Tag Archives: Ushahidi

Microtasking Advocacy and Humanitarian Response in Somalia

I’ve been working on bridging the gap between the technology innovation sector and the humanitarian & human rights communities for years now. One area that holds great promise is the use of microtasking for advocacy and humanitarian response. So I’d like to share two projects I’m spearheading with the support of several key colleagues. I hope these pilot projects will further demonstrate the value of mainstreaming microtasking. Both initiatives are focused on Somalia.

The first pilot project plans to leverage Souktel‘s large SMS subscriber base in Somalia to render local Somali voices and opinions more visibile in the mainstream media. This initiative combines the efforts of a Somali celebrity, members of the Somali Diaspora, a major international news organization, Ushahidi and CrowdFlower. In order to translate, categorize and geolocate incoming text messages, I reached out to my colleagues at CrowdFlower, a San Francisco-based company specializing in microtasking.

I had catalyzed a partnership with Crowdflower during the PakReport deploy-ment last year and wanted to repeat this successful collaboration for Somalia. To my delight, the team at Crowdflower was equally interested in contri-buting to this initiative. So we’ve started to customize a Crowdflower plugin for Somalia. This interface will allow members of the Somali Diaspora to use a web-based platform to translate, categorize and geolocate incoming SMS’s from the Horn of Africa. The text messages processed by the Diaspora will then be published on a public Ushahidi map.

Our international media partner will help promote this initiative and invite comments in response to the content shared via SMS. The media group will then select the most compelling replies and share these (via SMS) with the authors of the original text messages in Somalia.  The purpose of this project is to catalyze more media and world attention on Somalia, which is slowly slipping from the news. We hope that the content and resulting interaction will generate the kind of near real-time information that advocacy groups and the Diaspora can leverage in their lobbying efforts.

The second pilot project is a partnership between the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), UNHCR, DigitalGlobe and Tomnod. The purpose of this project, is to build on this earlier trial run and microtask the tagging of informal shelters in a certain region of the country to identify where IDPs are located and also esti-mate the total IDP population size. The microtasking part of this project is possible thanks to the Tomnod platform, which I’ve already blogged about in the context of this recent Syria project. The project will use a more specialized rule-set and feature-key developed with UNHCR to maximize data quality.

We are also partnering with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) on this UNCHR project. The JRC team will run their automated shelter-detection algorithms on the same set of satellite images. The goal is to compare and triangulate crowdsource methods with automated approaches to satellite imagery analysis.

There are several advantages to using microtasking solutions for advocacy and humanitarian purposes. The first is that the tasks can easily be streamlined and distributed far and wide. Secondly, this approach to microtasking is highly scalable, rapid and easily modifiable. Finally, microtasking allows for quality control via triangulation, accountability and statistical analysis. For example, only when two volunteers translate an incoming text message from Somalia in a similar way does that text message get pushed to an Ushahidi map of local Somali voices. The same kind of triangulation can be applied to the categorization and geolocation of text messages, and indeed shelters in satellite imagery.

Microtasking is no silver bullet for advocacy and humanitarian response. But it is an important new tool in the tool box that can provide substantial support in times of crisis, especially when leveraged with other traditional approaches. I really hope the two projects described above take off. In the meantime, feel free to browse through my earlier blog posts below for further information on related applications of microtasking:

·  Combining Crowdsourced Satellite Imagery Analysis with Crisis Reporting
·  OpenStreetMap’s Microtasking Platform for Satellite Imagery Tracing
·  Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia
· Crowdsourcing the Analysis of Satellite Imagery for Disaster Response
· Wanted for Pakistan: A Turksourcing Plugin for Crisis Mapping
· Using Massive Multiplayer Games to Turksource Crisis Information
· From Netsourcing to Crowdsourcing to Turksourcing Crisis Information
· Using Mechanical Turk to Crowdsource Humanitarian Response

The Role of Facebook in Disaster Response

I recently met up with some Facebook colleagues to discuss the role that they and their platform might play in disaster response. So I thought I’d share some thoughts that come up during the conversation seeing as I’ve been thinking about this topic with a number of other colleagues for a while. I’m also very interested to hear any ideas and suggestions that iRevolution readers may have on this.

