Tag Archives: crisis

How to Crowdsource Crisis Response

I recently had the distinct pleasure of giving this year’s keynote address at the Global Communications Forum (#RCcom on Twitter) organized by the Interna-tional Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The conversations that followed were thoroughly fruitful and enjoyable.

Like many other humanitarian organizations, the ICRC is thinking hard about how to manage the social media challenge. In 2010, this study carried out by the American Red Cross (ARC) found that the public increasingly expects humanitarian organizations to respond to pleas for help posted on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, etc. The question is, how in the world are humanitarian organizations supposed to handle this significant increase in “customer service” requests? Even during non-emergencies, ARC’s Facebook page receives a large number of comments on a daily basis many of which solicit replies. This figure escalates significantly during crises. So what to do?

The answer, in my opinion, requires some organizational change. Clearly, the dramatic rise in customer service requests posted on social media platforms cannot be managed through existing organizational structures and work flows. Moreover, the vast majority of posted requests don’t reflect life threatening situations. In other words, responses to many requests don’t require professional emergency responders. So humanitarian organizations should consider taking a two-pronged strategy to address the social media challenge. The first is to upgrade their “customer service systems” and the second is to connect these systems with local networks of citizen crisis responders.

How do large private sector companies deal with the social media challenge? Well, some obviously do better than others. (Incidentally, this question was a recurring topic of conversation at the Same Wavelength conference in London where I spoke after Geneva). This explains why I recommended that my ICRC colleagues consider various social media customer service models used in the private sector and identify examples of positive deviance.

The latest innovation in the customer service space was just launched at TechCrunch Disrupt this week. TalkTo “allows consumers to send text messages to any business and get quick responses to questions, feedback, and more.” As TechCrunch writes, “no one wants to wait on the phone, and email can be slow as well. SMS Messaging is a natural form of communication these days and the most efficient for simple questions. It makes sense to bring this communication to businesses.” If successful, I wonder whether TalkTo will add Twitter and Facebook to their service as other communication media.

Some companies leverage crowdsourcing, like Best Buy’s TwelpForce. Over time, Best Buy “found that with some good foundational guideposts and training tools, the crowd began to self-organize and govern itself.  Leaders in the space popped up as coaches, or mentors – and pretty soon they had a really good support network in place.”

On the humanitarian side, the American Red Cross has begun to leverage their trained volunteers to manage responses to the organization’s official Facebook page, for example. With some good foundational guideposts and training tools, they should be able to scale this solution. In some ways, one could say that humanitarian organizations are increasingly required to play the role of “telephone” operator. So I’d be very interested in getting feedback from iRevolution readers on alternative, social media approaches to customer service in the private sector. If you know of any innovative ones, please feel free to share in the comments section below.

The second strategy that humanitarian organizations need to consider is linking this new customer service system to networks of citizen crisis responders. An “operator” on the ARC Facebook page, for example, would triage the incoming posts by “pushing” them into different bins according to topic and urgency. Posts that don’t reflect a life-threatening situation but still require operational response could simply be forwarded to local citizen crisis responders. The rest can be re-routed to professional emergency responders. Geo-fenced alerts from crisis mapping platforms could also play an important role in this respect.

One should remember that the majority of crisis responses are “crowdsourced” by definition since the real first responders are always local communities. For example, “it is well known that in case of earthquakes, such as the one that happened in Mexico City, the assistance to the victims comes first of all from the other survivors […]” (Gilbert 1998). In fact, estimates suggest that, “no more than 10 per cent of survival in emergencies can be contributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hillhorst 2004). So why not connect humanitarian customer service systems to local citizen crisis responders and thereby make the latter’s response more targeted and efficient rather than simply ad hoc? I’ve used the term “crowdfeeding” to describe this idea in previous blog posts like this one and this one. We basically need a Match.com for citizen based crisis response in which both problems and solutions are crowdsourced.

