Tag Archives: Checkins

Crowdsourcing Humanitarian Convoys in Libya

Many activists in Egypt donated food and medical supplies to support the Libyan revolution in early 2011. As a result, volunteers set up and coordinated humanitarian convoys from major Egyptian cities to Tripoli. But these convoys faced two major problems. First, volunteers needed to know where the convoys were in order to communicate this to Libyan revolutionists so they could wait for the fleet at the border and escort them to Tripoli. Second, because these volunteers were headed into a war zone, their friends and family wanted to keep track of them to make sure they were safe. The solution? IntaFeen.com.

Inta feen? means “where are you?” in Arabic and IntaFeen.com is a mobile check-in service like Foursquare but localized for the Arab World. Convoy drivers used IntaFeen to check-in at different stops along the way to Tripoli to provide regular updates on the situation. This is how volunteers back in Egypt who coordinated the convoy kept track of their progress and communicated updates in real-time to their Libyan counterparts. Volunteers who went along with the convoys also used IntaFeen and their check-in’s would also get posted on Twitter and Facebook, allowing families and friends in Egypt to track their whereabouts.

Al Amain Road is a highway between Alexandria and Tripoli. These tweets and check-in’s acted as a DIY fleet management system for volunteers and activists.

The use of IntaFeen combined with Facebook and Twitter also created an interesting side-effect in terms of social media marketing to promote activism. The sharing of these updates within and across various social networks galvanized more Egyptians to volunteer their time and resulted in more convoys.

I wonder whether these activists knew about another crowdsourced volunteer project taking place at exactly the same time in support of the UN’s humanitarian relief operations: Libya Crisis Map. Much of the content added to the map was sourced from social media. Could the #LibyaConvoy project have benefited from the real-time situational awareness provided by the Libya Crisis Map?

Will we see more convergence between volunteer-run crisis maps and volunteer-run humanitarian response in the near future?

Big thanks to Adel Youssef from IntaFeen.com who spoke about this fascinating project (and Ushahidi) at Where 2.0 this week. More information on #Libya Convoy is available here. See also my earlier blog posts on the use of check-in’s for activism and disaster response.

Check-In’s with a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response

This is the second post in my check-in’s-with-a-purpose series. The first post looked at the use of check-in’s to coordinate activist campaigns and street protests. The check-in’s series builds on Ushahidi’s free and open-source check-in service (CI) slated to launch in just a few weeks at SxSW 2011.

So how might organizations and local groups be able to use CI for disaster response? In three ways: (1) preparedness; (2) coordination; and (3) evaluation.


When you walk into a disaster area, say following an earthquake, you don’t want to be swamped with all kinds of information imaginable. You only want information relevant to you and your responsibilities in a given geographic area (demand side versus supply side). CI provides an easy, intuitive interface for this. You check-in when you want additional info about the area you are in.

This is similar to the idea of geo-caching, hence the reference to preparedness. You embed (or pre-populate) a given map with relevant structural and event-data for a given area. By structural data, I mean physical infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, etc. Event-data simply refers to nearby incidents. New data could be regularly embedded into the map (via geo-RSS feeds) to provide the latest event-data available. When you check-in, CI provides you with information and updates relevant to your vicinity and profile. For example, if you’ve added “health” as a tag on your profile, CI could prioritize health-based information when you check-in, including the location of other health-workers and their contact info.

There is another equally important angle to preparedness when it comes to check-in’s. Mapping infrastructure vulnerable to disasters is common practice in disaster risk reduction projects. These can be community-driven and participatory, giving local communities a stake in building their own resilience. In one such project, local communities in neighborhoods around Istanbul mapped infrastructure vulnerable to earthquake damage, e.g., overhanging structures like balconies. They also mapped local shelters, possible escape routes, etc. CI could be used for this type of crowdsourced, participatory mapping. Crowdfeeding would then simply happen by checking-in. The sign “In case of emergency, break glass” would become “In case of emergency, check-in.”


What about coordination? Keeping track of who is in a disaster area, and where, is no easy task. A check-in service would go a long way to addressing this coordination challenge. Call it instant mapping. Disaster responders would simply click the check-in app on their smart phones after they land in a disaster area to check-in. Each organization could set up their own check-in service to coordinate their staff with instant maps. Check-in deployments could also be project- or cluster-based.

In addition, an open check-in deployment could be set up for all responders. A separate CI deployment would be especially useful if hundreds of volunteers decide to fly in. They could be tasked more efficiently if they first checked-in. Doing so would provide coordinators with access to individual profiles with listed skill sets and contact info, much like a LinkedIn profile. Disaster responders and volunteers could also check-out once they leave a disaster area.

A check-in service could facilitate a number of other coordination challenges. Finding missing persons after a disaster has always been difficult, for example. One way to let others know you’re ok would be by checking in. Doing so would prompt the CI service to provide you with the latest on the disaster that took place, information on nearby services and who in your own professional or social network is in the vicinity long with their contact info. This could also be a way to coordinate corporate social responsibility projects in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Large companies with employees wanting to help could simply check-in to their CI service to get information on how to help.


Check-in’s could also be used for evaluation and accountability purposes. Once you’ve accomplished a task, you could quickly check-in with an update, which would leave a digital trace of your accomplishment. Or say you’re on your way to a food distribution site and drive past some newly flooded houses, you could quickly check-in with that information to update everyone else on your network. CI can also be used with badges and points, allowing people to develop a track-record of their work in a disaster area.

