely we will see a vast increase in the use of similar SMS based information management systems in the future. While the deployment of such systems and all communications systems is likely to be orderly and well structured in normal circumstances, it is likely that during crises such order may break down and these systems may negatively impact one another. For this reason I applaud Patrick’s effort to raise this issue but my hope is that the “normal order” imposed by governments and societies will help prevent the potential disruption of communications systems from occurring in disasters, emergencies, and crises.

I believe Patrick’s concerns are best discussed in the larger issue of frequency spectrum management. This is a huge issue and one that needs substantial education within the entire response space. It is a growing problem across each and every communications system not just in crises but also globally as we humans desire to communicate more in more ways and with more devices. There are limits to the amount of information that can be “pushed” through any communications system and those limits increasingly have to do with the laws of physics, not just the design of the systems.

The electromagnetic frequency spectrum (EF) is the basis of all wireless communication. We started our use of it the late 1800s with the first use of radio. Long ago we exhausted the entire spectrum and are now trying to find ways to reuse parts of it more efficiently. However it is critical that we protect this “public commons” on which so many of our communications systems depend.

Every communications system needs a “physical channel” and this varies widely but they all share some common characteristics. One is the problem of “collisions” which are bad because that means that the information is not delivered successfully. As humans using the physical channel of sound and speech we encounter this in our normal conversations whenever we meet in groups. A simple example of a collision is when two or more people are talking loudly over each other with the result being that no one understands what either is saying.

There are multiple ways to deal with collisions and every communications system must manage collisions or the system collapses. One way is to have a token and you are only allowed to talk if you hold the token. This method of managing communications was used brilliantly by various Native American tribes when discussing heated issues such as war – if you are not in possession of the peace pipe (the token) you are not allowed to speak. This forces everyone to listen to what you are saying and to politely take turns speaking. It is passed back and forth and everyone gets a turn. There are several types of network architecture that use this exact method for avoiding collisions.

Another method is collision avoidance by assigning each speaker a window of time to speak in. This is roughly the approach used by GSM for instance. Yet another method is collision detection where you allow for a certain statistical overlap and all parties know that the last “conversation” collided with another and the information was lost. The system then corrects the problem. This is not as efficient but is easy to do and cheap to implement. This is what Ethernet uses.

Finally as systems are deployed and interact with each other in a certain physical space they need to divide up the space. This can be done by frequency or cables or physical area or by time or all of the above.

In our discussion SMS are best likened to frequencies (although this is not an exact analogy). The advantage of them is that no two NGOs can ever end up with the same long code as this is handled by the carriers and their agreements. Internationally no two carriers can ever issue the same phone number or long code globally. If all NGOs stuck with long codes or full phone numbers we could avoid the problem Patrick is rightly concerned with.

NGOs and other organizations can problematically and mistakenly issue the same short code within a geographic area and we should all be concerned about this exactly as Patrick is. This problem can happen because short codes are for humans – not for the system itself. If the carriers are using different underlying cell phone technologies they can both issue the same short code and neither will interfere technically with the other one. Unfortunately it could have disastrous consequences for the socialization of the short codes to the local or larger population if they cross either technical or geographic lines. This is a problem largely unique to SMS and the plethora of technologies,carriers, bands (or frequencies) that can be deployed in a large physical area and the fact that short codes are for human convenience.

Right now there are 14 frequency bands just within the GSM voice system (thankfully quad band phones support all the widely used ones) and another 14 for data (furthermore the data “bands” actually cover a huge range of frequencies). This is why it is possible to have within one region, country or city with two “overlapping” short codes on two or more different carriers – the codes will each work only on the carrier that operates on that actual GSM frequency band. The system doesn’t care but it can be confusing to us humans.

Another thing Patrick has raised as a concern is actually “subject matter frequency” overlap (or collisions) and the confusion that can result to us simpleminded humans.

It makes no difference how many SMS codes are used as long as they are long codes OR if private and on short codes. The only time there is a problem is when two groups set up short codes that become public (meaning they are advertised in some way to the general public) as “the right number for X” where X is the same subject matter area.

In order to speed response many countries do NOT follow the US 911 system which uses a single short number for all emergencies. For instance Austria uses no less than 9 “short code” voice numbers each for a separate emergency type. That’s great if you live there and have them all memorized and know that for extreme sports there is a number just for “alpine rescue” to get your friend off some ledge that he crashed into in his para-glider. It speeds vital response and gets the right team dispatched in the least time. It does however require a massive amount of public education.

