Tag Archives: Volunteers

Code of Conduct: Cyber Crowdsourcing for Good

There is currently no unified code of conduct for digital crowdsourcing efforts in the development, humanitarian or human rights space. As such, we propose the following principles (displayed below) as a way to catalyze a conversation on these issues and to improve and/or expand this Code of Conduct as appropriate.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 5.22.21 PM

This initial draft was put together by Kate ChapmanBrooke Simons and myself. The link above points to this open, editable Google Doc. So please feel free to contribute your thoughts by inserting comments where appropriate. Thank you.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project must:

  • Provide clear volunteer guidelines on how to participate in the project so that volunteers are able to contribute meaningfully.
  • Test their crowdsourcing platform prior to any project or pilot to ensure that the system will not crash due to obvious bugs.
  • Disclose the purpose of the project, exactly which entities will be using and/or have access to the resulting data, to what end exactly, over what period of time and what the expected impact of the project is likely to be.
  • Disclose whether volunteer contributions to the project will or may be used as training data in subsequent machine learning research.
  • Not ask volunteers to carry out any illegal tasks.
  • Explain any risks (direct and indirect) that may come with volunteer participation in a given project. To this end, carry out a risk assessment and produce corresponding risk mitigation strategies.
  • Clearly communicate if the results of volunteer tasks will or are likely to be sold to partners/clients.
  • Limit the level of duplication required (for data quality assurance) to a reasonable number based on previous research and experience. In sum, do not waste volunteers’ time and do not offer tasks that are not meaningful. When all tasks have been carried, inform volunteers accordingly.
  • Be fully transparent on the results of the project even if the results are poor or unusable.
  • Only launch a full-scale crowdsourcing project if they are not able to analyze the results and deliver the findings within a timeframe that provides added value to end-users of the data.

An organization that launches a digital crowdsourcing project should:

  • Share as much of the resulting data with volunteers as possible without violating data privacy or the principle of Do No Harm.
  • Enable volunteers to opt out of having their tasks contribute to subsequent machine learning research. Provide digital volunteers with the option of having their contributions withheld from subsequent machine learning studies.
  • Assess how many digital volunteers are likely to be needed for a project and recruit appropriately. Using additional volunteers just because they are available is not appropriate. Should recruitment nevertheless exceed need, adjust project to inform volunteers as soon as their inputs are no longer needed, and possibly give them options for redirecting their efforts.
  • Explain that the same crowdsourcing task (microtask) may/will be given to multiple digital volunteers for data control purposes. This often reassures volunteers who initially lack confidence when contributing to a project.

See also http://crowdsourcing-code.com

Early Results of MicroMappers Response to Typhoon Yolanda (Updated)

We have completed our digital humanitarian operation in the Philippines after five continuous days with MicroMappers. Many, many thanks to all volunteers from all around the world who donated their time by clicking on tweets and images coming from the Philippines. Our UN OCHA colleagues have confirmed that the results are being shared widely with their teams in the field and with other humanitarian organizations on the ground. More here.


In terms of preliminary figures (to be confirmed):

  • Tweets collected during first 48 hours of landfall = ~230,000
  • Tweets automatically filtered for relevancy/uniqueness = ~55,000
  • Tweets clicked using the TweetClicker = ~ 30,000
  • Relevant tweets triangulated using TweetClicker = ~3,800
  • Triangulated tweets published on live Crisis Map = ~600
  • Total clicks on TweetClicker = ~ 90,000
  • Images clicked using the ImageClicker = ~ 5,000
  • Relevant images triangulated using TweetClicker = ~1,200
  • Triangulated images published on live Crisis Map = ~180
  • Total clicks on ImageClicker = ~15,000
  • Total clicks on MicroMappers (Image + Tweet Clickers) = ~105,000

Since each single tweet and image uploaded to the Clickers was clicked on by (at least) three individual volunteers for quality control purposes, the number of clicks is three times the total number of tweets and images uploaded to the respective clickers. In sum, digital humanitarian volunteers have clocked a grand total of ~105,000 clicks to support humanitarian operations in the Philippines.

While the media has largely focused on the technology angle of our digital humanitarian operation, the human story is for me the more powerful message. This operation succeeded because people cared. Those ~105,000 clicks did not magically happen. Each and every single one of them was clocked by humans, not machines. At one point, we had over 300 digital volunteers from the world over clicking away at the same time on the TweetClicker and more than 200 on the ImageClicker. This kind of active engagement by total strangers—good “digital Samaritans”—explains why I find the human angle of this story to be the most inspiring outcome of MicroMappers. “Crowdsourcing” is just a new term for the old saying “it takes a village,” and sometimes it takes a digital village to support humanitarian efforts on the ground.

Until recently, when disasters struck in faraway lands, we would watch the news on television wishing we could somehow help. That private wish—that innate human emotion—would perhaps translate into a donation. Today, not only can you donate cash to support those affected by disasters, you can also donate a few minutes of your time to support the operational humanitarian response on the ground by simply clicking on MicroMappers. In other words, you can translate your private wish into direct, online public action, which in turn translates into supporting offline collective action in the disaster-affected areas.

Clicking is so simple that anyone with Internet access can help. We had high schoolers in Qatar clicking away, fire officers in Belgium, graduate students in Boston, a retired couple in Kenya and young Filipinos clicking away. They all cared and took the time to try and help others, often from thousands of miles away. That is the kind of world I want to live in. So if you share this vision, then feel free to join the MicroMapper list-serve.

