Tag Archives: Planet

Digital Humanitarians in Space: Planet Launches Rapid Response Team

Planet has an unparalleled constellation of satellites in orbit. In addition to their current constellation of 130 micro-satellites, they have 5 RapidEye satellites and the 7 SkySat satellites (recently acquired from Google). What’s more, 48 new micro-satellites were just launched into orbit this July, bringing the total number of Planet satellites to 190. And once the 48 satellites begin imaging, Planet will have global, daily coverage of the entire Earth, covering over 150 million square kilometers every day. Never before has the humanitarian community had access to such a vast amount of timely satellite imagery.

As described in my book, Digital Humanitarians, this vast amount of new data adds to the rapidly growing Big Data challenge that humanitarian organizations are facing. As such, what humanitarians need is not just data philanthropy—i.e., free and rapid access to relevant data—they also need insight philanthropy. This is where Planet’s new Rapid Response Team comes in.

Planet just launched this new digital volunteer program in partnership with the Digital Humanitarian Network to help ensure that Planet’s data and insights get to the right people at the right time to accelerate and improve humanitarian response. After major disasters hit, members of the Rapid Response Team can provide the latest satellite images available and/or geospatial analysis directly to field-based aid organizations.

So if you’re an established humanitarian group and need rapid access to satellite imagery and/or analysis after major disasters, simply activate the Digital Humanitarian Network. You can request satellite images of disaster affected areas on a daily basis as well as before/after analysis (sliders) of those areas as shown above. This is an exciting and generous new resource being made available to the international humanitarian community by Planet, so please do take advantage.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to get in touch by email or via the comments section below. I serve as an advisor to Planet and am keen to make the Rapid Response initiative as useful as possible to humanitarian organizations.

Could Lonely Planet Render World Bank Projects More Transparent?

That was the unexpected question that my World Bank colleague Johannes Kiess asked me the other day. I was immediately intrigued. So I did some preliminary research and offered to write up a blog post on the idea to solicit some early feedback. According to recent statistics, international tourist arrivals numbered over 1 billion in 2012 alone. Of this population, the demographic that Johannes is interested in comprises those intrepid and socially-conscious backpackers who travel beyond the capitals of developing countries. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new form of tourism: Tourism for Social Good.


There may be a real opportunity to engage a large crowd because travelers—and in particular the backpacker type—are smartphone savvy, have time on their hands, want to do something meaningful, are eager to get off the beaten track and explore new spaces where others do not typically trek. Johannes believes this approach could be used to map critical social infrastructure and/or to monitor development projects. Consider a simple smartphone app, perhaps integrated with existing travel guide apps or Tripadvisor. The app would ask travelers to record the quality of the roads they take (with the GPS of their smartphone) and provide feedback on the condition, e.g.,  bumpy, even, etc., every 50 miles or so.

They could be asked to find the nearest hospital and take a geotagged picture—a scavenger hunt for development (as Johannes calls it); Geocaching for Good? Note that governments often do not know exactly where schools, hospitals and roads are located. The app could automatically alert travelers of a nearby development project or road financed by the World Bank or other international donor. Travelers could be prompted to take (automatically geo-tagged) pictures that would then be forwarded to development organizations for subsequent visual analysis (which could easily be carried out using microtasking). Perhaps a very simple, 30-second, multiple-choice survey could even be presented to travelers who pass by certain donor-funded development projects. For quality control purposes, these pictures and surveys could easily be triangulated. Simple gamification features could also be added to the app; travelers could gain points for social good tourism—collect 100 points and get your next Lonely Planet guide for free? Perhaps if you’re the first person to record a road within the app, then it could be named after you (of course with a notation of the official name). Even Photosynth could be used to create panoramas of visual evidence.

The obvious advantage of using travelers against the now en vogue stakeholder monitoring approach is that they said bagpackers are already traveling there anyway and have their phones on them to begin with. Plus, they’d be independent third parties and would not need to be trained. This obviously doesn’t mean that the stakeholder approach is not useful. The travelers strategy would simply be complementary. Furthermore, this tourism strategy comes with several key challenges, such as the safety of backpackers who choose to take on this task, for example. But appropriate legal disclaimers could be put in place, so this challenge seems surmountable. In any event, Johannes, together with his colleagues at the World Bank (and I), hope to explore this idea of Tourism for Social Good further in the coming months.

