Category Archives: Social Media

New Insights on How To Verify Social Media

The “field” of information forensics has seen some interesting developments in recent weeks. Take the Verification Handbook or Twitter Lie-Detector project, for example. The Social Sensor project is yet another new initiative. In this blog post, I seek to make sense of these new developments and to identify where this new field may be going. In so doing, I highlight key insights from each initiative. 


The co-editors of the Verification Handbook remind us that misinformation and rumors are hardly new during disasters. Chapter 1 opens with the following account from 1934:

“After an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck northern India, it wasn’t long before word circulated that 4,000 buildings had collapsed in one city, causing ‘innumerable deaths.’ Other reports said a college’s main building, and that of the region’s High Court, had also collapsed.”

These turned out to be false rumors. The BBC’s User Generated Content (UGC) Hub would have been able to debunk these rumors. In their opinion, “The business of verifying and debunking content from the public relies far more on journalistic hunches than snazzy technology.” So they would have been right at home in the technology landscape of 1934. To be sure, they contend that “one does not need to be an IT expert or have special equipment to ask and answer the fundamental questions used to judge whether a scene is staged or not.” In any event, the BBC does not “verify something unless [they] speak to the person that created it, in most cases.” What about the other cases? How many of those cases are there? And how did they ultimately decide on whether the information was true or false even though they did not  speak to the person that created it?  

As this new study argues, big news organizations like the BBC aim to contact the original authors of user generated content (UGC) not only to try and “protect their editorial integrity but also because rights and payments for newsworthy footage are increasingly factors. By 2013, the volume of material and speed with which they were able to verify it [UGC] were becoming significant frustrations and, in most cases, smaller news organizations simply don’t have the manpower to carry out these checks” (Schifferes et al., 2014).

Credit: ZDnet

Chapter 3 of the Handbook notes that the BBC’s UGC Hub began operations in early 2005. At the time, “they were reliant on people sending content to one central email address. At that point, Facebook had just over 5 million users, rather than the more than one billion today. YouTube and Twitter hadn’t launched.” Today, more than 100 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute; over 400 million tweets are sent each day and over 1 million pieces of content are posted to Facebook every 30 seconds. Now, as this third chapter rightly notes, “No technology can automatically verify a piece of UGC with 100 percent certainty. However, the human eye or traditional investigations aren’t enough either. It’s the combination of the two.” New York Times journalists concur: “There is a problem with scale… We need algorithms to take more onus off human beings, to pick and understand the best elements” (cited in Schifferes et al., 2014).

People often (mistakenly) see “verification as a simple yes/no action: Something has been verified or not. In practice, […] verification is a process” (Chapter 3). More specifically, this process is one of satisficing. As colleagues Leysia Palen et al.  note in this study, “Information processing during mass emergency can only satisfice because […] the ‘complexity of the environment is immensely greater than the computational powers of the adaptive system.'” To this end, “It is an illusion to believe that anyone has perfectly accurate information in mass emergency and disaster situations to account for the whole event. If someone did, then the situation would not be a disaster or crisis.” This explains why Leysia et al seek to shift the debate to one focused on the helpfulness of information rather the problematic true/false dichotomy.

Credit: Ann Wuyts

“In highly contextualized situations where time is of the essence, people need support to consider the content across multiple sources of information. In the online arena, this means assessing the credibility and content of information distributed across [the web]” (Leysia et al., 2011). This means that, “Technical support can go a long way to help collate and inject metadata that make explicit many of the inferences that the every day analyst must make to assess credibility and therefore helpfulness” (Leysia et al., 2011). In sum, the human versus computer debate vis-a-vis the verification of social media is somewhat pointless. The challenge moving forward resides in identifying the best ways to combine human cognition with machine computing. As Leysia et al. rightly note, “It is not the job of the […] tools to make decisions but rather to allow their users to reach a decision as quickly and confidently as possible.”

This may explain why Chapter 7 (which I authored) applies both human and advanced computing techniques to the verification challenge. Indeed, I explicitly advocate for a hybrid approach. In contrast, the Twitter Lie-Detector project known as Pheme apparently seeks to use machine learning alone to automatically verify online rumors as they spread on social networks. Overall, this is great news—the more groups that focus on this verification challenge, the better for those us engaged in digital humanitarian response. It remains to be seen, however, whether machine learning alone will make Pheme a success.


In the meantime, the EU’s Social Sensor project is developing new software tools to help journalists assess the reliability of social media content (Schifferes et al., 2014). A preliminary series of interviews revealed that journalists were most interested in Social Sensor software for:

1. Predicting or alerting breaking news

2. Verifying social media content–quickly identifying who has posted a tweet or video and establishing “truth or lie”

So the Social Sensor project is developing an “Alethiometer” (Alethia is Greek for ‘truth’) to “meter the credibility of of information coming from any source by examining the three Cs—Contributors, Content and Context. These seek to measure three key dimensions of credibility: the reliability of contributors, the nature of the content, and the context in which the information is presented. This reflects the range of considerations that working journalists take into account when trying to verify social media content. Each of these will be measured by multiple metrics based on our research into the steps that journalists go through manually. The results of [these] steps can be weighed and combined [metadata] to provide a sense of credibility to guide journalists” (Schifferes et al., 2014).