There’s no doubt that Facebook can—and already does—play an important role in disaster response. In Haiti, a colleague used Facebook to recruit hundreds of Creole speaking volunteers to translate tens of thousands of text messages into English as part of our Ushahidi-Haiti crisis mapping efforts. When an earth-quake struck New Zealand earlier this year, thousands of students organized their response via a Facebook group and also used the platform’s check-in’s feature to alert others in their social network that they were alright.

But how else might Facebook be used? The Haiti example demonstrates that the ability to rapidly recruit large numbers of volunteers is really key. So Facebook could create a dedicated landing page when a crisis unfolds, much like Google does. This landing page could then be used to recruit thousands of new volunteers for live crisis mapping operations in support of humanitarian organizations (for example). The landing page could spotlight a number of major projects that new volunteers could join, such as the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) or perhaps highlight the deployment of an Ushahidi platform for a particular crisis.

The use of Facebook to recruit volunteers presents several advantages, the most important ones being identity and scale. When we recruited hundreds of new volunteers for the Libya Crisis Map in support of the UN’s humanitarian response, we had to vet and verify each and every single one of them twice to ensure they were who they really said they were. This took hours, which wouldn’t be the case using Facebook. If we could set up a way for Facebook users to sign into an Ushahidi platform directly from their Facebook account, this too would save many hours of tedious work—a nice idea that my colleague Jaroslav Valuch suggested. See Facebook Connect, for example.

Facebook also operates at a scale of more than half-a-billion people, which has major “Cognitive Surplus” potential. We could leverage Facebook’s ad services as well—a good point made one Facebook colleague (and also Jon Gosier in an earlier conversation). That way, Facebook users would receive targeted adds on how they could volunteer based on their existing profiles.

So there’s huge potential, but like much else in the ICT-for-you-name-it space, you first have to focus on people, then process and then the technology. In other words, what we need to do first is establish a relationship with Facebook and decide on the messaging and the process by which volunteers on Facebook would join a volunteer network like the Standby Volunteer Task Force and help out on an Ushahidi map, for example.

Absorbing several hundred or thousands of new volunteers is no easy task but as long as we have a simple and efficient micro-tasking system via Facebook, we should be able to absorb this surge. Perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could take the lead on that, i.e, create a a simple interface allowing groups like the Task Force to farm out all kinds of micro-tasks, much like Crowdflower, which already embeds micro-tasks in Facebook. Indeed, we worked with Crowdflower during the floods in Pakistan to create this micro-tasking app for volunteers.

As my colleague Jaroslav also noted, this Mechanical Turk approach would allow these organizations to evaluate the performance of their volunteers on particular tasks. I would add to this some gaming dynamics to provide incentives and rewards for volunteering, as I blogged about here. Having a public score board based on the number of tasks completed by each volunteer would be just one idea. One could add badges, stickers, banners, etc., to your Facebook profile page as you complete tasks. And yes, the next question would be: how do we create the Farmville of disaster response?

On the Ushahidi end, it would also be good to create a Facebook app for Ushahidi so that users could simply map from their own Facebook page rather than open up  another browser to map critical information. As one Facebook colleague also noted, friends could then easily invite others to help map a crisis via Facebook. Indeed, this social effect could be most powerful reason to develop an Ushahidi Facebook app. As you submit a report on a map, this could be shared as a status update, for example, inviting your friends to join the cause. This could help crisis mapping go viral across your own social network—an effect that was particularly important in launching the Ushahidi-Haiti project.

As a side note, there is an Ushahidi plugin for Facebook that allows content posted on a wall to be directly pushed to the Ushahidi backend for mapping. But perhaps our colleagues at Facebook could help us add more features to this existing plugin to make it even more useful, such add integrating Facebook Connect, as noted earlier.

In sum, there are some low hanging fruits and quick wins that a few weeks of collaboration with Facebook could yield. These quick wins could make a really significant impact even if they sound (and are) rather simple. For me, the most exciting of these is the development of a Facebook app for Ushahidi.

New Publications on Haiti, Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping

Two new publications that may be of interest to iRevolution readers:

MIT’s Journal, Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization just released a special edition focused on Haiti which includes lead articles by President Bill Clinton and Digicel’s CEO Denis O’Brien. My colleague Ida Norheim-Hagtun and I were invited to contribute the following piece: Crowdsourcing for Crisis Mapping in Haiti. The edition also includes articles by Mark Summer from Inveneo and my colleague Josh Nesbit from Medic:Mobile.

