Monthly Archives: July 2010

Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?

Thanks for joining us for the second episode in the new “Crowd-Sorcerers Series.” If you missed the season premiere on “How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and Why It’s Easy,” you can read it here. For a quick synopsis of what this is all about, I’m responding to some initial “anti-crowdsourcing” remarks made by a frustrated humanitarian group in a recent email exchange. I’m referring to this group as Muggles after they christened the Crowdsourcing Community as “Crowd-Sorcerers.” The name calling is of course all in good fun.

Here’s more from the original email exchange:

Muggles: [Our] view is that the focus [on crowdsourcing] needs to be turned around. Don’t use crowdsourcing as technology to collect data, but as a means to distribute verified, accurate and reliable information that has been collected according to recognized/accepted standards.

Well, well, well. Isn’t this interesting? Writing that “crowdsourcing is a technology” reveals how out of touch Muggles are. Crowdsourcing is a methodology, not a technology. See my blog posts on “Demystifying Crowdsourcing” and “Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again.” Worse, to write that crowdsourcing should be used to disseminate information shows just how much confusion exists in the humanitarian space.

The importance of information dissemination has long been documented and has nothing to do with crowdsourcing! Perhaps the term they’re looking for is “crowdfeeding” but I coined this to highlight the need for technologies that promote information dissemination by the crowd for the crowd.

Confession: I shudder when reading language like “according to recognized/accepted standards.” Not because standards are not important, but just because I’m weary of the exclusive and at times elitist attitude that tends to come with this language. I get flashbacks from “Seeing Like a State.”

Perhaps an astute reader will have recognized that the title of this blog post (Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers”) is inspired from Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” I won’t try to summarize all of Clay’s many lucid observations here but I do highly recommend the book to Muggles (along with Seeing Like a State).

This type of tension between regulation and innovation has been playing out in several other sectors as well, including banking (vs. mobile banking) and perhaps most notably in journalism (vs. citizen journalism). But the tensions there have matured somewhat (at least relatively). In the latter case, people are increasingly recognizing the value of citizen journalism while better understanding its limits—so much so that large media companies have themselves started to leverage crowdsourcing for content in their programming.

The journalism community’s initial reaction against bloggers is not too dissimilar to the frustration expressed by Muggles who keep hoping that crowdsourcing will just go away if they pout and stamp their feet hard enough. (Reminds me of the way that some Muggles freaked out at the invention of the printing press and later the telephone).

Here’s the bad news folks, you’ve seen nothing yet. The Crowd-Sorcerers are just getting warmed up. The level of crowdsourcing we’ve seen to date is just the tip of the wand. Haiti was a first, just a first. User-generated content is not about to vanish any time soon. In fact, it will continue growing exponentially. The vast majority of content available on the web will soon be user-generated.

The good news? Muggles can take this as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and share their savoir-faire. What should Muggles not do? Let me share a real example from another sector: election monitoring. One of the world’s leading election monitoring groups actively discouraged local NGOs in a developing country from contributing any reports to an Ushahidi deployment that was run in-country by a local civil society network—lets call them the Gryffindors.

The Gryffindors discovered this interference when they spoke with other local NGOs. They want to partner with these NGOs for the next elections but these groups are now hesitant. So here we have a Western (i.e. external group) directly interfering by telling local NGOs they cannot participate in a local initiative to document their own elections in their own country. (Sound familiar to the LogBase example from Episode 1? Naturally). Who do the elections belong to? Citizens or foreigners?

Muggles have the opportunity to provide unique thought leadership here. Make Crowd-Sorcerers part of the solution, not the problem.

There’s more good news. Despite what some Muggles may think, crowdsourcing is not actually magic. It’s just a methodology like any other, with advantages and disadvantages. At the end of the day, you’re just collecting information and this information can also be triangulated and verified like any other type of information.

That’s the whole point behind Swift River, to provide a free and open source platform that can help validate large quantities of information in near real time. Is it the silver bullet that we’ve all been dreaming of? Of course not, this ain’t Hogwarts. What Swift River does, however, is make the triangulation of crowdsourced information far more efficient for Muggles than ever before. So to suggest that crowdsourced information is inherently unverifiable is rather shortsighted.

Was the technology community’s response to Haiti perfect? Not even close, hence the current M&E on the Ushahidi deployment and these blog posts that I wrote up earlier this year:

In fact, much of my own frustration during the emergency period stemmed from the reckless behavior of some in the technology community. In addition, some tech folks who mean well end up producing tech solutions that don’t solve anything and never get used. So as I’ve blogged about before, tech folks need to get up to speed and get their act together. Hacking away every other weekend is all fine and well as long as the tech produced is actually in line with the needs of the humanitarian and disaster affected communities.

