Tag Archives: Internews

Humanitarian Technology and the Japan Earthquake (Updated)

My Internews colleagues have just released this important report on the role of communications in the 2011 Japan Earthquake. Independent reports like this one are absolutely key to building the much-needed evidence base of humanitarian technology. Internews should thus be applauded for investing in this important study. The purpose of my blog post is to highlight findings that I found most interesting and to fill some of the gaps in the report’s coverage.


I’ll start with the gaps since there are far fewer of these. While the report does reference the Sinsai Crisis Map, it over looks a number of key points that were quickly identified in an email reply just 61 minutes after Internews posted the study on the CrisisMappers list-serve. These points were made by my Fletcher colleague Jeffrey Reynolds who spearheaded some of the digital response efforts from The Fletcher School in Boston:

“As one of the members who initiated crisis mapping effort in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, I’d like to set the record straight on 4 points:

  • The crisis mapping effort started at the Fletcher School with students from Tufts, Harvard, MIT, and BU within a couple hours of the earthquake. We took initial feeds from the SAVE JAPAN! website and put them into the existing OpenStreetMap (OSM) for Japan. This point is not to take credit, but to underscore that small efforts, distant from a catastrophe, can generate momentum – especially when the infrastructure in area/country in question is compromised.
  • Anecdotally, crisis mappers in Boston who have since returned to Japan told me that at least 3 people were saved because of the map.
  • Although crisis mapping efforts may not have been well known by victims of the quake and tsunami, the embassy community in Tokyo leveraged the crisis map to identify their citizens in the Tohuku region. As the proliferation of crisis map-like platforms continues, e.g., Waze, victims in future crises will probably gravitate to social media faster than they did in Japan. Social media, specifically crisis mapping, has revolutionized the role of victim in disasters–from consumer of services, to consumer of relief AND supplier of information.
  • The crisis mapping community would be wise to work with Twitter and other suppliers of information to develop algorithms that minimise noise and duplication of information.

Thank you for telling this important story about the March 11 earthquake. May it lead to the reduction of suffering in current crises and those to come.” Someone else on CrisisMappers noted that “the first OSM mappers of satellite imagery from Japan were the mappers from Haiti who we trained after their own string of catastrophes.” I believe Jeffrey is spot on and would only add the following point: According to Hal, the crisis map received over one million unique views in the weeks and months that followed the Tsunami. The vast majority of these were apparently from inside Japan. So lets assume that 700,000 users accessed the crisis map but that only 1% of them found the map useful for their purposes. This means that 7,000 unique users found the map informative and of consequence. Unless a random sample of these 7,000 users were surveyed, then I find it rather myopic to claim so confidently that the map had no impact. Just because impact is difficult to measure doesn’t imply there was none to measure in the first place.

In any event, Internews’s reply to this feedback was exemplary and far more con-structive than the brouhaha that occurred over the Disaster 2.0 Report. So I applaud the team for how positive, pro-active and engaging they have been to our feedback. Thank you very much.

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In any event, the gaps should not distract from what is an excellent and important report on the use of technology in response to the Japan Earthquake. As my colleague Hal Seki (who spearheaded the Sinsai Crisis Map) noted on Crisis-Mappers, “the report was accurate and covered important on-going issues in Japan.” So I want to thank him again, and his entire team (including Sora, pictured above, the youngest volunteer behind the the crisis mapping efforts) and Jeffrey & team at Fletcher for all their efforts during those difficult weeks and months following the devastating disaster.

Below are multiple short excerpts from the 56-page Internews report that I found most interesting. So if you don’t have time to read the entire report, then simply glance through the list below.