The SAIS Review of International Affairs recently published a special edition on the cyber challenge threats and opportunities in a networked world, which includes an opening article on Internet Freedom by Alec Ross. My colleague Robert Munro and I were invited to submit write the following piece: The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response, which focuses specifically on Haiti. Colleagues from Havard University’s Berkman Center also had a piece on Political Change in the Digital Age, which I reviewed here.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like copies of the articles on Haiti. In the meantime, here is a must-read for everyone working in Haiti: “Foreign Friends, Leave January 12th to Haitians.”

The Crowd is Always There: A Marketplace for Crowdsourcing Crisis Response

This blog post is based on the recent presentation I gave at the Emergency Social Data Summit organized by the Red Cross this week. The title of my talk was “Collaborative Crisis Mapping” and the slides are available here.

What I want to expand on is the notion of a “marketplace for crowdsourcing” that I introduced at the Summit. The idea stems from my experience in the field of conflict early warning, the Ushahidi-Haiti deployment and my observations of the Ushahidi-DC and Ushahidi-Russia initiatives.

The crowd is always there. Paid Search & Rescue (SAR) teams and salaried emergency responders aren’t. Nor can they be on the corners of every street, whether that’s in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Washington DC or Sukkur, Pakistan. But the real first responders, the disaster affected communities, are always there. Moreover, not all communities are equally affected by a crisis. The challenge is to link those who are most affected with those who are less affected (at least until external help arrives).

This is precisely what PIC Net and the Washington Post did when they  partnered to deploy this Ushahidi platform in response to the massive snow storm that paralyzed Washington DC earlier this year. They provided a way for affected residents to map their needs and for those less affected to map the resources they could share to help others. You don’t need to be a professional disaster response professional to help your neighbor dig out their car.

More recently, friends at Global Voices launched the most ambitious crowdsourcing initiative in Russia in response to the massive forest fires. But they didn’t use this Ushahidi platform to map the fires. Instead, they customized the public map so that those who needed help could find those who wanted to help. In effect, they created an online market place to crowdsource crisis response. You don’t need professional certification in disaster response to drive someone’s grandparents to the next town over.

There’s a lot that disaster affected populations can (and already do) to help each other out in times of crisis. What may help is to combine the crowdsourcing of crisis information with what I call crowdfeeding in order to create an efficient market place for crowdsourcing response. By crowdfeeding, I mean taking crowdsourced information and feeding it right back to the crowd. Surely they need that information as much if not more than external, paid responders who won’t get to the scene for hours or days.

We talk about top-down and bottom-up approaches. Crowdfeeding is a “bottom-bottom” approach; horizontal, meshed communication for local rapid response. Information of the crowd, by the crowd and for the crowd. For the marketplace to work at the technical level, users should easily be able to map their needs or map the resources they have to help others. They should be able to do this via webform, SMS, Twitter, smart phone apps, phone call, etc.

But users shouldn’t have to keep looking back at the map to check whether anyone has posted offers to help in their area, or vice versa. They should get an automated email and/or text message when a potential match is found. The matching should be done by a simple algorithm, a Match.com for crowdsourcing crisis response. (Just like online dating, users should take appropriate precautions when contacting their match). On a practical level, this marketplace will work best if it draws many traders. That’s why the data should be easily shared across platforms.

During the Summit, the Red Cross presented findings from this study which revealed that 75% of people now expect an almost-immediate response after posting a call for help on a social media platform during a disaster. The Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations are particularly troubled by this figure. They shouldn’t be. As the Head of FEMA noted at the summit, it is high time that crisis response organizations start viewing the public as part of the team. One way to make them part of the team is to create an open marketplace for crowdsourcing crisis response.

Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?

Professor Larry Diamond, one of my dissertation advisers, recently published a piece on “Liberation Technology” (PDF) in the Journal of Democracy in which he cites Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS amongst other tools. Is Ushahidi really a liberation technology?

Larry recently set up the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University together with colleagues Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd to catalyze more rigorous, applied research on the role of technology in repressive environments—both in terms of liberation and repression. This explains why I’ll be joining the group as a Visiting Fellow this year. The program focuses on the core questions I’m exploring in my dissertation research and ties in technologies like Ushahidi which I’m directly working on.

What is Liberation Technology? Larry defines this technology as,

“… any form of information and communication technology (ICT) that can expand political, social, and economic freedom. In the contemporary era, it means essentially the modern, interrelated forms of digital ICT—the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone, and countless innovative applications for them, including “new social media” such as Facebook and Twitter.”