So where are these “new” citizen crisis responders to come from? How about leveraging existing networks like Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs), the UN Volunteer system (UNVs), Red Cross volunteer networks and platforms like Red Cross Volunteer Match? Why not make use of existing training materials like FEMA’s online courses? Universities could also promote the idea of student crisis responders and offer credit for relevant courses.

Update: New app helps Queensland coordinate volunteers.

Crisis Mapping Somalia with the Diaspora

The state of Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in North America. Like any Diaspora, the estimated 25,000 Somalis who live there ar closely linked to family members back home. They make thousands of phone calls every week to numerous different locations across Somalia. So why not make the Somali Diaspora a key partner in the humanitarian response taking place half-way across the world?

In Haiti, Mission 4636 was launched to crowdsource micro needs assessments from the disaster affected population via SMS. The project could not have happened without hundreds of volunteers from the Haitian Diaspora who translated and geo-referenced the incoming text messages. There’s no doubt that Diasporas can play a pivotal role in humanitarian response but they are typically ignored by large humanitarian organizations. This is why I’m excited to be part of an initiative that plans to partner with key members of the Diaspora to create a live crisis map of Somalia.

This is a mock-up for illustration only

The project is still in very early stages so there’s not much to show right now but I’m hopeful that the stars will align next week so we can formally launch the initiative. The basic game plan is as follows:

  • A short survey of some 10 questions is being drafted by public health professionals with experience in humanitarian response. These questions will try to capture the most essential indicators. More questions are be added at a later stage.
  • Humanitarian colleagues who have been working with the Somali Diaspora in Minnesota for years are now in the process of recruiting trusted members of the community.
  • These trusted members of the Diaspora will participate in a training this weekend on basic survey and interview methods. The training will also provide them with a hands-on introduction to the Ushahidi platform where they’ll  enter the survey results.
  • If everything goes well, these community members will each make several phone calls to friends and relatives back home next week. They’ll ask the questions from the survey and add the answers to the Ushahidi map. Elders in the community will fill out a paper-based form for other colleagues to enter online.
  • Trusted members of the Diaspora will continue to survey contacts back home on a weekly basis. New survey questions are likely to be added based on feedback from other humanitarian organizations. Surveys may also be carried out every other day or even on a daily basis for some of the questions.

If the pilot is successful, then colleagues in Minnesota may recruit additional trusted members of the community to participate in this live crisis mapping effort. There’s a lot more to the project including several subsequent phases but we’re still at the early stages so who knows where this will go. But yes, we’re thinking through the security implications, verification issues, data visualization features, necessary analytics, etc. If all goes well, there’ll be a lot more information to share next week in which case I’ll add more info here and also post an update on the Ushahidi blog.

Google+ for Crowdsourcing Crisis Information, Crisis Mapping and Disaster Response

Facebook is increasingly used to crowdsource crisis information and response, as is Twitter. So is it just a matter of time until we see similar use cases with Google+? Another question I have is whether such uses cases will simply reflect more of the same or whether we’ll see new, unexpected applications and dynamics? Of course, it may be premature to entertain the role that Google+ might play in disaster response just days after it’s private beta launch, but the company seems fully committed to making  this new venture succeed. Entertain-ing how Google+ (G+) might be used as a humanitarian technology thus seems worthwhile.

The fact that G+ is open and searchable is probably one of the starkest differences with the walled-garden that is Facebook; that, and their Data Liberation policy. This will make activity on G+ relatively easier to find—Google is the King of Search, after all. This openness will render serendipity and synergies more likely.

The much talked about “Circles” feature is also very appealing for the kind of organic and collaborative crowdsourcing work that we see emerging following a crisis. Think about these “Circles” not only as networks but also as “honeycombs” for “flash” projects—i.e., short-term and temporary—very much along the lines that Skype is used for live collaborative crisis mapping operations.

Google+’s new Hangout feature could also be used instead of Skype chat and video, with the advantage of having multi-person video-conferencing. With a little more work, the Sparks feature could facilitate media monitoring—an important component of live crisis mapping. And then there’s Google+ mobile, which is accessible on most phones with a browser and already includes a “check-in” feature as well as geo-referenced status updates. The native app for the Android is already available and the iPhone app is coming soon.

