Tag Archives: maps

The Future of Crisis Mapping is Finally Here

In 2010, I had the opportunity to participate in the very first Disaster Response Working Group meeting held at Facebook. The digital humanitarian response to the tragic Haiti earthquake months earlier was the main point of discussion. Digital Humanitarians at the time had crowdsourced social media monitoring and satellite imagery analysis to create a unique set of crisis maps used by a range of responders. Humanitarian organizations to this day point to the Haiti response as a pivotal milestone in the history of crisis mapping. Today marks an equally important milestone thanks to three humanitarian groups and Facebook.

Facebook just announced a new partnership with UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), American Red Cross (ARC) and the World Food Program (WFP) to begin sharing actionable, real-time data that will fill critical data gaps that exist in the first hours of a sudden onset disaster. UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP deserve considerable praise in partnering on such an innovative effort. As the IFRC’s World Disaster Report noted in 2005, having access to information during disasters is equally important as having access to food, water and medicine. But unlike these other commodities, information has a far shorter shelf life. In other words, the value of information depreciates very quickly; information rots fast.

Disaster responders need information that is both reliable and timely. Both are typically scarce after disasters. Saving time can make all the difference. The faster responders get reliable information, the faster they can prioritize and mobilize relief efforts based on established needs. Information takes time to analyze, however, especially unstructured information. Digital Humanitarians encountered this Big Data challenge first hand during the Haiti Earthquake response, and after most disasters since then. Still, online data has the potential to fill crucial data gaps. This is especially true if this data is made available in a structured and responsible way by a company like Facebook; a platform that reaches nearly 2 billion people around the world. And by listening to what aid organizations need, Facebook is providing this information in a format that is actually usable and useful.

Listening to Humanitarian Needs

In early 2016, I began consulting with Facebook on their disaster mapping initiative. One of our first orders of business was to reach out to subject matter experts around the world. It is all too easy for companies in Silicon Valley to speculate about solutions that could be useful to humanitarian organizations. The problem with that approach is that said companies almost never consult seasoned humanitarian professionals in the process. Facebook took a different approach. They spent well over half-a-year meeting with and listening to humanitarian professionals across a number of different aid organizations. Then, they co-developed the solution together with experts from UNCIEF, IFRC, ARC, WFP and myself. This process insured that they built solutions that are actually needed by the intended end users. Other Silicon Valley companies really ought to take the same approach when seeking to support social good efforts in a meaningful manner.

UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP bring extensive expertise and global reach to this new partnership with Facebook. They have both the capacity and strong interest to fully leverage the new disaster maps being made available. And each of these humanitarian organizations have spent a considerable amount of time and energy collaborating with Facebook to iterate on the disaster maps. This type of commitment, partnership and leadership from the humanitarian sector is vital and indeed absolutely necessary to innovate and scale innovation.

One of the areas in which Facebook exercised great care was in applying protection standards. This was another area in which I provided guidance, along with colleagues at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). We worked closely with Facebook to ensure that their efforts followed established protection protocols in the humanitarian sector. In September 2016, for example, three Facebookers and I participated in a full-day protection workshop organized the ICRC. Facebook presented on the new mapping project – still in its very early stages – and actively solicited feedback from the ICRC and a dozen other humanitarian organizations that participated in the workshop. Facebook noted upfront that they didn’t have all the answers and welcomed as much input as humanitarian professionals could give. As it turns out, they were already well on their way to being fully in line with the ICRC’s own protection protocols.

Facebook also worked with its own internal privacy, security and legal teams to ensure that the datasets it produced were privacy-preserving and consistent with legal standards around the world. This process took a long time. Some insight from the “inside”: I began joking that this process makes the UN look fast. But the fact that Facebook was so careful and meticulous when it came to data privacy was certainly reassuring. To be sure, Facebook developed a rigorous review process to ensure that our applied research was carried out responsibly and ethically. This demonstrates that using data for high-impact, social good projects need not be at odds with privacy—we can achieve both. By using data aggregating and spatial smoothing, for example, we can reduce noise in the data and identify important trends while following its data privacy standards.

