Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Future of Crisis Mapping? Full-Sized Arcade Pinball Machines

Remember those awesome pinball machines (of the analog kind)? You’d launch the ball and see it bounce all over, reacting wildly to various fun objects as you accumulate bonus points. The picture below hardly does justice so have a look on YouTube for some neat videos. I wish today’s crisis maps were that dynamic. Instead, they’re still largely static and hardly as interactive or user-friendly.

Do we live in an inert, static universe? No, obviously we don’t, and yet the state of our crisis mapping platforms would seem to suggest otherwise; a rather linear and flat world, which reminds me more of this game:

Things are always changing and interacting around us. So we need maps with automated geo-fencing alerts that can trigger kinetic and non-kinetic actions. To this end, dynamic check-in features should be part and parcel of crisis mapping platforms as well. My check-in at a certain location and time of day should trigger relevant messages to certain individuals and things (cue the Internet of Things) both nearby and at a distance based on the weather and latest crime statistics, for example. In addition, crisis mapping platforms need to have more gamification options and “special effects”. Indeed, they should be more game-like in terms of consoles and user-interface design. They also ought to be easier to use and be more rewarding.

This explains why I blogged about the “Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping” back in 2008. We’ve made progress over the past four years, for sure, but the ultimate pinball machine of crisis mapping still seems to be missing from the arcade of humanitarian technology.

State of the Art in Digital Disease Detection

Larry Brilliant’s TED Talk back in 2006 played an important role in catalyzing my own personal interest in humanitarian technology. Larry spoke about the use of natural language processing and computational linguistics for the early detection and early response to epidemics. So it was with tremendous honor and deep gratitude that I delivered the first keynote presentation at Harvard University’s Digital Disease Detection (DDD) conference earlier this year.

The field of digital disease detection has remained way ahead of the curve since 2006 in terms of leveraging natural language processing, computational linguistics and now crowdsourcing for the purposes of early detection of critical events. I thus highly, highly recommend watching the videos of the DDD Ignite Talks and panel presentations, which are all available here. Topics include “Participatory Surveillance,” “Monitoring Rumors,” “Twitter and Disease Detection,” “Search Query Surveillance,” “Open Source Surveillance,” “Mobile Disease Detection,” etc. The presentation on BioCaster is also well worth watching. I blogged about BioCaster here over three years ago and the platform is as impressive as ever.

These public health experts are really operating at the cutting-edge and their insights are proving important to the broader humanitarian technology community. To be sure, the potential added value of cross-fertilization between fields is tremendous. Just take this example of a public health data mining platform (HealthMap) being used by Syrian activists to detect evidence of killings and human rights violations.

Does Your Brand Have a Plot? How Great Leaders Inspire Action

“Does your brand have a plot?” I overheard this intriguing question whilst at SXSW 2012 earlier this year. The question came to mind again recently while watching Simon Sinek’s excellent TEDx talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” All too often, most companies seek to inspire customers (to purchase their product or service) by explaining “What they do” rather than “Why they do” what they do. This approach, as it turns out, is exactly the wrong way to catalyze inspiration. Sinek demonstrates how starting with why makes all the difference when seeking to inspire others.

Take Apple as an example:

“If Apple were like everyone else, a marketing message from them might sound like this: we make great computers; they are beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. Want to buy one? … And that’s how most of us communicate, that’s how most marketing is done, that’s how most sales is done […]. We say what we do, we say how we’re different or how we’re better, and we expect some sort of behavior, a purchase or vote […]. But it’s uninspiring. Here’s how Apple actually communicates. Everything we do, we believe in changing the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Sinek’s main take away message from this example (and indeed his entire talk) is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This explains the importance of starting with why:  your purpose, your cause, your belief. “The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have; the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe. These are you early adopters who have the potential to change the world. Again, “what you do simply proves what you believe.”

Why you believe what you believe is ultimately a story, a narrative. So what is your story? What is your plot? The answer to these questions is what will inspire others to join you in your cause. “If you want to build a ship,” wrote Antoine de St. Exupery, then “don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Why you yearn for that open horizon is your story. Dr. Martin Luther King didn’t give the “I have a plan” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that hot summer day in August 1963, he gave the “I have a dream” speech.