Yolanda TweetClicker4

Considering that MicroMappers is still very much under development, we are all pleased with the results. There were of course many challenges; the most serious was the CrowdCrafting server which hosts our Clickers. Unfortunately, that server was not able to handle the load and traffic generated by digital volunteers. So their server crashed twice and also slowed our Clickers to a complete stop at least a dozen times during the past five days. At times, it would take 10-15 seconds for a new tweet or image to load, which was frustrating. We were also limited by the number of tweets and images we could upload at any given time, usually ~1,500 at most. Any larger load would seriously slow down the Clickers. So it is rather remarkable that digital volunteers managed to clock more than 100,000 clicks given the repeated interruptions. 

Besides the server issue, the other main bottleneck was the geo-location of the ~30,000 tweets and ~5,000 images tagged using the Clickers. We do have a Tweet and Image GeoClicker but these were not slated to launch until next week at CrisisMappers 2013, which meant they weren’t ready for prime time. We’ll be sure to launch them soon. Once they are operational, we’ll be able to automatically push triangulated tweets and images from the Tweet and Image Clickers directly to the corresponding GeoClickers so volunteers can also aid humanitarian organizations by mapping important tweets and images directly.

There’s a lot more that we’ve learned throughout the past 5 days and much room for improvement. We have a long list of excellent suggestions and feedback from volunteers and partners that we’ll be going through starting tomorrow. The most important next step is to get a more powerful server that can handle a lot more load and traffic. We’re already taking action on that. I have no doubt that our clicks would have doubled without the server constraints.

For now, though, BIG thanks to the SBTF Team and in particular Jus McKinnon, the QCRI et al team, in particular Ji Lucas, Hemant Purohit and Andrew Ilyas for putting in very, very long hours, day in and day out on top of their full-time jobs and studies. And finally, BIG thanks to the World Wide Crowd, to all you who cared enough to click and support the relief operations in the Philippines. You are the heroes of this story.


Digital Humanitarians: From Haiti Earthquake to Typhoon Yolanda

We’ve been able to process and make sense of a quarter of a million tweets in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. Using both AIDR (still under development) and Twitris, we were able to collect these tweets in real-time and use automated algorithms to filter for both relevancy and uniqueness. The resulting ~55,000 tweets were then uploaded to MicroMappers (still under development). Digital volunteers from the world over used this humanitarian technology platform to tag tweets and now images from the disaster (click image below to enlarge). At one point, volunteers tagged some 1,500 tweets in just 10 minutes. In parallel, we used machine learning classifiers to automatically identify tweets referring to both urgent needs and offers of help. In sum, the response to Typhoon Yolanda is the first to make full use of advanced computing, i.e., both human computing and machine computing to make sense of Big (Crisis) Data.

ImageClicker YolandaPH

We’ve come a long way since the tragic Haiti Earthquake. There was no way we would’ve been able to pull off the above with the Ushahidi platform. We weren’t able to keep up with even a few thousand tweets a day back then, not to mention images. (Incidentally, MicroMappers can also be used to tag SMS). Furthermore, we had no trained volunteers on standby back when the quake struck. Today, not only do we have a highly experienced network of volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) who serve as first (digital) responders, we also have an ecosystem of volunteers from the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). In the case of Typhoon Yolanda, we also had a formal partner, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), that officially requested digital humanitarian support. In other words, our efforts are directly in response to clearly articulated information needs. In contrast, the response to Haiti was “supply based” in that we simply pushed out all information that we figured might be of use to humanitarian responders. We did not have a formal partner from the humanitarian sector going into the Haiti operation.

Yolanda Prezi

What this new digital humanitarian operation makes clear is that preparedness, partnerships & appropriate humanitarian technology go a long way to ensuring that our efforts as digital humanitarians add value to the field-based operations in disaster zones. The above Prezi by SBTF co-founder Anahi (click on the image to launch the presentation) gives an excellent overview of how these digital humanitarian efforts are being coordinated in response to Yolanda. SBTF Core Team member Justine Mackinnon is spearheading the bulk of these efforts.

While there are many differences between the digital response to Haiti and Yolanda, several key similarities have also emerged. First, neither was perfect, meaning that we learned a lot in both deployments; taking a few steps forward, then a few steps back. Such is the path of innovation, learning by doing. Second, like our use of Skype in Haiti, there’s no way we could do this digital response work without Skype. Third, our operations were affected by telecommunications going offline in the hardest hit areas. We saw an 18.7% drop in relevant tweets on Saturday compared to the day before, for example. Fourth, while the (very) new technologies we are deploying are promising, they are still under development and have a long way to go. Fifth, the biggest heroes in response to Haiti were the volunteers—both from the Haitian Diaspora and beyond. The same is true of Yolanda, with hundreds of volunteers from the world over (including the Philippines and the Diaspora) mobilizing online to offer assistance.