Clicking on my status update above, produces the Google Maps page below. What’s particularly telling about this is how “underwhelming” the use of Google Maps currently is within G+.  There’s no doubt this will change dramatically as G+ evolves. The Google+ team has noted that they already have dozens of new features ready to be rolled out in the coming months. So expect G+ to make full use of Google’s formidable presence on the Geo Web—think MapMaker+ and Earth Engine+. This could be a big plus for live crowdsourced crisis mapping, especially of the multimedia kind.

One stark difference with Facebook’s status updates and check-in’s is that G+ allows you to decide which Circles (or networks of contacts) to share your updates and check-in’s with. This is an important difference that could allow for more efficient information sharing in near real-time. You could set up your Circles as different teams, perhaps even along UN Cluster lines.

As the G+ mobile website reveals, the team will also be integrating SMS, which is definitely key for crisis response. I imagine there will also be a way to connect your Twitter feed with Google+ in the near future. This will make G+ even more compelling as a mobile humanitarian technology platform. In addition, I expect there are also plans to integrate Google News, Google Reader, Google Groups, Google Docs and Google Translate with G+. GMail, YouTube and Picasa are already integrated.

One feature that will be important for humanitarian applications is offline functionality. Google Reader and GMail already have this feature (Google Gears), which I imagine could be added to G+’s Stream and perhaps eventually with Google Maps? In addition, if Google can provide customizable uses of G+, then this could also make the new platform more compelling for humanitarian organizations, e.g., if OCHA could have their own G+ (“iG+”) by customizing and branding their G+ interface; much like the flexibility afforded by the Ning platform. One first step in that direction might be to offer a range of “themes” for G+, just like Google does with GMail.

Finally, the ability to develop third party apps for G+ could be a big win. Think of a G+ store (in contrast to an App Store). I’d love to see a G+ app for Ushahidi and OSM, for example.

If successful, G+ could be the best example of “What Technology Wants” to date. G+ is convergence technology par excellence. It is a hub that connects many of Google’s excellent products and from the looks of it, the G+ team is just getting warmed up with the converging.

I’d love to hear from others who are also brainstorming about possible applications of Google+ in the humanitarian space. Am I off on any of the ideas above? What am I missing? Maybe we could set up a Google+ 4 Disaster Response Circle and get on Hangout to brainstorm together?

Live Crisis Mapping: Update on Libya and Japan

Update: The Japan Crisis Map team is now partnering with government officials. Government staff will be using iPads with the Ushahidi iPad app to report information from the field. Also, one of the Japanese cell phone operators has pledged to lend over 12,000 cell phones to volunteers.

All of us had really hoped that 2011 would be a quieter year for crisis mapping. The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti during the very first month of 2010 in many ways created a new generation of volunteer crisis mappers. This was followed rapidly by crisis mapping operations for the US, Chile, Pakistan, Russia and Colombia among other crises, which prompted the launch of the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping in October 2010.

This year is unfortunately no less busy for Crisis Mappers around the world. The Standby Task Force was activated to provide mapping support to Sudan Vote Monitor for the Sudan referendum, the Christchurch Recovery Map for New Zealand earthquake and most recently the Libya Crisis Map. The latter was requested by the Information Services Section of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an unprecedented move by the UN to engage directly with volunteer technical communities like the Task Force.

In order to provide the UN with more long term crisis mapping support in Libya, we teamed up with the UN’s Online Volunteer Service program to scale the number of Task Force volunteers considerably. We more than doubled our size in a week and now have more than 400 volunteers from over 50 different countries around the world. It was a huge challenge to train so many new crisis mappers, and that’s an understatement. But our seasoned volunteers did a formidable job and our new crisis mappers are doing an absolutely stellar job. The team has now mapped over 1,000 reports and continue to provide OCHA, UNHCR, WFP, IRC, Red Cross and others with a real time crisis map of Libya.