In the US the government decided to have a “one number fits all” system. This was in response to the fact that previously we had thousands of local numbers for each fire and police department, hospital and ambulance service. Without a local phone book it wasn’t possible to know who to call in an emergency. We designed the 911 system as a way to solve this problem and looped all three major responders into the one system. This was then deployed on a county by county basis across the US. There is no national 911 system. The system scales by dividing itself into small geographic sections.

SMS systems tend to be larger in size because SMS carriers are geographically larger that the old local phone POP (point of presence) that became the basis of the US 911 system. Another major concern for SMS design is the total carrying capacity of the carrier SMS system itself. SMS is NOT designed to be use for “one to many” messages. That was never part of the design and the system can be knocked out if the overall limits of the system are exceeded. At that point the SMS systems themselves collapse under the load and start failing and can cause a cascade failure of the entire carrier network in a region – this means that SMS can knock out voice. It does appear that such a failure occurred in Haiti to one of the local carriers that implemented an SMS emergency broadcast system in conjunction with an NGO so this is a real problem.

Getting back to Patrick’s identified concern – we should be worried when multiple SMS “subject channels” are socialized via the mass media and it confuses the public. In Haiti that didn’t happen because there was only one due largely to the work and efforts of the 4636 Haiti.Ushahidi community.

I believe in the future that is also unlikely to happen because I hope the mass media outlets will simply refuse to say “use any of the following SMS codes for health and these for x and y and z.” I think they won’t do this haphazardly. Doing so (meaning confusing the public) could endanger their (mass media) operating license from the host country.

Furthermore countries and cities are typically aware of this whole discussion and carefully control the distribution of short codes (but this does vary widely from region to region). The country that issues the carrier the license to operate the infrastructure is the ultimate authority for this and reserves the right to yank someone off the air or kick them out of the country for failure to follow the rules. Frequency spectrum must be managed for the greater public good or the classic “crisis of the commons” will result. This is the concern Patrick has brought to light.
One can not and should not assume that the rules, laws and policies we (individuals) are used to operating under in our home country apply elsewhere. The term “sovereign nation” means exactly that – they set their own laws concerning how things operate – including technology and communications systems. For instance WiFi is NOT WiFi everywhere and a WiFI router sold in Japan is illegal to operate in the US.

Some well meaning but largely uneducated NGOs deployed systems in Haiti that badly broke rules, laws, policies, etc and the Government of Haiti (and the US Government on behalf of the Haitian Government) was very polite to them. They stepped all over local businesses and disrupted them. Had this happened in the US the FCC would have issued huge fines to them – fines that likely would drive them out of business – and for good reason. They are exploiting the “public commons” for their own advantage. Whether they meant to or not is irrelevant just as ignorance of the law is no excuse.

In the past most responders to such emergencies were large NGOs with trained communications teams that knew they must coordinate their use of various communications platforms with each other or everyone would suffer. In this past this was easy and obvious because NGOs, governments and businesses made extensive use of UHF and VHF radios for communications. Because these systems were voice based it was obvious when you had a problem and when someone was on your assigned frequency. Furthermore you frequently had the opportunity to yell at them over that same communications system.

In the era of digital communications systems we no longer have the ability to yell at anyone and in fact both the designed legal and official user and the illegal user may be unaware that they are colliding and causing both systems to fail. This is a huge problem because it means that both parties have no way to know even know they are interfering with each other much less how or where to resolve the problem.

In conclusion, I applaud Patrick’s efforts as he has raised an important issue that all NGOs that respond to emergencies (both in the US and abroad) must to be aware of. Education is critical. Please tell your organization that they must contact and coordinate with the official frequency manager, typically the local government’s communications agency or ministry, prior to deploying any communications equipment. Failing to do so is typically illegal and can have grave consequences in emergencies, crises and disasters.

Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience

Macbeth’s castle, Act 1, Scene VII. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are plotting Duncan’s death.

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: Then we fail! But screw your courage to the sticking place, And we’ll not fail.

Complex dynamic systems tend to veer towards critical change. This is explained by the process of Self-Organized Criticality (SEO). Over time, non-equilibrium systems with extended degrees of freedom and a high level of nonlinearity become increasingly vulnerable to collapse. As the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) notes,

“The archetype of a self-organized critical system is a sand pile. Sand is slowly dropped onto a surface, forming a pile. As the pile grows, avalanches occur which carry sand from the top to the bottom of the pile.”

Scholars like Thomas Homer-Dixon argue that we are becoming increasingly prone to domino effects or cascading changes across systems, thus increasing the likelihood of total synchronous failure. “A long view of human history reveals not regular change but spasmodic, catastrophic disruptions followed by long periods of reinvention and development.”

That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily done for, however. As Homer-Dixon notes, we can “build resilience into all systems critical to our well-being. A resilience system can absorb large disturbances without changing its fundamental nature.”