On our end, my colleagues and at QCRI are continuing to collaborate with several partners to experiment with advanced computing methods to address the social media verification challenge. As noted in Chapter 7, Verily, a platform that combines time-critical crowdsourcing and critical thinking, is still in the works. We’re also continuing our collaboration on a Twitter credibility plugin (more in Chapter 7). In addition, we are exploring whether we can microtask the computation of source credibility scores using MicroMappers.

Of course, the above will sound like “snazzy technologies” to seasoned journalists with no background or interest in advanced computing. But this doesn’t seem to stop them from complaining that “Twitter search is very hit and miss;” that what Twitter “produces is not comprehensive and the filters are not comprehensive enough” (BBC social media expert, cited in Schifferes et al., 2014). As one of my PhD dissertation advisors (Clay Shirky) noted a while back already, information overflow (Big Data) is due to “Filter Failure”. This is precisely why my colleagues and I are spending so much of our time developing better filters—filters powered by human and machine computing, such as AIDR. These types of filters can scale. BBC journalists on their own do not, unfortunately. But they can act on hunches and intuition based on years of hands-on professional experience.

The “field” of digital information forensics has come along way since I first wrote about how to verify social media content back in 2011. While I won’t touch on the Handbook’s many other chapters here, the entire report is an absolute must read for anyone interested and/or working in the verification space. At the very least, have a look at Chapter 9, which combines each chapter’s verification strategies in the form of a simple check-list. Also, Chapter 10 includes a list of  tools to aid in the verification process.

In the meantime, I really hope that we end the pointless debate about human versus machine. This is not an either/or issue. As a colleague once noted, what we really need is a way to combine the power of algorithms and the wisdom of the crowd with the instincts of experts.


See also:

  • Predicting the Credibility of Disaster Tweets Automatically [link]
  • Auto-Ranking Credibility of Tweets During Major Events [link]
  • Auto-Identifying Fake Images on Twitter During Disasters [link]
  • Truth in the Age of Social Media: A Big Data Challenge [link]
  • Analyzing Fake Content on Twitter During Boston Bombings [link]
  • How to Verify Crowdsourced Information from Social Media [link]
  • Crowdsourcing Critical Thinking to Verify Social Media [link]

Crisis Mapping in Areas of Limited Statehood

I had the great pleasure of contributing a chapter to this new book recently published by Oxford University Press: Bits and Atoms: Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood. My chapter addresses the application of crisis mapping to areas of limited statehood, drawing both on theory and hands-on experience. The short introduction to my chapter is provided below to help promote and disseminate the book.



Crises often challenge or limit statehood and the delivery of government services. The concept of “limited statehood” thus allows for a more realistic description of the territorial and temporal variations of governance and service delivery. Total statehood, in any case, is mostly imagined—a cognitive frame or pre-structured worldview. In a sense, all states are “spatially challenged” in that the projection of their governance is hardly enforceable beyond a certain geographic area and period of time. But “limited statehood” does not imply the absence of governance or services. Rather, these may simply take on alternate forms, involving procedures that are non-institutional (see Chapter 1). Therein lies the tension vis-à-vis crises, since “the utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations” (Scott 1998). Crises, by definition, publicly disrupt these orderly administrative constructs. They are brutal audits of governance structures, and the consequences can be lethal for state continuity. Recall the serious disaster response failures that occurred following the devastating cyclone of 1970 in East Pakistan.

To this day, Cyclone Bhola still remains the most deadly cyclone on record, killing some 500,000 people. The lack of timely and coordinated government response was one of the triggers for the war of independence that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh (Kelman 2007). While crises can challenge statehood, they also lead to collective, self-help behavior among disaster-affected communities—particularly in areas of limited statehood. Recently, this collective action—facilitated by new information and communication technologies—has swelled and resulted in the production of live crisis maps that identify the disaggregated, raw impact of a given crisis along with resulting needs for services typically provided by the government (see Chapter  7). These crisis maps are sub-national and are often crowdsourced in near real-time. They empirically reveal the limited contours of governance and reframe how power is both perceived and projected (see Chapter 8).

Indeed, while these live maps outline the hollows of governance during times of upheaval, they also depict the full agency and public expression of citizens who self-organize online and offline to fill these troughs with alternative, parallel forms of services and thus governance. This self-organization and public expression also generate social capital between citizen volunteers—weak and strong ties that nurture social capital and facilitate future collective action both on and offline.

The purpose of this chapter is to analyze how the rise of citizen-generated crisis maps replaces governance in areas of limited statehood and to distill the conditions for their success. Unlike other chapters in this book, the analysis below focuses on a variable that has been completely ignored in the literature:  digital social capital. The chapter is thus structured as follows. The first section provides a brief introduction to crisis mapping and frames this overview using James Scott’s discourse from Seeing Like a State (1998). The next section briefly highlights examples of crisis maps in action—specifically those responding to natural disasters, political crises, and contested elections. The third section provides a broad comparative analysis of these case studies, while the fourth section draws on the findings of this analysis to produce a list of ingredients that are likely to render crowdsourced crisis-mapping more successful in areas of limited statehood. These ingredients turn out to be factors that nurture and thrive on digital social capital such as trust, social inclusion, and collective action. These drivers need to be studied and monitored as conditions for successful crisis maps and as measures of successful outcomes of online digital collaboration. In sum, digital crisis maps both reflect and change social capital.


