One of the principal Research and Development (R&D) projects I’m spearheading with colleagues at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) has been getting a great response from several key contacts at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In fact, their input has been instrumental in laying the foundations for our early R&D efforts. I therefore highlighted the initiative during my recent talk at the UN’s ECOSOC panel in New York, which was moderated by OCHA Under-Secretary General Valerie Amos. The response there was also very positive. So what’s the idea? To develop the foundations for a Twitter Dashboard for the Humanitarian Cluster System.
The purpose of the Twitter Dashboard for Humanitarian Clusters is to extract relevant information from twitter and aggregate this information according to Cluster for analytical purposes. As the above graphic shows, clusters focus on core humanitarian issues including Protection, Shelter, Education, etc. Our plan is to go beyond standard keyword search and simple Natural Language Process-ing (NLP) approaches to more advanced Machine Learning (ML) techniques and social computing methods. We’ve spent the past month asking various contacts whether anyone has developed such a dashboard but thus far have not come across any pre-existing efforts. We’ve also spent this time getting input from key colleagues at OCHA to ensure that what we’re developing will be useful to them.
It is important to emphasize that the project is purely experimental for now. This is one of the big advantages of being part of an institute for advanced computing R&D; we get to experiment and carry out applied research on next-generation humanitarian technology solutions. We realize full well what the many challenges and limitations of using Twitter as an information source are, so I won’t repeat these here. The point is not to suggest that a would-be Twitter Dashboard should be used instead of existing information management platforms. As United Nations colleagues themselves have noted, such a dashboard would simply be another dial on their own dashboards, which may at times prove useful, especially when compared or integrated with other sources of information.
Furthermore, if we’re serious about communicating with disaster affected comm-unities and the latter at times share crisis information on Twitter, then we may want to listen to what they are saying. This includes Diasporas as well. The point, quite simply, is to make full use of Twitter by at least extracting all relevant and meaningful information that contributes to situational awareness. The plan, therefore, is to have the Twitter Dashboard for Humanitarian Clusters aggregate information relevant to each specific cluster and to then provide key analytics for this content in order to reveal potentially interesting trends and outliers within each cluster.
Depending on how the R&D goes, we envision adding “credibility computing” to the Dashboard and expect to collaborate with our Arabic Language Technology Center to add Arabic tweets as well. Other languages could also be added in the future depending on initial results. Also, while we’re presently referring to this platform as a “Twitter” Dashboard, adding SMS, RSS feeds, etc., could be part of a subsequent phase. The focus would remain specifically on the Humanitarian Cluster system and the clusters’ underlying minimum essential indicators for decision-making.
The software and crisis ontologies we are developing as part of these R&D efforts will all be open source. Hopefully, we’ll have some initial results worth sharing by the time the International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM 2012) rolls around in mid-October. In the meantime, we continue collaborating with OCHA and other colleagues and as always welcome any constructive feedback from iRevolution readers.