In the meantime, we would be very grateful for feedback. What might we be overlooking? Would you use such an app if it were available? Where can we find reliable statistics on top backpacker destinations and flows?


See also: 

  • What United Airlines can Teach the World Bank about Mobile Accountability [Link]

Social Media: Pulse of the Planet?

In 2010, Hillary Clinton described social media as a new nervous system for our planet (1). So can the pulse of the planet be captured with social media? There are many who are skeptical not least because of the digital divide. “You mean the pulse of the Data Have’s? The pulse of the affluent?” These rhetorical questions are perfectly justified, which is why social media alone should not be the sole source of information that feeds into decision-making for policy purposes. But millions are joining the social media ecosystem everyday. So the selection bias is not increasing but decreasing. We may not be able to capture the pulse of the planet comprehensively and at a very high resolution yet, but the pulse of the majority world is certainly growing louder by the day.


This map of the world at night (based on 2011 data) reveals areas powered by electricity. Yes, Africa has far less electricity consumption. This is not misleading, it is an accurate proxy for industrial development (amongst other indexes). Does this data suffer from selection bias? Yes, the data is biased towards larger cities rather than the long tail. Does this render the data and map useless? Hardly. It all depends on what the question is.

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What if our world was lit up by information instead of lightbulbs? The map above from TweetPing does just that. The website displays tweets in real-time as they’re posted across the world. Strictly speaking, the platform displays 10% of the ~340 million tweets posted each day (i.e., the “Decahose” rather than the “Firehose”). But the volume and velocity of the pulsing ten percent is already breathtaking.

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One may think this picture depicts electricity use in Europe. Instead, this is a map of geo-located tweets (blue dots) and Flickr pictures (red dots). “White dots are locations that have been posted to both” (2). The number of active Twitter users grew an astounding 40% in 2012, making Twitter the fastest growing social network on the planet. Over 20% of the world’s internet population is now on Twitter (3). The Sightsmap below is a heat map based on the number of photographs submitted to Panoramio at different locations.

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The map below depicts friendship ties on Facebook. This was generated using data when there were “only” 500 million users compared to today’s 1 billion+.


The following map does not depict electricity use in the US or the distribution of the population based on the most recent census data. Instead, this is a map of check-in’s on Foursquare. What makes this map so powerful is not only that it was generated using 500 million check-in’s but that “all those check-ins you see aren’t just single points—they’re links between all the other places people have been.”


TwitterBeat takes the (emotional) pulse of the planet by visualizing the Twitter Decahose in real-time using sentiment analysis. The crisis map in the YouTube video below comprises all tweets about Hurricane Sandy over time. “[Y]ou can see how the whole country lights up and how tweets don’t just move linearly up the coast as the storm progresses, capturing the advance impact of such a large storm and its peripheral effects across the country” (4).

These social media maps don’t only “work” at the country level or for Western industrialized states. Take the following map of Jakarta made almost exclusively from geo-tagged tweets. You can see the individual roads and arteries (nervous system). Granted, this map works so well because of the horrendous traffic but nevertheless a pattern emerges, one that is strongly correlated to the Jakarta’s road network. And unlike the map of the world at night, we can capture this pulse in real time and at a fraction of the cost.


Like any young nervous system, our social media system is still growing and evolving. But it is already adding value. The analysis of tweets predicts the flu better than the crunching of traditional data used by public health institutions, for example. And the analysis of tweets from Indonesia also revealed that Twitter data can be used to monitor food security in real-time.

The main problem I see about all this has much less to do with issues of selection bias and unrepresentative samples, etc. Far more problematic is the central-ization of this data and the fact that it is closed data. Yes, the above maps are public, but don’t be fooled, the underlying data is not. In their new study, “The Politics of Twitter Data,” Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess argue that the “owners” of social media data are the platform providers, not the end users. Yes, access to Twitter.com and Twitter’s API is free but end users are limited to downloading just a few thousand tweets per day. (For comparative purposes, more than 20 million tweets were posted during Hurricane Sandy). Getting access to more data can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. In other words, as Puschmann and Burgess note, “only corporate actors and regulators—who possess both the intellectual and financial resources to succeed in this race—can afford to participate,” which means “that the emerging data market will be shaped according to their interests.”

“Social Media: Pulse of the Planet?” Getting there, but only a few elite Doctors can take the full pulse in real-time.