Rapid Disaster Damage Assessments: Reality Check

The Multi-Cluster/Sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA) is the methodology used by UN agencies to assess and analyze humanitarian needs within two weeks of a sudden onset disaster. A detailed overview of the process, methodologies and tools behind MIRA is available here (PDF). These reports are particularly insightful when comparing them with the processes and methodologies used by digital humanitarians to carry out their rapid damage assessments (typically done within 48-72 hours of a disaster).


Take the November 2013 MIRA report for Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. I am really impressed by how transparent the report is vis-à-vis the very real limitations behind the assessment. For example:

  • “The barangays [districts] surveyed do not constitute a represen-tative sample of affected areas. Results are skewed towards more heavily impacted municipalities […].”
  • “Key informant interviews were predominantly held with baranguay captains or secretaries and they may or may not have included other informants including health workers, teachers, civil and worker group representatives among others.”
  • Barangay captains and local government staff often needed to make their best estimate on a number of questions and therefore there’s considerable risk of potential bias.”
  • Given the number of organizations involved, assessment teams were not trained in how to administrate the questionnaire and there may have been confusion on the use of terms or misrepresentation on the intent of the questions.”
  • “Only in a limited number of questions did the MIRA checklist contain before and after questions. Therefore to correctly interpret the information it would need to be cross-checked with available secondary data.”

In sum: The data collected was not representative; The process of selecting interviewees was biased given that said selection was based on a convenience sample; Interviewees had to estimate (guesstimate?) the answer for several questions, thus introducing additional bias in the data; Since assessment teams were not trained to administrate the questionnaire, this also introduces the problem of limited inter-coder reliability and thus limits the ability to compare survey results; The data still needs to be validated with secondary data.

I do not share the above to criticize, only to relay what the real world of rapid assessments resembles when you look “under the hood”. What is striking is how similar the above challenges are to the those that digital humanitarians have been facing when carrying out rapid damage assessments. And yet, I distinctly recall rather pointed criticisms leveled by professional humanitarians against groups using social media and crowdsourcing for humanitarian response back in 2010 & 2011. These criticisms dismissed social media reports as being unrepresentative, unreliable, fraught with selection bias, etc. (Some myopic criticisms continue to this day). I find it rather interesting that many of the shortcomings attributed to crowdsourcing social media reports are also true of traditional information collection methodologies like MIRA.

The fact is this: no data or methodology is perfect. The real world is messy, both off- and online. Being transparent about these limitations is important, especially for those who seek to combine both off- and online methodologies to create more robust and timely damage assessments.


Inferring International and Internal Migration Patterns from Twitter

My QCRI colleagues Kiran Garimella and Ingmar Weber recently co-authored an important study on migration patterns discerned from Twitter. The study was co-authored with  Bogdan State (Stanford)  and lead author Emilio Zagheni (CUNY). The authors analyzed 500,000 Twitter users based in OECD countries between May 2011 and April 2013. Since Twitter users are not representative of the OECD population, the study uses a “difference-in-differences” approach to reduce selection bias when in out-migration rates for individual countries. The paper is available here and key insights & results are summarized below.

Twitter Migration

To better understand the demographic characteristics of the Twitter users under study, the authors used face recognition software (Face++) to estimate both the gender and age of users based on their profile pictures. “Face++ uses computer vision and data mining techniques applied to a large database of celebrities to generate estimates of age and sex of individuals from their pictures.” The results are depicted below (click to enlarge). Naturally, there is an important degree of uncertainty about estimates for single individuals. “However, when the data is aggregated, as we did in the population pyramid, the uncertainty is substantially reduced, as overestimates and underestimates of age should cancel each other out.” One important limitation is that age estimates may still be biased if users upload younger pictures of themselves, which would result in underestimating the age of the sample population. This is why other methods to infer age (and gender) should also be applied.

Twitter Migration 3

I’m particularly interested in the bias-correction “difference-in-differences” method used in this study, which demonstrates one can still extract meaningful information about trends even though statistical inferences cannot be inferred since the underlying data does not constitute a representative sample. Applying this method yields the following results (click to enlarge):

Twitter Migration 2

The above graph reveals a number of interesting insights. For example, one can observe a decline in out-migration rates from Mexico to other countries, which is consistent with recent estimates from Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, in Southern Europe, the results show that out-migration flows continue to increase for  countries that were/are hit hard by the economic crisis, like Greece.

The results of this study suggest that such methods can be used to “predict turning points in migration trends, which are particularly relevant for migration forecasting.” In addition, the results indicate that “geolocated Twitter data can substantially improve our understanding of the relationships between internal and international migration.” Furthermore, since the study relies in publicly available, real-time data, this approach could also be used to monitor migration trends on an ongoing basis.

To which extent the above is feasible remains to be seen. Very recent mobility data from official statistics are simply not available to more closely calibrate and validate the study’s results. In any event, this study is an important towards addressing a central question that humanitarian organizations are also asking: how can we make statistical inferences from online data when ground-truth data is unavailable as a reference?

I asked Emilio whether techniques like “difference-in-differences” could be used to monitor forced migration. As he noted, there is typically little to no ground truth data available in humanitarian crises. He thus believes that their approach is potentially relevant to evaluate forced migration. That said, he is quick to caution against making generalizations. Their study focused on OECD countries, which represent relatively large samples and high Internet diffusion, which means low selection bias. In contrast, data samples for humanitarian crises tend to be far smaller and highly selected. This means that filtering out the bias may prove more difficult. I hope that this is a challenge that Emilio and his co-authors choose to take on in the near future.