In the midst of this transition in Libya, one of the most devastating earthquakes in centuries hit northern Japan, causing one of the most destructive tsunamis in recent memory. Just hours after the earthquake, a member of Japan’s OpenStreetMap community launched a dedicated Crisis Map for the mega-disaster. A few hours later, Japanese students at The Fletcher School (which is where the Ushahidi-Haiti Crisis Map was launched) got in touch with the Tokyo-based OpenStreetMap team to provide round-the-clock crisis mapping support.

The Fletcher Team, which now includes Japanese students from Harvard and MIT, have been combing the Twittersphere for relevant updates on the situation in Japan. I have spent several hours over the past few days on the phone or Skype with members of the team to answer as many questions as I can on how to manage large scale crisis mapping efforts. They are doing a stellar job and it’s amazing that they’re able to balance these efforts while being in the middle of mid-term exams.

Over 4,000 reports have been mapped in just 6 days. That’s an astounding figure. Put differently, that’s over 600 reports per day, or one report almost every two minutes for 24 hours straight over 6 days. What’s important about the Japan Crisis Map is that the core operations are being run directly from Tokyo and the team there is continuing to scale it’s operations. It’s very telling that the Tokyo team did not require any support from the Standby Volunteer Task Force. They’re doing an excellent job in the midst of the biggest disaster they’ve ever faced. I’m just amazed.

As for who is using the map, it’s hard to get updates from our colleagues because they are completely swamped, but we have confirmed reports that several foreign Embassies in Tokyo are using the live map. One Embassy official asked that the map be kept “as up to date as possible because this picture is worth the proverbial 1,000.”

Crisis Mapping Libya: This is No Haiti (Updated)

Update: Public version of Libya Crisis Map now available:


We activated the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) on March 1st and quickly launched a Crisis Map of Libya to support humanitarian preparedness opera-tions. This is the largest deployment of the Task Force since it was formed at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping in Boston (ICCM 2010). Task Force partners include CrisisMappers, CrisisCommons, Humanity Road, ICT4Peace, Open Street Map and MapAction. The Task Force currently has trained 166 volunteers. I’m amazed at how far we’ve come since the response to the Haiti earthquake.

Crisis mapping Libya is definitely no Haiti, for many reasons. The first is that unlike Haiti, we didn’t have to recruit crisis mapping volunteers from scratch. We didn’t have to spend a third of our time training volunteers. We didn’t have to develop new work flows and protocols from thin air. All we had to do was activate the Standby Task Force and everyone knew what to do, like set up dedicated Skype chats (communicating via email is too slow in these scenarios, networked communication is the way to go). Our volunteer CrisisMappers had already been trained and had even participated in an official UN crisis simulation exercise with OCHA in Colombia a few months earlier.

The second reason why this is no Haiti is because the request for activation of the Standby Task Force to provide live crisis mapping support came directly from the UN OCHA’s Information Management unit in Geneva. This was not the case in Haiti since there was no precedent for the crisis mapping efforts we launched at the time. We did not have buy in from the humanitarian community and the latter was reluctant to draw on anything other than official sources of information. Crowdsourcing and social media were unchartered territories. OCHA also reached out to CrisisCommons and OpenStreetMap and we are all working together more closely than ever before.

Contrast this to the case of Libya this week which saw an established humanitarian organization specifically request a volunteer technical community for a live map of reports generated from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and mainstream media sources. Seriously, I have never been more impressed by the humanitarian community than I am today. The pro-active approach they have taken and their constructive engagement is absolutely remarkable. This is truly spectacular and the group deserve very high praise.

