Three years ago, 167 digital volunteers and I combed through satellite imagery of Somalia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on this joint project. The purpose of this digital humanitarian effort was to identify how many Somalis had been displaced (easily 200,000) due to fighting and violence. Earlier this year, 239 passengers and crew went missing when Malaysia Flight 370 suddenly disappeared. In response, some 8 million digital volunteers mobilized as part of the digital search & rescue effort that followed.
So in the first case, 168 volunteers were looking for 200,000+ people displaced by violence and in the second case, some 8,000,000 volunteers were looking for 239 missing souls. Last year, in response to Typhoon Haiyan, digital volunteers spent 200 hours or so tagging social media content in support of the UN’s rapid disaster damage assessment efforts. According to responders at the time, some 11 million people in the Philippines were affected by the Typhoon. In contrast, well over 20,000 years of volunteer time went into the search for Flight 370’s missing passengers.
What to do about this heavily skewed distribution of volunteer time? Can (or should) we do anything? Are we simply left with “May the Crowd be with You”?The massive (and as yet unparalleled) online response to Flight 370 won’t be a one-off. We’re entering an era of mass-sourcing where entire populations can be mobilized online. What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).
As we continue heading towards this new era of mass-sourcing, those with the ability to mobilize entire populations online will indeed yield an impressive new form of power. And as millions of volunteers continue tagging, tracing various features, this volunteer-generated data combined with machine learning will be used to automate future tagging and tracing needs of militaries and multi-billion dollar companies, thus obviating the need for large volumes of volunteers (especially handy should volunteers seek to boycott these digital operations).
At the same time, however, the rise of this artificial intelligence may level the playing field. But few players out there have ready access to high resolution satellite imagery and the actual technical expertise to turn volunteer-generated tags/traces into machine learning classifiers. To this end, perhaps one way forward is to try and “democratize” access to both satellite imagery and the technology needed to make sense of this “Big Data”. Easier said than done. But maybe less impossible than we may think. Perhaps new, disruptive initiatives like Planet Labs will help pave the way forward.