Some Challenges

There are of course some challenges in using a CI service for disaster response. Keep it simple. This is perhaps the most important point. One could very easily go all out and add countless features to a CI service. Such is the beauty of open source software. For disaster response, however, the trick will be to keep it simple and not try to turn CI into a solution for everything. If data coverage isn’t possible, then a check-in service should allow for SMS-based check-in’s. This could be done by using SMSsync. Another challenge will be to provide a seamless way to check into multiple CI deployments at the same time and for these to be interoperable. For example, if I’m with WFP, I should be able to check-in on the WFP CI and have my check-in appear simultaneously on the Food Cluster CI, OCHA CI, etc.

If you have ideas about how a check-in service could be used for disaster response, or recommendations on what would make Ushahidi’s CI system more useful, please do add them in the comments section below. My next post in this check-in’s-with-a-purpose series will describe how a CI service combined with gaming can be used to catalyze civic participation and engagement across a range of activities.

Maps, Activism and Technology: Check-In’s with a Purpose

“Having a real-time map, complete with satellite photos, of where everyone is at any one moment is almost as good as having your own helicopter overhead — maybe better, if you can distract the crew of the helicopter.”

As recently announced on the Ushahidi blog, the group is launching a check-in service a la Foursquare called “Crowdmap : Check-In’s” or just CI for short. I’m excited by the different applications that a free and open-source check-in-with-a-purpose platform can have for social impact. In this blog post, I’ll share some ideas on how activists might use CI for popular nonviolent movements when the service is launched next month at SxSW 2011. I will also highlight another very cool project called Sukey, which was just launched in the UK.

Services like Foursquare provide a location-based mobile social networking platform that allows users to check-in at different venues to earn points and connect with friends. CI will work in a similar way but will allow users to create their very own “Foursquares”. This means that CI’s can be project- or group-specific, i.e., bounded to certain networks. Users will decide themselves where and what kind of points and badges to award to members of their CI network.

This quick check-in service has obvious applications for students coordinating nonviolent protests, especially when they need to rapidly adapt to a changing situation. I this saw again recently in Egypt when pro-Mubarak thugs were swarming certain avenues of downtown Cairo. I recall seeing a picture shared on Twitter with tactical drawings suggesting where anti-Mubarak protestors should position themselves as a result. This was drawn on a screenshot taken from satellite imagery of an area in the center of Cairo. (I spent an hour trying to find the original picture again but to no avail, so if you know which one I’m referring to, please get in touch. The one below is for illustration only).

With Internet and cell phone networks back up, protesters could use a check-in service to let others know where the thugs are being sighted and to recommend different locations to retreat or advance to. This would be a like a geo-tagged status update that could also be shared on your Facebook page or Twitter feed (minding the security implications). In addition, one could have pre-designated tags like “Thugs here”, “Don’t go here”, “Evacuate” etc., to avoid having to type when checking in. Call it the Q-CI feature, quick check-in’s.

These alerts or status updates could then be embedded geographically, something like geo-caching. So if I happen to check in within a hundred meters of someone who just recently updated their CI status as “evacuate”, I would get an immediate pop-up message showing me these nearby updates. Someone helping to coordinate the protests remotely from a laptop could quickly embed areas (rather than points) as  no-go zones if one or more updates show up with the tag “evacuate” at a given venue. Integrating Ushahidi’s new geometry mapping feature would make this possible.

A related project that I really like comes from the same student group in the UK that used live tactical mapping for protest swarming last year. The team has since designed and launched their very own mobile check-in platform to facilitate tactical maneuvering during demonstrations, keep protesters safe and avoid kettling:

“Kettling, also known as containment or corralling, is a police tactic for the management of large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters are left only one choice of exit, determined by the police, or are completely prevented from leaving” (1).

The project, called Sukey, is an excellent example of Maptivism. The name comes from the nursery rhyme: “Polly put the kettle on, Sukey take it off again.”

All you have to do is point your smart phone browser (it doesn’t have to be an iPhone!) to http://www.sukey.org/a to access the tactical map. The screenshot above is from their entertaining and helpful tutorial which you can access here. I really like the use of their simple “safety compass” which gives you immediate situational awareness about which direction safety (and danger) lies. The compass is specific to your GPS location and is updated in real-time as new reports are submitted by activists. These reports can be shared with all the other protesters and appear in the red box below the map.

If you don’t have a smart phone, Sukey relays updates via their Twitter feed which users can subscribe to via SMS thanks to Twitter’s SMS-following service. All you need to do is text “follow @sukeysms” to 8644. What if you forgot your phone at home? One protester noted that “Everyone who was getting the Sukey updates was telling everyone who wasn’t what was happening.”

As an unhappy security analyst recently noted,

“The proliferation of highly capable handheld ‘smartphones’ now makes it easy for protest organizers to communicate by voice, text and images, even with real-time video. The protesters may have more watchers and observation points than the police, and actually outpace the police in quantity and quality of intelligence. Having this kind of information available has made it possible for disrupters to create decoy incidents to draw resources away from where they are needed most. Having a real-time map, complete with satellite photos, of where everyone is at any one moment is almost as good as having your own helicopter overhead — maybe better, if you can distract the crew of the helicopter.”

Protesters claim they successfully avoided police kettling this week by using Sukey. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend this excellent piece by the UK Guardian on the project. I think Ushahidi can learn a lot from this group so I will be meeting with the team in London next month. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to SxSW and Sukey II. In a future post, I’ll describe how check-in’s-with-a-purpose platforms can also be used for humanitarian relief and disaster response.