  • Average tweets-per-minute in Japan before earthquake = 3,000
  • Average tweets-per-minute in Japan after earthquake = 11,000
  • DM’s per minute from Japan to world before earthquake = 200
  • DM’s per minute from Japan to world after earthquake = 1,000
  • Twitter’s global network facilitated search & rescue missions for survivors stranded by the tsunami. Within 3 days the Government of Japan had also set up its first disaster-related Twitter account.
  • Safecast, a volunteer-led project to collect and share radiation measurements, was created within a week of the disaster and generated over 3.5 million readings by December 2012.
  • If there is no information after a disaster, people become even more stressed and anxious. Old media works best in emergencies.
  • Community radio, local newspapers, newsletters–in some instances, hand written newsletters–and word of mouth played a key role in providing lifesaving information for communities. Radio was consistently ranked the most useful source of information by disaster-affected communities, from the day of the disaster right through until the end of the first week.
  • The second challenge involved humanitarian responders’ lack of awareness about the valuable information resources being generated by one very significant, albeit volunteer, community: the volunteer technical and crisis mapping communities.
  • The OpenStreet Map volunteer community, for instance, created a map of over 500,000 roads in disaster-affected areas while volunteers working with another crisis map, Sinsai.info, verified, categorised and mapped 12,000 tweets and emails from the affected regions for over three months. These platforms had the potential to close information gaps hampering the response and recovery operation, but it is unclear to what degree they were used by professional responders.
  • The “last mile” needs to be connected in even the most technologically advanced societies.
  • Still, due to the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant and the scale of the devastation, there was still the issue of “mismatching” – where mainstream media coverage focused on the nuclear crisis and didn’t provide the information that people in evacuation centres needed most.
  • The JMA use a Short Message Service Cell Broadcast (SMS-CB) system to send mass alerts to mobile phone users in specific geographic locations. Earthquakes affect areas in different ways, so alerting phone users based on location enables region-specific alerts to be sent. The system does not need to know specific phone numbers so privacy is protected and the risk of counterfeit emergency alerts is reduced.
  • A smartphone application such as Yurekuru Call, meaning “Earthquake Coming”, can also be downloaded and it will send warnings before an earthquake, details of potential magnitude and arrival times depending on the location.
  • This started with a 14-year-old junior high school student who made a brave but risky decision to live stream NHK on Ustream using his iPhone camera [which is illegal]. This was done within 17 minutes of the earthquake happening on March 11.
  • So for most disaster- affected communities, local initiatives such as community radios, community (or hyper-local) newspapers and word of mouth provided information evacuees wanted the most, including information on the safety of friends and family and other essential information.
  • It is worth noting that it was not only professional reporters who committed themselves to providing information, but also community volunteers and other actors – and that is despite the fact that they too were often victims of the disaster.
  • And after the disaster, while the general level of public trust in media and in social media increased, radio gained the most trust from locals. It was also cited as being a more personable source of information – and it may even have been the most suitable after events as traumatic as these because distressing images couldn’t be seen.
  • Newspapers were also information lifelines in Ishinomaki, 90km from the epicentre of the earthquake. The local radio station was temporarily unable to broadcast due to a gasoline shortage so for a short period of time, the only information source in the city was a handwritten local newspaper, the Hibi Shimbun. This basic, low-cost, community initiative delivered essential information to people there.
  • Newsletters also proved to be a cost-efficient and effective way to inform communities living in evacuation centres, temporary shelters and in their homes.
  • Social networks such as Twitter, Mixi and Facebook provided a way for survivors to locate friends and family and let people know that they had survived.
  • Audio-visual content sharing platforms like YouTube and Ustream were used not only by established organisations and broadcasters, but also by survivors in the disaster-affected areas to share their experiences. There were also a number of volunteer initiatives, such as the crowdsourced disaster map, Sinsai.info, established to support the affected communities.
  • With approx 35 million account holders in Japan, Twitter is the most popular social networking site in that country. This makes Japan the third largest Twitter user in the world behind the USA and Brazil.
  • The most popular hash tags included: #anpi (for finding people) and #hinan (for evacuation centre information) as well as #jishin (earthquake information).
  • The Japanese site, Mixi, was cited as the most used social media in the affected Tohoku region and that should not be underestimated. In areas where there was limited network connectivity, Mixi users could easily check the last time fellow users had logged in by viewing their profile page; this was a way to confirm whether that user was safe. On March 16, 2011, Mixi released a new application that enabled users to view friends’ login history.
  • Geiger counter radiation readings were streamed by dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals based in the area.
  • Ustream also allowed live chats between viewers using their Twitter, Facebook and Instant Messenger accounts; this service was called “Social Stream”.
  • Local officials and NGOs commented that the content of the tweets or Facebook messages requesting assistance were often not relevant because many of the messages were based on secondary information or were simply being re-tweeted.
  • The JRC received some direct messages requesting help, but after checking the situation on the ground, it became clear that many of these messages were, for instance, re-tweets of aid requests or were no longer relevant, some being over a week old.
  • “Ultimately the opportunities (of social media) outweigh the risks. Social media is here to stay and non-engagement is simply not an option.”
  • The JRC also had direct experience of false information going viral; the organisation became the subject of a rumour falsely accusing it of deducting administration fees from cash donations. The rumour originated online and quickly spread across social networks, causing the JRC to invest in a nationwide advertising campaign confirming that 100 percent of the donations went to the affected people.
  • In February 2012 Facebook tested their Disaster Message Board, where users mark themselves and friends as “safe” after a major disaster. The service will only be activated after major emergencies.
  • Most page views [of Sinsai.info] came from the disaster-affected city of Sendai where internet penetration is higher than in surrounding rural areas. […] None of the survivors interviewed during field research in Miyagi and Iwate were aware of this crisis map.
  • The major mobile phone providers in Japan created emergency messaging services known as “disaster message boards” for people to type, or record messages, on their phones for relatives and friends to access. This involved two types of message boards. One was text based, where people could input a message on the provider’s website that would be stored online or automatically forwarded to pre-registered email addresses. The other was a voice recording that could be emailed to a recipient just like an answer phone message.
  • The various disaster message boards were used 14 million times after the earthquake and they significantly reduced congestion on the network – especially if the same number of people had to make a direct call.
  • Information & communication are a form of aid – although unfor-tunately, historically, the aid sector has not always recognised this. Getting information to people on the side of the digital divide, where there is no internet, may help them survive in times of crisis and help communities rebuild after immediate danger has passed.
  • Timely and accurate information for disaster- affected people as well as effective communication between local populations and those who provide aid also improve humanitarian responses to disasters. Using local media – such as community radio or print media – is one way to achieve this and it is an approach that should be embraced by humanitarian organisations.
  • With plans for a US$50 smartphone in the pipeline, the interna-tional humanitarian community needs to prepare for a transforma-tion in the way that information flows in disaster zones.
  • This report’s clear message is that the more channels of communication available during a disaster the better. In times of emergency it is simply not possible to rely on only one, or even three or four kinds, of communication. Both low tech and high tech methods of communication have proven themselves equally important in a crisis.