Disaster Response, Self-Organization and Resilience: Shocking Insights from the Haiti Humanitarian Assistance Evaluation

Tulane University and the State University of Haiti just released a rather damming evaluation of the humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12th. The comprehensive assessment, which takes a participatory approach and applies a novel resilience framework, finds that despite several billion dollars in “aid”, humanitarian assistance did not make a detectable contribution to the resilience of the Haitian population and in some cases increased certain communities’ vulnerability and even caused harm. Welcome to supply-side humanitarian assistance directed by external actors.

“All we need is information. Why can’t we get information?” A quote taken from one of many focus groups conducted by the evaluators. “There was little to no information exchange between the international community tasked with humanitarian response and the Haitian NGOs, civil society or affected persons / communities themselves.” Information is critical for effective humanitarian assistance, which should include two objectives: “preventing excess mortality and human suffering in the immediate, and in the longer term, improving the community’s ability to respond to potential future shocks.” This longer term objective thus focuses on resilience, which the evaluation team defines as follows:

“Resilience is the capacity of the affected community to self-organize, learn from and vigorously recover from adverse situations stronger than it was before.”

This link between resilience and capacity for self-organization is truly profound and incredibly important. To be sure, the evaluation reveals that “the humani-tarian response frequently undermined the capacity of Haitian individuals and organizations.” This completely violates the Hippocratic Oath of Do No Harm. The evaluators thus “promote the attainment of self-sufficiency, rather than the ongoing dependency on standard humanitarian assistance.” Indeed, “focus groups indicated that solutions to help people help themselves were desired.”

I find it particularly telling that many aid organizations interviewed for this assessment were reluctant to assist the evaluators in fully capturing and analyzing resource flows, which are critical for impact evaluation. “The lack of transparency in program dispersal of resources was a major constraint in our research of effective program evaluation.” To this end, the evaluation team argue that “by strengthening Haitian institutions’ ability to monitor and evaluate, Haitians will more easily be able to track and monitor international efforts.”

I completely disagree with this remedy. The institutions are part of the problem, and besides, institution-building takes years if not decades. To assume there is even political will and the resources for such efforts is at best misguided. If resilience is about strengthening the capacity of affected communities to self-organize, then I would focus on just that, applying existing technologies and processes that both catalyze and facilitate demand-side, people-centered self-organization. My previous blog post on “Technology and Building Resilient Societies to Mitigate the Impact of Disasters” elaborates on this point.

In sum, “resilience is the critical link between disaster and development; monitoring it will ensure that relief efforts are supporting, and not eroding, household and community capabilities.” This explains why crowdsourcing and data mining efforts like those of Ushahidi, HealthMap and UN Global Pulse are important for disaster response, self-organization and resilience.

Using Rayesna to Track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter

My (future) colleague at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI) have just launched a new platform that Al Jazeera is using to track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter. Called Rayesna, which  means “our president” in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, this fully automated platform uses cutting-edge Arabic computational linguistics processing developed by the Arabic Language Technology (ALT) group at QCRI.

“Through Rayesna, you can find out how many times a candidate is mentioned, which other candidate he is likely to appear with, and the most popular tweets for a candidate, with a special category for the most retweeted jokes about the candidates. The site also has a time-series to explore and compares the mentions of the candidate day-by-day. Caveats: 1. The site reflects only the people who choose to tweet, and this group may not be representative of general society; 2. Tweets often contain foul language and we do not perform any filtering.”

I look forward to collaborating with the ALT group and exploring how their platform might also be used in the context of humanitarian response in the Arab World and beyond. There may also be important synergies with the work of the UN Global Pulse, particularly vis-a-vis their use of Twitter for real-time analysis of vulnerable communities.

