This blog post is based on the recent presentation I gave at the Emergency Social Data Summit organized by the Red Cross this week. The title of my talk was “Collaborative Crisis Mapping” and the slides are available here.
What I want to expand on is the notion of a “marketplace for crowdsourcing” that I introduced at the Summit. The idea stems from my experience in the field of conflict early warning, the Ushahidi-Haiti deployment and my observations of the Ushahidi-DC and Ushahidi-Russia initiatives.
The crowd is always there. Paid Search & Rescue (SAR) teams and salaried emergency responders aren’t. Nor can they be on the corners of every street, whether that’s in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Washington DC or Sukkur, Pakistan. But the real first responders, the disaster affected communities, are always there. Moreover, not all communities are equally affected by a crisis. The challenge is to link those who are most affected with those who are less affected (at least until external help arrives).
This is precisely what PIC Net and the Washington Post did when they partnered to deploy this Ushahidi platform in response to the massive snow storm that paralyzed Washington DC earlier this year. They provided a way for affected residents to map their needs and for those less affected to map the resources they could share to help others. You don’t need to be a professional disaster response professional to help your neighbor dig out their car.
More recently, friends at Global Voices launched the most ambitious crowdsourcing initiative in Russia in response to the massive forest fires. But they didn’t use this Ushahidi platform to map the fires. Instead, they customized the public map so that those who needed help could find those who wanted to help. In effect, they created an online market place to crowdsource crisis response. You don’t need professional certification in disaster response to drive someone’s grandparents to the next town over.
There’s a lot that disaster affected populations can (and already do) to help each other out in times of crisis. What may help is to combine the crowdsourcing of crisis information with what I call crowdfeeding in order to create an efficient market place for crowdsourcing response. By crowdfeeding, I mean taking crowdsourced information and feeding it right back to the crowd. Surely they need that information as much if not more than external, paid responders who won’t get to the scene for hours or days.
We talk about top-down and bottom-up approaches. Crowdfeeding is a “bottom-bottom” approach; horizontal, meshed communication for local rapid response. Information of the crowd, by the crowd and for the crowd. For the marketplace to work at the technical level, users should easily be able to map their needs or map the resources they have to help others. They should be able to do this via webform, SMS, Twitter, smart phone apps, phone call, etc.
But users shouldn’t have to keep looking back at the map to check whether anyone has posted offers to help in their area, or vice versa. They should get an automated email and/or text message when a potential match is found. The matching should be done by a simple algorithm, a Match.com for crowdsourcing crisis response. (Just like online dating, users should take appropriate precautions when contacting their match). On a practical level, this marketplace will work best if it draws many traders. That’s why the data should be easily shared across platforms.
During the Summit, the Red Cross presented findings from this study which revealed that 75% of people now expect an almost-immediate response after posting a call for help on a social media platform during a disaster. The Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are particularly troubled by this figure. They shouldn’t be. As the Head of FEMA noted at the summit, it is high time that crisis response organizations start viewing the public as part of the team. One way to make them part of the team is to create an open marketplace for crowdsourcing crisis response.