How Can Digital Humanitarians Best Organize for Disaster Response?

I published a blog post with the same question in 2012. The question stemmed from earlier conversations I had at 10 Downing Street with colleague Duncan Watts from Microsoft Research. We subsequently embarked on a collaboration with the Standby Task Force (SBTF), a group I co-founded back in 2010. The SBTF was one of the early pioneers of digital humanitarian action. The purpose of this collaboration was to empirically explore the relationship between team size and productivity during crisis mapping efforts.


Duncan and Team from Microsoft simulated the SBTF’s crisis mapping efforts in response to Typhoon Pablo in 2012. At the time, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN/OCHA) had activated the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) to create a crisis map of disaster impact (final version pictured above). OCHA requested the map within 24 hours. While we could have deployed the SBTF using the traditional crowdsourcing approach as before, we decided to try something different: microtasking. This was admittedly a gamble on our part.

We reached out to the team at PyBossa to ask them to customize their micro-tasking platform so that we could rapidly filter through both images and videos of disaster damage posted on Twitter. Note that we had never been in touch with the PyBossa team before this (hence the gamble) nor had we ever used their CrowdCrafting platform (which was still very new at the time). But thanks to PyBossa’s quick and positive response to our call for help, we were able to launch this microtasking app several hours after OCHA’s request.

Fast forward to the present research study. We gave Duncan and colleagues at Microsoft the same database of tweets for their simulation experiment. To conduct this experiment and replicate the critical features of crisis mapping, they created their own “CrowdMapper” platform pictured below.

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 11.12.36 AM Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 11.12.53 AM

The CrowdMapper experiments suggest that the positive effects of coordination between digital humanitarian volunteers, i.e., teams, dominate the negative effects of social loafing, i.e., volunteers working independently from others. In social psychology, “social loafing is the phenomenon of people exerting less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone” (1). In the CrowdMapper exercise, the teams performed comparably to the SBTF deployment following Typhoon Pablo. This suggests that such experiments can “help solve practical problems as well as advancing the science of collective intelligence.”

Our MicroMappers deployments have always included a live chat (IM) feature in the user interface precisely to support collaboration. Skype has also been used extensively during digital humanitarian efforts and Slack is now becoming more common as well. So while we’ve actively promoted community building and facilitated active collaboration over the past 6+ years of crisis mapping efforts, we now have empirical evidence that confirms we’re on the right track.

The full study by Duncan et al. is available here. As they note vis-a-vis areas for future research, we definitely need more studies on the division of labor in crisis mapping efforts. So I hope they or other colleagues will pursue this further.

Many thanks to the Microsoft Team and to SBTF for collaborating on this applied research, one of the few that exist in the field of crisis mapping and digital humanitarian action.

The main point I would push back on vis-a-vis Duncan et al’s study is comparing their simulated deployment with the SBTF’s real-world deployment. The reason it took the SBTF 12 hours to create the map was precisely because we didn’t take the usual crowdsourcing approach. As such, most of the 12 hours was spent on reaching out to PyBossa, customizing their microtasking app, testing said app and then finally deploying the platform. The Microsoft Team also had the dataset handed over to them while we had to use a very early, untested version of the AIDR platform to collect and filter the tweets, which created a number of hiccups. So this too took time. Finally, it should be noted that OCHA’s activation came during early evening (local time) and I for one pulled an all-nighter that night to ensure we had a map by sunrise.

4 responses to “How Can Digital Humanitarians Best Organize for Disaster Response?

  1. Very interesting 🙂 I wonder if may be of interest to wonder and to measure what is the turn over rate and the role of most productive volunteers if compared to the NGO productivity for any intervention (deployment).
    Best regards,

  2. Pingback: Three most interesting articles of the day (April 25) | BAIL: Bay Area International Link

  3. Hi Patrick—I’m not sure if you saw the appendices, but we did try to carefully lay out all the reasons the comparison of our experiment and the actual deployment were inexact. If you think we’re missing anything else substantial here, I’d love to know:

    • Thanks Andrew, given that the paper specifically highlights the comparison of 12 hours vs the experiment, the reasons that said comparison are inexact should probably not be buried in an appendix or two. It may be more appropriate to qualify the statement in the main text itself. In any event, and more importantly, thanks again for your work on this applied research.

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