Why Ushahidi Should Embrace Open Data

“This is the report that Ushahidi did not want you to see.” Or so the rumors in certain circles would have it. Some go as far as suggesting that Ushahidi tried to burry or delay the publication. On the other hand, some rumors claim that the report was a conspiracy to malign and discredit Ushahidi. Either way, what is clear is this: Ushahidi is an NGO that prides itself in promoting transparency & accountability; an organization prepared to take risks—and yes fail—in the pursuit of this  mission.

The report in question is CrowdGlobe: Mapping the Maps. A Meta-level Analysis of Ushahidi & Crowdmap. Astute observers will discover that I am indeed one of the co-authors. Published by Internews in collaboration with George Washington University, the report (PDF) reveals that 93% of 12,000+ Crowdmaps analyzed had fewer than 10 reports while a full 61% of Crowdmaps had no reports at all. The rest of the findings are depicted in the infographic below (click to enlarge) and eloquently summarized in the above 5-minute presentation delivered at the 2012 Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM 2012).

Infographic_2_final (2)

Back in 2011, when my colleague Rob Baker (now with Ushahidi) generated the preliminary results of the quantitative analysis that underpins much of the report, we were thrilled to finally have a baseline against which to measure and guide the future progress of Ushahidi & Crowdmap. But when these findings were first publicly shared (August 2012), they were dismissed by critics who argued that the underlying data was obsolete. Indeed, much of the data we used in the analysis dates back to 2010 and 2011. Far from being obsolete, however, this data provides a baseline from which the use of the platform can be measured over time. We are now in 2013 and there are apparently 36,000+ Crowdmaps today rather than just 12,000+.

To this end, and as a member of Ushahidi’s Advisory Board, I have recommended that my Ushahidi colleagues run the same analysis on the most recent Crowdmap data in order to demonstrate the progress made vis-a-vis the now-outdated public baseline. (This analysis takes no more than an hour a few days to carry out). I also strongly recommend that all this anonymized meta-data be made public on a live dashboard in the spirit of open data and transparency. Ushahidi, after all, is a public NGO funded by some of the biggest proponents of open data and transparency in the world.

Embracing open data is one of the best ways for Ushahidi to dispel the harmful rumors and conspiracy theories that continue to swirl as a result of the Crowd-Globe report. So I hope that my friends at Ushahidi will share their updated analysis and live dashboard in the coming weeks. If they do, then their bold support of this report and commitment to open data will serve as a model for other organizations to emulate. If they’ve just recently resolved to make this a priority, then even better.

