Review: Digital Humanitarians – How Big Data is Changing the Face of the Humanitarian Response

5 Star, Best Practices in Management, Civil Affairs, Complexity & Resilience, Environment (Solutions), Geography & Mapping, Humanitarian Assistance, Information Operations, Intelligence (Public), Stabilization & Reconstruction, Survival & Sustainment, Values, Ethics, Sustainable Evolution, Voices Lost (Indigenous, Gender, Poor, Marginalized)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Patrick Meier

5.0 out of 5 stars World-Changing Book Documenting Intersection of Humans, Technology, and Policy-Ethics, February 2, 2015

This is a hugely important work, one that responds to the critical needs outlined by Micah Sifry in The Big Disconnect: Why The Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) and others such as myself writing these past 25 years on the need to reform the pathologically dysfunctional US secret intelligence community that is in constant betrayal of the public trust.

Digital Humanitarians are BURYING the secret world. For all the bru-ha-ha over NSA’s mass surveillance and the $100 billion a year we spend doing largely technical spying (yet only processing 1% of what we waste money on in collection), there are two huge facts that this book, FOR THE FIRST TIME, documents:

01 The emphasis here is on HUMANS — technology has been harnessed in the public interest but it is the HUMANS — digital savants and volunteers, open source coders, and the human objects of concern (the victims in any given disaster, armed with their brains, eyes, ears, and cell phones) and their human relatives (the diaspora) that produce results. The author repeats — a necessary repetition — throughout the book this critical points: “It’s the humans, the digital samaritans, that made this possible.” He observes that the media — to which I would add most governments and the UN — completely missed the point: this is a human harmonization success story, NOT a technology ubber alles story.

02 The output here is DECISION-SUPPORT — actionable usable information that saves lives and reduces costs. This is the acme of skill for any professional intelligence officer, but most are trapped in a system where the emphasis is on spending money wantonly on technology without being held accountable for results. Put bluntly, Digital Humanitarians are calling out the naked Emperor called secret intelligence. This is the lifeboat, this is Plan B, this is public intelligence in the public interest, and I am moved to tears by how much all this means for our future.

The story the author tells is a compelling one that will stand in history as a break-out moment in the uplisting of humanity. I note with interest that while the author was trained at Harvard, the break-out occurred when he was at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and that it was the Fletcher students and professors that rallied to nurture this seed crystal, not Harvard, which was slow to respond when invited to do so.

The author and his cohorts pulled together, for the first time in history, a wide range of until then isolated pieces — one third open source technology including Ushahidi and OpenStreetMaps, one third humans, and one third responsive bureaucracies including national imagery agencies providing imagery for volunteers to convert into open accurate maps that still do not exist for most place from the National Geospatial Agency (which is also incapable of doing what these people did, create new maps in 48 hours on the basis of high-resolution imagery using thousands of distributed human volunteers none of them having a security clearance).

QUOTE: “an overflow of information can be as paralyzing as the absence of it.”

Where the book starts to have a powerful message for the next generation is when the author recognizes — as Micah Sifry and I and others have recognized — that the tools do not exist to make sense of massive amounts of near-real-time data. This is a problem many of us confronted in 1986-1993 but the US Government (OMB, DoD, and the CIA in particular) refused to be serious about analytic tools. Although there were a couple of success stories — DARPA STRONG ANGEL and its TOOZL flash drive come to mind, and CIA OSWR’s brilliant definition of the 18 functionalities we need (CATALYST: Computer Aided Tools for the Analysis of Science & Technology), the corruption of the military-intelligence-industrial complex is such that the big money is spent on technical collection that is not processed, NOT on human or open source intelligence or analytic tool-kits. That corruption is still with us today, and nothing being overseen by the DNI, USDI, or D/CIA is relevant to our future success in this area.

Reflecting on the book as I finish it, I see an extraordinary “convergence without boundaries” that has been effected by CrisisMappers and the ecology of human good will, open source technology, and open-minded policy makers (both government and non-government). Key ingredients include:

PEOPLE (validated people – they are who they say they are — trained and tasked responsibly)
Online training ready to go for new volunteers
Open source software and hardware and databases and so on
Micro-tasking as a concept (complex back office makes simpler front end micro possible)
High resolution imagery, increasingly from on site UAVs but also from government donors
Policy-ethics renaissance
Artificial intelligence in context — AI in support, not ruling, AI doing tasks, not deciding)

The persistent challenge is Big (False) Data. That aspect of this book is alone priceless. The author points out that it is not just lies in social media and Short Message Service (SMS) that kill, but media lies and mistakes, government lies and mistakes, “humanitarian” agencies lies and mistakes. As one who has said for decades that “the truth at any cost lowers all other costs,” I regard this book as the first bullet fired in the first modern skirmish between industrial era hierarchies willing to “pay any price” legalized crime (see Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies and Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History and an emerging hybrid governance public sector that is combining citizen integrity and intelligence with open source tools and a transparent approach to data, which in the aggregate are revolutionary.

There are a few specific companies and individuals who are highlighted in this book, I urge the purchase of the book if those specifics are of interest.

Three take-aways as I put the book down:

A Critical thinking is a vital part of all this, sits on top of training, tools, and task management

B Turn on your location! Only 3% of tweets are usable in geospatial terms because most have this feature turned off

C #NOSHARE is a hash-tag intended to shut out the machines, “for human reading only.” It won’t work, but it’s a thought to hold

As impressed as I am by all that Patrick Meier, his co-founder Jen Ziemke and others behind the scenes (such as Eric Rasmussen, one of two principals in STRONG ANGEL, the thinks he can remain anonymous) have accomplished, I am not completely satisfied that they have prepared for the next phrase. There are some compelling stories in this book about digital data wonks supporting digital activism, but there is a great deal missing because of the deliberate schism imposed by governments that “shut out” their citizens and make decisions on the basis on religious, financial, and ideological pressures instead of ethical evidence-based decision-support, and this emergent “Puerto Allegre on Steroids” convergence without boundaries. Below I offer some additional books that complement this one. There are two tinyurls I would offer those who wish to think about what is NOT in this book that needed to be in the next edition: /EIN-UN-SDG and /Steele-Reform.

It will be a while before a Nobel Prize is awarded for information initiatives (I made this point in Sweden in December 2004), but if and when that day comes, the totality of what Patrick Meier addresses in this book, and its future potential as a foundation for creating a prosperous world at peace in which holistic analytics, true costs economics, and open source everything engineering are firmly grounded in CrisisMappers, Ushahidi and more, I for one will be applauding on that day.

See Also:

Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions)
By Clay Shirky: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism
Holistic Darwinism: Synergy, Cybernetics, and the Bioeconomics of Evolution
Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age (Hardback) – Common

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