Tag Archives: crisis

To Tweet or Not To Tweet During a Disaster?

Yes, only a small percentage of tweets generated during a disaster are directly relevant and informative for disaster response. No, this doesn’t mean we should dismiss Twitter as a source for timely, disaster-related information. Why? Because our efforts ought to focus on how that small percentage of informative tweets can be increased. What incentives or policies can be put in place? The following tweets by the Filipino government may shed some light.

Gov Twitter Pablo

The above tweet was posted three days before Typhoon Bopha (designated Pablo locally) made landfall in the Philippines. In the tweet below, the government directly and publicly encourages Filipinos to use the #PabloPH hashtag and to follow the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Admin-istration (PAGASA) twitter feed, @dost_pagasa, which has over 400,000 follow-ers and also links to this official Facebook page.

Gov Twitter

The government’s official Twitter handle (@govph) is also retweeting tweets posted by The Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Plan-ning Office (@PCDCSO). This office is the “chief message-crafting body of the Office of the President.” In one such retweet (below), the office encourages those on Twitter to use different hashtags for different purposes (relief vs rescue). This mimics the use of official emergency numbers for different needs, e.g., police, fire, Ambulance, etc.

Twitter Pablo Gov

Given this kind of enlightened disaster response leadership, one would certainly expect that the quality of tweets received will be higher than without government endorsement. My team and I at QCRI are planning to analyze these tweets to de-termine whether or not this is the case. In the meantime, I expect we’ll see more examples of self-organized disaster response efforts using these hashtags, as per the earlier floods in August, which I blogged about here: Crowdsourcing Crisis Response following the Philippine Floods. This tech-savvy self-organization dynamic is important since the government itself may be unable to follow up on every tweeted request.

Launching a Library of Crisis Hashtags on Twitter

I recently posted the following question on the CrisisMappers list-serve: “Does anyone know whether a list of crisis hashtags exists?”

There are several reasons why such a hashtag list would be of added value to the CrisisMappers community and beyond. First, an analysis of Twitter hashtags used during crises over the past few years could be quite insightful; interesting new patterns may be evolving. Second, the resulting analysis could be used as a guide to find (and create) new hashtags when future crises unfold. Third, a library of hashtags would make it easier to collect historical datasets of crisis information shared on Twitter for the purposes of analysis & social computing research. To be sure, without this data, developing more sophisticated machine learning platforms like the Twitter Dashboard for the Humanitarian Cluster System would be serious challenge indeed.

After posting my question on CrisisMappers and Twitter, it was clear that no such library existed. So my colleague Sara Farmer launched a Google Spreadsheet to crowdsource an initial list. Since I was working on a similar list, I’ve created a combined spreadsheet which is available and editable here. Please do add any other crisis hashtags you may know about so we can make this the most comprehensive and up-to-date resource available to everyone. Thank you!

Whilst doing this research, I came across two potentially interesting and helpful hashtag websites: Hashonomy.com and Hashtags.org.

Become a (Social Media) Data Donor and Save a Life

I was recently in New York where I met up with my colleague Fernando Diaz from Microsoft Research. We were discussing the uses of social media in humanitarian crises and the various constraints of social media platforms like Twitter vis-a-vis their Terms of Service. And then this occurred to me: we have organ donation initiatives and organ donor cards that many of us carry around in our wallets. So why not become a “Data Donor” as well in the event of an emergency? After all, it has long been recognized that access to information during a crisis is as important as access to food, water, shelter and medical aid.

This would mean having a setting that gives others during a crisis the right (for a limited time) to use your public tweets or Facebook status updates for the ex-pressed purpose of supporting emergency response operations, such as live crisis maps. Perhaps switching this setting on would also come with the provision that the user confirms that s/he will not knowingly spread false or misleading information as part of their data donation. Of course, the other option is to simply continue doing what many have been doing all along, i.e., keep using social media updates for humanitarian response regardless of whether or not they violate the various Terms of Service.

Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross

The Digital Operations Center at the American Red Cross is an important and exciting development. I recently sat down with Wendy Harman to learn more about the initiative and to exchange some lessons learned in this new world of digital  humanitarians. One common challenge in emergency response is scaling. The American Red Cross cannot be everywhere at the same time—and that includes being on social media. More than 4,000 tweets reference the Red Cross on an average day, a figure that skyrockets during disasters. And when crises strike, so does Big Data. The Digital Operations Center is one response to this scaling challenge.

