Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings

Welcome back, folks. Here is the third episode in our “Crowd-Sorcerers Series.” You can read the first episode on “How Technology is Disrupting the Humanitarian Space and Why It’s Easy” right here. The second episode, which in a tongue-in-cheek way asks “Is it Possible to Teach an Old (Humanitarian) Dog New Tech’s?” is available here. Those episodes will highlight what this new “Crowd-Sorcerer Series” is all about.

Oh, but just before we go to episode 3, it seems someone following this series doesn’t appear to have the good sense to recognize the sarcasm and humorous tone in my posts and thereby  missed the point entirely. I’m just using these silly analogies and metaphors to get some points across. I’m drawing a caricature, so to speak, as some of these points often get overlooked in aid/dev speak.

This is not personal at all, and I very much welcome an open conversation with all interested, i.e, the point of this series. A Muggles and Crowd-Sorcerer comparison is just for fun, it isn’t about classy/not-classy, it’s about getting a point or two across to more than just a narrow segment of the aid/dev industry. So again, like I wrote in my first blog post in the series, lets please not take ourselves too seriously, ok?

Muggles: Internet-based platforms may be generating good data within a certain segment of the IT community, such as Open Street Maps, and others like Ushahidi are providing an interesting alternative to real-time news channels, but this data is not getting to where it is needed in an operational sense – the guy/gal sitting in the tent with no Internet connection trying to plan a (name your Cluster/sector/need) survey.

The Ushahidi platform allows end-users to subscribe to alerts via SMS. And that core feature is not new to the Haiti deployment, it’s been there for a good while. Not only can users get automated SMS alerts with the Haiti deployment, but they can also define exactly the type of alerts they wish to receive by setting geographic parameters, tags and even keywords. Thanks to a new plugin for the Ushahidi platform, visual voicemail is also an option for the Ushahidi platform.

In addition, a group deploying the Ushahidi platform can respond to incoming text messages directly from the same interface, allowing for near real-time, two-way communication with the disaster affected communities. See this blog post to find out how that all works.

By the way, not all guys/gals will be sitting in a tent and/or have no Internet access. Also, not all data need to go to guys/gals in tents in the first place.

On Ushahidi being an alternative to real-time news channels, the vast majority of the information mapped on the Haiti platform during the 5 days (before the 4636 SMS short code) came from:

  1. Mainstream media (television, radio, online newspapers)
  2. The Haitian Diaspora
  3. Social media (Twitter, Facebook, Flickr)
  4. Humanitarian sources (emails, situation reports, skype chats, phone calls)

One member of the Diaspora had this to say: “We are the country’s middle and upper class and Haitians living abroad. We do we monitor the Haiti radio, Facebook feeds and Twitter from all our contacts. Filter it and redistribute it […]. We also have a few contacts on the ground in Haiti. All the information we post has been confirmed to the best of our ability.” (Thanks to Rob Munro of Mission 4636 for sharing this).

Muggles: The crucial link that is required, and that the [Humanitarian Information Management] community seems to be drifting farther and farther from as we are collectively distracted by shiny objects and/or the latest, greatest thing since sliced bread, is field-based NGOs equipped with proper information-sharing platform(s) that can be used even when there is no Internet connectivity or Washington-based (or London-based or Paris-based) IT, mapping and GIS skills and support available.

Mobile pones are not new and shiny. Nor is Google Maps. Integrating both is not new either, SMS/map integration has been around for half-a-decade. The fact that the humanitarian community faces a challenge in innovating and keeping up with technology is certainly a problem. Free and open source platforms wouldn’t be filling a technology-information void if a gap didn’t exist in the first place.

Crowd-Sorcerers want to help (the ones I know at least) and they realize full well that they’re new to this space and don’t have all the answers. They want (and actually) do partner with a number of humanitarian organizations on joint projects. But are the rest of the Muggles ready to join forces with sorcerers? Or will it take a disaster like Voldermort to make that happen? (Just in case someone missed the humorous tone here, that was a joke). Incidentally, I never mentioned the humanitarian organization (from the email thread) in my blog posts. So they are completely anonymous unless they choose otherwise.

Actually, the same Muggles that started the email exchange wrote a second email which was far, far more constructive and conducive to building bridges between Muggles and Crowd-Sorcerers than other humanitarians. I’m excited by the prospects and really appreciate the positive tone and interest they expressed in working together. I definitely look forward to working with them and learning more from them as we proceed forward in this space and collaboration.