Social Media: The First 2,000 Years

What do Papyrus rolls and Twitter have in common? Both were used as a means of “instant” communication. Indeed, a careful reading of history reveals just how ancient social media really is. Further, the questions we pose about social media today have already been debated countless times over hundreds of years. Author Tom Standage traces this fascinating history of social media in his thought-provoking book Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 YearsIn so doing, Tom forces us to rethink our understanding and assumptions of social media use today. To be sure, this book will change the way you think about social media. I highlight some of the most intriguing insights below.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC to 43 BC) was a Roman philosopher, politician and lawyer. When Julius Caesar relocated him from Rome to a distant output, Cicero drew on an elaborate communication system and social network to stay abreast of events in the capital. Printing presses did not exist at the time, nor did paper for that matter. So papyrus rolls were used to exchange letters and other documents, which were in turn copied, commented on and shared. In this way, Cicero received timely updates on politics and gossip coming from Rome, having asked his contacts in the capital to write him daily. Common abbreviations were soon used to save space and time, much like today’s acronyms on social media (e.g., BTW, AFAIK) . SVBEEV (si vales, bene est, ego valeo), for example, was a popular acronym for “if you are well, that is good, I am well.” Often, letters were also quoted in other letters, much like blog posts today. In fact, some letters during Cicero’s time were “addressed to several people and were written [….] to be posted in public for general consumption.”

The enabling infrastructure of this information system was slavery—many of the scribes and messengers who copied and delivered messages were slaves. In short, “slaves were the Roman equivalent of broadband.” Friends were also used to carry letters across cities, countries and indeed continents. “One advantage of getting friends to pass on the news was that they could highlight items of interest and add their own comments or background information in the covering letters they sent along with the copied letters. The combination of personal letters and impersonal news was more valuable then either in isolation, because each provided additional context for the other. And then, as now, one was far more likely to pay attention if a friend said it was important or expressed an opinion about it.”

wax tablets

Not all letters during Cicero’s time were sent via papyrus rolls. Wax tablets (pictured above) mounted in wooden frames “that fold together like a book” were used for messages sent over a short distance, which required a quick reply. “To modern eyes, these tablets […] look strikingly similar to tablet computers. The recipient’s response could be scratched onto the same tablet, and the messenger who had delivered it would then take it straight back to the sender.” Earlier, in Mesopotamia, “letters were written in cuneiform on small clay tablets that fit neatly into the palm of the hand. Letters almost always fit onto a single tablet, which imposed a limit on the length of the message.” One can’t help but draw parallels with smartphones and Twitter.

Graffiti was also served as a social media some 2,000 years ago. In Pompeii, for example, ancient graffiti was found on the streets, in bars and also in private houses. Writing graffiti was not regarded as defacement at the time. “The most prominent messages, painted in large letters, were political slogans expressing support for candidates running for election […].” Criticisms of political candidates were also found in Pompeii’s ancient graffiti, as were advertisements for events and even rental vacancies. As author Tom Standage notes, “the great merit of graffiti is that one did not have to be a magistrate […] to add one’s voice to the conversation; the walls were open to everyone.”

The following graffiti messages found in Pompeii reveal what ordinary people were thinking about:

“I won 8,522 denarii by gaming, fair play!”

“I made bread”

“The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian”

“Atimetus got me pregnant”

These provided “glimpses of everyday activities, rather like status updates on modern social networks.” In addition, graffiti messages were left near inns as advice to potential customers, serving both positive and negative reviews, much like today’s Yelp and related websites. “More practical still were the messages addressed to specific people.” Examples include:

“Samius to Cornelius: go hang yourself!”

“Gaius Sabinus says a fond hello to Statius. Traveler, eat bread in Pompeii but go to Nuceria to drink. At Nuceria, the drinking is better”

According to Tom, there are “even a few examples of dialogues, where an inscription inspired comments or responses.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, “the sexual boasts and scatological humor familiar from modern graffiti in public lavatories can also be found in Pompeii […].” Like much of social media today, a lot of the ancient graffiti that appeared on the walls of Pompeii was of no interest to anyone. As one graffiti message, which appeared four times in the ancient city laments: “Oh wall, I am amazed you haven’t fallen down, since you bear the tedious scribblings of so many writers.”


In the 1500’s, as printing presses multiplied and religious pamphlets vent viral, there was growing anxiety about the potential spread of false information (and seditious books). This ignited a heated debate on whether printing should be tightly regulated. In England, the company that had been given draconian powers to destroy unregistered printing presses and books that painted the Monarchy in bad light. This company argued the following:

“If every man may print, that is so disposed, it may be a means, that heresies, treasons, and seditious libelles shall be too often dispersed, whereas if only known men do print this inconvenience is avoided.”

Again, the parallels with today’s debate over the reliability of crowdsourcing and user-generated content are clear. But the growing desire for new in Europe during the Thirty Year’s War (early 1600’s) made crowdsourcing a compelling approach for the collection of news reports. Indeed, the increasing demand for “news about the war led to the appearance of a new type of publication: the coranto. This was a single sheet, printed on both sides, with a compilation of items, usually letters or eyewitness accounts of battles or other notable events. […]. Being anonymous, corantos were regarded as less trustworthy than handwritten news letters, which often related news at first hand.” So a backlash against corantos was inevitable, with criticism that we hear today about social media. For example, one critic at the time “thought it dangerous for ordinary people to have greater access to news, because printing allowed rumors and falsehoods to spread, causing social and political instability.”