But lets be clear that the humanitarian community’s response to Haiti was hardly stellar (c.f., John Holmes’s leaked email, etc.). No one’s perfect, of course, and that includes Crowd-Sorcerers. The volunteer community that mobilized around the Ushahidi platform had never done anything like this (because nothing like this had quite happened) before, they had no prior training nor did they have much (if any) humanitarian experience to speak of. I, for one, had never launched an Ushahidi platform before. So boy did we all learn a heck of a lot.

Haiti was a complete first as far as live crisis mapping and mobile crowdsourcing goes. Yet Muggles  blame Crowd-Sorcerers for not getting everything right on their first try. The importance of standards is repeatedly voiced by Muggles, as noted above. Well I call this a double-standard.

Stay tuned for Episode 3 in the new series: “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and How Easy It Is

I’ve recently been cc’d on an email thread in which a humanitarian group has started to “air out some latent issues and frustrations” vis-a-vis the use of crowdsourcing in emergencies. I applaud them for speaking up and credit them for coining the fantastic term “crowd-sorcerers” which is brilliant! The group is apparently preparing to publish a report concerning Humanitarian Information Management in Haiti. I really hope to appear in their chapter on “The Crowd-Sorcerers.”

I wonder which kind of sorcerer I am...

I too prefer candid conversations over diplomatic pillow talk. Lets be honest, it’s not actually difficult to disrupt the humanitarian system. It’s  hierarchical, overly bureaucratic, slow, often unaccountable and at times spectacularly corrupt. But I want to make sure my tone here is not misunderstood. I want to be constructive but playful and provocative at the same time, to “lighten things” up a bit. We often take ourselves way too seriously, too often. That’s why I absolutely love the term Crowd-Sorcerer! Lets use Muggles for our humanitarian friends.

I’ll first lay out some of the frustrations aired by the Muggles in their own words so I don’t  misrepresent their concerns—some of which are obviously valid (but not necessarily new). I’ll be reviewing these concerns in a series of blog posts, so stay tuned for future episodes in the new Crowd-Sorcerer Series! Caution: in case it’s not yet obvious, I will be deliberately provocative and playful in this series.

Muggles: Unless there are field personnel providing “ground truth” data, consumers will never have reliable information upon which to build decision support products. Crowdsourcing may be a quick way to get a message out, but it is not good information unless there is on-the-ground verification going on.

Not sure how you’d interpret these words but what they say to me is this: unless information comes from official field personnel, i.e., Muggles, it’s absolutely useless and should be dumped in the trash. I personally find that somewhat… is colonial too provocative?

Crisis information that was crowdsourced using the distributed short code 4636 in Haiti helped save hundreds of lives according to the Marine Corps. The vast majority of this information could not be verified and yet both the Marine Corps and Coast Guard used this as one of their feeds while FEMA encouraged the crowd-sorcerers to continue mapping, calling the crisis map of Haiti the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of information available to Muggles.

There’s another extraordinary story here, and that’s the story of Mission 4636. Tens of thousands of incoming text messages from disaster affected communities in Haiti were translated from Haitian Kreyol to English in near real-time thanks to crowdsourcing. These text messages were translated by thousands of Haitian Kreyol speaking volunteers from all around the world.

Map of volunteer locations

Without this crowdsourcing, the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, FEMA and others could not have used the information streaming in from 4636 as effectively as they did. And guess what? The original platform that was used to do this translation-by-crowdsourcing was built overnight by Brian Herbert, a 20-something tech developer at Ushahidi.

Where were the Muggles then? I’m sorry to put it in these terms but if we listened to (and waited for) Muggles all the time, then perhaps several hundred more people would have needlessly lost their lives in Haiti.

A forthcoming USIP report that reviews the deployment of the Ushahidi platform found that Haitian NGO’s and local civil society groups were physically barred from entering LogBase—the humanitarian community’s compound near the airport in Port-au-Prince. One Haitian NGO rep who was interviewed said he felt like a foreigner in his own country when he wasn’t allowed to enter LogBase and attend meetings where he could share vital information on urgent needs.

Now tell me, how is trashing Haitian text messages any different than  physically excluding Haitians from having a voice at LogBase? Because the so-called “unwashed masses” don’t have the “right” credentials as defined by the Muggles? Either way, they are excluded from having a stake in the hierarchical system that is supposed help them.

Incidentally, a fully independent evaluation led by a team of three accomplished experts in M&E  (monitoring and evaluation) are currently carrying out their impact assessment of the Ushahidi deployment during the emergency period. They will be in Haiti to for the field work and yes, one member of the team speaks fluent Kreyol. The PI from Tulane University has over 20 years of relevant experience. It would make absolutely no sense for Ushahidi to carry out this review.