From the official annoucement:

OCHA, UNOSAT and NetHope have been collaborating with the Volunteer Technical Community (VTC) specifically including the CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Open Street Map, and the Google Crisis Response Team over the past week. The CrisisMappers Standby Task Force has been undertaking a mapping of social media and new reports from within Libya and along the borders at the request of OCHA.  As well, the Task Force is aiding in the collection and mapping of 3W information for the response. UNOSAT is kindly hosting the Common Operational Datasets to be used during the emergency (http://www.unitar.org/unosat/libya). Interaction with these groups is being coordinated by OCHA’s Information Services Section. Focal Point: Andrej Verity [verity@un.org].

The third reason this is no Haiti is because we are creating a live map of a hostile situation still unfolding. Haiti provided a permissive environment, politically and geographically. Libya couldn’t be more different. We experienced the serious challenges of crisis mapping a hostile environment when we created a crisis map of Khartoum at the request of local Sudanese activists. This was a stressful deployment but one that was able to provide an important window into what was happening in Khartoum.

In the case of Libya, our humanitarian partner requested that the crisis map be password protected. We intend to make the map public after this phase of the humanitarian operations is over. In the meantime, the screenshots below provide a good picture of what the platform looks like. In the first 48 hours since the activation of the Task Force, over 220 individual reports have been mapped, many including pictures and some with video footage.

We also pulled in the data from the Google Map created by @Arasmus to complement our own live mapping:

None of the above would be possible without such a dedicated network of skilled crisis mapping volunteers. They are truly outstanding and a testament to what civic engagement can do online from thousands of miles away. There’s no doubt that our approach can still be improved. But there’s equally no doubt that all the learning we did in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan went beyond just recommendations but were actually  put into practice in a big way thanks to the Task Force.

The Task Force has over 160 volunteers from 18 different countries. Do you want to become one of those crisis mappers? If so, please send an email to join@standbytaskforce.com and we’ll train you on how to become a real pro in crisis mapping.

Part 4: Automated Analysis and Uncertainty Visualized

This is Part 4 of 7 of the highlights from “Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Visual Analytics.” Please see this post for an introduction to the study and access to the other 6 parts.

As data flooding increases, the human eye may have difficulty focusing on patterns. To this end, VA systems should have “semi-automated analytic engines and user-driven interfaces.” Indeed, “an ideal environment for analysis would have a seamless integration of computational and visual techniques.”

For example, “the visual overview may be based on some preliminary data transformations […]. Interactive focusing, selecting, and filtering could be used to isolate data associated with a hypothesis, which could then be passed to an analysis engine with informed parameter settings. Results could be superimposed on the original information to show the difference between the raw data and the computed model, with errors highlighted visually.”

Yet current mathematical techniques “for representing pattern and structure, as well as visualizing correlations, time patterns, metadata relationships, and networks of linked information,” do not work well “for more complex reasoning tasks—particularly temporal reasoning and combined time and space reasoning […], much work remains to be done.” Furthermore, “existing techniques also fail when faced with the massive scale, rapidly changing data, and variety of information types we expect for visual analytics tasks.”

Furthermore, “the complexity of this problem will require algorithmic advances to address the establishment and maintenance of uncertainty measures at varying levels of data abstraction.” There is presently “no accepted methodology to represent potentially erroneous information, such as varying precision, error, conflicting evidence, or incomplete information.”

To this end, “interactive visualization methods are needed that allow users to see what is missing, what is known, what is unknown, and what is conjectured, so that they may infer possible alternative explanations.”

In sum, “uncertainty must be displayed if it is to be reasoned with and incorporated into the visual analytics process. In existing visualizations, much of the information is displayed as if it were true.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Part 3: Data Tetris and Information Synthesis

This is Part 3 of 7 of the highlights from “Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Visual Analytics.” Please see this post for an introduction to the study and access to the other 6 parts.

Visual Analytics (VA) tools need to integrate and visualize different data types. But the integration of this data needs to be “based on their meaning rather than the original data type” in order to “facilitate knowledge discovery through information synthesis.” However, “many existing visual analytics systems are data-type-centric. That is, they focus on a particular type of data […].”