In any event, “the pamphlets of the 1640’s existed in an interconnected web, constantly referring to, quoting, or in dialogue with each other, like blog posts today.” As this information web continued continued to scale, “the bewildering variety of new voices and formats made it very difficult to work out what was going on. As one observer put it, ‘oft times we have much more printed than is true.” But John Milton didn’t buy the arguments for regulating written speech. Milton countered that no one is truly capable of acting as a reasonable censor since humans are susceptible to  error or bias. While press freedom would allow “bad or erroneous works to be printed,” Milton argued that this was actually a good thing. “If more readers came into contact with bad ideas because of printing, those ideas could be more swiftly and easily disproved.” In essence, Milton was making the case for crowdsourced verification of information. Similar arguments have recently been made.


Meanwhile, at the coffee house. The first caffeinated drink reached Europe around the 1600’s. “And along with the coffee bean itself came the institution of the coffeehouse, which had become an important meeting place and source of news in the Arab world.” The same was to happen in Europe, where coffeehouses served the same function as today’s co-working spaces and innovation hubs/labs. Some coffee houses were “thronged with businessmen, who would keep regular hours at particular coffee houses so that their associates would know where to find them, and who used coffee houses as offices, meeting rooms, and venues for trade.” Indeed, “the main business of coffee houses was the sharing and discussion of news and opinion […].” In sum, “coffee houses were an alluring social platform for sharing information.”

There’s a lot more to “Writing on the Wall” than summarized above, such as the tension between press regulation and freedom, how the era of centralized, mass media dominance was a two-century anomaly in the natural course of social media, the origins of the political economy of mass media, etc. So I highly recommend this book to iRevolution readers. I, for one, relished it.


Yes, I’m Writing a Book (on Digital Humanitarians)

I recently signed a book deal with Taylor & Francis Press. The book, which is tentatively titled “Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Disaster Response,” is slated to be published next year. The book will chart the rise of digital humanitarian response from the Haiti Earthquake to 2015, highlighting critical lessons learned and best practices. To this end, the book will draw on real-world examples of digital humanitarians in action to explain how they use new technologies and crowdsourcing to make sense of “Big (Crisis) Data”. In sum, the book will describe how digital humanitarians & humanitarian technologies are together reshaping the humanitarian space and what this means for the future of disaster response. The purpose of this book is to inspire and inform the next generation of (digital) humanitarians while serving as a guide for established humanitarian organizations & emergency management professionals who wish to take advantage of this transformation in humanitarian response.


The book will thus consolidate critical lessons learned in digital humanitarian response (such as the verification of social media during crises) so that members of the public along with professionals in both international humanitarian response and domestic emergency management can improve their own relief efforts in the face of “Big Data” and rapidly evolving technologies. The book will also be of interest to academics and students who wish to better understand methodological issues around the use of social media and user-generated content for disaster response; or how technology is transforming collective action and how “Big Data” is disrupting humanitarian institutions, for example. Finally, this book will also speak to those who want to make a difference; to those who of you who may have little to no experience in humanitarian response but who still wish to help others affected during disasters—even if you happen to be thousands of miles away. You are the next wave of digital humanitarians and this book will explain how you can indeed make a difference.

The book will not be written in a technical or academic writing style. Instead, I’ll be using a more “storytelling” form of writing combined with a conversational tone. This approach is perfectly compatible with the clear documentation of critical lessons emerging from the rapidly evolving digital humanitarian space. This conversational writing style is not at odds with the need to explain the more technical insights being applied to develop next generation humanitarian technologies. Quite on the contrary, I’ll be using intuitive examples & metaphors to make the most technical details not only understandable but entertaining.

While this journey is just beginning, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to my mentors for their invaluable feedback on my book proposal. I’d also like to express my deep gratitude to my point of contact at Taylor & Francis Press for championing this book from the get-go. Last but certainly not least, I’d like to sincerely thank the Rockefeller Foundation for providing me with a residency fellowship this Spring in order to accelerate my writing.

I’ll be sure to provide an update when the publication date has been set. In the meantime, many thanks for being an iRevolution reader!


Video: Humanitarian Response in 2025

I gave a talk on “The future of Humanitarian Response” at UN OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Policy Forum (#aid2025) in New York yesterday. More here for context. A similar version of the talk is available in the video presentation below.

Some of the discussions that ensued during the Forum were frustrating albeit an important reality check. Some policy makers still think that disaster response is about them and their international humanitarian organizations. They are still under the impression that aid does not arrive until they arrive. And yet, empirical research in the disaster literature points to the fact that the vast majority of survivals during disasters is the result of local agency, not external intervention.

In my talk (and video above), I note that local communities will increasingly become tech-enabled first responders, thus taking pressure off the international humanitarian system. These tech savvy local communities already exit. And they already respond to both “natural” (and manmade) disasters as noted in my talk vis-a-vis the information products produced by tech-savvy local Filipino groups. So my point about the rise of tech-enabled self-help was a more diplomatic way of conveying to traditional humanitarian groups that humanitarian response in 2025 will continue to happen with or without them; and perhaps increasingly without them.