As is perfectly well known, however, technology can also be used to repress. This should not be breaking news. Liberation Technology vs Digital Repression. My dissertation describes this competition as an arms-race, a cyber game of cat-and-mouse. But the technology variable is not the most critical piece, as I argue in this recent Newsweek article:

“The technology variable doesn’t matter the most,” says Patrick Meier […] “It is the organizational structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.”

As Larry writes,

“Democrats and autocrats now compete to master these technologies. Ultimately, however, not just technology but political organization and strategy and deep-rooted normative, social, and economic forces will determine who ‘wins’ the race.”

That is precisely the hypothesis I am testing in my dissertation research. As the Newsweek article put it,

“The only way to stay ahead in this cyberwar, though, is to play offense, not defense. ‘If it is a cat-and-mouse game,’ says Meier of Ushahidi, ‘by definition, the cat will adopt the mouse’s technology, and vice versa.’ His view is that activists will have to get better at adopting some of the same tactics states use. Just as authoritarian governments try to block Voice of America broadcasts, so protest movements could use newer technology to jam state propaganda on radio or TV.”

Larry rightly notes that,

“In the end, technology is merely a tool, open to both noble and nefarious purposes. Just as radio and TV could be vehicles of information pluralism and rational debate, so they could also be commandeered by totalitarian regimes for fanatical mobilization and total state control. Authoritarian states could commandeer digital ICT to a similar effect. Yet to the extent that innovative citizens can improve and better use these tools, they can bring authoritarianism down—as in several cases they have.”

A bold statement for sure. But as Larry recognizes, it is particularly challenging to disentangle political, social and technology factors. This is why more empirical research is needed in this space which is largely limited to qualitative case-studies. We need to bring mixed-methods research to the study of digital activism in repressive environments. This is why I’m part of the Meta-Activism Project (MAP) and why I’m particularly excited to be collaborating on the development of a Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS).

Larry writes that Liberation Technology is also “Accountability Technology” in that “it provides efficient and powerful tools for transparency and monitoring.” This is where he describes the FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi platforms. In some respects, these tools have already served as liberation technologies. The question is, will innovative citizens improve these tools and use them more effectively to be able to bring down dictators? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Think You Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again

Ushahidi is the name of both the organization (Ushahidi Inc) and the platform. This understandably leads to some confusion. So let me elaborate on both.

Ushahidi the platform is a piece of software, not a methodology. The Ushahidi platform allows users to map information of interest to them. I like to think of it as democratizing map making in the style of neogeography. How users choose to collect the information they map is where methodology comes in. Users themselves select which methodology they want to use, such as representative sampling, crowdsourcing, etc. In other words, Ushahidi is not exclusively a platform for crowdsourcing. Nor is Ushahidi restricted to mapping crisis information. A wide range of events can be mapped using the platform. Non-events can also be mapped, such as football stadiums, etc.

The platform versus methodology distinction is significant. Why? Because new users often don’t realize that they themselves need to think through which methodology they should use to collect information. Furthermore, once they’ve chosen the methodology, they need to set up the appropriate tools to collect information using that methodology, and then collect.

For example, if a user wants to collect election data using representative sampling, they will need to ensure that they select a sample of polling stations that are likely to be representative of the overall population in terms of voting behavior. They will then need to decide whether they want to use SMS, email, phone calls, etc., to relay that information. Next, they’ll want to hire trusted monitors and train them on what and how to report. But none of this has anything to do with Ushahidi the platform.

Here’s an analogy: Microsoft Word won’t tell me what methodology to use if I want to write a paper on the future of technology. That is up to me, the author, to decide. If I don’t have any training in research methods and design, then I need to get up to speed independently. MS Word won’t provide me with insights on research methods. MS Word is just the platform. Coming back to Ushahidi, if an organization does not have adequate expertise, staff, capacity, time and resources to deploy Ushahidi, that is not the fault of the platform.

In many ways, the use of Ushahidi will only be as good as the organization or persons using the tool.

Ushahidi is only 10% of the solution (graphic by Chris Blow)

As my colleague Ory aptly cautioned: “Don’t get too jazzed up about Ushahidi. It is only 10% of the solution.” The other 90% is up to the organization using the platform. If they don’t have their act together, the Ushahidi platform won’t change that. If they do and successfully deploy the Ushahidi platform, then at least 90% of the credit goes to them.