A Filipino humanitarian worker in Quezon City, Philippines, for example, is volunteering her time on MicroMappers. As is customer care advisor from Eurostar in the UK and a fire officer from Belgium who recruited his uniformed colleagues to join the clicking. We have other volunteer Clickers from Makati (Philippines), Cape Town (South Africa), Canberra & Gold Coast (Australia), Berkeley, Brooklyn, Citrus Heights & Hinesburg (US), Kamloops (Canada), Paris & Marcoussis (France), Geneva (Switzerland), Sevilla (Spain), Den Haag (Holland), Munich (Germany) and Stokkermarke (Denmark) to name just a few! So this is as much a human story is it is one about technology. This is why online communities like MicroMappers are important. So please join our list-serve if you want to be notified when humanitarian organizations need your help.


Digital Humanitarian Response: Moving from Crowdsourcing to Microtasking

A central component of digital humanitarian response is the real-time monitor-ing, tagging and geo-location of relevant reports published on mainstream and social media. This has typically been a highly manual and time-consuming process, which explains why dozens if not hundreds of digital volunteers are often needed to power digital humanitarian response efforts. To coordinate these efforts, volunteers typically work off Google Spreadsheets which, needless to say, is hardly the most efficient, scalable or enjoyable interface to work on for digital humanitarian response.


The challenge here is one of design. Google Spreadsheets was simply not de-signed to facilitate real-time monitoring, tagging and geo-location tasks by hundreds of digital volunteers collaborating synchronously and asynchronously across multiple time zones. The use of Google Spreadsheets not only requires up-front training of volunteers but also oversight and management. Perhaps the most problematic feature of Google Spreadsheets is the interface. Who wants to spend hours staring at cells, rows and columns? It is high time we take a more volunteer-centered design approach to digital humanitarian response. It is our responsibility to reduce the “friction” and make it as easy, pleasant and re-warding as possible for digital volunteers to share their time for the better good. While some deride the rise of “single-click activism,” we have to make it as easy as a double-click-of-the-mouse to support digital humanitarian efforts.

This explains why I have been actively collaborating with my colleagues behind the free & open-source micro-tasking platform, PyBossa. I often describe micro-tasking as “smart crowdsourcing”. Micro-tasking is simply the process of taking a large task and breaking it down into a series of smaller tasks. Take the tagging and geo-location of disaster tweets, for example. Instead of using Google Spread-sheets, tweets with designated hashtags can be imported directly into PyBossa where digital volunteers can tag and geo-locate said tweets as needed. As soon as they are processed, these tweets can be pushed to a live map or database right away for further analysis.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 5.00.39 PM

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) used PyBossa in the digital disaster response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines. In the above example, a volunteer goes to the PyBossa website and is presented with the next tweet. In this case: “Surigao del Sur: relief good infant needs #pabloPH [Link] #ReliefPH.” If a tweet includes location information, e.g., “Surigao del Sur,” a digital volunteer can simply copy & paste that information into the search box or  pinpoint the location in question directly on the map to generate the GPS coordinates. Click on the screenshot above to zoom in.

The PyBossa platform presents a number of important advantages when it comes to digital humanitarian response. One advantage is the user-friendly tutorial feature that introduces new volunteers to the task at hand. Furthermore, no prior experience or additional training is required and the interface itself can be made available in multiple languages. Another advantage is the built-in quality control mechanism. For example, one can very easily customize the platform such that every tweet is processed by 2 or 3 different volunteers. Why would we want to do this? To ensure consensus on what the right answers are when processing a tweet. For example, if three individual volunteers each tag a tweet as having a link that points to a picture of the damage caused by Typhoon Pablo, then we may find this to be more reliable than if only one volunteer tags a tweet as such. One additional advantage of PyBossa is that having 100 or 10,000 volunteers use the platform doesn’t require additional management and oversight—unlike the use of Google Spreadsheets.

There are many more advantages of using PyBossa, which is why my SBTF colleagues and I are collaborating with the PyBossa team with the ultimate aim of customizing a standby platform specifically for digital humanitarian response purposes. As a first step, however, we are working together to customize a PyBossa instance for the upcoming elections in Kenya since the SBTF was activated by Ushahidi to support the election monitoring efforts. The plan is to microtask the processing of reports submitted to Ushahidi in order to significantly accelerate and scale the live mapping process. Stay tuned to iRevolution for updates on this very novel initiative.


The SBTF also made use of CrowdFlower during the response to Typhoon Pablo. Like PyBossa, CrowdFlower is a micro-tasking platform but one developed by a for-profit company and hence primarily geared towards paying workers to complete tasks. While my focus vis-a-vis digital humanitarian response has chiefly been on (integrating) automated and volunteer-driven micro-tasking solutions, I believe that paid micro-tasking platforms also have a critical role to play in our evolving digital humanitarian ecosystem. Why? CrowdFlower has an unrivaled global workforce of more than 2 million contributors along with rigor-ous quality control mechanisms.

While this solution may not scale significanlty given the costs, I’m hoping that CrowdFlower will offer the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) generous discounts moving forward. Either way, identifying what kinds of tasks are best completed by paid workers versus motivated volunteers is a questions we must answer to improve our digital humanitarian workflows. This explains why I plan to collaborate with CrowdFlower directly to set up a standby platform for use by members of the Digital Humanitarian Network.