This explains why I see OCHA’s Information Management (IM) Team increasingly taking on the role of “Information DJ”, mixing both formal and informal data sources for the purposes of both formal and informal humanitarian response. But OCHA will certainly not be the only DJ in town nor will they be invited to play at all “info events”. So the earlier they learn how to create relevant info mixes, the more likely they’ll still be DJ’ing in 2025.


Opening Keynote Address at CrisisMappers 2013

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Welcome to Kenya, or as we say here, Karibu! This is a special ICCM for me. I grew up in Nairobi; in fact our school bus would pass right by the UN every day. So karibu, welcome to this beautiful country (and continent) that has taught me so much about life. Take “Crowdsourcing,” for example. Crowdsourcing is just a new term for the old African saying “It takes a village.” And it took some hard-working villagers to bring us all here. First, my outstanding organizing committee went way, way above and beyond to organize this village gathering. Second, our village of sponsors made it possible for us to invite you all to Nairobi for this Fifth Annual, International Conference of CrisisMappers (ICCM).

I see many new faces, which is really super, so by way of introduction, my name is Patrick and I develop free and open source next generation humanitarian technologies with an outstanding team of scientists at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), one of this year’s co-sponsors.

We’ve already had an exciting two-days of pre-conference site visits with our friends from Sisi ni Amani and our co-host Spatial Collective. ICCM participants observed first-hand how GIS, mobile technology and communication projects operate in informal settlements, covering a wide range of topics that include governance, civic education and peacebuilding. In addition, our friend Heather Leson from the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) coordinated an excellent set of trainings at the iHub yesterday. So a big thank you to Heather, Sisi ni Amani and Spatial Collective for these outstanding pre-conference events.

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This is my 5th year giving opening remarks at ICCM, so some of you will know from previous years that I often take this moment to reflect on the past 12 months. But just reflecting on the past 12 days alone requires it’s own separate ICCM. I’m referring, of course, to the humanitarian and digital humanitarian response to the devastating Typhoon in the Philippines. This response, which is still ongoing, is unparalleled in terms of the level of collaboration between members of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) and formal humanitarian organizations like UN OCHA and WFP. All of these organizations, both formal and digital, are also members of the CrisisMapper Network.

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The Digital Humanitarian Network, or DHN, serves as the official interface between formal humanitarian organizations and global networks of tech-savvy digital volunteers. These digital volunteers provide humanitarian organizations with the skill and surge capacity they often need to make timely sense of “Big (Crisis) Data” during major disasters. By Big Crisis Data, I mean social media content and satellite imagery, for example. This overflow of such information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to humanitarian response as the absence of information. And making sense of this overflow in response to Yolanda has required all hands on deck—i.e., an unprecedented level of collaboration between many members of the DHN.

So I’d like to share with you 2 initial observations from this digital humanitarian response to Yolanda; just 2 points that may be signs of things to come. Local Digital Villages and World Wide (good) Will.

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First, there were numerous local digital humanitarians on the ground in the Philippines. These digitally-savvy Filipinos were rapidly self-organizing and launching crisis maps well before any of us outside the Philippines had time to blink. One such group is Rappler, for example.

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We (the DHN) reached out to them early on, sharing both our data and volunteers. Remember that “Crowdsourcing” is just a new word for the old African saying that “it takes a village…” and sometimes, it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground. And Rappler is hardly the only local digital community that mobilizing in response to Yolanda, there are dozens of digital villages spearheading similar initiatives across the country.

The rise of local digital villages means that the distant future (or maybe not too distant future) of humanitarian operations may become less about the formal “brick-and-mortar” humanitarian organizations and, yes, also less about the Digital Humanitarian Network. Disaster response is and has always have been about local communities self-organizing and now local digital communities self-organizing. The majority of lives saved during disasters is attributed to this local agency, not international, external relief. Furthermore, these local digital villages are increasingly the source of humanitarian innovation, so we should pay close attention; we have a lot to learn from these digital villages. Naturally, they too are learning a lot from us.

The second point that struck me occurred when the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) completed its deployment of MicroMappers on behalf of OCHA. The response from several SBTF volunteers was rather pointed—some were disappointed that the deployment had closed; others were downright upset. What happened next was very interesting; you see, these volunteers simply kept going, they used (hacked) the SBTF Skype Chat for Yolanda (which already had over 160 members) to self-organize and support other digital humanitarian efforts that were still ongoing. So the SBTF Team sent an email to it’s 1,000+ volunteers with the following subject header: “Closing Yolanda Deployment, Opening Other Opportunities!”

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The email provided a list of the most promising ongoing digital volunteer opportunities for the Typhoon response and encouraged volunteers to support whatever efforts they were most drawn to. This second reveals that a “World Wide (good) Will” exists. People care. This is good! Until recently, when disasters struck in faraway lands, we would watch the news on television wishing we could somehow help. That private wish—that innate human emotion—would perhaps translate into a donation. Today, not only can you donate cash to support those affected by disasters, you can also donate a few minutes of your time to support the relief efforts on the ground thanks to new humanitarian technologies and platforms. In other words, you, me, all of us can now translate our private wishes into direct, online public action, which can support those working in disaster-affected areas including local digital villages.