Sponsored by Dell, the Center uses customized software produced by Radian 6 to monitor and analyze social media in real-time. The Center itself sits three people who have access to six customized screens that relate relevant information drawn from various social media channels. The first screen below depicts some of key topical areas that the Red Cross monitors, e.g., references to the American Red Cross, Storms in 2012, and Delivery Services.

Circle sizes in the first screen depict the volume of references related to that topic area. The color coding (red, green and beige) relates to sentiment analysis (beige being neutral). The dashboard with the “speed dials” right underneath the first screen provides more details on the sentiment analysis.

Lets take a closer look at the circles from the first screen. The dots “orbiting” the central icon relate to the categories of key words that the Radian 6 platform parses. You can click on these orbiting dots to “drill down” and view the individual key words that make up that specific category. This circles screen gets updated in near real-time and draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. (Note that the distance between the orbiting dots and the center does not represent anything).

An operations center would of course not be complete without a map, so the Red Cross uses two screens to visualize different data on two heat maps. The one below depicts references made on social media platforms vis-a-vis storms that have occurred during the past 3 days.

The screen below the map highlights the bio’s of 50 individual twitter users who have made references to the storms. All this data gets generated from the “Engagement Console” pictured below. The purpose of this web-based tool, which looks a lot like Tweetdeck, is to enable the Red Cross to customize the specific types of information they’re looking form, and to respond accordingly.

Lets look at the Consul more closely. In the Workflow section on the left, users decide what types of tags they’re looking for and can also filter by priority level. They can also specify the type of sentiment they’re looking, e.g., negative feelings vis-a-vis a particular issue. In addition, they can take certain actions in response to each information item. For example, they can reply to a tweet, a Facebook status update, or a blog post; and they can do this directly from the engagement consul. Based on the license that the Red Cross users, up to 25 of their team members can access the Consul and collaborate in real-time when processing the various tweets and Facebook updates.

The Consul also allows users to create customized timelines, charts and wordl graphics to better understand trends changing over time in the social media space. To fully leverage this social media monitoring platform, Wendy and team are also launching a digital volunteers program. The goal is for these volunteers to eventually become the prime users of the Radian platform and to filter the bulk of relevant information in the social media space. This would considerably lighten the load for existing staff. In other words, the volunteer program would help the American Red Cross scale in the social media world we live in.

Wendy plans to set up a dedicated 2-hour training for individuals who want to volunteer online in support of the Digital Operations Center. These trainings will be carried out via Webex and will also be available to existing Red Cross staff.


As  argued in this previous blog post, the launch of this Digital Operations Center is further evidence that the humanitarian space is ready for innovation and that some technology companies are starting to think about how their solutions might be applied for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, it was Dell that first approached the Red Cross with an expressed interest in contributing to the organization’s efforts in disaster response. The initiative also demonstrates that combining automated natural language processing solutions with a digital volunteer net-work seems to be a winning strategy, at least for now.

After listening to Wendy describe the various tools she and her colleagues use as part of the Operations Center, I began to wonder whether these types of tools will eventually become free and easy enough for one person to be her very own operations center. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to following the Center’s progress and hope it inspires other emergency response organizations to adopt similar solutions.

Twitcident: Filtering Tweets in Real-Time for Crisis Response

The most recent newcomer to the “tweetsourcing” space comes to us from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Twitcident is a web-based filtering system that extracts crisis information from Twitter in real-time to support emergency response efforts. Dutch emergency services have been testing the platform over the past 10 months and results “show the system to be far more useful than simple keyword searching of a twitter feed” (NewScientist).

Here’s how it works. First the dashboard, which shows current events-of-interest being monitored.

Lets click on “Texas”, which produces the following page. More than 22,000 tweets potentially relate to the actual fire of interest.

This is where the filtering comes in:

The number of relevant tweets is reduced with every applied filter.

Naturally, geo-location is also an optional filter.

Twitcident also allows for various visualization options, including timelines, word clouds and charts.

The system also allows the user to view the filtered tweets on a map. The pictures and videos shared via twitter are also aggregated and viewable on dedicated tabs.

The developers of the platform have not revealed how their algorithms work but will demo the tool at the World Wide Web 2012 conference in France next week. In the meantime, here’s a graphic that summarizes the platform workflow.