Ushahidi the organization is a non-profit tech company. The group is not a humanitarian organization. We do not take the lead in deployments. In the case of Haiti, I launched the Ushahidi platform at The Fletcher School (where I am a PhD student) and where graduate students (not Ushahidi employees) created a “live” map of the disaster for several weeks. The Ushahidi tech team provided invaluable technical support around the clock during those weeks. It was thus a partnership led by The Fletcher Team.

We do not have a comparative advantage in deploying platforms and our core mission is to continue developing the Ushahidi platform. On occasion, we partner on select projects but do not take the lead on these projects. Why do we partner at all? Because we are required to diversify our business model as part of the grant we received from the Omidyar Network. And I think that’s a good idea.

Patrick Philippe Meier

How to Run a Successful Crowdsourcing Project

My colleague Ankit Sharma at the London School of Economics (LSE) recently sent me his research paper entitled “Crowdsourcing Critical Success Factor Model” (PDF). It’s definitely worth a read. Ankit is interested in better understanding the “dynamic and innovative discipline of crowdsourcing by developing a critical success factor model for it.” He focuses specifically on mobile crowdsourcing and does a great job unpacking the term.

Ankit first reviews four crowdsourcing projects to inform the development of his critical success model: txtEagle, Ushahidi, Peer Water Exchange and mCollect. He then notes the crucial difference between outsourcing and crowdsourcing. The latter’s success is dependent on the scale of crowd participation. This means that incentives need to tailored to recruit the most effective collaborators while “the motive of the crowd needs to be aligned with the long term objective of the crowdsourcing initiative.” To this end, Ankit defines successful crowdsourcing in terms of participation.

Ensuring participation requires that the motives of the of the crowd be directly aligned with the long term objectives of the crowdsourcing initiative. “Additionally, to promote participation the users must use and accept the technology of crowdsourcing.” Ankit draws on Heeks and Nicholson (2004), Carmel (2003) and Farrell (2006) to develop the following model.

The five peripheral factors above “affect the motive alignment of the crowd which is the prime determinant of success of the crowdsourcing initiative. It is assumed to directly affect user participation. The success of the initiative is expected to bring in more participation. Hence, the relationship between motive alignment and crowdsourcing success is bidirectional in the model.”

  • Vision and Strategy: “The coherence of the initiative’s vision and strategy with the aspirations of the crowd ensures that the crowd is willing to participate in it.”
  • Human Capital: The skills and abilities that the crowd possesses is a determinant of successful crowdsourcing. The more skillful and able the crowd is, “the less effort required by the crowd to make a meaningful contribution to the initiative.”
  • Infrastructure: “Crowdsourcing requires abundant, reliable and cheap telephone or mobile access for its communication needs in order to ensure participation of the crowd.”
  • Linkages and Trust: Crowdsourcing initiatives all involve a time or information cost for the crowd, which is why developing the trust factor is critical. Proper linkages can also “add a substantial trust aspect to the crowdsourcing initiative.”
  • External environment: “The macroeconomic environment comprising of the governance support, business environment, economic environment, living environment and risk profiles are important determinants of the success of the crowdsourcing initiative.”
  • Motive alignment: “Motive alignment of the crowd may be defined as the extent to which crowd is able to associate with long term objective of crowdsourcing initiative thereby encouraging its wider participation.” The table below explains how the peripheral factors effect the motive alignment of the crowd.”

Ankit applies his matrix to the four case studies cited earlier. This yields the following summary:

Based on this analysis, Ankit argues that for crowdsourcing projects to succeed it is “critical that the crowd is viewed as a partner in the initiative. The needs, aspirations, motivations and incentives of the crowd to participate in the initiative must remain the most important consideration while developing the crowdsourcing initiative. The practitioners must understand the crowd motivation and align their goals according to it.” In an ideal scenario, Ankit notes that technology must be “optimally usable” without the need to provide training and assistance. Successful crowdsourcing initiatives also require an “aggressive marketing and public relations plan.”

The main question I look forward to discussing with Ankit is this: what level of crowd participation is sufficient for a crowdsourcing initiative to be deemed successful? Should this be a percentage? e.g., the % of a given population participating in the crowdsourcing project. Or should the number be an absolute number? This is not an academic question. Who decides whether a crowdsourcing project is successful and based on what grounds?