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This surge of World Wide (good) Will explains why SBTF volunteers wanted to continue volunteering for as long as they wished even if our formal digital humanitarian network had phased out operations. And this is beautiful. We should not seek to limit or control this global goodwill or play the professional versus amateur card too quickly. Besides, who are we kidding? We couldn’t control this flood of goodwill even if we wanted to. But, we can embrace this goodwill and channel it. People care, they want to offer their time to help others thousands of miles away. This is beautiful and the kind of world I want to live in. To paraphrase the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the greatest harm in the world is caused not by evil but apathy. So we should cherish the digital goodwill that springs during disasters. This spring is the digital equivalent of mutual aid, of self-help. The global village of digital Good Samaritans is growing.

At the same time, this goodwill, this precious human emotion and the precious time it freely offers can cause more harm than good if it is not channeled responsibly. When international volunteers poor into disaster areas wanting to help, their goodwill can have the opposite effect, especially when they are inexperienced. This is also true of digital volunteers flooding in to help online.

We in the CrisisMappers community have the luxury of having learned a lot about digital humanitarian response since the Haiti Earthquake; we have learned important lessons about data privacy and protection, codes of conduct, the critical information needs of humanitarian organizations and disaster-affected populations, standardizing operating procedures, and so on. Indeed we now (for the first time) have data protection protocols that address crowdsourcing, social media and digital volunteers thanks to our colleagues at the ICRC. We also have an official code of conduct on the use of SMS for disaster response thanks to our colleagues at GSMA. This year’s World Disaster Report (WDR 2013) also emphasizes the responsible use of next generation humanitarian technologies and the crisis data they manage.

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Now, this doesn’t mean that we the formal (digital) humanitarian sector have figured it all out—far from it. This simply means that we’ve learned a few important and difficult lessons along the way. Unlike newcomers to the digital humanitarian space, we have the benefit of several years of hard experience to draw on when deploying for disasters like Typhoon Yolanda. While sharing these lessons and disseminating them as widely as possible is obviously a must, it is simply not good enough. Guidebooks and guidelines just won’t cut it. We also need to channel the global spring of digital goodwill and distribute it to avoid  “flash floods” of goodwill. So what might these goodwill channels look like? Well they already exist in the form of the Digital Humanitarian Network—more specifically the members of the DHN.

These are the channels that focus digital goodwill in support of the humanitarian organizations that physically deploy to disasters. These channels operate using best practices, codes of conduct, protocols, etc., and can be held accountable. At the same time, however, these channels also block the upsurge of goodwill from new digital volunteers—those outside our digital villages. How? Our channels block this World Wide (good) Will by requiring technical expertise to engage with us and/or  by requiring an inordinate amount of time commitment. So we should not be surprised if the “World Wide (Good) Will” circumvents our channels altogether, and in so doing causes more harm than good during disasters. Our channels are blocking their engagement and preventing them from joining our digital villages. Clearly we need different channels to focus the World Wide (Good) Will.

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Our friends at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap already figured this out two years ago when they set up their microtasking server, making it easier for less tech-savvy volunteers to engage. We need to democratize our humanitarian technologies to responsibly channel the huge surplus global goodwill that exists online. This explains why my team and I at QCRI are developing MicroMappers and why we deployed the platform in response to OCHA’s request within hours of Typhoon Yolanda making landfall in the Philippines.

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This digital humanitarian operation was definitely far from perfect, but it was super simple to use and channeled 208 hours of global goodwill in just a matter days. Those are 208 hours that did not cause harm. We had volunteers from dozens of countries around the world and from all ages and walks of life offering their time on MicroMappers. OCHA, which had requested this support, channeled the resulting data to their teams on the ground in the Philippines.

These digital volunteers all cared and took the time to try and help others thousands of miles away. The same is true of the remarkable digital volunteers supporting the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap efforts. This is the kind of world I want to live in; the world in which humanitarian technologies harvest the global goodwill and channels it to make a difference to those affected by disasters.

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So these are two important trends I see moving forward, the rise of well-organized, local digital humanitarian groups, like Rappler, and the rise of World Wide (Good) Will. We must learn from the former, from the local digital villages, and when asked, we should support them as best we can. We should also channel, even amplify the World Wide (Good) Will by democratizing humanitarian technologies and embracing new ways to engage those who want to make a difference. Again, Crowdsourcing is simply a new term for the old African proverb, that it takes a village. Let us not close the doors to that village.

So on this note, I thank *you* for participating in ICCM and for being a global village that cares, both on and offline. Big thanks as well to our current team of sponsors for caring about this community and making sure that our village does continue to meet in person every year. And now for the next 3 days, we have an amazing line-up of speakers, panelists & technologies for you. So please use these days to plot, partner and disrupt. And always remember: be tough on ideas, but gentle on people.

Thanks again, and keep caring.

#Westgate Tweets: A Detailed Study in Information Forensics

My team and I at QCRI have just completed a detailed analysis of the 13,200+ tweets posted from one hour before the attacks began until two hours into the attack. The purpose of this study, which will be launched at CrisisMappers 2013 in Nairobi tomorrow, is to make sense of the Big (Crisis) Data generated during the first hours of the siege. A summary of our results are displayed below. The full results of our analysis and discussion of findings are available as a GoogleDoc and also PDF. The purpose of this public GoogleDoc is to solicit comments on our methodology so as to inform the next phase of our research. Indeed, our aim is to categorize and study the entire Westgate dataset in the coming months (730,000+ tweets). In the meantime, sincere appreciation go to my outstanding QCRI Research Assistants, Ms. Brittany Card and Ms. Justine MacKinnon for their hard work on the coding and analysis of the 13,200+ tweets. Our study builds on this preliminary review.