Another important area of collaboration very early on focused specifically on data bias. The team at Facebook was careful to emphasize that their data was not a silver bullet – it is representative of people who use Facebook on mobile with Location Services enabled. To this end, one of the areas I worked on closely with Facebook was validation. For example, in an early iteration of the maps, I analyzed mainstream media news reports on the Fort McMurray Fires in Canada and matched them with specific patterns we had observed on Facebook’s maps. The results suggested that Facebook’s geospatial data was providing reliable insights about evacuation and safety on the ground albeit in real time compared to the media reports which were published many hours later.

Facebook Safety Check

Within 24 hours of activating Safety Check, we see that there are far fewer people than usual in the town of Fort McMurray. Areas that are color-coded red reflect much lower numbers of Facebook users there compared to the same time the week before. This makes sense since these locations are affected by the wildfires and have thus been evacuated.

We can use Facebook’s Safety Check data to create live disaster maps that quickly highlight where groups of users are checking in safe, and also where they are not checking in safe. This could provide a number of important proxies such as disaster damage, for example.

Facebook Location Maps

We see that before the crisis began (left plot) people were located in the town in expected numbers, but quickly vacated over the next 24 hour period (map turning red). Even within just an hour and half into the crisis we can tell that users are evacuating the town (the red color indicating low values of people present compared to baseline data). This signal becomes even more clear and consistent as the crisis progresses.

Population here refers to the population of Facebook users. These aggregated maps can provide a proxy for population density and movement before, during and after humanitarian disasters.

In the above video, the blue line that stretches diagonally across the map is Highway 63, which was the primary evacuation route for many in McMurray. The video shows where the general population of Facebook users is moving over time at half-hour intervals. Notice that the blue line becomes even denser between 1 and 3 A.M. local time. Reports from the mainstream media published that afternoon revealed that many drivers ended up having to “camp” along the highway overnight.

Take the map below of the Kaikoura Earthquake in New Zealand as another example. The disaster maps for the earthquake show the location and movement of people in Kaikoura following the disaster. One day after the earthquake, we notice that the population begins to evacuate the city. Using news articles, we can cross validate that residents of Kaikoura were evacuated to Christchurch, 200 kilometers away. Several days later, we notice from the Facebook maps that individuals are starting to return to Kaikoura, presumably to repair and rebuild their community.

It’s still early days, and Facebook plans to work closely alongside their partners to better understand and report biases in the data. This is another reason why Facebook’s partnership with UNICEF, IFRC, ARC and WFP is so critical. These groups have the capacity to compare the disaster maps with other datasets, validate the maps with field surveys, and support Facebook in understanding how to address issues of representativeness. One approach they are exploring is to compare the disaster maps to the population density datasets that Facebook has already open-sourced. By making this comparison, we can clearly communicate any areas that are likely to be inadequately covered by the disaster data. They are also working with Facebook’s Connectivity Lab to develop bias-correcting solutions based on maps of cell phone connectivity. For more on social media, bias and crisis mapping, see Chapter 2 of Digital Humanitarians.

Moving Forward

Our humanitarian partners are keen to use Facebook’s new solution in their relief efforts. Thanks to Facebook’s data, we can create a series of unique maps that in turn provide unique insights and do so in real-time. These maps can be made available right away and updated at 15 minute intervals if need be. Let me repeat that: every 15 minutes. This is the first time in history that humanitarian organizations will have access to such high frequency, privacy-preserving structured data powered by some 1.86 billion online users.

There is no doubt that responders would’ve had far more situational awareness and far more quickly had these crisis maps existed in the wake of Haiti’s tragic earthquake in 2010. Since the maps aggregate Facebook data to administrative boundaries, humanitarian partners can also integrate this unique dataset into their own systems. During the first Facebook Disaster Working Group meeting back in 2010, we asked ourselves how Facebook might leverage it’s own data to create unique maps to help aid organizations reduce suffering and loss of life. Today, not only do we have an answer to this question, we also have the beginnings of an operational solution that humanitarians can use directly.