I look forward to following Twitcident’s developments. I’d be particularly interested in learning more about how Dutch emergency services have been using the tool and what features they think would improve the platform’s added value.

Crisis Mapping Syria: Automated Data Mining and Crowdsourced Human Intelligence

The Syria Tracker Crisis Map is without doubt one of the most impressive crisis mapping projects yet. Launched just a few weeks after the protests began one year ago, the crisis map is spearheaded by a just handful of US-based Syrian activists have meticulously and systematically documented 1,529 reports of human rights violations including a total of 11,147 killings. As recently reported in this NewScientist article, “Mapping the Human Cost of Syria’s Uprising,” the crisis map “could be the most accurate estimate yet of the death toll in Syria’s uprising […].” Their approach? “A combination of automated data mining and crowdsourced human intelligence,” which “could provide a powerful means to assess the human cost of wars and disasters.”

On the data-mining side, Syria Tracker has repurposed the HealthMap platform, which mines thousands of online sources for the purposes of disease detection and then maps the results, “giving public-health officials an easy way to monitor local disease conditions.” The customized version of this platform for Syria Tracker (ST), known as HealthMap Crisis, mines English information sources for evidence of human rights violations, such as killings, torture and detainment. As the ST Team notes, their data mining platform “draws from a broad range of sources to reduce reporting biases.” Between June 2011 and January 2012, for example, the platform collected over 43,o00 news articles and blog posts from almost 2,000 English-based sources from around the world (including some pro-regime sources).

Syria Tracker combines the results of this sophisticated data mining approach with crowdsourced human intelligence, i.e., field-based eye-witness reports shared via webform, email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and voicemail. This naturally presents several important security issues, which explains why the main ST website includes an instructions page detailing security precautions that need to be taken while sub-mitting reports from within Syria. They also link to this practical guide on how to protect your identity and security online and when using mobile phones. The guide is available in both English and Arabic.

Eye-witness reports are subsequently translated, geo-referenced, coded and verified by a group of volunteers who triangulate the information with other sources such as those provided by the HealthMap Crisis platform. They also filter the reports and remove dupli-cates. Reports that have a low con-fidence level vis-a-vis veracity are also removed. Volunteers use a dig-up or vote-up/vote-down feature to “score” the veracity of eye-witness reports. Using this approach, the ST Team and their volunteers have been able to verify almost 90% of the documented killings mapped on their platform thanks to video and/or photographic evidence. They have also been able to associate specific names to about 88% of those reported killed by Syrian forces since the uprising began.

Depending on the levels of violence in Syria, the turn-around time for a report to be mapped on Syria Tracker is between 1-3 days. The team also produces weekly situation reports based on the data they’ve collected along with detailed graphical analysis. KML files that can be uploaded and viewed using Google Earth are also made available on a regular basis. These provide “a more precisely geo-located tally of deaths per location.”

In sum, Syria Tracker is very much breaking new ground vis-a-vis crisis mapping. They’re combining automated data mining technology with crowdsourced eye-witness reports from Syria. In addition, they’ve been doing this for a year, which makes the project the longest running crisis maps I’ve seen in a hostile environ-ment. Moreover, they’ve been able to sustain these import efforts with just a small team of volunteers. As for the veracity of the collected information, I know of no other public effort that has taken such a meticulous and rigorous approach to documenting the killings in Syria in near real-time. On February 24th, Al-Jazeera posted the following estimates:

Syrian Revolution Coordination Union: 9,073 deaths
Local Coordination Committees: 8,551 deaths
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: 5,581 deaths

At the time, Syria Tracker had a total of 7,901 documented killings associated with specific names, dates and locations. While some duplicate reports may remain, the team argues that “missing records are a much bigger source of error.” Indeed, They believe that “the higher estimates are more likely, even if one chooses to disregard those reports that came in on some of the most violent days where names were not always recorded.”

The Syria Crisis Map itself has been viewed by visitors from 136 countries around the world and 2,018 cities—with the top 3 cities being Damascus, Washington DC and, interestingly, Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. The witnessing has thus been truly global and collective. When the Syrian regime falls, “the data may help sub-sequent governments hold him and other senior leaders to account,” writes the New Scientist. This was one of the principle motivations behind the launch of the Ushahidi platform in Kenya over four years ago. Syria Tracker is powered by Ushahidi’s cloud-based platform, Crowdmap. Finally, we know for a fact that the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Amnesty International (AI) closely followed the Libya Crisis Map last year.