Patrick Philippe Meier

My TEDx Talk: From Photosynth to ALLsynth

I just gave a TEDx talk and my presentation played off a recent blog post of mine entitled “Wag The Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Information can be a Pain.” I introduced some new ideas and angles to the topic so here is basically a blog post version of the presentation.

We all know that open crowdsourcing platforms are susceptible to information vandalism, i.e., false information deliberately used to mislead. For example, if an Ushahidi platform were used in Iran, the government there could start reporting events to Ushahidi that never happened; perhaps events that suggest protesters attacked first and that riot police were just acting in self defense. But, I’m going to argue that falsifying crowdsourced information can actually be a pain. And I’m going to use the analogy of “Wag the Dog” to explain why. If you haven’t watched the movie, the story is based on a White House Administration that pretends a war has broken out in Albania to divert public opinion and hopefully increase the President’s ratings prior to re-election.

Here’s a 30 second highlight on how they created a fake war:

In a way, Wag the Dog already happened for real. Except the story was called “The War of the Worlds” and it was played as a radio broadcast in 1938. “War of the Worlds” is drama about a Martian invasion of Earth. What was particularly fun about this radio broadcast was that the first 2/3 of the 1-hr long story was just a series of simulated news bulletins. And the story ran uninterrupted, ie, without commercials. So many radio listeners in the US freaked out, thinking a real invasion was taking place!

The panic this caused even made it on the front page of the New York Times! Clearly, pulling of a Wag-the-Dog in the 1930s was a piece of cake!

And that’s because the information ecosystem looked something like this in the 1930s. Largely disconnected and broadcast only, ie, one-to-many. Can anyone point out an important node that should be included in this ecosystem? That’s right, the newspaper. But the paper would not have been printed at the speed that the radio broadcast was taking place to help counter fears; unlike today, of course, thanks to online news.

Today’s information ecosystem obviously looks little different. Many-to-many, peer-to-peer, 2-way, real-time information and communication technologies. Now, we might argue that this kind of ecosystem makes it easier for repressive regimes to game since the system is closely integrated and interoperable, which means information can propagate very quickly. Secretary Clinton recently called our information ecosystem the new nervous system of the planet. But then again, these diverse sources of user-generated content could also make it easier to triangulate and filter out false information.

For example, in the case of Iran, the high volume of pictures and videos posted on Flickr and YouTube made it rather difficult for the government to claim nothing was happening. Information blockades are likely to join the Berlin Walls of history. Today, you can get pictures of the same incident from three different camera phones, in addition to tweets and text messages, etc.

This is what Ushahidi is about, aggregating crisis information across different media and mapping that information in near real time to improve transparency, accountability and coordination.

Take the Ushahidi-Haiti map, for example. Crowdsourcing crisis information on Haiti allowed us to map several thousand incidents over just a few weeks, which actually saved lives on the ground. The incidents we mapped came from a myriad of sources: thousands of text messages directly from Haiti, hundreds of Tweets, information from Facebook Groups, online media, live Skype chats with the Search and Rescue Teams in Port-au-Prince, list serves, radio, you name it. Volunteers at The Fletcher School mapped this information in near real-time for several weeks and first responders used the map to save lives.

Check out this animation of the events unfolding from just a few hours after the quake.

What you see are events “overlapping” and clustering, ie, on several occasions we get two or more text messages from different numbers reporting the same event. And then a Tweet with similar information, for example. The crowdsourcing of crisis information allows us to triangulate and validate information thanks to the reporting coming from a myriad of sources in near real-time. This would hardly have been possible in the 1930s, which is what prompted my colleague Anand at the New York Times to write an article on our work and ask,

They say that history is written by the winners, will future history be written by the crowd?

Ushahidi’s crowded map of Haiti reminded me of Photosynth. Taking hundreds crowdsourced pictures and “stitching” them together to reproduce historical monuments. In 3D no less!

Here’s a quick 20 second video demo:

So the question is, can Ushahidi become the “ALLsynth” by stitching together crowdsourced crisis information across many different types of media? Ushahidi platforms have been deployed hundreds of times across the world. Here are just four examples.

From mapping the Swine Flu outbreak to reporting on the war in Gaza, to citizen-powered election monitoring in India and disaster response in the Philippines. Would stitching together these hundreds of platforms amount to creating an ALLsynth? What would it take to game an ALLsynth?