There’s one major catch with all microtasking platforms, however. Without well-designed gamification features, these tools are likely to have a short shelf-life. This is true of any citizen-science project and certainly relevant to digital human-itarian response as well, which explains why I’m a big, big fan of Zooniverse. If there’s a model to follow, a holy grail to seek out, then this is it. Until we master or better yet partner with the talented folks at Zooniverse, we’ll be playing catch-up for years to come. I will do my very best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Personal Reflections: 3 Years After the Haiti Earthquake

The devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010 killed as many as 200,000 people. My fiancée and five close friends were in Haiti at the time and narrowly escaped a collapsing building. They were some of the lucky few survivors. But I had no knowledge that they had survived until 8 hours or so after the earthquake because we were unable get any calls through. The Haiti Crisis Map I subsequently spearheaded still stands as the most psycho-logically and emotionally difficult project I’ve ever been a part of.

The heroes of this initiative and the continuing source of my inspiration today were the hundreds and hundreds of volunteers who ensured the Haiti Crisis Map remained live for so many weeks. The majority of these volunteers were of course the Haitian Diaspora as well as Haitians in country. I had the honor of meeting and working with one of these heroes while in Port-au-Prince, Kurt Jean-Charles, the CEO of the Haitian software company Solutions.ht. I invited Kurt to give the Keynote at the 2010 International Crisis Mappers Conference (ICCM 2010) and highly recommend watching the video above. Kurt speaks directly from the heart.


Another personal hero of mine (pictured above) is Sabina Carlson—now Sabina Carlson Robillard following her recent wedding to Louino in Port-au-Prince! She volunteered as the Haitian Diaspora Liaison for the Haiti Crisis Map and has been living in Cité Soleil ever since. Needless to say, she continues to inspire all of us who have had the honor of working with her and learning from her.

Finally, but certainly not (!) least, the many, many hundreds of amazing volun-teers who tirelessly translated tens of thousands of text messages for this project. Thanks to you, some 1,500 messages from the disaster-affected population were added to the live crisis map of Haiti. This link points to the only independent, rigorous and professional evaluation of the project that exists. I highly reco-mmend reading this report as it comprises a number of important lessons learned in crisis mapping and digital humanitarian response.


In the meantime, please consider making a donation to Fonkoze, an outstanding local organization committed to the social and economic improvement of the Haitian poor. Fonkoze is close to my heart not only because of the great work that they do but also because its staff and CEO were the ones who ensured the safe return of my fiancée and friends after the earthquake. In fact, my fiancée has continued to collaborate with them ever since and still works on related projects in Haiti. She is headed back to Port-au-Prince this very weekend. To make a tax deductible donation to Fonkoze, please visit this link. Thank you.

My thoughts & prayers go out to all those who lost loved ones in Haiti years ago.

How Civil Disobedience Improves Crowdsourced Disaster Response (and Vice Versa)

Update: The most recent example of the link between disobedience and disaster response is Occupy #Sandy. As the New York Times and ABC News have noted,  “the movement’s connections and ‘altruistic drive’ has led to them being some-what more effective in the northwestern Hurricane Sandy relief movement than ‘larger, more established charity groups.'”As noted here, “the coordinators of the Occupy Sandy relief effort have been working in conjunction with supply distributors, such as the Red Cross and FEMA, while relying on the National Guard for security.” Many describe the movement’s role in response to Sandy as instrumental. The Occupy movement also worked with New York City’s office and other parts of the government. Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Occupy for their invaluable efforts: “Thank you for everything you’ve done. You guys are great […]. You really are making a difference.” The Occupy Sandy documentary below is well worth watching. I also recommend reading this blog post.

When Philippine President Joseph Estrada was forced from office following widespread protests in 2001, he complained bitterly that “the popular uprising against him was a coup de text.” Indeed, the mass protests had been primarily organized via SMS. Fast forward to 2012 and the massive floods that re-cently paralyzed the country’s capital. Using mobile phones and social media, ordinary Filipinos crowdsourced the disaster response efforts on their own without any help from the government.

In 2010, hundreds of forest fires ravaged Russia. Within days, volunteers based in Moscow launched their own crowdsourced disaster relief effort, which was seen by many as both more effective and visible than the Kremlin’s response. These volunteers even won high profile awards in recognition of their efforts (picture below). Some were also involved in the crowdsourced response to the recent Krymsk floods. Like their Egyptian counterparts, many Russians are par-ticularly adept at using social media and mobile technologies given the years of experience they have in digital activism and civil resistance.

At the height of last year’s Egyptian revolution, a female activist in Cairo stated the following: “We use Facebook to schedule our protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world.” Several weeks later, Egyptian activists used social networking platforms to organize & coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Tripoli to provide relief to Libyan civilians affected by the fighting.

The same is true of Iranians, as witnessed during the Green Revolution in 2009. Should anyone be surprised that young, digitally savvy Iranians took the lead in using social media and mobile technologies to crowdsource relief efforts in response to the recent earthquakes in the country’s northern region? Given their distrust of the Iranian regime, should anyone be surprised that they opted to deliver the aid directly to the disaster-affected communities themselves?

Whether they are political activists on one day and volunteer humanitarians on another, the individuals behind the efforts described above use the same tools to mobilize and coordinate. And they build social capital in the process—strong and weak ties—regardless of whether they are responding to repressive policies or “natural’ disasters. Social capital facilitates collective action, which is key to political movements and humanitarian response—both on and offline. While some individuals are more politically inclined, others are more drawn to helping those in need during a disaster. Either way, these individuals are already part of overlapping social networks.