Stranger than Fiction: A Few Words About An Ethical Compass for Crisis Mapping

The good people at the Sudan Sentinel Project (SSP), housed at my former “alma matter,” the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), have recently written this curious piece on crisis mapping and the need for an “ethical compass” in this new field. They made absolutely sure that I’d read the piece by directly messaging me via the @CrisisMappers twitter feed. Not to worry, good people, I read your masterpiece. Interestingly enough, it was published the day after my blog post reviewing IOM’s data protection standards.

To be honest, I was actually not going to spend any time writing up a response because the piece says absolutely nothing new and is hardly pro-active. Now, before any one spins and twists my words: the issues they raise are of paramount importance. But if the authors had actually taken the time to speak with their fellow colleagues at HHI, they would know that several of us participated in a brilliant workshop last year which addressed these very issues. Organized by World Vision, the workshop included representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Care International, Oxfam GB, UN OCHA, UN Foundation, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Ushahidi, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and obviously Word Vision. There were several data protection experts at this workshop, which made the event one of the most important workshops I attended in all of 2011. So a big thanks again to Phoebe Wynn-Pope at World Vision for organizing.

We discussed in-depth issues surrounding Do No Harm, Informed Consent, Verification, Risk Mitigation, Ownership, Ethics and Communication, Impar-tiality, etc. As expected, the outcome of the workshop was the clear need for data protection standards that are applicable for the new digital context we operate in, i.e., a world of social media, crowdsourcing and volunteer geographical informa-tion. Our colleagues at the ICRC have since taken the lead on drafting protocols relevant to a data 2.0 world in which volunteer networks and disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital. We expect to review this latest draft in the coming weeks (after Oxfam GB has added their comments to the document). Incidentally, the summary report of the workshop organized by World Vision is available here (PDF) and highly recommended. It was also shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group. By the way, my conversations with Phoebe about these and related issues began at this conference in November 2010, just a month after the SBTF launched.

I should confess the following: one of my personal pet peeves has to do with people stating the total obvious and calling for action but actually doing absolutely nothing else. Talk for talk’s sake just makes it seem like the authors of the article are simply looking for attention. Meanwhile, many of us are working on these new data protection challenges in our own time, as volunteers. And by the way, the SSP project is first and foremost focused on satellite imagery analysis and the Sudan, not on crowdsourcing or on social media. So they’re writing their piece as outsiders and, well, are hence less informed as a result—particularly since they didn’t do their homework.

Their limited knowledge of crisis mapping is blatantly obvious throughout the article. Not only do the authors not reference the World Vision workshop, which HHI itself attended, they also seem rather confused about the term “crisis mappers” which they keep using. This is somewhat unfortunate since the Crisis Mappers Network is an offshoot of HHI. Moreover, SSP participated and spoke at last year’s Crisis Mappers Conference—just a few months ago, in fact. One outcome of this conference was the launch of a dedicated Working Group on Security and Privacy, which will now become two groups, one addressing security issues and the other data protection. This information was shared on the Crisis Mappers Google Group and one of the authors is actually part of the Security Working Group.

To this end, one would have hoped, and indeed expected, that the authors would write a somewhat more informed piece about these issues. At the very least, they really ought to have documented some of the efforts to date in this innovative space. But they didn’t and unfortunately several statements they make in their article are, well… completely false and rather revealing at the same time. (Incidentally, the good people at SSP did their best to disuade the SBTF from launching a Satellite Team on the premise that only experts are qualified to tag satellite imagery; seems like they’re not interested in citizen science even though some experts I’ve spoken to have referred to SSP as citizen science).

In any case, the authors keep on referring to “crisis mappers this” and “crisis mappers that” throughout their article. But who exactly are they referring to? Who knows. On the one hand, there is the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which is a loose, decentralized, and informal network of some 3,500 members and 1,500 organizations spanning 150+ countries. Then there’s the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a distributed, global network of 750+ volunteers who partner with established organizations to support live mapping efforts. And then, easily the largest and most decentralized “group” of all, are all those “anonymous” individuals around the world who launch their own maps using whatever technologies they wish and for whatever purposes they want. By the way, to define crisis mapping as mapping highly volatile and dangerous conflict situations is really far from being accurate either. Also, “equating” crisis mapping with crowdsourcing, which the authors seem to do, is further evidence that they are writing about a subject that they have very little understanding of. Crisis mapping is possible without crowdsourcing or social media. Who knew?