In the meantime, I look forward to collaborating with the entire Ushahidi team on making the upcoming Kenyan elections the most transparent to date. As referenced in this blog post, the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) is partnering with the good people at PyBossa to customize an awesome micro-tasking platform that will significantly facilitate and accelerate the categorization and geo-location of reports submitted to the Ushahidi platform. So I’m working hard with both of these outstanding teams to make this the most successful, large-scale microtasking effort for election monitoring yet. Now lets hope for everyone’s sake that the elections remain peaceful. Onwards!

Ushahidi: From Croudsourcing to Crowdfeeding

Humanitarian organizations at the Internews meetings today made it clear that information during crises is as important as water, food and medicine. There is now a clear consensus on this in the humanitarian community.

This is why I have strongly encouraged Ushahidi developers (as recently as this past weekend) to include a subscription feature that allows crisis-affected communities to subscribe to SMS alerts. In other words, we are not only crowdsourcing crisis information we are also crowdfeeding crisis information.

I set off several flags when I mentioned this during the Internews meeting since crowdsourcing typically raises concerns about data validation or lack thereof. Participants at the meeting began painting scenarios whereby militias in the DRC would submit false reports to Ushahidi in order to scare villagers (who would receive the alert by SMS) and have them flee in their direction where they would ambush them.

Here’s why I think humanitarian organizations may in part be wrong.

First of all, militias do not need Ushahidi to scare or ambush at-risk communities. In fact, using a platform like Ushahidi would be tactically inefficient and would require more coordinating on their part.

Second, local communities are rarely dependent on a single source of information. They have their own trusted social and kinship networks, which they can draw on to validate information. There are local community radios and some of these allow listeners to call in or text in with information and/or questions. Ushahidi doesn’t exist in an information vacuum. We need to understand information communication as an ecosystem.

Third, Ushahidi makes it clear that the information is crowdsourced and hence not automatically validated. Beneficiaries are not dumb; they can perfectly well understand that SMS alerts are simply alerts and not confirmed reports. I must admit that the conversation that ensued at the meeting reminded me of Peter Uvin’s “Aiding Violence” in which he lays bare our “infantilizing” attitude towards “our beneficiaries.”

Fourth, many of the humanitarian organizations participating in today’s meetings work directly with beneficiaries in conflict zones. Shouldn’t they take an interest in the crowdsourced information and take advantage of being in the field to validate said information?

Fifth, all the humanitarian organizations present during today’s meetings embraced the need for two-way, community-generated information and social media. Yet these same organizations fold there arms and revert to a one-way communication mindset when the issue of crowdsourcing comes up. They forget that they too can generate information in response to rumors and thus counter-act misinformation as soon as it spreads. If the US Embassy can do this in Madagascar using Twitter, why can’t humanitarian organizations do the equivalent?

Sixth, Ushahidi-Kenya and Ushahidi-DRC were the first deployments of Ushahidi. The model that Ushahidi has since adopted involves humanitarian organizations like UNICEF in Zimbabwe or Carolina for Kibera in Nairobi, and international media groups like Al-Jazeera in Gaza, to use the free, open-source platform for their own projects. In other words, Ushahidi deployments are localized and the crowdsourcing is limited to trusted members of those organizations, or journalists in the case of Al-Jazeera.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Internews, Ushahidi and Communication in Crises

I had the pleasure of participating in two Internews sponsored meetings in New York today. Fellow participants included OCHA, Oxfram, Red Cross, Save the Children, World Vision, BBC World Service Trust, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Humanitarian Media Foundation, International Media Support and several others.


The first meeting was a three-hour brainstorming session on “Improving Humanitarian Information for Affected Communities” organized in preparation for the second meeting on “The Unmet Need for Communication in Humanitarian Response,” which was held at the UN General Assembly.


The meetings presented an ideal opportunity for participants to share information on current initiatives that focus on communications with crisis-affected populations. Ushahidi naturally came to mind so I introduced the concept of crowdsourcing crisis information. I should have expected the immediate push back on the issue of data validation.

Crowdsourcing and Data Validation

While I have already blogged about overcoming some of the challenges of data validation in the context of crowdsourcing here, there is clearly more to add since the demand for “fully accurate information” a.k.a. “facts and only facts” was echoed during the second meeting in the General Assembly. I’m hoping this blog post will help move the discourse beyond the black and white concepts that characterize current discussions on data accuracy.

Having worked in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response for the past seven years, I fully understand the critical importance of accurate information. Indeed, a substantial component of my consulting work on CEWARN in the Horn of Africa specifically focused on the data validation process.

To be sure, no one in the humanitarian and human rights community is asking for inaccurate information. We all subscribe to the notion of “Do No Harm.”