In fact, some activists may actually consider their involvement in volunteer-based humanitarian response efforts as an indirect form of nonviolent protest and civil resistance. According to The New York Times, volunteers who responded to Iran’s deadly double earthquake were “a group of young Iranians—a mix of hipsters, off-road motor club members and children of affluent families […]”. They “felt like rebels with a cause […], energized by anger over widespread accusations that Iran’s official relief organizations were not adequately helping survivors […].” Interestingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader actually endorsed this type of private, independent delivery of aid that Iranian volunteers had undertaken. He may want to think that over.

The faster and more ably citizen volunteers can respond to “natural” disasters, the more backlash there may be against governments who are not seen to respond adequately to these disasters. Their legitimacy and capacity to govern may come into question by more sectors of the population. Both Beijing and Iran have already been heavily criticized for their perceived failure in responding to the recent floods and earthquakes. More importantly, perhaps, these crowd-sourced humanitarian efforts may serve to boost the confidence of activists. As one Iranian activist noted, “By organizing our own aid convoy, we showed that we can manage ourselves […]. We don’t need others to tell us what to do.”

In neighboring Pakistan, the government failed catastrophically in its response to the devastating cyclone that struck East Pakistan in 1970. To this day, Cyclone Bhola remains the most deadly cyclone on record, killing some 500,000 people. A week after the hazard struck, the Pakistani President acknowledged that his government had made “mistakes in its handling of the relief efforts due to a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.” The lack of timely and coordinated government response resulted in massive protests agains the state, which served as an important trigger for the war of independence that led to the creation of Bangladesh. (Just imagine, SMS wasn’t even around then).

Given a confluence of grievances, “natural” disasters may potentially provide a momentary window of opportunity to catalyze regime change. This is perhaps more likely when those citizens responding to a disaster also happen to be savvy digital activists (and vice versa).

Crowdsourcing Disaster Response in Iran: How Volunteers Bypassed the State

The double earthquakes that recently struck Iran’s East Azerbaijan Province killed over 300 people and left thousands more homeless. Iranians are par-ticularly adept at using Facebook and other social media platforms. So I was hardly surprised to learn that Iranian journalists launched a Facebook group to collect and and share reliable information related to the earthquake’s impact. Some of these journalists also visited the disaster-struck region to document the deva-station and aid in the relief efforts.

Existing Facebook groups were also used to bring help to those in need. One such group, called Female Equals Male, encouraged followers to donate blood at centers across the country. An Iranian who works at one of these centers was taken aback by the response: “… it was the first time that I have ever seen people being so eager to donate blood. It has always been us, pushing, advertising and asking people to do so.” Female Equals Male already had over 140,000 “likes” before the earthquake.

Like their Egyptian counterparts who crowdsourced volunteer convoys into Libya last year, young Iranians also organized caravans to bring relief to victims of the earthquake in the north of the country. They spontaneously organized a charity effort using SMS, Facebook and phone calls to collect money and relief supplies. “But instead of handing over their collection to the Iranian Red Crescent Society —which is close to the government—as the authorities had asked in the state media, these youths were determined to transport it themselves to the most remote hill villages ravaged by the earthquakes […].” And so they did.

There seem to be more and more examples like this one occurring–ordinary citizens and volunteers taking (disaster response) matters into their own hands:

Of course, this phenomenon is hardly new. First responders, by definition, are the disaster affected population themselves. What is new is that these people-centered crowdsourced efforts are increasingly public and easier to coordinate thanks to social networking platforms and mobile technologies. “In Iran, where the state is involved in all layers of society, it is exceptional for a group of young people to organize a public effort of disaster relief” (NYTimes). As I have hinted in previous blog posts, this ability to mobilize, organize and coordinate can have important political ramifications.

Crowdsourcing Community-Based Disaster Relief in Indonesia

I just came across a very neat example of crowdsourced, community-based crisis response in this excellent report by the BBC World Service Trust: “Still Left in the Dark? How People in Emergencies Use Communication to Survive—And How Humanitarian Agencies Can Help.” I plan to provide a detailed summary of this important report in a forthcoming blog post. In the meantime, this very neat example below (taken directly from said BBC report) is well worth sharing.

“In Indonesia during the eruption of Mount Merapi in November 2010, a local radio community known as Jalin Merapi began to share information via Twitter and used the network to organize community-based relief to over 700 shelters on the side of the mountain […].”

“The Jalin Merapi network was founded following an eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano on Java, Indonesia in 2006. Three community radio stations who felt that the reporting of the eruption by the mainstream media had been inaccurate and unhelpful to those affected joined up with a group of local NGOs and other radio networks to produce accurate information on volcanic activity for those living on the mountain’s slopes. By the time of the 2010 eruption the network involved 800 volunteers, a presence online, on Twitter and on Face-book, and a hotline.”

“During the first eruption on 26 October 2010, the team found that their online accounts–especially Twitter–had become extremely busy. Ten volunteers were assigned to manage the information flow: sorting incoming information (they agreed 27 hashtags to share information), cross referencing it and checking for veracity. For example, when one report came in about a need for food for 6,000 internally displaced people, the team checked the report for veracity then redistributed it as a request for help, a request re-tweeted by followers of the Jalin Merapi account. Within 30 minutes, the same volunteer called and said that enough food had now been supplied, and asked people to stop sending food – a message that was distributed by the team immediately.”