From Gunfire at Sea to Maps of War: Implications for Humanitarian Innovation

MIT Professor Eric von Hippel is the author of Democratizing Innovation, a book I should have read when it was first published seven years ago. The purpose of this blog post, however, is to share some thoughts on “Gunfire at Sea: A Case Study in Innovation” (PDF), which Eric recently instructed me to read. Authored by Elting Morison in 1968, this piece is definitely required reading for anyone engaged in disruptive innovation, particularly in the humanitarian space. Morison was one of the most distinguished historians of the last century and the founder of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS). The Boston Globe called him “an educator and industrial historian who believed that technology could only be harnessed to serve human beings when scientists and poets could meet with mutual understanding.”

Morison details in intriguing fashion the challenges of using light artillery at sea in the late 1,800’s to illustrate how new technologies and new forms of power collide and indeed, “bombard the fixed structure of our habits of mind and behavior.” The first major innovative disruption in naval gunfire technology is the result of one person’s acute observation. Admiral Sir Percy Scott happened to watched his men during target practice one day while the ship they were on was pitching and rolling acutely due to heavy weather. The resulting accuracy of the shots was dismal save for one man who was doing something slightly different to account for the swaying. Scott observed this positive deviance carefully and cobbled existing to technology to render the strategy easier to repeat and replicate. Within a year, his gun crews were remarkable accurate.

Note that Scott was not responsible for the invention of the basic instruments he cobbled together to scale the positive deviance he observed. Scott’s contribution, rather, was  a mashup of existing technology made possible thanks to mechanical ingenuity and a keen eye for behavioral processes. As for the personality of the innovator, Scott possessed “a savage indignation directed ordinarily at the inelastic intelligence of all constituted authority, especially the British Admiralty.” Chance also plays a role in this story. “Fortune (in this case, the unaware gun pointer) indeed favors the prepared mind, but even fortune and the prepared mind need a favorable environment before they can conspire to produce sudden change. No intelligence can proceed very far above the threshold of existing data or the binding combinations of existing data.”

Whilst stationed in China several years later, Admiral Scott crosses paths with William Sims, an American Junior Officer of similar temperament. Sims’s efforts to reform the naval service are perhaps best told in his own words: “I am perfectly willing that those holding views differing from mine should continue to live, but with every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.” Sims built on Scott’s inventions and made further modifications, resulting in new records in accuracy. “These elements were brought into successful combination by minds not interested in the instruments for themselves but in what they could do with them.”

“Sure of the usefulness of his gunnery methods, Sims then turned to the task of educating the Navy at large.” And this is where the fun really begins. His first strategy was to relay in writing the results of his methods “with a mass of factual data.” Sims authored over a dozen detailed data-driven reports on innovations in naval gunfire strage which he sent from his China Station to the powers that be in Washington DC. At first, there was no response from DC. Sims thus decided to change his tone by using deliberately shocking language in subsequent reports. Writes Sims: “I therefore made up my mind I would give these later papers such a form that they would be dangerous documents to leave neglected in the files.” Sims also decided to share his reports with other officers in the fleet to force a response from the men in Washington.

The response, however, was not exactly what Sims had hoped. Washington’s opinion was that American technology was generally as good as the British, which implied that the trouble was with the men operating the technology, which thus meant that ship officers ought to conduct more training. What probably annoyed Sims most, however, was Washington’s comments vis-a-vis the new records in accuracy that Sims claimed to have achieved. Headquarters simply waived these off as impossible. So while the first reaction was dead silence, DC’s second strategy was to try and “meet Sims’s claims by logical, rational rebuttal.”

I agree with the author, Elting Morison, that this second stage reaction, “the apparent resort to reason,” is the “most entertaining and instructive in our investigation of the responses to innovation.” That said, the third stage, name-calling, can be just as entertaining for some, and Sims took the argumentum ad hominem as evidence that “he was being attacked by shifty, dishonest men who were the victims, as he said, of insufferable conceit and ignorance.” He thus took the extraordinary step of writing directly to the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to inform him of the remarkable achievements in accuracy that he and Admiral Scott had achieved. “Roosevelt, who always liked to respond to such appeals when he conveniently could, brought Sims back from China late in 1902 and installed him as Inspector of Target Practice […]. And when he left, after many spirited encounters […], he was universally acclaimed as ‘the man who taught us how to shoot.'”