Does Time Matter?

What was completely missing from today’s meetings, however, was a reference to time. Nobody noted the importance of timely information during crises, which is rather ironic since both meetings focused on sudden onset emergencies. I suspect that our demand (and partial Western obsession) for fully accurate information has clouded some of our thinking on this issue.

This is particularly ironic given that evidence-based policy-making and data-driven analysis are still the exception rather than the rule in the humanitarian community. Field-based organizations frequently make decisions on coordination, humanitarian relief and logistics without complete and fully accurate, real-time information, especially right after a crisis strikes.

So why is this same community holding crowdsourcing to a higher standard?

Time versus Accuracy

Timely information when a crisis strikes is a critical element for many of us in the humanitarian and human rights communities. Surely then we must recognize the tradeoff between accuracy and timeliness of information. Crisis information is perishable!

The more we demand fully accurate information, the longer the data validation process typically takes and thus the more likely the information will be become useless. Our public health colleagues who work in emergency medicine know this only too well.

The figure below represents the perishable nature of crisis information. Data validation makes sense during time-periods A and B. Continuing to carry out data validation beyond time B may be beneficial to us, but hardly to crisis affected communities. We may very well have the luxury of time. Not so for at-risk communities.


This point often gets overlooked when anxieties around inaccurate information surface. Of course we need to insure that information we produce or relay is as accurate as possible. Of course we want to prevent dangerous rumors from spreading. To this end, the Thomson Reuters Foundation clearly spelled out that their new Emergency Information Service (EIS) would only focus on disseminating facts and only facts. (See my previous post on EIS here).

Yes, we can focus all our efforts on disseminating facts, but are those facts communicated after time-period B above really useful to crisis-affected communities? (Incidentally, since EIS will be based on verifiable facts, their approach may well be liked to Wikipedia’s rules for corrective editing. In any event, I wonder how EIS might define the term “fact”).

Why Ushahidi?

Ushahidi was created within days of the Kenyan elections in 2007 because both the government and national media were seriously under-reporting widespread human rights violations. I was in Nairobi visiting my parents at the time and it was also frustrating to see the majority of international and national NGOs on the ground suffering from “data hugging disorder,” i.e., they had no interest whatsoever to share information with each other or the public for that matter.

This left the Ushahidi team with few options, which is why they decided to develop a transparent platform that would allow Kenyans to report directly, thereby circumventing the government, media and NGOs, who were working against transparency.

Note that the Ushahidi team is only comprised of tech-experts. Here’s a question: why didn’t the human rights or humanitarian community set up a platform like Ushahidi? Why were a few tech-savvy Kenyans without a humanitarian background able to set up and deploy the platform within a week and not the humanitarian community? Where were we? Shouldn’t we be the ones pushing for better information collection and sharing?

In a recent study for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), I mapped and time-stamped reports on the post-election violence reported by the mainstream media, citizen journalists and Ushahidi. I then created a Google Earth layer of this data and animated the reports over time and space. I recommend reading the conclusions.

Accuracy is a Luxury

Having worked in humanitarian settings, we all know that accuracy is more often luxury than reality, particularly right after a crisis strikes. Accuracy is not black and white, yes or no. Rather, we need to start thinking in terms of likelihood, i.e., how likely is this piece of information to be accurate? All of us already do this everyday albeit subjectively. Why not think of ways to complement or triangulate our personal subjectivities to determine the accuracy of information?

At CEWARN, we included “Source of Information” for each incident report. A field reporter could select from several choices: (1) direct observation; (2) media, and (3) rumor. This gave us a three-point weighted-scale that could be used in subsequent analysis.

At Ushahidi, we are working on Swift River, a platform that applies human crowdsourcing and machine analysis (natural language parsing) to filter crisis information produced in real time, i.e., during time-periods A and B above. Colleagues at WikiMapAid are developing similar solutions for data on disease outbreaks. See my recent post on WikiMapAid and data validation here.


In sum, there are various ways to rate the likelihood that a reported event is true. But again, we are not looking to develop a platform that insures 100% reliability. If full accuracy were the gold standard of humanitarian response (or military action for that matter), the entire enterprise would come to a grinding halt. The intelligence community has also recognized this as I have blogged about here.

The purpose of today’s meetings was for us to think more concretely about communication in crises from the perspective of at-risk communities. Yet, as soon as I mentioned crowdsourcing the discussion became about our own demand for fully accurate information with no concerns raised about the importance of timely information for crisis-affected communities.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Patrick Philippe Meier