“Interestingly, two researchers who analyzed information systems during the Merapi eruption found that many people believed traditional channels such as television to be ‘less satisfying’. In many cases they felt that television did not provide proper information at the time, but created panic instead.” […] “The success of initiatives such as the Jalin Merapi is based on the levels of trust, community interaction and person-to-person relationships on which participants can build. While technology facilitated and amplified these, it did not replace them.” […] “The work of Jalin Merapi continues today, using the time between eruptions to raise awareness of dangers and help communities plan for the next incident.”


Crowdsourcing Crisis Response Following Philippine Floods

Widespread and heavy rains resulting from Typhoon Haikui have flooded the Philippine capital Manila. Over 800,000 have been affected by the flooding and some 250,000 have been relocated to evacuation centers. Given the gravity of the situation, “some resourceful Filipinos put up an online spreadsheet where concerned citizens can list down places where help is most urgently needed” (1). Meanwhile, Google’s Crisis Response Team has launched this resource page  which includes links to News updates, Emergency contact information, Person Finder and this shelter map.

Filipinos volunteers are using an open (but not editable) Google Spreadsheet and crowdsourcing reports using this Google Form to collect urgent reports on needs. The spreadsheet (please click the screenshot below to enlarge) includes time of incident, location (physical address), a description of the alert (many include personal names and phone numbers) and the person it was reported by. Additional fields include status of the alert, the urgency of this alert and whether action has been taken. The latter is also color coded.

“The spreadsheet can easily be referenced by any rescue group that can access the web, and is constantly updated by volunteers real-time” (2). This reminds me a lot of the Google Spreadsheets we used following the Haiti Earthquake of 2010. The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) continues to use Google Spreadsheets in similar aways but for the purposes of media monitoring and these are typically not made public. What is noteworthy about these important volunteer efforts in the Philippines is that the spreadsheet was made completely public in order to crowdsource the response.

As I’ve noted before, emergency management professionals cannot be every-where at the same time, but the crowd is always there. The tradeoff with the use of open data to crowdsource crisis response is obviously privacy and data protection. Volunteers may therefore want to let those filling out the Google Form know that any information they provide will or may be made public. I would also recommend that they create an “About Us” or “Who We Are” link to cultivate a sense of trust with the initiative. Finally, crowdsourcing offers-for-help may facilitate the “matchmaking” of needs and available resources.

I would give the same advice to volunteers who recently setup this Crowdmap of the floods. I would also suggest they set up their own Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) in order to deploy again in the future. In the meantime, reports on flood levels can be submitted to the crisis map via webform, email and SMS.

Does the Humanitarian Industry Have a Future in The Digital Age?

I recently had the distinct honor of being on the opening plenary of the 2012 Skoll World Forum in Oxford. The panel, “Innovation in Times of Flux: Opportunities on the Heels of Crisis” was moderated by Judith Rodin, CEO of the Rockefeller Foundation. I’ve spent the past six years creating linkages between the humanitarian space and technology community, so the conversations we began during the panel prompted me to think more deeply about innovation in the humanitarian industry. Clearly, humanitarian crises have catalyzed a number of important innovations in recent years. At the same time, however, these crises extend the cracks that ultimately reveal the inadequacies of existing organiza-tions, particularly those resistant to change; and “any organization that is not changing is a battle-field monument” (While 1992).

These cracks, or gaps, are increasingly filled by disaster-affected communities themselves thanks in part to the rapid commercialization of communication technology. Question is: will the multi-billion dollar humanitarian industry change rapidly enough to avoid being left in the dustbin of history?

Crises often reveal that “existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive [since] response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities” (Leonard and Howitt 2007). More formally, “the ‘symmetry-breaking’ effects of disasters undermine linearly designed and centralized administrative activities” (Corbacioglu 2006). This may explain why “increasing attention is now paid to the capacity of disaster-affected communities to ‘bounce back’ or to recover with little or no external assistance following a disaster” (Manyena 2006).

But disaster-affected populations have always self-organized in times of crisis. Indeed, first responders are by definition those very communities affected by disasters. So local communities—rather than humanitarian professionals—save the most lives following a disaster (Gilbert 1998). Many of the needs arising after a disaster can often be met and responded to locally. One doesn’t need 10 years of work experience with the UN in Darfur or a Masters degree to know basic first aid or to pull a neighbor out of the rubble, for example. In fact, estimates suggest that “no more than 10% of survival in emergencies can be attributed to external sources of relief aid” (Hilhorst 2004).

This figure may be higher today since disaster-affected communities now benefit from radically wider access to information and communication technologies (ICTs). After all, a “disaster is first of all seen as a crisis in communicating within a community—that is as a difficulty for someone to get informed and to inform other people” (Gilbert 1998). This communication challenge is far less acute today because disaster-affected communities are increasingly digital, and thus more and more the primary source of information communicated following a crisis. Of course, these communities were always sources of information but being a source in an analog world is fundamentally different than being a source of information in the digital age. The difference between “read-only” versus “read-write” comes to mind as an analogy. And so, while humanitarian organiza-tions typically faced a vacuum of information following sudden onset disasters—limited situational awareness that could only be filled by humanitarians on the ground or via established news organizations—one of the major challenges today is the Big Data produced by disaster-affected communities themselves.