What fascinates Morison in this story is the concerted resistance triggered by Sims’s innovation. Why so much resistance? Morison identifies three main sources: “honest disbelief in the dramatic but substantiated claims of the new process; protection of the existing devices and instruments with which they identified themselves; and maintenance of the existing society with which they were identified.” He argues that the latter explanation is the most important, i.e., resistance due to the “fixed structure of our habits of mind and behavior” and the fact that relatively small innovations in gunfire accuracy could quite conceivably unravel the entire fabric of naval doctrine. Indeed,

“From changes in gunnery flowed an extraordinary complex of changes: in shipboard routines, ship design, and fleet tactics. There was, too, a social change. In the days when gunnery was taken lightly, the gunnery officer was taken lightly. After 1903, he became one of the most significant and powerful members of a ship’s company, and this shift of emphasis nat- urally was shortly reflected in promotion lists. Each one of these changes provoked a dislocation in the naval society, and with man’s troubled foresight and natural indisposition to break up classic forms, the men in Washington withstood the Sims onslaught as long as they could. It is very significant that they withstood it until an agent from outside, outside and above, who was not clearly identified with the naval society, entered to force change.”

The resistance to change thus “springs from the normal human instinct to protect oneself, and more especially, one’s way of life.” Interestingly, the deadlock between those who sought change and those who sought to retain things as they were was broken only by an appeal to superior force, a force removed from and unidentified with the mores, conventions, devices of the society. This seems to me a very important point.”  The appeal to Roosevelt suggests perhaps that no organization “should or can undertake to reform itself. It must seek assistance from outside.”

I am absolutely intrigued by what these insights might imply vis-a-vis innovation (and resistance to innovation) in the humanitarian sector. Whether it be the result of combining existing technologies to produce open-source crisis mapping platforms or the use of new information management processes such as crowdsourcing, is concerted resistance to such innovation in the humanitarian space inevitable as well? Do we have a Roosevelt equivalent, i..e, an external and somewhat independent actor who might disrupt the resistance? I can definitely trace the same stages of resistance to innovations in humanitarian technology as those identified by Morison: (1) dead silence; (2) reasoned dismissal; and (3) name-calling. But as Morison himself is compelled to ask: “How then can we find the means to accept with less pain to ourselves and less damage to our social organization the dislocations in our society that are produced by innovation?”

This question, or rather Morison’s insights in tackling this question are profound and have important implications vis-a-vis innovation in the humanitarian space. Morison hones in on the imperative of “identification” in innovation:

“It cannot have escaped notice that some men identified themselves with their creations- sights, gun, gear, and so forth-and thus obtained a presumed satisfaction from the thing itself, a satisfaction that prevented them from thinking too closely on either the use or the defects of the thing; that others identified themselves with a settled way of life they had inherited or accepted with minor modification and thus found their satisfaction in attempting to maintain that way of life unchanged; and that still others identified themselves as rebellious spirits, men of the insurgent cast of mind, and thus obtained a satisfaction from the act of revolt itself.”

This purely personal identification is a powerful barrier to innovation. So can this identifying process be tampered in order to facilitate change that is ultima-tely in everyone’s interest? Morison recommends that we “spend some time and thought on the possibility of enlarging the sphere of our identifications from the part to the whole.” In addition, he suggests an emphasis on process rather than product. If we take this advice to heart, what specific changes should we seek to make in the humanitarian technology space? How do we enlarge the sphere of our identifications and in doing so focus on processes rather than products? There’s no doubt that these are major challenges in and of themselves, but ignoring them may very well mean that important innovations in life-saving technologies and processes will go un-adopted by large humanitarian organiza-tions for many years to come.

Joining the Qatar Foundation to Advance Humanitarian Technology

Big news! I’ll be taking a senior level position at the Qatar Foundation to work on the next generation of humanitarian technology solutions. I’ll be based at the Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and be working alongside some truly amazing minds defining the cutting edge of social and scientific computing, computational linguistics, big data, etc. My role at QCRI will be to leverage the expertise within the Institute, the region and beyond to drive technology solutions for humanitarian and social impact globally—think of it as Computing for Good backed by some serious resources.  I’ll spend just part of the time in Doha. The rest of my time will be based wherever necessary to have the greatest impact. Needless to say, I’m excited!

