Tag Archives: GIVAS

Rethinking the UN’s Global Pulse

Update: This project is now called UN Global Pulse.

I’m in Bellagio on Lake Como this week for a Blue Sky Thinkers Workshop on the UN’s new Global Pulse Initiative. When I first blogged about GIVAS as it was called back in July 2009, the Pulse Team in the UN Secretary General’s Office actually commented on my blog post. The fact that the UNSG’s Office was taking the time to read blogs and comment on them was the first sign that something about this project was very different from my previous experience with the UN.

We’re under Chatham House Rules here so I’ll just stick to my own thoughts on what I think Global Pulse should be. First, I don’t think Global Pulse should be for the UN or nation states. The global alert system should directly empower vulnerable communities to prevent or mitigate the impact of crises on their own livelihoods. In other words, Global Pulse should be a self-help system for vulnerable communities. The development and maintenance of this system should be the responsibility of the UN and governments.

So here’s an idea (still under development): why not use the QuestionBox technology and approach to create “call in” centers for information on tactics for resilience.

Question Box helps people find answers to everyday questions like health, agriculture, business, education and entertainment. It provides easy access to information in hard-to-reach areas and breaks through technology, language and literacy barriers. We do this through:

  • Live telephone hotlines connected to live operators
  • SMS (Text Messaging)
  • Mobile and solar technologies that operate off the grid
  • Open Question – a simple software to start your own Question Box project

The group behind Question Box also help several organizations start their own Question Box-inspired services. So lets turn Global Pulse into a Global Resilience Information Service for vulnerable communities. There are four key reasons I find this approach compelling. First, this approach provides a demand-driven direct service to vulnerable communities as opposed to just “watching” them. Databases of resilience tactics can be (continually) developed by either local communities themselves or government sponsored projects. This information can then be shared across towns and regions. Think of this as a “Resilience Wiki”.

The second reason I want to continue exploring this system is because the queries made using a Resilience Question Box approach are in and of themselves important indicators. Think of Google’s Flu trends project. The team “found a close relationship between the number of people who search for flu-related topics and the number of people who actually have flu symptoms.” In other words, the queries made to Resilience Question Box could serve as proxy indicators for local vulnerability. This data would then be analyzed for trends and policy making at the UN.

The third reason this approach appeals to me is because it serves the interest of vulnerability communities first and foremost. The rhetoric behind global alert systems is that they are for vulnerable communities but the reality is that these communities rarely know that such systems actually exist. The first indicator of success for Global Pulse will therefore be whether vulnerable communities are aware of Pulse. A second indicator will be whether they actually use the system.

The fourth and final reason I’m keen about a Question Box approach is because of the focus on information for vulnerable communities. In my opinion, most crises are ultimately crises in information, which is another reason why information is power. Imagine if Global Pulse could work with Member States to set up hundreds of thousands of Resilience Boxes. Think of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Global Pulse could provide a Resilience Box per Vulnerable Community, enabling the latter to make more informed decisions to increase their own resilience in near real-time.

Now how does one fund all this? I got a possible answer over lunch while talking to one of the participants (whose identity I can’t reveal because of Chatham House Rules). How about a Kiva for Resilience Boxes? Instead of donating money to one (or more) specific project, you could donate money for 50 QuestionBox answers to a specific community in Bangladesh. I personally find that very compelling, i.e., knowing that my money provided 50 answers for vulnerable communities. In return for my donation, perhaps I could also get a copy of the 50 questions/answers and learn something new in the process.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Evolving a Global System of Info Webs

I’ve already blogged about what an ecosystem approach to conflict early warning and response entails. But I have done so with a country focus rather than thinking globally. This blog post applies a global perspective to the ecosystem approach given the proliferation of new platforms with global scalability.

Perhaps the most apt analogy here is one of food webs where the food happens to be information. Organisms in a food web are grouped into primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers. Primary producers such as grass harvest an energy source such as sunlight that they turn into biomass. Herbivores are primary consumers of this biomass while carnivores are secondary consumers of herbivores. There is thus a clear relationship known as a food chain.