Indeed, vacuums are not empty and local communities are not invisible. One could say that disaster-affected communities are joining the quantified self (QS) movement given that they are increasingly quantifying themselves. If inform-ation is power, then the shift of information sourcing and sharing from the select few—the humanitarian professionals—to the masses must also engender a shift in power. Indeed, humanitarians rarely have access to exclusive information any longer. And even though affected populations are increasingly digital, some groups believe that humanitarian organizations have largely failed at commu–nicating with disaster-affected communities. (Naturally, there are important and noteworthy exceptions).

So “Will Twitter Put the UN Out of Business?” (Reuters), or will humanitarian organizations cope with these radical changes by changing themselves and reshaping their role as institutions before it’s too late? Indeed, “a business that doesn’t communicate with its customers won’t stay in business very long—it’ll soon lose track of what its clients want, and clients won’t know what products or services are on offer,” whilst other actors fill the gaps (Reuters). “In the multi-billion dollar humanitarian aid industry, relief agencies are businesses and their beneficiaries are customers. Yet many agencies have muddled along for decades with scarcely a nod towards communicating with the folks they’re supposed to be serving” (Reuters).

The music and news industries were muddling along as well for decades. Today, however, they are facing tremendous pressures and are undergoing radical structural changes—none of them by choice. Of course, it would be different if affected communities were paying for humanitarian services but how much longer do humanitarian organizations have until they feel similar pressures?

Whether humanitarian organizations like it or not, disaster affected communities will increasingly communicate their needs publicly and many will expect a response from the humanitarian industry. This survey carried out by the American Red Cross two years ago already revealed that during a crisis the majority of the public expect a response to needs they communicate via social media. Moreover, they expect this response to materialize within an hour. Humanitarian organizations simply don’t have the capacity to deal with this surge in requests for help, nor are they organizationally structured to do so. But the fact of the matter is that humanitarian organizations have never been capable of dealing with this volume of requests in the first place. So “What Good is Crowd-sourcing When Everyone Needs Help?” (Reuters). Perhaps “crowdsourcing” is finally revealing all the cracks in the system, which may not be a bad thing. Surely by now it is no longer a surprise that many people may be in need of help after a disaster, hence the importance of disaster risk reduction and preparedness.

Naturally, humanitarian organizations could very well chose to continue ignoring calls for help and decide that communicating with disaster affected communities is simply not tenable. In the analog world of the past, the humanitarian industry was protected by the fact that their “clients” did not have a voice because they could not speak out digitally. So the cracks didn’t show. Today, “many traditional humanitarian players see crowdsourcing as an unwelcome distraction at a time when they are already overwhelmed. They worry that the noise-to-signal ration is just too high” (Reuters). I think there’s an important disconnect here worth emphasizing. Crowdsourced information is simply user-generated content. If humanitarians are to ignore user-generated content, then they can forget about two-way communications with disaster-affected communities and drop all the rhetoric. On the other hand, “if aid agencies are to invest time and resources in handling torrents of crowdsourced information in disaster zones, they should be confident it’s worth their while” (Reuters).

This last comment is … rather problematic for several reasons (how’s that for being diplomatic?). First of all, this kind of statement continues to propel the myth that we the West are the rescuers and aid does not start until we arrive (Barrs 2006). Unfortunately, we rarely arrive: how many “neglected crises” and so-called “forgotten emergencies” have we failed to intervene in? This kind of mindset may explain why humanitarian interventions often have the “propensity to follow a paternalistic mode that can lead to a skewing of activities towards supply rather than demand” and towards informing at the expense of listening (Manyena 2006).

Secondly, the assumption that crowdsourced data would be for the exclusive purpose of the humanitarian cavalry is somewhat arrogant and ignores the reality that local communities are by definition the first responders in a crisis. Disaster-affected communities (and Diasporas) are already collecting (and yes crowdsourcing) information to create their own crisis maps in times of need as a forthcoming report shows. And they’ll keep doing this whether or not humanita-rian organizations approve or leverage that information. As my colleague Tim McNamara has noted “Crisis mapping is not simply a technological shift, it is also a process of rapid decentralization of power. With extremely low barriers to entry, many new entrants are appearing in the fields of emergency and disaster response. They are ignoring the traditional hierarchies, because the new entrants perceive that there is something that they can do which benefits others.”

Thirdly, humanitarian organizations are far more open to using free and open source software than they were just two years ago. So the resources required to monitor and map crowdsourced information need not break the bank. Indeed, the Syria Crisis Map uses a free and open source data-mining platform called HealthMap, which has been monitoring some 2,000 English-based sources on a daily basis for months. The technology powering the map itself, Ushahidi, is also free and open source. Moreover, the team behind the project is comprised of just a handful of volunteers doing this in their own free time (for almost an entire year now). And as a result of this initiative, I am collaborating with a colleague from UNDP to pilot HealthMap’s data mining feature for conflict monitoring and peacebuilding purposes.

Fourth, other than UN Global Pulse, humanitarian agencies are not investing time and resources to manage Big (Crisis) Data. Why? Because they have neither the time nor the know-how. To this end, they are starting to “outsource” and indeed “crowdsource” these tasks—just as private sector businesses have been doing for years in order to extend their reach. Anyone actually familiar with this space and developments since Haiti already knows this. The CrisisMappers Network, Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT) and Crisis Commons (CC) are four volunteer/technical networks that have already collaborated actively with a number of humanitarian organizations since Haiti to provide the “surge capacity” requested by the latter; this includes UN OCHA in Libya and Colombia, UNHCR in Somalia and WHO in Libya, to name a few. In fact, these groups even have their own acronym: Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs).

