My colleagues and I at QCRI and the Masdar Institute will be launching Verily in the near future. The project has already received quite a bit of media coverage—particularly after the Boston marathon bombings. So here’s an update. While major errors were made in the crowdsourced response to the bombings, social media can help to find quickly find individuals and resources during a crisis. Moreover, time-critical crowdsourcing can also be used to verify unconfirmed reports circulating on social media.
The errors made following the bombings were the result of two main factors:
(1) the crowd is digitally illiterate
(2) the platforms used were not appropriate for the tasks at hand
The first factor has to do with education. Most of us are still in Kindergarden when it comes to the appropriate use social media. We lack the digital or media literacy required for the responsible use of social media during crises. The good news, however, is that the major backlash from the mistakes made in Boston are already serving as an important lesson to many in the crowd who are very likely to think twice about retweeting certain content or making blind allegations on social media in the future. The second factor has to do with design. Tools like Reddit and 4Chan that are useful for posting photos of cute cats are not always the tools best designed for finding critical information during crises. The crowd is willing to help, this much has been proven. The crowd simply needs better tools to focus and rationalize to goodwill of it’s members.
Verily was inspired from the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge which leveraged social media & social networks to find the location of 10 red weather balloons planted across the continental USA (3 million square miles) in under 9 hours. So Verily uses that same time-critical mobilization approach—negative incentive recursive mechanism—to rapidly collect evidence around a particular claim during a disaster, such as “The bridge in downtown LA has been destroyed by the earthquake”. Users of Verily can share this verification challenge directly from the Verily website (e.g., Share via Twitter, FB, and Email), which posts a link back to the Verily claim page.
This time-critical mobilization & crowdsourcing element is the first main component of Verily. Because disasters are far more geographically bounded than the continental US, we believe that relevant evidence can be crowdsourced in a matter of minutes rather than hours. Indeed, while the degree of separation in the analog world is 6, that number falls closer to 4 on social media, and we believe falls even more in bounded geographical areas like urban centers. This means that the 20+ people living opposite that bridge in LA are only 2 or 3 hops from your social network and could be tapped via Verily to take pictures of the bridge from their window, for example.
The second main component is to crowdsource critical thinking which is key to countering the spread of false rumors during crises. The interface to post evidence on Verily is modeled along the lines of Pinterest, but with each piece of content (text, image, video), users are required to add a sentence or two to explain why they think or know that piece of evidence is authentic or not. Others can comment on said evidence accordingly. This workflow prompts users to think critically rather than blindly share/RT content on Twitter without much thought, context or explanation. Indeed, we hope that with Verily more people will share links back to Verily pages rather than to out of context and unsubstantiated links of images/videos/claims, etc.
In other words, we want to redirect traffic to a repository of information that incentivises critical thinking. This means Verily is also looking to be an educational tool; we’ll have simple mini-guides on information forensics available to users (drawn from the BBC’s UGC, NPR’s Andy Carvin, etc). While we’ll include dig ups/downs on perceived authenticity of evidence posted to Verily, this is not the main focus of Verily. Dig ups/downs are similar to retweets and simply do not capture/explain whether said digger has voted based on her/his expertise or any critical thinking.
If you’re interested in supporting this project and/or sharing feedback, then please feel free to contact me at any time. For more background information on Verily, kindly see this post.