This is an excellent video visualizing food web dynamics produced by researchers affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI):

Our information web (or Info Web) is also composed of multiple producers and consumers of information each interlinked by communication technology in increasingly connected ways. Indeed, primary producers, primary consumers and secondary consumers also crawl and dynamically populate the Info Web. But the shock of the information revolution is altering the food chains in our ecosystem. Primary consumers of information can now be primary producers, for example.

At the smallest unit of analysis, individuals are the most primary producers of information. The mainstream media, social media, natural language parsing tools, crowdsourcing platforms, etc, arguably comprise the primary consumers of that information. Secondary consumers are larger organisms such as the global Emergency Information Service (EIS) and the Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS).

These newly forming platforms are at different stages of evolution. EIS and GIVAS are relatively embryonic while the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination Systems (GDACS) and Google Earth are far more evolved. A relatively new organism in the Info Web is the UAV as exemplified by ITHACA. The BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is further along the information chain while Ushahidi’s Crisis Mapping platform and the Swift River driver are more mature but have not yet deployed as a global instance.

InSTEDD’s GeoChat, Riff and Mesh4X solutions have already iterated through a number of generations. So have ReliefWeb and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). There are of course additional organisms in this ecosystem, but the above list should suffice to demonstrate my point.

What if we connected these various organisms to catalyze a super organism? A Global System of Systems (GSS)? Would the whole—a global system of systems for crisis mapping and early warning—be greater than the sum of its parts? Before we can answer this question in any reasonable way, we need to know the characteristics of each organism in the ecosystem. These organisms represent the threads that may be woven into the GSS, a global web of crisis mapping and early warning systems.

Global System of Systems

Emergency Information Service (EIS) is slated to be a unified communications solution linking citizens, journalists, governments and non-governmental organizations in a seamless flow of timely, accurate and credible information—even when local communication infrastructures are rendered inoperable. This feature will be made possible by utilizing SMS as the communications backbone of the system.

In the event of a crisis, the EIS team would sift, collate, make sense of and verify the myriad of streams of information generated by a large humanitarian intervention. The team would gather information from governments, local media, the military, UN agencies and local NGOs to develop reporting that will be tailored to the specific needs of the affected population and translated into local languages. EIS would work closely with local media to disseminate messages of critical, life saving information.

Global Impact and Vulnerability Alert System (GIVAS) is being designed to closely monitor vulnerabilities and accelerate communication between the time a global crisis hits and when information reaches decision makers through official channels. The system is mandated to provide the international community with early, real-time evidence of how a global crisis is affecting the lives of the poorest and to provide decision-makers with real time information to ensure that decisions take the needs of the most vulnerable into account.

BrightEarth Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb) is specifically designed for UN field-based agencies to improve real time situational awareness. The dynamic mapping platform enables humanitarians to easily and quickly map infrastructure relevant for humanitarian response such as airstrips, bridges, refugee camps, IDP camps, etc. The SensorWeb is also used to map events of interest such as cholera outbreaks. The platform leverages mobile technology as well as social networking features to encourage collaborative analytics.

Ushahidi integrates web, mobile and dynamic mapping technology to crowdsource crisis information. The platform uses FrontlineSMS and can be deployed quickly as a crisis unfolds. Users can visualize events of interest on a dynamic map that also includes an animation feature to visualize the reported data over time and space.

Swift River is under development but designed to validate crowdsourced information in real time by combining machine learning for predictive tagging with human crowdsourcing for filtering purposes. The purpsose of the platform is to create veracity scores to denote the probability of an event being true when reported across several media such as Twitter, Online news, SMS, Flickr, etc.

GeoChat and Mesh4X could serve as the nodes connecting the above platforms in dynamic ways. Riff could be made interoperable with Swift River.

Can such a global Info Web be catalyzed? The question hinges on several factors the most important of which are probably awareness and impact. The more these individual organisms know about each other, the better picture they will have of the potential synergies between their efforts and then find incentives to collaborate. This is one of the main reasons I am co-organizing the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) next week.

Patrick Philippe Meier