Clearly, the authors are confused. They appear to refer to “crisis mappers” as if the group were a legal entity, with funding, staff, administrative support and brick-and-mortar offices. Furthermore, and what the authors don’t seem to realize, is that much of what they write is actually true of the formal professional humanitarian sector vis-a-vis the need for new data protection standards. But the authors have obviously not done their homework, and again, this shows. They are also confused about the term “crisis mapping” when they refer to “crisis mapping data” which is actually nothing other than geo-referenced data. Finally, a number of paragraphs in the article have absolutely nothing to do with crisis mapping even though the authors seem insinuate otherwise. Also, some of the sensationalism that permeates the article is simply unnecessary and poor taste.

The fact of the matter is that the field of crisis mapping is maturing. When Dr. Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded and co-directed HHI’s Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning from 2007-2009, the project was very much an exploratory, applied-research program. When Dr. Jen Ziemke and I launched the Crisis Mappers Network in 2009, we were just at the beginning of a new experiment. The field has come a long way since and one of the consequences of rapid innovation is obviously the lack of any how-to-guide or manual. These certainly need to be written and are being written.

So, instead of  stating the obvious, repeating the obvious, calling for the obvious and making embarrassing factual errors in a public article (which, by the way, is also quite revealing of the underlying motives), perhaps the authors could actually have done some research and emailed the Crisis Mappers Google Group. Two of the authors also have my email address; one even has my private phone number; oh, and they could also have DM’d me on Twitter like they just did.

Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent […] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law […].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness'”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

Some Thoughts on Real-Time Awareness for Tech@State

I’ve been invited to present at Tech@State in Washington DC to share some thoughts on the future of real-time awareness. So I thought I’d use my blog to brainstorm and invite feedback from iRevolution readers. The organizers of the event have shared the following questions with me as a way to guide the conver-sation: Where is all of this headed?  What will social media look like in five to ten years and what will we do with all of the data? Knowing that the data stream can only increase in size, what can we do now to prepare and prevent being over-whelmed by the sheer volume of data?

These are big, open-ended questions, and I will only have 5 minutes to share some preliminary thoughts. I shall thus focus on how time-critical crowdsourcing can yield real-time awareness and expand from there.

Two years ago, my good friend and colleague Riley Crane won DARPA’s $40,000 Red Balloon Competition. His team at MIT found the location of 10 weather balloons hidden across the continental US in under 9 hours. The US covers more than 3.7 million square miles and the balloons were barely 8 feet wide. This was truly a needle-in-the-haystack kind of challenge. So how did they do it? They used crowdsourcing and leveraged social media—Twitter in particular—by using a “recursive incentive mechanism” to recruit thousands of volunteers to the cause. This mechanism would basically reward individual participants financially based on how important their contributions were to the location of one or more balloons. The result? Real-time, networked awareness.

Around the same time that Riley and his team celebrated their victory at MIT, another novel crowdsourcing initiative was taking place just a few miles away at The Fletcher School. Hundreds of students were busy combing through social and mainstream media channels for actionable and mappable information on Haiti following the devastating earthquake that had struck Port-au-Prince. This content was then mapped on the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map, providing real-time situational awareness to first responders like the US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps. At the same time, hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora were busy translating and geo-coding tens of thousands of text messages from disaster-affected communities in Haiti who were texting in their location & most urgent needs to a dedicated SMS short code. Fletcher School students filtered and mapped the most urgent and actionable of these text messages as well.

One year after Haiti, the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asked the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) , a global network of 700+ volunteers, for a real-time map of crowdsourced social media information on Libya in order to improve their own situational awareness. Thus was born the Libya Crisis Map.

The result? The Head of OCHA’s Information Services Section at the time sent an email to SBTF volunteers to commend them for their novel efforts. In this email, he wrote:

“Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is no easy task. The Task Force has given us an output that is manageable and digestible, which in turn contributes to better situational awareness and decision making.”

