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

22 responses to “Crowdsourcing Disaster Preparedness: Time for Some Disruption

  1. Outstanding idea! uses of croudsourcing like this I believe will change the way we view our most difficult tasks and challenges

  2. good work always ontime to help. keep going Ushahidi team

  3. @Patrick

    I’m not intending to be cavalier, but rather very earnest- does any aspect of this lend itself to either HIT type tasks and/or game dynamics? Perhaps a flavor of playsourcing could be used?


  4. 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.

    Yes and no. You will need to weigh the long-term negative consequences of a further weakening of Haitian government against the short-term advantages of having a shelter nap now.

    Now I am not saying that the map should not be crowd-sourced as you propose; but I would ask that the possible negative effects are taken into account before making a decision. In fact, I am fairly confident that weighing everything, it would still be a good idea to go ahead; but doing so without giving due attention to the negative side-effects and minimising those as much as possible is just damaging for the Haitian population in the long term.

    • In the long term, we are all dead. Put yourself in the shoes of the 300,000 slum dwellers in Cite Soleil, and now think about your comment again. Would you rather survive this year’s hurricane season or give up your life for the sake of not weakening the Haitian government which is already highly corrupt and inefficient? We have to be careful about the Western “principles” we impose from the comforts of our own Western lifestyles. This is not about us.

  5. This is not about us.

    That is exactly my point. It is about what is best for the population in the long term. So yes, in the long term we are all dead, but how and when we die makes a difference. Just ignoring the long term while quoting Keynes (talking about Western principles, BTW…) is a bit too easy, don’t you think?

    Put yourself in the shoes of the 300,000 slum dwellers in Cite Soleil, and now think about your comment again.

    There is no way I can. Neither can you. We can only do our best, but a good start would be by asking the the people involved themselves, and I don’t think you have. So one could use all your own (very good) arguments against Western, imposed principles and action against this same initiative.

    • “but a good start would be by asking the the people involved themselves, and I don’t think you have.”

      what do you think i’ve been doing in Haiti for the past 10 days? my blog post is a direct result of the many conversations i’ve had with the people involved

      • That’s good, but do you really think you are able to get a good idea of what 300,000 people think in ten days? And are you sure that you have not influenced the responses you received by how you ask the questions, or (unconsciously) filtered the answers (cue the cognitive bias song)?

        In any case, it would still not mean that you can safely ignore the long term; we do so at our, and more importantly the population’s peril.

      • you’re absolutely right, a comprehensive evaluation should be carried out by the Haitian government in order to be absolutely sure that there are no negative long term consequences of crowdsourcing disaster preparedness for this hurricane season

  6. BTW: I think you also ignore that I did not ask not to do this, just to incorporate the long-term consequences in the decisions on whether to go ahead and (perhaps even more importantly) how to go ahead, minimising negative long-term consequences as much as possible. Or are you saying that it should just go ahead the way you feel it should, and damn those long-term consequences? I hope and expect not.

    • @Michael…dude… you pissed off literally the nicest guy I’ve ever met by attacking the legitimacy of his work in Haiti on several levels… You do understand that Patrick’s work – the same innovative kind of work he’s talking about here – has literally saved hundreds if not thousands of lives in Haiti alone? … Bad form friend.

      Your intention may be to help on some level or it may be to try and make yourself look smart – I don’t know, but I do know that you could be a lot more constructive.

      Patrick is talking about a very lightweight way to crowd-source the creation of a practical and functional solution to this very real, very time-sensitive threat to a very vulnerable population. Any sane person who understands communities understands that there is no long-term downside worse than more people dying, more communities being further weakened, more families being further decimated.

      No long or short term good can come of those people dying, and nothing worse than their death can come out of what Patrick is talking about. Likewise, there is no argument you can make that outweighs their lives.

      If you don’t pull your head out of the sand and smell the third wave information economy you’re going to be having a lot more of these types of interactions in the coming years. Small NGOs are where all the innovation is happening; the UN knows it, Gov 2.0 knows it, Google knows it, hell- Bill Clinton knows it.

      So if you’re not talking about innovation you’re talking about old ideas that may have worked for a time, but there are better-cheaper-faster tools and opportunities to be had now. If you want to help and you want to engage constructively, talk about innovation, talk about new tools and start asking how you can engage from where you’re standing right now. Otherwise you’re just sucking the oxygen out of the room.

  7. I have interacted with Patrick before and am aware that he is one of the coolest and savviest guys around. That is also why I am so surprised at his reaction to what is emphatically not meant to be an attack on the legitimacy of what he is doing, but to add the long-term perspective to something that is (by Patrick’s own admission) very much focused on the short term.