As I mentioned in my Wag the Dog post, perhaps some of the following:

  • Dozens of pictures from as many different camera phones of an event that never happened.
  • Text messages using different wording to describe an event that never happened.
  • Tweets (not retweets!).
  • Fake blog posts, Facebook groups and Wikipedia entries.
  • Fake video footage. Heck, you’d probably want to hack the international media and plant a fake article in the New York Times home page.
  • If you really want to go all out, you’d want to get hundreds of (paid?) actors like in The Truman Show.
  • You’d likely want to cordon off an entire area of the city or city outskirts.
  • Then you’d want to choreograph a few fight scenes with these actors.
  • A few rehearsals would probably be in order too.
  • Oh and of course props, plus lots of ketchup if you want things to look like they went badly.

In other words, you’d probably want to move to Hollywood to fabricate all this… That said, there’s another way that repressive regimes could deal with an unwanted Ushahidi platform, like this one being used by Sudanese civil society groups in the Sudan to monitor the elections currently taking place. We found out yesterday from our Sudanese colleagues that the site was no longer accessible in the Sudan (see official press release here in PDF). Blocking and censoring websites is really easy for governments to do, and we expected that Sudan would be no different.

So our Sudanese colleagues have been working with their tech-savvy friends to circumvent the censorship and continue mapping election irregularities—this is my applied dissertation research in action, I just never thought that my own actions would influence the data.  They set up a mirror site under an different domain name. This may become a cyber-game-of-cat-and-mouse, there is plenty of precedents for this: civil society finds a loophole, which is then blocked by the state, which prompts the search for another loophole, etc, etc. I expect that repressive regimes may eventually give up on blocking websites given the likely futility. Instead, they may try to game the platforms by falsifying crowdsourced information.

But as I have just argued, falsifying crowdsourced information can be a pain. So if repressive regimes start pouring money into their domestic film industries, particularly in blue screen technology, you’ll know why, and this is what you can expect to happen next:

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Rise of CrisisMapping and the CrisisMappers Group

My colleague Jennifer Leaning and I co-founded the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early (CM&EW) at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) back in June 2007. At the time, the term “Crisis Mapping” was virtually unheard of. In January 2008, Ushahidi demonstrated how crisis mapping could be combined with crowdsourcing and SMS.

In October 2009, my colleague Jen Ziemke and I launched the International Network of CrisisMappers with a dedicated Crisis Mappers Google Group, which currently has over 700 subscribers. Jen and I also co-organized the  first International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) last year and are now preparing for ICCM 2010, which will focus on Haiti and Beyond. Over 30 online videos on Crisis Mapping have also been produced and we recently launched a dedicated monthly WebCast series on CrisisMapping as well.

On January 21, 2010, I attended a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which she noted the pivotal role of interactive maps and SMS in the disaster response to Haiti. In her own words:

“The technology community has set up interactive maps to help us identify needs and target resources. And on Monday, a seven-year-old girl and two women were pulled from the rubble of a collapsed supermarket by an American search-and-rescue team after they sent a text message calling for help. Now, these examples are manifestations of a much broader phenomenon. The spread of information networks is forming a new nervous system for our planet.”

The CrisisMappers community played an instrumental role in the disaster response to Haiti. The interactive maps that Clinton refers to  include OpenStreetMap, Sahana, Telescience and Ushahidi. I like this idea of a new nervous system and hope the CrisisMappers community can continue growing this nervous system to ensure more rapid responses to crises. The term “crisis mapping” is at least beginning to make the rounds.

A Google search of “crisis mapping” in October 2009 returned 36,500 hits. Today, 5 months later, the search returns “123,000” hits.  During this time, Crisis Mapping initiatives have been written about and featured on CNN, ABC News, MSNBC, BBC, Reuters, UK Guardian, Al-Jazeera, NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Newsweek, the Globe and Mail, Wired, NewScientist, PC World, DiscoveryNews, Forbes Magazine and the TED Blog.

Several members of the CrisisMappers Group are currently preparing to present their projects at this year’s Where 2.0 Conference:

  • Haiti: Crisis Mapping the Earthquake –> link
  • Crowdsourcing the Impossible: Ushahidi-Haiti –> link
  • Community-Based Grassroots Mapping –> link
  • Mobilizing Ushahidi-Haiti  –> link
  • Crisis Mapping –> link
  • MapKibera –> link

I very much look forward to ICCM 2010 as I’m very curious to discuss what the next generation of crisis mapping technologies and applications will bring.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Ushahidi & The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response

What if we could communicate with disaster affected communities in real-time just days after a major disaster like the quake in Haiti? That is exactly what happened thanks to a partnership between the Emergency Information Service (EIS), InSTEDD, Ushahidi, Haitian Telcos and the US State Department. Just 4 days after the earthquake, Haitians could text their location and urgent needs to “4636” for free.