Ushahidi has little to no expertise in M&E and such a review would likely be viewed as biased if Ushahidi was authoring it. In fact, Ushahidi didn’t even commission the evaluation, The Fletcher Team did, and they should be applauded for doing so. By the way, as I have blogged here, it is misguided to assume that experts in, say development, are by definition experts at evaluating development projects. M&E is a separate area of expertise and profession in it’s own right. Anyone who has taken M&E 101 will know this from the first lecture.

We’re going to a commercial break now, but stay tuned for the next episode: “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Kiwis Take Ignite Talks To Their Limit

I’ve been catching up with a good friend in Sydney this past weekend and we inevitably spoke about innovation and technology. I was reflecting on how different conference styles were in the US compared to the one I’d been to in Australia. Conference design is something I’ve been interested in ever since I started co-organizing the Crisis Mapping Conference series. How do you really make a conference worth a participant’s time? How do you maximize the added value for participants?

A good starting point is to recognize that a conference is actually not an event. It’s a participatory process. The added value that you seek to maximize is not limited to the period of presentations, panels, keynotes, etc. There is a before and an after which are as important as the presentations themselves. But what I want to focus on here is the innovation of that middle bit.

This is where the Kiwis come in.

We’ve all been to conferences where speakers go and on and on. The content of their presentations may not actually be boring but the delivery and setting may be particularly uninspiring. Put someone in a suit behind a lectern in a lecture room with a fixed microphone and they’ll inevitably lecture at you. Put them on stage with a hand held microphone, spot lights and cameras rolling, and they’ll likely feel the pressure to entertain. Conferences should be entertaining!

That’s what I really like about Ignite Talks (aka Lightning Talks). You have 5 minutes and 20 slides that are automatically forwarded every 15 seconds. This really forces the presenter to think through their presentation a lot (lot) more and to rehearse a lot (lot, lot) more. And it’s addictive, once you’ve given an Ignite Talk you just want more, it’s a thrill.

We used Ignite Talks for the Crisis Mapping conference we held last year, but we did so in an alternative way. Ignite Talks tend to be held in the evenings after the main presentations, roundtables, keynotes, etc. We held ours first thing in the morning. Normally, tech conferences tend to have 10 talks in a row, we kinda pushed that by having 26 with a half-hour break in the middle. And we actually opened the conference with these Ignite Talks.

Why? Because we wanted our participants to feel engaged from the very first minute and also because we wanted to get everyone up to speed on the latest developments in Crisis Mapping (well before the roundtable discussions, keynote, tech fair and self-organized sessions.) Senior colleagues from the UN Secretary General’s Office later raved about the approach and said they should introduce the Ignite Talk format to the UN.

Turns out the Kiwis started doing something equally interesting with conference design well before the Ignite Talks were born. They call it 7×7: 7 People, 7 Ideas and 7 Mins Each. “7×7 began in Wellington in 2000 with the exploration of local technology, entertainment and design. It ran quarterly in this vein for 4 years.”

Turns out the idea was actually inspired at TED (surprise, surprise).

“The theme for the original 7×7 series was showcasing ‘Technology, Entertainment and Design’. This came directly from the TED Conference  in Monterey, California in 1998, convened and ring-mastered then by information architect and impresario Richard Saul Wurman.”

Richard came up with the idea during the conference when he wanted to get a quick overview on certain topics from several participants. I’d love to bring back 7×7, especially to traditional conferences that may not be ready to “stomach” the Ignite Talk format just yet. The 7×7 format would go a long way to making those conferences a lot more interesting, entertaining and worthwhile.

Patrick Philippe Meier

On The Humanitarian-Technology Divide and What To Do About It

It was Larry Brilliant’s TED talk over four years ago that first got me hooked. He spoke about the technology used by the Global Public Health Information Network (GPHIN) which had detected the outbreak of SARS months before the WHO by crawling the web (including blogs) for key words (symptoms) in multiple languages. “I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street,” Brilliant said.

I  was teaching a full semester course on Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems that Spring and watching the TED talk made me realize how far behind we were as a community. And by community I mean those of us working on conflict prevention and rapid response to complex emergencies. I’ve been trying to close this gap ever since by actively cross-pollinating innovative thinking and best practices as well as reality-checks. I’ve done this through consulting projects in the field like the Sudan and Timor Leste, applied research with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), the publication of policy reports, extensive blogging, joining Ushahidi, presenting at numerous conferences, co-founding and curating a new conference series on Crisis Mapping, co-launching the Crisis Mappers Network, etc.