My mission over the past five years has been to catalyze strategic linkages between the technology and humanitarian space to promote both innovation and change, so this new adventure feels like the perfect next chapter in this exciting adventure. I’ve had the good fortune and distinct honor of working with some truly inspiring and knowledgeable colleagues who have helped me define and pursue my passions over the years. Needless to say, I’ve learned a great deal from these colleagues; knowledge, contacts and partnerships that I plan to fully leverage at the Qatar Foundation.

It really has been an amazing five years. I joined the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) in 2007 to co-found and co-direct the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. The purpose of the program was to assess how new technologies were changing the humanitarian space and how these could be deliberately leveraged to yield more significant impact. As part of my time at HHI, I consulted on a number of cutting-edge projects including the UNDP’s Crisis and Risk Mapping Analysis (CRMA) Program in the Sudan. I also leveraged this iRevolution blog extensively to share my findings and learnings with both the humanitarian and technology communities. In addition, I co-authored the UN Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts” (PDF).

Towards the end of HHI’s program in 2009, I co-launched the Humanitarian Technology Network, CrisisMappers, and have co-organized and curated each International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) since then. The Network now includes close to 4,000 members based in some 200 countries around the world. Last year, ICCM 2011 brought together more than 400 participants to Geneva, Switzerland to explore and define the cutting edge of humanitarian technology. This year, ICCM 2012 is being hosted by the World Bank and will no doubt draw an even greater number of experts from the humanitarian & technology space.

I joined Ushahidi as Director of Crisis Mapping shortly after launching the Crisis Mappers Network. My goal was to better understand the field of crisis mapping from the perspective of a technology company and to engage directly with international humanitarian, human rights and media organizations so they too could better understand how to leverage the technologies in the Ushahidi ecosystem. There, I spearheaded several defining crisis mapping projects including Haiti, Libya, Somalia and Syria in partnership with key humanitarian, human rights and media organizations. I also spoke at many high-profile conferences to share many of the lessons learned and best practices resulting from these projects. I am very grateful to these conference organizers for giving me the stage at so many important events, thank you very much. And of course, special thanks to the team at Ushahidi for the truly life-changing experience.

Whilst at Ushahidi, I also completed my PhD during my pre-doctoral fellowship at Stanford and co-founded the award-winning Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) to provide partner organizations with surge capacity for live mapping support. I co-created the SBTF’s Satellite Imagery Team to apply crowdsourcing and micro-tasking to satellite imagery analysis in support of humanitarian operations. I also explored a number of promising data mining solutions for social media analysis vis-a-vis crisis response. More recently, I co-launched the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) in partnership with a UN colleague.

The words “co-founded,” “co-launched,” and “co-directed” appear throughout the above because all these initiatives are the direct result of major team-work, truly amazing partners and inspiring mentors. You all know who you are. Thank you very much for your guidance, expertise, friendship and for your camara-derie throughout. I look forward to collaborating with you even more once I get settled at the Qatar Foundation.

To learn more about QCRI’s work thus far, I recommend watching the above presentation given by the Institute’s Director who has brought together an incredible team—professionals who all share his ambition and exciting vision. When we began to discuss my job description at the Foundation, I was simply told: “Think Big.” The Institute’s Advisory Board is also a source of excitement for me: Joichi Ito (MIT) and Rich deMillo (GeorgiaTech), to name a few. 

Naturally, the Qatar Foundation also has access to tremendous resources and an amazing set of partners from multiple sectors in Doha, the region and across the globe. In short, the opportunity for QCRI to become an important contributor to the humanitarian technology space is huge. I look forward to collaborating with many existing colleagues and partners to turn this exciting opportunity into reality and look forward to continuing this adventure with an amazing team of experts in Doha who are some of the best in their fields. More soon!