Facebook’s new disaster mapping solution is not a silver bullet, however; all my colleagues at Facebook recognize this full well, as do our humanitarian partners. These maps simply serve as new, unique and independent sources of real-time data and insights for humanitarian organizations. The number of Facebook users has essentially doubled since the Haiti Earthquake, nearing 2 billion users today. The more people around the planet connect and share on Facebook, the more insights responders gain on how best to carry out relief efforts during major disasters. This information is a public good that has the potential to save lives, and it’s crucial that insights derived from the data be made available to those who can put it to use. I sincerely hope that other Silicon Valley companies take note of these efforts and following in Facebook’s footsteps.

As a next step, Facebook is looking to both international and local humanitarian partners to help improve, validate and measure the impact of these new disaster maps. As the Facebook team works to validate the maps with the humanitarian community, they also hope to make the maps available to aid organizations though a dedicated API and Visualization tool. Interested organizations will be asked to follow a simple application process to gain access to the disaster maps.

Facebook disaster maps are really unique and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface vis-à-vis the different humanitarian efforts these maps can inform. For example, my team and I at WeRobotics were recently in the Dominican Republic (DR) where we ran a full-fledged disaster response exercise with the country’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the World Food Program (WFP). The purpose of the simulation—which focused on searching for survivors and assessing disaster damage—was to develop and test coordination mechanisms to facilitate the rapid deployment of small drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). As the drone pilots began to program their drones to carry out the aerial surveys, I turned to my WFP colleague Gabriela and said:

“What if, during the next disaster, we used Facebook’s Safety Check Map to prioritize which areas the drones should search? What if we used Facebook’s Population Map to prioritize aerial surveys of areas that are being abandoned, possibly to due to collapsed buildings or other types of infrastructure damage? Since the Facebook maps are available in near real-time, we could program the drone flights within minutes of a disaster. What do you think?”

Gaby looked back at the drones and said:

“Wow. This would change everything.”


What Was Novel About Social Media Use During Hurricane Sandy?

We saw the usual spikes in Twitter activity and the typical (reactive) launch of crowdsourced crisis maps. We also saw map mashups combining user-generated content with scientific weather data. Facebook was once again used to inform our social networks: “We are ok” became the most common status update on the site. In addition, thousands of pictures where shared on Instagram (600/minute), documenting both the impending danger & resulting impact of Hurricane Sandy. But was there anything really novel about the use of social media during this latest disaster?

I’m asking not because I claim to know the answer but because I’m genuinely interested and curious. One possible “novelty” that caught my eye was this FrankenFlow experiment to “algorithmically curate” pictures shared on social media. Perhaps another “novelty” was the embedding of webcams within a number of crisis maps, such as those below launched by #HurricaneHacker and Team Rubicon respectively.

Another “novelty” that struck me was how much focus there was on debunking false information being circulated during the hurricane—particularly images. The speed of this debunking was also striking. As regular iRevolution readers will know, “information forensics” is a major interest of mine.

This Tumblr post was one of the first to emerge in response to the fake pictures (30+) of the hurricane swirling around the social media whirlwind. Snopes.com also got in on the action with this post. Within hours, The Atlantic Wire followed with this piece entitled “Think Before You Retweet: How to Spot a Fake Storm Photo.” Shortly after, Alexis Madrigal from The Atlantic published this piece on “Sorting the Real Sandy Photos from the Fakes,” like the one below.

These rapid rumor-bashing efforts led BuzzFeed’s John Herman to claim that Twitter acted as a truth machine: “Twitter’s capacity to spread false information is more than cancelled out by its savage self-correction.” This is not the first time that journalists or researchers have highlighted Twitter’s tendency for self-correction. This peer-reviewed, data-driven study of disaster tweets generated during the 2010 Chile Earthquake reports the same finding.

What other novelties did you come across? Are there other interesting, original and creative uses of social media that ought to be documented for future disaster response efforts? I’d love to hear from you via the comments section below. Thanks!

Back to the Future: On National Geographic and Crisis Mapping

[Cross-posted from National Geographic Newswatch]

Published in October 1888, the first issue of National Geographic “was a modest looking scientific brochure with an austere terra-cotta cover” (NG 2003). The inaugural publication comprised a dense academic treatise on the classification of geographic forms by genesis. But that wasn’t all. The first issue also included a riveting account of “The Great White Hurricane” of March 1888, which still ranks as one of the worst winter storms ever in US history.

Wreck at Coleman’s Station, New York & Harlem R. R., March 13, 1888. Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library.