I think both communities have come a long way but we need more bridge builders, as Ethan Zuckerman recently emphasized in his 2010 TED Talk in Oxford when he referred to my colleague Erik Hersman. We need builders who are comfortable in both communities, who are bilingual in both humanitarian and tech languages. I can only think of a handful of these individuals. This means the majority of technologists who respond to crises have little to no experience in disaster response or how to communicate with humanitarians let alone the disaster affected communities. At the same time, this also means that many seasoned disaster response experts and policy types ignore technology innovation altogether, largely because they don’t understand it. This is also an issues in the human rights community.

The 2009 Crisis Mapping conference brought these two communities together and the added value to both was immense:

I’m planning to repeat this with the 2010 Crisis Mapping conference, which is also why we’ve decided to host it in Boston—the city with the most universities in the world. We need more students, both undergraduates and graduates, to realize there are career opportunities in this field and help them select appropriate courses and internships so they can become future bridge builders.  Recall that the Ushahidi deployments in Haiti and Chile were both student-run. We also need to find ways to send techies to the field, like Ethan’s Geek Corps idea. Better yet, humanitarian organizations should actively seek such interns.

Those are my two cents but I’d love to get more ideas from readers on what to do about this divide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Wanted: Hyper Local Disruption

Why does the newly opened residential building that I’m moving into in San Francisco have no online social network connecting it’s residents? Some four hundred people live here but they remain completely disconnected, strangers. That really gets to me. We talk about international networks of digital activists spanning the globe from New York to Iran via Zimbabwe and Burma. Yet we remain completed disconnected at the hyper local level.

There’s a good reason why many repressive regimes prohibit large public meetings. These meetings allow people to connect, exchange  information and yes, plot. At The Fletcher School (not a repressive environment), we have a list-serve for the student body called “the social list,” which helps Fletcherites connect, exchange and plot. This an opt-in system and not all students choose to get on the list-serve. The vast majority do, however, and the social list has become an integral component of the “Fletcher experience.”

The list has been the site of many political discussions and disagreements, but also an incredible source of information for a wide variety of (real-time) needs: “I lost my contact lenses, anyone have -0.5 vision ones handy?”, “Looking for internships in Cote d’Ivoire, any recommendations?”, “I’ve launched an Ushahidi map for Haiti and need all the help I can get!” What makes this a versatile network is not simply that members share the “Fletcher identify” but that they are geographically concentrated. It matters that members of this network have the opportunity to see each other on a regular basis.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project recently released a new report on how people use the Internet to stay up to speed on happenings in their neighborhood (H/T Chrissy Martin). “The report showed that face-to-face encounters with neighbors remain the primary method that people talk with each other about community issues.” Proximity matters. More interesting findings as reported in

When it comes to online tools such as email, blogs, text messaging and social networking, only about one fifth of Americans (and 27% of internet users) report such activity. At first glance, this figure may seem underwhelming. But when you consider that practically the same number of Americans (21%) use the telephone to talk about community issues with their neighbors, the numbers don’t seem so bad.

To dispel stereotypes about Internet-addicted shut-ins, the report also points out that frequent Internet use is not correlated with a lack of community engagement (measured simply via if you know your neighbors’ names or not, and how often you talk to them). In fact, daily Internet users are more likely to know their neighbors’ names, and talk with them face to face, than non Internet users.

Just as the New Urbanists have sought to put front porches on homes to get people talking, developers of online tools like social networks can begin to think about how to create virtual opportunities for a “neighborly chat”.

Being connected increases the probability of synergies not to mention serendipity at the local level. Off-line activism is easier if we’re all in the same place. We don’t have to wait until a major issue crops up to organize as digital activists. A simple list-serve can be very useful during quiet times; it increases social cohesion between residents and builds trust. In sum, hyper local connectivity can change the balance of power between people and institutions.

So back to my new building in San Francisco. I did ask the real estate rep whether the building came with an online social network. “No,” was the answer. “You mean none of the residents are connected in any way?” “No” again. For me this is like a smart phone that comes without an address book. You’d think with the new move towards open, connected cities, smart buildings, etc., that new residences would include an online social network component “straight out of the box.” Not so.

This is nuts. For all I know, out of the 400+ residents in my building, 3 could be venture capitalists interested in supporting Ushahidi. Perhaps 14 could become lifelong friends. Maybe another 6 might inspire new ideas that could help human rights monitoring in Burma. Who knows? Nobody. Nobody knows because there’s no online social network to find out.