The following 7 figures summarize the main findings of our study. These are discussed in more detail in the GoogleDoc/PDF.

Figure 1: Who Authored the Most Tweets?

Figure 2: Frequency of Tweets by Eyewitnesses Over Time?

Figure 3: Who Were the Tweets Directed At?

Figure 4: What Content Did Tweets Contain?

Figure 5: What Terms Were Used to Reference the Attackers?

Figure 6: What Terms Were Used to Reference Attackers Over Time?

Figure 7: What Kind of Multimedia Content Was Shared?

Early Results of MicroMappers Response to Typhoon Yolanda (Updated)

We have completed our digital humanitarian operation in the Philippines after five continuous days with MicroMappers. Many, many thanks to all volunteers from all around the world who donated their time by clicking on tweets and images coming from the Philippines. Our UN OCHA colleagues have confirmed that the results are being shared widely with their teams in the field and with other humanitarian organizations on the ground. More here.


In terms of preliminary figures (to be confirmed):

  • Tweets collected during first 48 hours of landfall = ~230,000
  • Tweets automatically filtered for relevancy/uniqueness = ~55,000
  • Tweets clicked using the TweetClicker = ~ 30,000
  • Relevant tweets triangulated using TweetClicker = ~3,800
  • Triangulated tweets published on live Crisis Map = ~600
  • Total clicks on TweetClicker = ~ 90,000
  • Images clicked using the ImageClicker = ~ 5,000
  • Relevant images triangulated using TweetClicker = ~1,200
  • Triangulated images published on live Crisis Map = ~180
  • Total clicks on ImageClicker = ~15,000
  • Total clicks on MicroMappers (Image + Tweet Clickers) = ~105,000

Since each single tweet and image uploaded to the Clickers was clicked on by (at least) three individual volunteers for quality control purposes, the number of clicks is three times the total number of tweets and images uploaded to the respective clickers. In sum, digital humanitarian volunteers have clocked a grand total of ~105,000 clicks to support humanitarian operations in the Philippines.

While the media has largely focused on the technology angle of our digital humanitarian operation, the human story is for me the more powerful message. This operation succeeded because people cared. Those ~105,000 clicks did not magically happen. Each and every single one of them was clocked by humans, not machines. At one point, we had over 300 digital volunteers from the world over clicking away at the same time on the TweetClicker and more than 200 on the ImageClicker. This kind of active engagement by total strangers—good “digital Samaritans”—explains why I find the human angle of this story to be the most inspiring outcome of MicroMappers. “Crowdsourcing” is just a new term for the old saying “it takes a village,” and sometimes it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground.

Until recently, when disasters struck in faraway lands, we would watch the news on television wishing we could somehow help. That private wish—that innate human emotion—would perhaps translate into a donation. Today, not only can you donate cash to support those affected by disasters, you can also donate a few minutes of your time to support the operational humanitarian response on the ground by simply clicking on MicroMappers. In other words, you can translate your private wish into direct, online public action, which in turn translates into supporting offline collective action in the disaster-affected areas.

Clicking is so simple that anyone with Internet access can help. We had high schoolers in Qatar clicking away, fire officers in Belgium, graduate students in Boston, a retired couple in Kenya and young Filipinos clicking away. They all cared and took the time to try and help others, often from thousands of miles away. That is the kind of world I want to live in. So if you share this vision, then feel free to join the MicroMapper list-serve.

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Considering that MicroMappers is still very much under development, we are all pleased with the results. There were of course many challenges; the most serious was the CrowdCrafting server which hosts our Clickers. Unfortunately, that server was not able to handle the load and traffic generated by digital volunteers. So their server crashed twice and also slowed our Clickers to a complete stop at least a dozen times during the past five days. At times, it would take 10-15 seconds for a new tweet or image to load, which was frustrating. We were also limited by the number of tweets and images we could upload at any given time, usually ~1,500 at most. Any larger load would seriously slow down the Clickers. So it is rather remarkable that digital volunteers managed to clock more than 100,000 clicks given the repeated interruptions. 

Besides the server issue, the other main bottleneck was the geo-location of the ~30,000 tweets and ~5,000 images tagged using the Clickers. We do have a Tweet and Image GeoClicker but these were not slated to launch until next week at CrisisMappers 2013, which meant they weren’t ready for prime time. We’ll be sure to launch them soon. Once they are operational, we’ll be able to automatically push triangulated tweets and images from the Tweet and Image Clickers directly to the corresponding GeoClickers so volunteers can also aid humanitarian organizations by mapping important tweets and images directly.

There’s a lot more that we’ve learned throughout the past 5 days and much room for improvement. We have a long list of excellent suggestions and feedback from volunteers and partners that we’ll be going through starting tomorrow. The most important next step is to get a more powerful server that can handle a lot more load and traffic. We’re already taking action on that. I have no doubt that our clicks would have doubled without the server constraints.

For now, though, BIG thanks to the SBTF Team and in particular Jus McKinnon, the QCRI et al team, in particular Ji Lucas, Hemant Purohit and Andrew Ilyas for putting in very, very long hours, day in and day out on top of their full-time jobs and studies. And finally, BIG thanks to the World Wide Crowd, to all you who cared enough to click and support the relief operations in the Philippines. You are the heroes of this story.