“Resilience is an emergent property of a system–it’s not a result of any one of the system’s parts but of the synergy between all of its parts.  So as a rough and ready rule, boosting the ability of each part to take care of itself in a crisis boosts overall resilience.”

This is where Homer-Dixon’s notion of “failing gracefully” comes in: “somehow we have to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse.”

“In our organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planners call ‘graceful’ failure. When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved. Also, the part of the system that has been damaged recovers by drawing resources and information from undamaged parts.”

“Breakdown is probably something that human social systems must go through to adapt successfully to changing conditions over the long term. But if we want to have any control over our direction in breakdown’s aftermath, we must keep breakdown constrained. Reducing as much as we can the force of underlying tectonic stresses helps, as does making our societies more resilient. We have to do other things too, and advance planning for breakdown is undoubtedly the most important.”

Planning for breakdown is not defeatist or passive. Quite on the contrary, it is wise and pro-active. Our hubris all too often clouds our better judgment and rarely do we—as the humanitarian/development community—seriously ask ourselves what we would do “if we should fail.” The answer: “then we fail” is an option. But are we, like Macbeth, prepared to live with the consequences?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Wag the Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Data Can Be a Pain

I had the pleasure of finally meeting Robert Scoble in person at Where 2.0 last week. We had a great chat about validating crowdsourced information, which he caught on camera below. In the conversation, I used Wag the Dog as an analogy for Ushahidi‘s work on Swift River. I’d like to expand on this since open platforms are obviously susceptible to “information vandalism”, ie, having false data deliberately entered.

The typical concern goes something like this: what if a repressive regime (or non-state group) feeds false information to an Ushahidi deployment? As I’ve noted on iRevolution before (here, here and here), Swift River collects information from sources across various media such as SMS, Twitter, Facebook Groups, Blogs, Online News, Flickr and YouTube. In other words, Swift River pulls in visual and text based information.

So where does Wag the Dog come in? Have a look at this scene from the movie if you haven’t watched it yet:

If an authoritarian state wanted to pretend that rioters had violently attacked military police and submit false information to this effect in an Ushahidi deployment, for example, then what would that effort entail? Really gaming the system would probably require the following recipe:

  1. Dozens of  pictures of different quality from different types of phones of fake rioters taken from different angles at different times.
  2. Dozens of text messages from different phone using similar language to describe the fake riots.
  3. Several dozens of Tweets to this same effect. Not just retweets.
  4. Several fake blog posts and Facebook groups.
  5. Several YouTube videos of fake footage.
  6. Hacking national and international media to plant fake reports in the mainstream media.
  7. Hundreds of (paid?) actors of different ages and genders to play the rioters, military police, shopkeepers, onlookers, etc.
  8. Dozens of “witnesses” who can take pictures, create video footage, etc.
  9. A cordoned off area in the city where said actors can stage the scene. Incidentally, choreographing a fight scene using hundreds actors definitely needs time and requires rehearsals. A script would help.
  10. Props including flags, banners, guns, etc.
  11. Ketchup, lots of ketchup.
  12. Consistent weather. Say a repressive state decides to preemptively create this false information just in case it might become useful later in the year. If it was raining during the acting, it better be raining when the state wants to use that false data.

Any others you can think of? I’d love to expand the recipe. In any case, I think the above explains why I like using the analogy of Wag the Dog. If a repressive state wanted to fabricate an information ecosystem to game an Ushahidi install, they’d have to move to Hollywood. Is Swift River a silver bullet? No, but the platform will make it more of pain for states to game Ushahidi.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Rethinking the UN’s Global Pulse

Update: This project is now called UN Global Pulse.

I’m in Bellagio on Lake Como this week for a Blue Sky Thinkers Workshop on the UN’s new Global Pulse Initiative. When I first blogged about GIVAS as it was called back in July 2009, the Pulse Team in the UN Secretary General’s Office actually commented on my blog post. The fact that the UNSG’s Office was taking the time to read blogs and comment on them was the first sign that something about this project was very different from my previous experience with the UN.

We’re under Chatham House Rules here so I’ll just stick to my own thoughts on what I think Global Pulse should be. First, I don’t think Global Pulse should be for the UN or nation states. The global alert system should directly empower vulnerable communities to prevent or mitigate the impact of crises on their own livelihoods. In other words, Global Pulse should be a self-help system for vulnerable communities. The development and maintenance of this system should be the responsibility of the UN and governments.

So here’s an idea (still under development): why not use the QuestionBox technology and approach to create “call in” centers for information on tactics for resilience.