We know that different types of data are regularly required to conduct solid anlaysis, so developing a data synthesis capability is particularly important. This means ability to “bring data of different types together in a single environment […] to concentrate on the meaning of the data rather than on the form in which it was originally packaged.”

To be sure, information synthesis needs to “extend beyond the current data-type modes of analysis to permit the analyst to consider dynamic information of all types in seamless environment.” So we need to “eliminate the artificial constraints imposed by data type so that we can aid the analyst in reaching deeper analytical insight.”

To this end, we need breakthroughs in “automatic or semi-automatic approaches for identifying [and coding] content of imagery and video data.” A semi-automatic approach could draw on crowdsourcing, much like Ushahidi‘s Swift River.

In other words, we need to develop visual analytical tools that do not force the analyst to “perceptually and cognitively integrate multiple elements. […] Systems that force a user to view sequence after sequence of information are time-consuming and error-prone.” New techniques are also needed to do away with the separation of ‘what I want and the act of doing it.'”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Armed Conflict and Location Event Dataset (ACLED)

I joined the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) as a researcher in 2006 to do some data development work on a conflict dataset and to work with Norways’ former Secretary of State on assessing the impact of armed conflict on women’s health for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

I quickly became interested in a related PRIO project that had recently begun called the “Armed Conflict and Location Event Dataset, or ACLED. Having worked with conflict event-datasets as part of operational conflict early warning systems in the Horn, I immediately took interest in the project.

While I have referred to ACLED in a number of previous blog posts, two of my main criticisms (until recently) were (1) the lack of data on recent conflicts; and (2) the lack of an interactive interface for geospatial analysis, or at least more compelling visualization platform.

Introducing SpatialKey

Independently, I came across UniveralMind back November of last year when Andrew Turner at GeoCommons made a reference to the group’s work in his presentation at an Ushahidi meeting. I featured one of the group’s products, SpatialKey, in my recent video primer on crisis mapping.

As it turns out, ACLED is now using SpatialKey to visualize and analyze some of it’s data. So the team has definitely come a long way from using ArcGIS and Google Earth, which is great. The screenshot below, for example, depicts the ACLED data on Kenya’s post-election violence using SpatialKey.


If the Kenya data is not drawn from the Ushahidi then this could be an exciting research opportunity to compare both datasets using visual analysis and applied geo-statistics. I write “if” because PRIO somewhat surprisingly has not made the Kenya data available. They are usually very transparent so I will follow up with them and hope to get the data. Anyone interested in co-authoring this study?

Academics Get up To Speed

It’s great to see ACLED developing conflict data for more recent conflicts. Data on Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) is also depicted using SpatialKey but again the underlying spreadsheet data does not appear to be available regrettably. If the data were public, then the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project may very well have much to gain from using the data operationally.


Data Hugging Disorder

I’ll close with just one—perhaps unwarranted—concern since I still haven’t heard back from ACLED about accessing their data. As academics become increasingly interested in applying geospatial analysis to recent or even current conflicts by developing their own datasets (a very positive move for sure), will these academics however keep their data to themselves until they’ve published an article in a peer-reviewed journal, which can often take up to a year or more to publish?

To this end I share the concern that my colleague Ed Jezierski from InSTEDD articulated in his excellent blog post yesterday: “Academic projects that collect data with preference towards information that will help to publish a paper rather than the information that will be the most actionable or help community health the most.” Worst still, however, would be academics collecting data very relevant to the humanitarian or human rights community and not sharing that data until their academic papers are officially published.

I don’t think there needs to be competition between scholars and like-minded practitioners. There are increasingly more scholar-practitioners who recognize that they can contributed their research and skills to the benefit of the humanitarian and human rights communities. At the same time, the currency of academia remains the number of peer-reviewed publications. But humanitarian practitioners can simply sign an agreement such that anyone using the data for humanitarian purposes cannot publish any analysis of said data in a peer-reviewed forum.


Patrick Philippe Meier

Part 1: Visual Analytics

This is Part 1 of 7 of the highlights from “Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Visual Analytics.” Please see this post for an introduction to the study and access to the other 6 parts.