    And yes, I do understand how Ushahidi has helped many people, but that doesn’t make anyone teflon-clad for future mistakes.

    Any sane person who understands communities understands that there is no long-term downside worse than more people dying, more communities being further weakened, more families being further decimated.

    Which is exactly why I wrote: “Now I am not saying that the map should not be crowd-sourced as you propose”, and again, “I think you also ignore that I did not ask not to do this”. Can I be more explicit?

    Likewise, there is no argument you can make that outweighs their lives.

    Absolutely agree. Likewise, there is no argument you can make that can outweigh minimising long-term negative consequences when implementing this. Again, (and again, and again, until somebody finally reads what I am writing repeatedly here) I am not saying that this should not be done; but that small adaptations to implementation could possibly lead to much better long-term results — and that just ignoring those long-term effects is bad practice whatever way you put it.

    So if you’re not talking about innovation you’re talking about old ideas that may have worked for a time, but there are better-cheaper-faster tools and opportunities to be had now.

    Again, absolutely agree, and I have been a vocal of e.g. Ushahidi. However, cheaper-faster does not mean better but worse if we don’t think of the long-term consequences of what we do.

    The thing is, I think we all agree on almost everything, with one possible exception: I maintain that whatever we do, whether it’s old-style missionary aid work or the latest lean-and-mean, cutting-edge application, or anything in between (not the least what big NGOs and governments d0), we are headed for disaster if we don’t keep the long term in mind.

    • Perhaps I should add one thing here: English is not my native language but only my third (after Dutch and German). Although I am fairly good at it these days, I know that occasionally I still make mistakes in how I phrase things. If any of my choice of words inadvertently suggested that I attacked Patrick or his team personally, I would like to emphasise that this was not my intention and I would apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly for any such mistake.

  8. Michael, what you’re saying sounds all well and good on the surface – and it feels like you’ve softened your tone a bit, so I think we can take it as a sign that you were not intentionally being harsh – but I have to challenge the very paradigm that you’re basing your thinking on, (which actually gets to some deep issues with the state of innovation in Global Health.)

    I would challenge the notion that one, with few exceptions, can predict “long-term” anymore. The idea of a long-term prediction is based on the assumption that one can collect information and create a model to give you an accurate (useful) projection into the future. Which, in turn, assumes that the variables in your predictive model aren’t nonlinear, and don’t morph into something multi-modal (a stretch under the best of conditions) and finally that the time scale of your ‘world’ is relatively constant.

    On a short enough time scale all of these things can be reasonably approximated, and thus reasonably accurate (and hopefully useful) predictions can be made. However, the time scale that the world operates on has shifted dramatically towards faster and faster cycles over the past 30 years. To the point now were we’re looking at dramatic – world scale – changes every 18 to 36 months. One may lament this speeding-up, but rest assured it is a reality with increasing implications – ignored at ones own peril of being left behind.

    So the very concept of what was considered ‘long-term’ in a “second wave” production based economy is in direct conflict with the increasing realities of the “third wave” information based economy. And this is just one point of de-synchrony between the old and the new.

    Indeed, the ‘new long-term’ is the ‘old short-term.’

    To bring this all back to innovation in Global Health – the unfortunate reality is that once you start down the path of “keeping the long-term in mind” the overwhelming tendency is to become reliant and subsequently paralyzed by it. Which can lead to doctrines and policies like “do no harm”, which can and have in the past become a political-social norm of “do nothing” (“wait and see”, “too little too late”) …which leads us to events like the Bosnia and Rwanda – Katrina, and whatever they might call the hurricane that might kill thousands of people living in the slums of Port-au-prince.

    Furthermore, the very paradigm that you can minimize or avoid failure by ‘long term planning’ just isn’t true when it comes to innovation, and worse than that it kills real innovation dead.

    So again, if you want to talk about innovation and ‘long term’ in the same breath you’re ultimately talking yourself towards a dead end. Furthermore, if you want to engage with innovative people and communities you need to leave the Socratic thinking at the door and embrace concepts like ‘failing fast’ and ‘failing forward.’

    I think that on some level everyone understands that you mean well, but I can tell you from experience that you’re not going to get anywhere if you keep banging the same drum you brought to the party – if you get my meaning.

    • I had started to write a response, but the more I wrote the more uncertain I became that I actually understand what you are trying to say. So, in order to avoid further misunderstandings and do some unfortunate damage to my reputation, let me try to paraphrase what I think you are saying (always a good way to check one’s understanding), and you can correct me where I misunderstand.

