Earlier this year, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 suddenly vanished, which set in motion the largest search and rescue operation in history—both on the ground and online. Colleagues at DigitalGlobe uploaded high resolution satellite imagery to the web and crowdsourced the digital search for signs of Flight 370. An astounding 8 million volunteers rallied online, searching through 775 million images spanning 1,000,000 square kilometers; all this in just 4 days. What if, in addition to mass crowd-searching, we could also mass crowd-verify information during humanitarian disasters? Rumors and unconfirmed reports tend to spread rather quickly on social media during major crises. But what if the crowd were also part of the solution? This is where our new Verily platform comes in.
Verily was inspired by the Red Balloon Challenge in which competing teams vied for a $40,000 prize by searching for ten weather balloons secretly placed across some 8,000,0000 square kilometers (the continental United States). Talk about a needle-in-the-haystack problem. The winning team from MIT found all 10 balloons within 8 hours. How? They used social media to crowdsource the search. The team later noted that the balloons would’ve been found more quickly had competing teams not posted pictures of fake balloons on social media. Point being, all ten balloons were found astonishingly quickly even with the disinformation campaign.
Verily takes the exact same approach and methodology used by MIT to rapidly crowd-verify information during humanitarian disasters. Why is verification important? Because humanitarians have repeatedly noted that their inability to verify social media content is one of the main reasons why they aren’t making wider user of this medium. So, to test the viability of our proposed solution to this problem, we decided to pilot the Verily platform by running a Verification Challenge. The Verily Team includes researchers from the University of Southampton, the Masdar Institute and QCRI.
During the Challenge, verification questions of various difficulty were posted on Verily. Users were invited to collect and post evidence justifying their answers to the “Yes or No” verification questions. The photograph below, for example, was posted with the following question:
Unbeknownst to participants, the photograph was actually of an Italian town in Sicily called Caltagirone. The question was answered correctly within 4 hours by a user who submitted another picture of the same street. The results of the new Verily experiment are promissing. Answers to our questions were coming in so rapidly that we could barely keep up with posting new questions. Users drew on a variety of techniques to collect their evidence & answer the questions we posted:
- Foto Forensics helped ascertain the location of this skyscraper.
- The location of this robot was found using a creative Google query.
- Google Earth confirmed this photo of a Greek Lake.
- Personal memory or avid searching skill helped determine the location of this window display.
Verily was designed with the goal of tapping into collective critical thinking; that is, with the goal of encouraging people think about the question rather than use their gut feeling alone. In other words, the purpose of Verily is not simply to crowdsource the collection of evidence but also to crowdsource critical thinking. This explains why a user can’t simply submit a “Yes” or “No” to answer a verification question. Instead, they have to justify their answer by providing evidence either in the form of an image/video or as text. In addition, Verily does not make use of Like buttons or up/down votes to answer questions. While such tools are great for identifying and sharing content on sites like Reddit, they are not the right tools for verification, which requires searching for evidence rather than liking or retweeting.
Our Verification Challenge confirmed the feasibility of the Verily platform for time-critical, crowdsourced evidence collection and verification. The next step is to deploy Verily during an actual humanitarian disaster. To this end, we invite both news and humanitarian organizations to pilot the Verily platform with us during the next natural disaster. Simply contact me to submit a verification question. In the future, once Verily is fully developed, organizations will be able to post their questions directly.