As the former head of OCHA’s Information Services Section (ISS) noted after the SBTF launched the Libya Crisis Map, “Your efforts at tackling a difficult problem have definitely reduced the information overload; sorting through the multitude of signals on the crisis is not easy task” (March 8, 2011). Furthermore, the crowdsourced social media information mapped on the Libya Crisis Map was integrated into official UN OCHA information products. I dare say activating the SBTF was worth OCHA’s while. And it cost the UN a grand total of $0 to benefit from this support.

Credit: Chris Bow

The rapid rise of V&TC’s has catalyzed the launch of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), formerly called the Humanitarian Standby Task Force (H-SBTF). Digital Humanitarians is a network-of-network catalyzed by the UN and comprising some of the most active members of the volunteer & technical co-mmunity. The purpose of the Digital Humanitarian platform (powered by Ning) is to provide a dedicated interface for traditional humanitarian organizations to outsource and crowdsource important information management tasks during and in-between crises. OCHA has also launched the Communities of Interest (COIs) platform to further leverage volunteer engagement in other areas of humanitarian response.

These are not isolated efforts. During the massive Russian fires of 2010, volunteers launched their own citizen-based disaster response agency that was seen by many as more visible and effective than the Kremlin’s response. Back in Egypt, volunteers used IntaFeen.com to crowdsource and coordinate their own humanitarian convoys to Libya, for example. The company LinkedIn has also taken innovative steps to enable the matching of volunteers with various needs. They recently added a “Volunteer and Causes” field to its member profile page, which is now available to 150 million LinkedIn users worldwide. Sparked.com is yet another group engaged in matching volunteers with needs. The company is the world’s first micro-volunteering network, sending challenges to registered volunteers that are targeted to their skill set and the causes that they are most passionate about.

It is not farfetched to envisage how these technologies could be repurposed or simply applied to facilitate and streamline volunteer management following a disaster. Indeed, researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have already developed a new smart phone app to help mobilize and coordinate volunteer efforts during and following major disasters. The app not only provides information on preparedness but also gives real-time updates on volunteering opportunities by local area. For example, volunteers can register for a variety of tasks including community response to extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, the American Red Cross just launched a Digital Operations Center in partnership with Dell Labs, which allows them to leverage digital volunteers and Dell’s social media monitoring platforms to reduce the noise-to-signal ratio. This is a novel “social media-based operation devoted to humanitarian relief, demonstrating the growing importance of social media in emergency situations.” As part of this center, the Red Cross also “announced a Digital Volunteer program to help respond to question from and provide information to the public during disasters.”

While important challenges do exist, there are many positive externalities to leveraging digital volunteers. As deputy high commissioner of UNHCR noted about this UNHCR-volunteer project in Somalia, these types of projects create more citizen-engagement and raises awareness of humanitarian organizations and projects. This in part explains why UNHCR wants more, not less, engage-ment with digital volunteers. Indeed, these volunteers also develop important skills that will be increasingly sought after by humanitarian organizations recruit-ing for junior full-time positions. Humanitarian organizations are likely to be come smarter and more up to speed on humanitarian technologies and digital humanitarian skills as a result. This change should be embraced.

So given the rise of “self-quantified” disaster-affected communities and digitally empowered volunteer communities, is there a future for traditional humani-tarian organizations? Of course, anyone who suggests otherwise is seriously misguided and out of touch with innovation in the humanitarian space. Twitter will not put the UN out of business. Humanitarian organizations will continue to play some very important roles, especially those relating to logistics and coor-dination. These organizations will continue outsourcing some roles but will also take on some new roles. The issue here is simply one of comparative advantage. Humanitarian organizations used to have a comparative advantage in some areas, but this has shifted for all the reasons described above. So outsourcing in some cases makes perfect sense.

Interestingly, organizations like UN OCHA are also changing some of their own internal information management processes as a result of their collaboration with volunteer networks like the SBTF, which they expect will lead to a number of efficiency gains. Furthermore, OCHA is behind the Digital Humanitarians initiative and has also been developing a check-in app for humanitarian pro-fessionals to use in disaster response—clear signs of innovation and change. Meanwhile, the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) has just launched a $75+ million fund to leverage new technologies in support of humani-tarian response; this includes mobile phones, satellite imagery, Twitter as well as other social media technologies, digital mapping and gaming technologies. Given that crisis mapping integrates these new technologies and has been at the cutting edge of innovation in the humanitarian space, I’ve invited DfID to participate in this year’s International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2012).

In conclusion, and as argued two years ago, the humanitarian industry is shifting towards a more multi-polar system. The rise of new actors, from digitally empowered disaster-affected communities to digital volunteer networks, has been driven by the rapid commercialization of communication technology—particularly the mobile phone and social networking platforms. These trends are unlikely to change soon and crises will continue to spur innovations in this space. This does not mean that traditional humanitarian organizations are becoming obsolete. Their roles are simply changing and this change is proof that they are not battlefield monuments. Of course, only time will tell whether they change fast enough.