These three examples from the US, Haiti and Libya demonstrate what is already possible with time-critical crowdsourcing and social media. So where is all this headed? You may have noted from each of these examples that their success relied on the individual actions of hundreds and sometimes thousands of volunteers. This is primarily because automated solutions to filter and curate the data stream are not yet available (or rather accessible) to the wider public. Indeed, these solutions tend to be proprietary, expensive and/or classified. I thus expect to see free and open source solutions crop up in the near future; solutions that will radically democratize the tools needed to gain shared, real-time awareness.

But automated natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning alone are not likely to succeed, in my opinion. The data stream is actually not a stream, it is a massive torent of non-indexed information, a 24-hour global firehose of real-time, distributed multi-media data that continues to outpace our ability to produce actionable intelligence from this torrential downpour of 0’s and 1’s. To turn this data tsunami into real-time shared awareness will require that our filtering and curation platforms become more automated and collaborative. I believe the key is thus to combine automated solutions with real-time collabora-tive crowdsourcing tools—that is, platforms that enable crowds to collaboratively filter and curate real-time information, in real-time.

Right now, when we comb through Twitter, for example, we do so on our own, sitting behind our laptop, isolated from others who may be seeking to filter the exact same type of content. We need to develop free and open source platforms that allow for the distributed-but-networked, crowdsourced filtering and curation of information in order to democratize the sense-making of the firehose. Only then will the wider public be able to win the equivalent of Red Balloon competitions without needing $40,000 or a degree from MIT.

I’d love to get feedback from readers about what other compelling cases or arguments I should bring up in my presentation tomorrow. So feel free to post some suggestions in the comments section below. Thank you!

Real Time LRA Crisis Map Tracks Mass Atrocities in Central Africa

My colleagues at Resolve and Invisible Children have just launched their very impressive Crisis Map of LRA Attacks in Central Africa. The LRA, or Lord’s Resistance Army, is a brutal rebel group responsible for widespread mass atrocities, most of which go completely unreported because the killings and kidnappings happen in remote areas. This crisis map has been a long time in the making so I want to sincerely congratulate Michael Poffenberger, Sean Poole, Adam Finck, Kenneth Transier and the entire team for the stellar job they’ve done with this project. The LRA Crisis Tracker is an  important milestone for the fields of crisis mapping and early warning.

The Crisis Tracker team did an excellent job putting together a detailed code book (PDF) for this crisis map, a critical piece of any crisis mapping and conflict early warning project that is all too-often ignored or rushed by most. The reports mapped on Crisis Tracker come from Invisible Children’s local Early Warning Radio Network, UN agencies and local NGOs. Invisible Children’s radio network also provides local communities with the ability to receive warnings of LRA activity and alert local security forces to LRA violence.

When I sat down with Resolve’s Kenneth Transier earlier this month, he noted that the majority of the reports depicted on their LRA crisis map represent new and original information. He also noted that they currently have 22 months of solid data, with historical and real-time data entry on-going. You can download the data here. Note that the public version of this data does not include the most sensitive information for security reasons.

The Crisis Tracker team also provide monthly and quarterly security briefs, analyzing the latest data they’ve collected for trends and patterns. This project is by far the most accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive source of information on LRA atrocities, which the partners hope will improve efforts to protect vulnerable communities in the region. Indeed, the team has joined forces with a number of community-run protection organizations in Central Africa who hope to benefit from the team’s regular crisis reports.

The project is also innovative because of the technology being used. Michael got in touch about a year ago to learn more about the Ushahidi platform and after a series of conversations decided that they needed more features than were currently available from Ushahidi, especially on the data visualization side. So I put them in touch with my colleagues at Development Seed. Ultimately, the team partnered with a company called Digitaria which used the backend of a Sales-force platform and a customized content management system to publish the in-formation to the crisis map. This an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and I do hope that Digitaria share their technology with other groups. Indeed, the fact that new crisis mapping technologies are surfacing is a healthy sign that the field is maturing and evolving.

In the meantime, I’m speaking with Michael about next steps on the conflict early warning and especially response side. This project has the potential to become a successful people-centered conflict early response initiative as long as the team focuses seriously on conflict preparedness and implement an number of other best practices from fourth generation conflict early warning systems.

This project is definitely worth keeping an eye on. I’ve invited Crisis Tracker to present at the 2011 International Conference of Crisis Mappers in Geneva in November (ICCM 2011). I do hope they’ll be able to participate. In the meantime, you can follow the team and their updates via twitter at @crisistracker. The Crisis Tracker iPhone and iPad apps and should be out soon.