The good people at the Sudan Sentinel Project (SSP), housed at my former “alma matter,” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), have recently written this curious piece on crisis mapping and the need for an “ethical compass” in this new field. They made absolutely sure that I’d read the piece by directly messaging me via the @CrisisMappers twitter feed. Not to worry, good people, I read your masterpiece. Interestingly enough, it was published the day after my blog post reviewing IOM’s data protection standards.
To be honest, I was actually not going to spend any time writing up a response because the piece says absolutely nothing new and is hardly pro-active. Now, before any one spins and twists my words: the issues they raise are of paramount importance. But if the authors had actually taken the time to speak with their fellow colleagues at HHI, they would know that several of us participated in a brilliant workshop last year which addressed these very issues. Organized by World Vision, the workshop included representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care International, Oxfam GB, UN OCHA, UN Foundation, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Ushahidi, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and obviously Word Vision. There were several data protection experts at this workshop, which made the event one of the most important workshops I attended in all of 2011. So a big thanks again to Phoebe Wynn-Pope at World Vision for organizing.
We discussed in-depth issues surrounding Do No Harm, Informed Consent, Verification, Risk Mitigation, Ownership, Ethics and Communication, Impar-tiality, etc. As expected, the outcome of the workshop was the clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowdsourcing and volunteer geographical informa-tion. Our colleagues at the ICRC have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital. We expect to review this latest draft in the coming weeks (after Oxfam GB has added their comments to the document). Incidentally, the summary report of the workshop organized by World Vision is available here (PDF) and highly recommended. It was also shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group. By the way, my conversations with Phoebe about these and related issues began at this conference in November 2010, just a month after the SBTF launched.
I should confess the following: one of my personal pet peeves has to do with people stating the total obvious and calling for action but actually doing absolutely nothing else. Talk for talk’s sake just makes it seem like the authors of the article are simply looking for attention. Meanwhile, many of us are working on these new data protection challenges in our own time, as volunteers. And by the way, the SSP project is first and foremost focused on satellite imagery analysis and the Sudan, not on crowdsourcing or on social media. So they’re writing their piece as outsiders and, well, are hence less informed as a result—particularly since they didn’t do their homework.
Their limited knowledge of crisis mapping is blatantly obvious throughout the article. Not only do the authors not reference the World Vision workshop, which HHI itself attended, they also seem rather confused about the term “crisis mappers” which they keep using. This is somewhat unfortunate since the Crisis Mappers Network is an offshoot of HHI. Moreover, SSP participated and spoke at last year’s Crisis Mappers Conference—just a few months ago, in fact. One outcome of this conference was the launch of a dedicated Working Group on Security and Privacy, which will now become two groups, one addressing security issues and the other data protection. This information was shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group and one of the authors is actually part of the Security Working Group.
To this end, one would have hoped, and indeed expected, that the authors would write a somewhat more informed piece about these issues. At the very least, they really ought to have documented some of the efforts to date in this innovative space. But they didn’t and unfortunately several statements they make in their article are, well… completely false and rather revealing at the same time. (Incidentally, the good people at SSP did their best to disuade the SBTF from launching a Satellite Team on the premise that only experts are qualified to tag satellite imagery; seems like they’re not interested in citizen science even though some experts I’ve spoken to have referred to SSP as citizen science).
In any case, the authors keep on referring to “crisis mappers this” and “crisis mappers that” throughout their article. But who exactly are they referring to? Who knows. On the one hand, there is the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which is a loose, decentralized, and informal network of some 3,500 members and 1,500 organizations spanning 150+ countries. Then there’s the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a distributed, global network of 750+ volunteers who partner with established organizations to support live mapping efforts. And then, easily the largest and most decentralized “group” of all, are all those “anonymous” individuals around the world who launch their own maps using whatever technologies they wish and for whatever purposes they want. By the way, to define crisis mapping as mapping highly volatile and dangerous conflict situations is really far from being accurate either. Also, “equating” crisis mapping with crowdsourcing, which the authors seem to do, is further evidence that they are writing about a subject that they have very little understanding of. Crisis mapping is possible without crowdsourcing or social media. Who knew?
Clearly, the authors are confused. They appear to refer to “crisis mappers” as if the group were a legal entity, with funding, staff, administrative support and brick-and-mortar offices. Furthermore, and what the authors don’t seem to realize, is that much of what they write is actually true of the formal professional humanitarian sector vis-a-vis the need for new data protection standards. But the authors have obviously not done their homework, and again, this shows. They are also confused about the term “crisis mapping” when they refer to “crisis mapping data” which is actually nothing other than geo-referenced data. Finally, a number of paragraphs in the article have absolutely nothing to do with crisis mapping even though the authors seem insinuate otherwise. Also, some of the sensationalism that permeates the article is simply unnecessary and poor taste.
The fact of the matter is that the field of crisis mapping is maturing. When Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded and co-directed HHI’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning from 2007-2009, the project was very much an exploratory, applied-research program. When Dr. Jen Ziemke and I launched the Crisis Mappers Network in 2009, we were just at the beginning of a new experiment. The field has come a long way since and one of the consequences of rapid innovation is obviously the lack of any how-to-guide or manual. These certainly need to be written and are being written.
So, instead of stating the obvious, repeating the obvious, calling for the obvious and making embarrassing factual errors in a public article (which, by the way, is also quite revealing of the underlying motives), perhaps the authors could actually have done some research and emailed the Crisis Mappers Google Group. Two of the authors also have my email address; one even has my private phone number; oh, and they could also have DM’d me on Twitter like they just did.