NVAC defines Visual Analytics (VA) as “the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces. People use VA tools and techniques to synthesize information and derive insights from massive, dynamic, ambiguous, and often conflicting data; detect the expected and discover the unexpected; provide timely, defensible, and understandable assessments; and communicate assessment effectively for action.”

The field of VA is necessarily multidisciplinary and combines “techniques from information visualization with techniques from computational transformation and analysis of data.” VA includes the following focus areas:

  • Analytical reasoning techniques, “that enable users to obtain deep insights that directly support assessment, planning and decision-making”;
  • Visual representations and interaction techniques, “that take advantage of the human eye’s broad bandwidth pathway to into the mind to allow users to see, explore, and understand large amounts of information at once”;
  • Data representation and transformations, “that convert all types of conflicting and dynamic data in ways that support visualization and analysis”;
  • Production, presentation and dissemination techniques, “to communicate information in the appropriate context to a variety of audiences.”

As is well known, “the human mind can understand complex information received through visual channels.” The goal of VA is thus to facilitate the analytical reasoning process “through the creation of software that maximizes human capacity to perceive, understand, and reason about complex and dynamic situations.”

In sum, “the goal is to facilitate high-quality human judgment with a limited investment of the analysts’ time.” This means in part to “expose all relevant data in a way that facilitates the reasoning process to enable action.” To be sure, solving a problem often means representing it so that the solution is more obvious (adapted from Herbert Simon). Sometimes, the simple act of placing information on a timeline or a map can generate clarity and profound insight.” Indeed, both “temporal relationships and spatial patterns can be revealed through timelines and maps.”

VA also reduces the costs associated with sense-making in two primary ways, by:

  1. Transforming information into forms that allow humans to offload cognition onto easier perceptual processes;
  2. Allowing software agents to do some of the filtering, representation translation, interpretation, and even reasoning.

That said, we should keep in mind that “human-designed visualizations are still much better than those created by our information visualization systems.” That is, there are more “highly evolved and widely used metaphors created by human information designers” than there are “successful new computer-mediated visual representations.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Research Agenda for Visual Analytics

I just finished reading “Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Virtual Analytics.” The National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVACs) published the 200-page book in 2004 and the volume is absolutely one of the best treaties I’ve come across on the topic yet. The purpose of this series of posts that follow is to share some highlights and excerpts relevant for crisis mapping.


Co-edited by James Thomas and Kristin Cook,  the book focuses specifically on homeland security but there are numerous insights to be gained on how “virtual analytics” can also illuminate the path for crisis mapping analytics. Recall that the field of conflict early warning originated in part from World War II and  the lack of warning during Pearl Harbor.

Several coordinated systems for the early detection of a Soviet bomber attack on North America were set up in the early days of the Cold War. The Distant Early Warning Line, or Dew Line, was the most sophisticated of these. The point to keep in mind is that the national security establishment is often in the lead when it comes to initiatives that can also be applied for humanitarian purposes.

The motivation behind the launching of NVACs and this study was 9/11. In my opinion, this volume goes a long way to validating the field of crisis mapping. I highly recommend it to colleagues in both the humanitarian and human rights communities. In fact, the book is directly relevant to my current consulting work with the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan.

So this week, iRevolution will be dedicated to sharing daily higlights from the NVAC study. Taken together, these posts will provide a good summary of the rich and in-depth 200-page study. So check back here post for live links to NVAC highlights:

Part 1: Visual Analytics

Part 2: Data Flooding and Platform Scarcity

Part 3: Data Tetris and Information Synthesis

Part 4: Automated Analysis and Uncertainty Visualized

Part 5: Data Visualization and Interactive Interface Design

Part 6: Mobile Technologies and Collaborative Analytics

Part 7: Towards a Taxonomy of Visual Analytics

Note that the sequence above does not correspond to specific individual chapters in the NVAC study. This structure for the summary is what made most sense.

Patrick Philippe Meier