      1. It is inherently impossible to predict the future because for this to work, reality would have to develop in a linear way, has to be based on a limited number of variables and that your future time-scale is similar to the one you base your model on – which are all incorrect assumptions. (To quote Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”.) In the short term this might not be true either but the results would not vary too much, but the long term is inherently unpredictable because of this.
      2. “Keeping the long term in mind” leads to paralysis.
      3. It also kills innovation.

      Is this a fair representation of what you were trying to bring across? Or have I misunderstood something?

      BTW: “Socratic thinking” is a term used to cover all manner of sins (or virtues, depending on who you talk with), so perhaps you could also expand on what exactly you are referring to.

  9. Hello Michael,

    I may have drifted in my discussion points a bit, but there are at least two core points I’m trying to make. One, that innovation and legacy institutions are inherently at odds; two, that the time-scale that legacy institutions in Global Health have been thinking about as a variable in their long-term planning equations, is out of synchrony with reality.

    … And a third related point is that the tendency for innovators is to fail fast and fail forward, while the tendency for legacy institutions is to not act unless they can plan a logical model for action, which does too frequently produce ‘too little too late’ type results when timely action is what is called for… Rwanda + Bosnia (both preventable) = too frequent.

    I’m using the term Socratic thinking here to refer to the kind of ‘devil’s advocate’ argumentative thinking that kills good innovation and bad innovation alike – without the benefits of experimentation.

    To bring this back to Haiti and hurricanes – timely action is called for now, and arguing for deliberation about potential long term effects will only have the tendency to drain the necessary momentum from a lightweight innovative project.


  10. Right, so we all agree that:

    0) Patrick is a nice guy 🙂

    1) There should be more innovation in humanitarian response and disaster preparedness, and that many existing “solutions” aren’t.

    2) That humanitarian organisations are facing huge challenges to adapt to a changing landscape: both technology wise (I’ll call this opportunity), and also operationally (change or die). Most aren’t thinking very well about this, though some are starting to wake up.

    Innovation is both a threat to existing work and funding styles, and, unfortunately, an anathema to most donors. And the way we evaluate and judge projects makes it difficult

    3) Communities can and should be empowered to act and prepare. Especially in Haiti right now, given the focus of attention and money, and the country’s history of poor governance, a multitude of ineffective aid interventions. Study after study shows that it’s communities that help themselves after a crisis, and that effective preparedness by groups such as the Red Cross is community focussed.

    So Kudos to everyone from Ushahidi and the other organisations involved, and particularly their local partners, for stepping up and moving ahead.

    To which I’d add

    4) the international community has a pathetic record when innovating and experimenting, and particularly when trying to think of longer term consequences. There’s very little memory of what has been tried before, rarely is there followup or even the most basic evaluation, “good” projects die, “bad” projects limp along, it’s not contextualised, and the experimental “subjects” themselves rarely have a say.

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying new things, and also trying to think about what the consequences are.

    Ask a bunch of suffering people: would you like me to do THIS now, which might help, or go away and think about it and come back sometime (I don’t know when). My guess (it depends on context if you want hard data) is that they’ll say “this now, please. But don’t stop thinking.”

    It’s not an either/or (is it?)

    5) There are a lot of smart and good people working in institutions (legacy or not 🙂 who can and want to work differently and use new tools. There are ways to engage productively, and ways to get into pissing matches. I’d prefer the former.

    I don’t think we’ll get change unless we enable, and show the results of, new kinds of outcomes and processes.

    ps. Patrick – I’m a bit confused I must confess about “Only the government has the legal right to do this”. Official routes? Sure, if Official is “government sanctioned”. Very different thing from “the routes people know and trust and will use”

    • Thanks Nigel, Michael Keizer and I actually met up in Melbourne and had a great chat.

      On my comment re “only the government has the right to do this”, that’s what I was told at Logbase, that other orgs, UN agencies, could not create these maps without government authority.

  11. Hi everyone,
    just to bring this really back on the ground.

    Actually, the situation these days is following:

    The data will be crowdsourced from the population through phonecalls and messages.

    The data will be crowdsourced from key informants (representing local ngos, local governments, camp management agencies,…)

    Alerts and reports will be shared with responders, both community based, governmental and international.

    And, all of this is being implemented by Haitian IT company running a crisismapping platform they developed themselves, supported by Ushahidi Haiti team in close cooperation with DPC (Civil Protection Department), the main governmental agency.

    I see this, after reading this discussion, as a pretty good fit of most of concerns raised.

    OK, but first we have to see if it will work or not. We’ll see soon …

  12. @Nigel – well put friend.

    @Jaro – wow, how’s that for a design cycle! Thank you for speaking up… and also well put.


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