I will focus primarily on the way that Ushahidi used 4636. Since the majority of incoming text messages were in Creole, we needed a translation service. My colleague Brian Herbert from Ushahidi and Robert Munro of Energy for Opportunity thus built a dedicated interface for crowdsourcing this step and reached out to dozens of Haitian communities groups to aid in the translation, categorization and geo-location of every message, quickly mobilizing 100s of motivated and dedicated volunteers. So not only was Ushahidi crowdsourcing crisis information in near real-time but also crowdsourcing translation in near real-time.

Text messages are translated into English just minutes after they leave a mobile phone in Haiti. The translated messages then appear directly on the Ushahidi platform. The screenshots below (click on graphics to enlarge) illustrates how the process works. The original SMS in Creole (or French) is displayed in the header. In order to view the translation, one simply clicks on “Read More”.

Ushahidi Back End

Incoming Text Messages

If further information is required, then one can reply to the sender of the text message directly from the Ushahidi platform. This is an important feature for several reasons. First, this allows for two-way communication with disaster affected communities. Second, an important number of messages we received were not actionable because of insufficient location information. The reply feature allowed us to get more precise information.

The screenshots below show how the “Send Reply” feature works. We weren’t sure if Universite Wayal was the same as Royal University. So we replied and asked for more location information. Note the preset replies in both English and Creole. The presets include thanks & requests for more location information, for example. Of course, one is not limited to these presets. Any text can be typed in and sent back to the sender of the original SMS. This feature has been part of the Ushahidi for almost two years now. We send off the request for more information and receive the following reply within minutes.

Preset Replies

When we receive an urgent and actionable SMS like this one, we can immediately create a report. By actionable, we mean there is sufficient location information and the description of the need is specific enough to respond to, just like the example above.

Creating a Report

First, the GPS coordinates for the location is identified. This can be done directly from the Ushahidi platform by entering the street address or town name. Sometimes a bit of detective work is needed to pinpoint the exact coordinates. Next, a title and description for the report is included–the latter usually comprising the text of the SMS. This is what we mean by structured information. The report is then tagged based on the category framework. Pictures can be uploaded with the report, and links to videos can also be included. Finally the report is saved and then approved for publication.

This is how the Ushahidi-Haiti @ Tufts team mapped 1,500+ text messages on the Ushahidi platform. We are now working with Samasource and Crowdflower to have the translation work serve as a source of income for Haitians inside Haiti. But how does all this connect to response?

Ushahidi’s “Get Alerts” feature is one of my favorite because it allows responders themselves to customize the specific type of actionable information that is important to them; i.e., demand driven situational awareness in near real-time. Not only can responders elect to receive automated alerts via email, but they can also do so via SMS. Responders can also specify their geographic area of interest.

Subscribe to Alerts

For example, if a relief worker from the Red Cross has a field office in neighborhood of Delmas, they can subscribe to Ushahidi to receive information on all reports originating from their immediate vicinity by specifying a radius, as shown below.

Selecting Area of Interest

The above Alerts feature is now being upgraded to the one depicted below, which was designed by my colleague Caleb Bell from Ushahidi. Not only are responders able to specify their geographic area of interest, but they can also select the type of alert (e.g., collapsed building, food shortage, looting, etc.) they want to receive. They can even add key words of interest to them, such as “water”, “violence” or “UN”. The goal is to provide responders with an unprecedented degree of customization to ensure they receive exactly the kind of alerts that they can respond to.

Highly Customized Alerts

On a more “macro” level, I recently reached out to colleagues at the EC’s Joint Research Center (JRC) to leverage their automated sentiment (“mood”) analysis platform. Sentiment Analysis is a branch of natural language processing (NLP) that seeks to quantify positive vs negative perceptions; akin to “tone” analysis. I suggested that we use their platform on the incoming text messages from Haiti to get a general sense of changing mood on an hourly basis. I’ll blog about the results shortly. In the meantime, here’s a previous blog post on the use of Sentiment Analysis for early warning.

Patrick Philippe Meier