Patrick Philippe Meier

9 responses to “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers: Highlighting Some Misunderstandings

  1. My comment about you staying classy had nothing to do with the Harry Potter vocabulary; it was about you saying “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” on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. It seems you fail to realise what an offensive comment that is.

    You have the gall to ask “where were all the Muggles?” when some dude was building a software translation tool. The answer is that they were in country, at headquarters or somewhere in between, working furiously to set up the infrastructure *to actually deliver aid*. I don’t like the humanitarian sector, but at least you could have a little respect for the people who do the work.

    And yeah, I don’t have much of a sense of humour when we’re talking about a disaster which killed over 200,000 people and left over a million without homes. I’m strange that way.

  2. p.s. For your next post, can I make a request? Give a worked example of how the actual outputs from Ushahidi can be used to support (for example) the WASH Cluster over the next three months of the mission to meet basic co-ordination requirements. Not “the outputs that we’d like to have” or “the outputs that we would have if everybody used Ushahidi”, but the actual outputs that you can see on the website. This is a sincere request, because right now I just don’t see it.

  3. While following this discussion about crowd sourcing, I have bee reading a remarkable book:

    Travesty in Haiti: A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking [Paperback]
    Timothy T Schwartz Ph.D. (Amazon)

    I puts much in perspective.

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

  5. Riffing…

    Interesting to think whether the MapAction team on the ground in Haiti are Muggles or Sourcerers. Are they Sourcerers because they made maps using base-maps and imagery from OpenStreetmap (and many other collaborative sources from within and outside the “traditional”system), plotting thousands of data points from field teams and thousands of emails, phone calls and even, yes, texts, from the “crowd”? Or Muggles because they were living in a tent (with all the constraints that implies), using ArcGIS (as well as GoogleEarth) and working directly with the SAR teams and humanitarian NGO’s and, while they published the maps to the web each day, they weren’t directly interactive – other than providing an email address for feedback and input.

    And how do we classify the fact that the “Muggles” on the ground sent requests to the Fletcher team to geo-locate a number of locations and facilities because it would be more efficient to share the effort and make better use of the resources that the Fletcher team was able to provide for the benefit of the entire response.

    Are MapAction really then Muggles? Are they in disguise and this the first signs of a possible Harry Potter emerging? Is Ushahidi then really part of the Malfoy clan, determined to keep the Muggles away from their Sourcery secrets because they just won’t do it right? (note: tongue in cheek/humour present in previous comments)

    Or are we, as Patrick as claimed with some exasperation, just at the beginning of a new attempt to figure out how these methods can work together and enhance response and accountability?

    Sigh. MapAction (and partners) were, in a well documented, non-anecdotal way, responsible for helping save hundreds of lives with direct extraction by SAR teams and possibly thousands if you include those who were transported to hospitals or provided with medical assistance. I think there’s a huge question about whether this was efficient, or effective, but that’s a vital and separate question, one that needs to be applied to all these approaches.

    I’m not saying that MapAction has the perfect model, it’s just that the dichotomy that’s been set-up here isn’t actually as stark as it seems when you look at how rescue actually worked in Haiti. As always, it’s worth remembering that Humanitarian Aid is very different from, and much more complex than, Search and Rescue.

    I know Paul will call me an optimist – and I think the Gramschi quote works here “that I’m a pessimist because of experience, and an optimist because of will” – it certainly makes me more hopeful that we can get better tools into the hands of those who want to use them in the field, and build better channels between existing players and new ones.

    I’m hopeful despite the fact that I’m still having to control my anger about how badly several agencies (and “the system”) performed in Haiti as a part of the response, and how little actual progress seems to have been made in over five years of “humanitarian reform”. But that’s another, longer, commentary.

    • Hey Nigel! Thanks for your comments. Not sure if you’ve had a chance to read my most recent blog post where I do note that the Crowd Sorcerer vs Muggle dichotomy is not necessarily the right one. Remember, it was just for fun and to get a couple points across. We’ll let the Sorting Hat deal with that from now one 😉 The team at MapAction rocks and I actually do think their model is the one that others should be replicating. ps. loved the Malfoy clan reference, lol!

  6. Well it’s obvious. We (MapAction) must be mudbloods!

    We certainly don’t have the perfect model. We see a need for an integrative framework for spatial data that can accommodate both ‘conventional’ and ‘cloud/crowd’ components…we’ll be putting around a paper very soon if anyone’s interested.

    Meanwhile thanks for the nice comments. Too kind actually because like everyone else in humanitarian IM we don’t have any claim to a trail of evidence to lives saved. In fact, we all seem to be crying out for a robust evaluation framework for IM (of whatever creed) in emergencies.

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