Question Box helps people find answers to everyday questions like health, agriculture, business, education and entertainment. It provides easy access to information in hard-to-reach areas and breaks through technology, language and literacy barriers. We do this through:

  • Live telephone hotlines connected to live operators
  • SMS (Text Messaging)
  • Mobile and solar technologies that operate off the grid
  • Open Question – a simple software to start your own Question Box project

The group behind Question Box also help several organizations start their own Question Box-inspired services. So lets turn Global Pulse into a Global Resilience Information Service for vulnerable communities. There are four key reasons I find this approach compelling. First, this approach provides a demand-driven direct service to vulnerable communities as opposed to just “watching” them. Databases of resilience tactics can be (continually) developed by either local communities themselves or government sponsored projects. This information can then be shared across towns and regions. Think of this as a “Resilience Wiki”.

The second reason I want to continue exploring this system is because the queries made using a Resilience Question Box approach are in and of themselves important indicators. Think of Google’s Flu trends project. The team “found a close relationship between the number of people who search for flu-related topics and the number of people who actually have flu symptoms.” In other words, the queries made to Resilience Question Box could serve as proxy indicators for local vulnerability. This data would then be analyzed for trends and policy making at the UN.

The third reason this approach appeals to me is because it serves the interest of vulnerability communities first and foremost. The rhetoric behind global alert systems is that they are for vulnerable communities but the reality is that these communities rarely know that such systems actually exist. The first indicator of success for Global Pulse will therefore be whether vulnerable communities are aware of Pulse. A second indicator will be whether they actually use the system.

The fourth and final reason I’m keen about a Question Box approach is because of the focus on information for vulnerable communities. In my opinion, most crises are ultimately crises in information, which is another reason why information is power. Imagine if Global Pulse could work with Member States to set up hundreds of thousands of Resilience Boxes. Think of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Global Pulse could provide a Resilience Box per Vulnerable Community, enabling the latter to make more informed decisions to increase their own resilience in near real-time.

Now how does one fund all this? I got a possible answer over lunch while talking to one of the participants (whose identity I can’t reveal because of Chatham House Rules). How about a Kiva for Resilience Boxes? Instead of donating money to one (or more) specific project, you could donate money for 50 QuestionBox answers to a specific community in Bangladesh. I personally find that very compelling, i.e., knowing that my money provided 50 answers for vulnerable communities. In return for my donation, perhaps I could also get a copy of the 50 questions/answers and learn something new in the process.

Patrick Philippe Meier

From Grassroots Mapping to One Satellite Per Child

There were some amazing presentations at Where 2.0, but for me personally, Jeffrey Warren’s talk on Community-based Grassroots Mapping with Balloons and Kites in Lima was the most exciting. Jeffrey and his colleagues were inspired by two MIT undergraduate students who “launched a digital camera into near-space to take photographs of the earth from high up above.”

Jeff and colleague traveled to Lima in January 2010 to work with children and adults from several communities to bring a truly participatory (and fun!) approach to mapping.

Seeking to invert the traditional power structure of cartography, the grassroots mappers used helium balloons and kites to loft their own “community satellites” made with inexpensive digital cameras. The resulting images, which are owned by the residents, are georeferenced and stitched into maps which are 100x higher resolution that those offered by Google, at extremely low cost.

In some cases these maps may be used to support residents’ claims to land title. By creating open-source tools to include everyday people in exploring and defining their own geography, we hopes to enable a diverse set of alternative agendas and practices, and to emphasize the fundamentally narrative and subjective aspects of mapping over its use as a medium of control.

Once several pictures have been taken, they can be “stitched together” to form a map like the one below. The stitching can be done by hand or using this neat tool.

All it takes is $100 for the equipment below. In fact, you could even use $1.30 trash bags instead to reduce the cost. I highly recommend looking through this fun illustrated guide.

I also like how the communities used tracing paper to annotate the maps they produced from the balloons. This is something I had wanted to do for this community mapping project in the Sudan.

I absolutely love this project. It’s easy, cheap, participatory, empowering and fun. Jeff and company are democratizing aerial mapping. I’d love to see this approach take off all over the world and would like to find some use cases in the humanitarian context, e.g., in post-disaster reconstruction and development. Imagine if local communities in Haiti could use balloon mapping to hold the development community accountable for the way their own country is being rebuilt. This approach can democratize urban planning in post-disaster environments.

Do check out the Grassroots Mapping website. You can also sign up for the group’s mailing list. If you’re in the Boston area, you may want to join Jeffrey and friends for some balloon mapping excercises. I definitely will! In the meantime, check out Jeff’s Ignite Talk from the 2009 CrisisMappers Conference.

Patrick Philippe Meier