This means I’ll have to do it myself. I was initially hesitating between a Google Group, a Ning platform and I’m thinking of starting out with a simple Google Group and potentially transitioning to MeetUp. Any thoughts? As for how I’m going to spread the word, I was thinking of doing the old fashioned flyer-under-the-door trick. I’ll start with my floor and see what happens. Stay tuned for blog updates next month.

Oh, and as for the focus of my first “disruptive” plot, I’m going to find out if we can create an open WiFi movement between immediate neighbors.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crowdsourcing Disaster Preparedness: Time for Some Disruption

We’re well into hurricane season here in Haiti but good luck finding a map on hurricane shelters and evacuation routes. One UN agency was supposed to update a 2007 map but then dropped the ball. Another agency thought they’d take on the task but now there are legal concerns since only the government has the right to decide on official emergency routes and shelters. The result? A highly vulnerable population remains largely unprepared for what many expect will be a busy hurricane season.

Creating country wide maps of hurricane shelters and evacuation routes is obviously no easy task. Or is it? If we adopt the typical top down mentality, then yes, we’re talking about just a handful of people being charged with a huge project that will take them weeks to carry out. With this approach, the maps will completed well after the end of hurricane season. Great.

What if we distributed the task and crowdsourced the maps? We could use the 2007 map of hurricane shelters as a starting point and send out targeted text messages to hundreds of mobile phone users near each of these shelters asking them to report on the condition of each shelter and the access routes. We could triangulate the responses for validation purposes. This could be done tomorrow by using a free short code just like we did during the disaster response operations earlier this year. Since the lottery is big in Haiti, this could serve as an incentive: “timely and accurate replies will qualify you for a raffle.” DigiCel has already conducted SMS raffles in the past, so there is a precedent.

The SMS replies could then be analyzed over the weekend and the results shared with local radio stations early next week. The latter could then broadcast this information on a daily basis. In the meantime, government and UN officials could conduct site visits to improve the shelters and evacuation routes.

An on-line competition could also be launched to have volunteers use Google Earth and other web-based resources to identify areas of land that are elevated in case of flooding. These volunteers could also trace viable roads/paths that lead to and from these areas and mark places that may be vulnerable to landslides and other hazards.

What about the fact that only the government has the legal right to do this? Big deal. The system is not working so it’s time to disrupt it. Would you rather have a crowdsourced disaster preparedness plan now or a government certified plan after the hurricane season? I’m tempted to ask this during tomorrow’s BarCamp Haiti which I am co-organizing with the Haitian tech company Solutions and the Ushahidi Haiti Project.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Cognitive Surplus Implications for Digital Activism in Repressive Environments

This is the second of two blog posts inspired by Clay Shirky’s new book “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.” The “cognitive surplus” that Clay refers to is the ” buildup of well over a trillion hours of free time each year on the part of the world’s educated population.” And unlike any other time in human history, “we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than a set of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time.”

The notion of “cognitive surplus” touches on some of the arguments I’ve made regarding the competition between digital activists and repressive regimes—the time and organizational factor. As noted by this guide on nonviolent struggle, “time is perhaps the most important resource in a struggle.” The question is, which side—or organizational topology—can make best use of this time?

The trillion hours of free time and low cost of discovery afforded by today’s communication technologies means that individuals can find themselves more easily and network around a cause. This gives rise to new actors as noted by Clay:

The competition between the government and the people has thus become an arms race, but one that involves a new class of participants. When teenage girls can help organize events that unnerve national governments, without needing professional organizations or organizers to get the ball rolling, we are in new territory.

I don’t think the same is true of repressive regimes. Give a dictator more free time but will they spend this time finding new creative ways to repress? Or will they instead spend this extra time buying new luxury cars while taking time off on a yacht off the coast of Monaco? Ah, but how about those who work for said dictator? Clay argues that “having to act on behalf of an authority can be one of life’s great demotivators.” Moreover,

Amateurs are sometimes separated from professionals by skill, but always by motivation; the term itself derives from the Latin amare—to love. The essence of amateurism is intrinsic motivation: to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it.

This motivation also affects how amateurs work in groups. Keeping a large group focused can be a full-time job. (It’s middle management’s reason for being, in one phrase). Organizing groups into an effective whole is brutally difficult that, past a certain scale, it requires professional management. Professional managers in turn require salaries, and salaries require income and bookkeeping and all the rest of the trappings of a formal organization, meaning there is a huge step between a bunch of people who really care about that issue and work together to do something about it.

This goes to the heart of my hypothesis for my dissertation research. See my previous blog post: Where I Stand on Digital Activism. In sum, the unprecedented trillion hour cognitive surplus is more likely to empower digital activists at the expense of coercive regimes.

Patrick Philippe Meier