I’ve just spent a riveting week myself at the 2012 National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington DC, the birthplace of the National Geographic Society. I was truly honored to be recognized as a 2012 Emerging Explorer along with such an amazing and accomplished cadre of explorers. So it was with excitement that I began reading up on the history of this unique institution whilst on my flight to Doha following the Symposium.

I’ve been tagged as the “Crisis Mapper” of the Emerging Explorers Class of 2012. So imagine my astonishment when I  began discovering that National Geographic had a long history of covering and mapping natural disasters, humanitarian crises and wars starting from the very first issue of the magazine in 1888. And when World War I broke out:

“Readers opened their August 1914 edition of the magazine to find an up-to-date map of ‘The New Balkan States and Central Europe’ that allowed them to follow the developments of the war. Large maps of the fighting fronts continued to be published throughout the conflict […]” (NG 2003).

Map of ‘The New Balkan States and Central Europe’ from the August 1914 “National Geographic Magazine.” Image courtesy NGS.

National Geographic even established a News Service Bureau to provide bulletins on the geographic aspects of the war for the nation’s newspapers. As the respected war strategist Carl von Clausewitz noted half-a-century before the launch of Geographic, “geography and the character of the ground bear a close and ever present relation to warfare, . . . both as to its course and to its planning and exploitation.”

“When World War II came, the Geographic opened its vast files of photographs, more than 300,000 at that time, to the armed forces. By matching prewar aerial photographs against wartime ones, analysts detected camouflage and gathered intelligence” (NG 2003).

During the 1960s, National Geographic “did not shrink from covering the war in Vietnam.” Staff writers and photographers captured all aspects of the war from “Saigon to the Mekong Delta to villages and rice fields.” In the years and decades that followed, Geographic continued to capture unfolding crises, from occupied Palestine and Apartheid South Africa to war-torn Afghanistan and the drought-striven Sahel of Africa.

Geographic also covered the tragedy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the dramatic eruption of Mount Saint Helens. The gripping account of the latter would in fact become the most popular article in all of National Geographic history. Today,

“New technologies–remote sensing, lasers, computer graphics, x-rays and CT scans–allow National Geographic to picture the world in new ways.” This is equally true of maps. “Since the first map was published in the magazine in 1888, maps  have been an integral component of many magazine articles, books and television programs […]. Originally drafted by hand on large projections, today’s maps are created by state-of-the art computers to map everything from the Grand Canyon to the outer reaches of the universe” (NG 2003). And crises.

“Pick up a newspaper and every single day you’ll see how geography plays a dominant role in giving a third dimension to life,” wrote Gil Grosvenor, the former Editor in Chief of National Geographic (NG 2003). And as we know only too well, many of the headlines in today’s newspapers relay stories of crises the world over. National Geographic has a tremendous opportunity to shed a third dimension on emerging crises around the globe using new live mapping technologies. Indeed, to map the world is to know it, and to map the world live is to change it live before it’s too late. The next post in this series will illustrate why with an example from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging ExplorerHe is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for positive social change. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI). Patrick also authors the respected iRevolution blog & tweets at @patrickmeier. This piece was originally published here on National Geographic.

A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies

I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days. At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshpos. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead? Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. There were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level. Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

Crisis Mapping Egypt: Collection of Protest Maps (Updated)

The CrisisMappers Twitter feed has shared a number of maps depicting the ongoing protests in Egypt. Here is a collection of them. Do let me know if we’re missing any. To learn more about crisis mapping, read this blog post: What is Crisis Mapping? and join www.CrisisMappers.net. For a protest map of the demonstrations in Khartoum, Sudan, see this link.

Update: The Cairo-based Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC) has launched the Ushahidi map below. DISC has previously used the platform to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections last November and December  (see this post for more info).

Update: These Twitter maps Hypercities provide another way to visualize the event unfolding across the country.

Update: Storyful has this Google Map of the protests in downtown Cairo:

Update: OpenEgypt, an independent group of volunteers have set up the Open Egypt Crowdmap below:

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has put up this Jan 25th CrowdMap:

The company ESRI has produced the following Web Map of Egypt:

The New York Times has also put this protest map together:

Finally, the LA Times has this map up on their website: