Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

Facebook is increasingly used to crowdsource crisis information and response, as is Twitter. So is it just a matter of time until we see similar use cases with Google+? Another question I have is whether such uses cases will simply reflect more of the same or whether we’ll see new, unexpected applications and dynamics? Of course, it may be premature to entertain the role that Google+ might play in disaster response just days after it’s private beta launch, but the company seems fully committed to making  this new venture succeed. Entertain-ing how Google+ (G+) might be used as a humanitarian technology thus seems worthwhile.

The fact that G+ is open and searchable is probably one of the starkest differences with the walled-garden that is Facebook; that, and their Data Liberation policy. This will make activity on G+ relatively easier to find—Google is the King of Search, after all. This openness will render serendipity and synergies more likely.

The much talked about “Circles” feature is also very appealing for the kind of organic and collaborative crowdsourcing work that we see emerging following a crisis. Think about these “Circles” not only as networks but also as “honeycombs” for “flash” projects—i.e., short-term and temporary—very much along the lines that Skype is used for live collaborative crisis mapping operations.

Google+’s new Hangout feature could also be used instead of Skype chat and video, with the advantage of having multi-person video-conferencing. With a little more work, the Sparks feature could facilitate media monitoring—an important component of live crisis mapping. And then there’s Google+ mobile, which is accessible on most phones with a browser and already includes a “check-in” feature as well as geo-referenced status updates. The native app for the Android is already available and the iPhone app is coming soon.

Clicking on my status update above, produces the Google Maps page below. What’s particularly telling about this is how “underwhelming” the use of Google Maps currently is within G+.  There’s no doubt this will change dramatically as G+ evolves. The Google+ team has noted that they already have dozens of new features ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So expect G+ to make full use of Google’s formidable presence on the Geo Web—think MapMaker+ and Earth Engine+. This could be a big plus for live crowdsourced crisis mapping, especially of the multimedia kind.

One stark difference with Facebook’s status updates and check-in’s is that G+ allows you to decide which Circles (or networks of contacts) to share your updates and check-in’s with. This is an important difference that could allow for more efficient information sharing in near real-time. You could set up your Circles as different teams, perhaps even along UN Cluster lines.

As the G+ mobile website reveals, the team will also be integrating SMS, which is definitely key for crisis response. I imagine there will also be a way to connect your Twitter feed with Google+ in the near future. This will make G+ even more compelling as a mobile humanitarian technology platform. In addition, I expect there are also plans to integrate Google News, Google Reader, Google Groups, Google Docs and Google Translate with G+. GMail, YouTube and Picasa are already integrated.

One feature that will be important for humanitarian applications is offline functionality. Google Reader and GMail already have this feature (Google Gears), which I imagine could be added to G+’s Stream and perhaps eventually with Google Maps? In addition, if Google can provide customizable uses of G+, then this could also make the new platform more compelling for humanitarian organizations, e.g., if OCHA could have their own G+ (“iG+”) by customizing and branding their G+ interface; much like the flexibility afforded by the Ning platform. One first step in that direction might be to offer a range of “themes” for G+, just like Google does with GMail.

Finally, the ability to develop third party apps for G+ could be a big win. Think of a G+ store (in contrast to an App Store). I’d love to see a G+ app for Ushahidi and OSM, for example.

If successful, G+ could be the best example of “What Technology Wants” to date. G+ is convergence technology par excellence. It is a hub that connects many of Google’s excellent products and from the looks of it, the G+ team is just getting warmed up with the converging.

I’d love to hear from others who are also brainstorming about possible applications of Google+ in the humanitarian space. Am I off on any of the ideas above? What am I missing? Maybe we could set up a Google+ 4 Disaster Response Circle and get on Hangout to brainstorm together?

19 responses to “Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

  1. Pingback: Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response | WWW.ANDROIDWORLD.BIZ

  2. Hi Patrick from Buenos Aires, thanks and congratulations for yours articles and services.
    We are starting a new project called REUNAMOS (REUNITE LET’S) Knowledge disAbility Technology.
    One focus is the persons with disAbilities in disaster areas.
    We are proposing to make a database with the bio-sico-social-gps information of each person with disAbilities arround the world.
    It is a part of a Personal Information Service for PwD.
    We are thinking about connecting the worldwide disAbility Community (arround 3.500.000.000 people).
    My email is

  3. One concept I would find interesting is if one could make a circle public and allow others to “check-into” that given circle. In this scenario, OCHA could create a circle for an emergency (e.g. Haiti Earthquake 2010) and allow humanitarian responders to check-in/out. It is a different take on the check-in concept most seen today (i.e. checking into an actual physical place). OCHA would then have the contact details for all responders (along with their streams) which would allow it to better enable coordination (think: the humanitarian contact list would almost be creating and managing itself). Yes, there would be emergencies where security was of concern, there are issues about who gets to check-in, etc, but those could be worked through. With such a circle in place, information dissemination could be much, much easier.

    Now, take it down one more level – to the clusters, sub-clusters and working groups. Contact lists are dynamic and information dissemination is targeted (and I will stop receiving it when I check out of the emergency!). Each cluster performs the general management of the relevant circle.

    Perhaps where it gets even more interesting is the ability to ‘chat’ with a circle (e.g. similar to Skype). If this content remains posted over time like in Skype, we could have a very interesting platform for responders to post on, follow along, etc without the fear of the information becoming public (like in a stream).

    Creating a branded G+ is a interesting concept and would help play into organizations using it…..and thus making my concepts above seem more legitimate (than just an OCHA staff member trying to do it).

    • These are really excellent ideas and suggestions, Andrej, many thanks for sharing. I very much like the idea of “checking-into” a public Circle and your ideas re clusters, sub-clusters, chat with a circle, etc. Great stuff, keep the ideas flowing!

      • >> I very much like the idea of “checking-into” a public Circle and your ideas re clusters, sub-clusters, chat with a circle, etc.

        At risk of being curmudgeonly, it sounds like an over-engineered approach. There are countries & clusters out there using simply google groups already to very useful effect. I’m can’t see whether people really have the capacity or would benefit in most circumstances from a more minute-by-minute feed based co-ord appraoch. Or whether it would just tie more people to more computers for more time at decreasing value.

    • That is a terrific idea! I can see numerous circles in relation to each event. One for the humanitarian responders to check-in to, with numerous clusters etc, to receive information specific to their roles, and for “internal” comms & discussion, and also a “public” circle for those affected but not responding, or for those working from outside the response area.

      The more I think about it, the more it appeals to me. The ability to have dynamic networks which change as needed, and can be set up easily… makes the task so much easier for the initial coordination task-group, and subsequently for the responders.

  4. My instinctive response is as yours – unless the offline integration you have mooted is prioritized and made real, it might (at best) end up as an inter-agency rather than intra-agency coordination tool as well, which doesn’t get us where we really should be aiming for. And like every next-best-thing that comes along, unless it can genuinely replace and shut down existing coord mechanism(s) rather than just adding another one, it might be more work than its worth. Still, trying to keep an open mind…

  5. Great blog post! I also agree with Andrej Verity on the ability for public circles that others could search during a crisis. But, that brings up a question about searching for real-time information during a crisis event.

    You mentioned Google+ is searchable, how and where? I went to Google Realtime and Google search and I do not see that ability. Google needs to get this going in Google Realtime, but I would prefer to see a style search page for those posts that are put into the public timeline. I would also like to see the public stream.

    Am I missing something that is already out there?

    • So a friend showed me a way to search, but this is still not ideal. Go to Google search and then type in the following

      Then add a search term like #smem #SMEM

      You will get the results, but it lacks a lot of the searching power of for real-time updates flowing in and real in depth boolean search abilities.

      Also, still can’t view the public timeline.

      • Thanks David, G+ is still very new and Twitter was not immediately searchable on Google either–that only happened recently even though Twitter has been around for years. I’m sure all this will come soon enough since indexing G+ has got to be a part of Google’s business model.

  6. This certainly was “worth a click” as noted by Directions Magazine. Great article! I’m looking forward to trying out Google+ as soon as I get an invite…I think the segmentation of contacts (circles) and the integration with all of those Google apps we’ve come to know and love will certainly have the opportunity to disrupt a lot of things we do for the better.

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google rolls out an “Ushahidi” feature in the near future updates of G+. I deeply suspect 🙂

  8. Circles and searching won’t currently work as you outline above. G posts are searchable only if they are posted publicly. If you limit them to certain circles, then 3rd parties lose the ability to search out the post. On the other hand if you make a post public, you undo the advantage of using circles in the first place, as the post will be broadcast directly in to the stream of all your circles, not just those it is relevant to.

  9. Pingback: e.politics: online advocacy tools & tactics » Google Plus for Advocacy: More Resources and a Tuesday Webinar

  10. Hi Patrick!
    Dave Leng here
    Great to meet you in Vienna and love your posts!

    I haven’t had the chance to try google + yet but see a lot of potential for it in disaster warning and response.
    I’m thinking of an app where it will advise you of a dangerous situation occurring near to you, (tornado, gunfight, gas/chemical leak, any geo-locatable situation) assuming that you have allowed it to monitor your location as in lattitude (or similar). How it gets that info will need to be worked on but legitimate sources like NOAA, USGS etc for weather, police etc, or it could grade the source for you to decide if you want to take notice of it. (Some issues to work through here)
    Cell broadcast does a similar thing at a lower level (text) via the cellular network (not SMS which is not as reliable)

    Then it will follow up and ask you if you’re ok after a disaster event and provide that info to your permitted groups.
    Anyone not responding/connection lost to google+ will be provided as a list to local emergency response teams with last known location and time.
    A more advanced idea to the cellular network idea I have where they can pull a list of all cellphones in an affected area and see who’s still connected and who’s not.

    Cheers Dave

    • Hey Dave! Great to hear from you, was fab meeting you in person last month. I do hope the disaster simulation idea does move forward. Good points re G+, I was thinking that check-in’s would do just that. All we need to do with Crowdmap CI is add geo-fencing, which I hope will happen this Fall. Cheers, Patrick

  11. Great article! I’m just starting to figure out search in G+, so this is a tremendous help. Thanks, sct_r

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