My colleague Andrea Tapia and her team at PennState University have developed an interesting iPhone application designed to support humanitarian response. This application is part of their EMERSE project: Enhanced Messaging for the Emergency Response Sector. The other components of EMERSE include a Twitter crawler, automatic classification and machine learning.
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The iPhone application developed by PennState is designed to help humanitarian professionals collect information during a crisis. “In case of no service or Internet access, the application rolls over to local storage until access is available. However, the GPS still works via satellite and is able to geo-locate data being recorded.” The Twitter crawler component captures tweets referring to specific keywords “within a seven-day period as well as tweets that have been posted by specific users. Each API call returns at most 1000 tweets and auxiliary metadata […].” The machine translation component uses Google Language API.
This new book, Human Rights and Information Communication Technologies: Trends and Consequences of Use, promises to be a valuable resource to both practitioners and academics interested in leveraging new information & communication technologies (ICTs) in the context of human rights work. I had the distinct pleasure of co-authoring a chapter for this book with my good colleague and friend Jessica Heinzelman. We focused specifically on the use of crowdsourcing and ICTs for information collection and verification. Below is the Abstract & Introduction for our chapter.
Accurate information is a foundational element of human rights work. Collecting and presenting factual evidence of violations is critical to the success of advocacy activities and the reputation of organizations reporting on abuses. To ensure credibility, human rights monitoring has historically been conducted through highly controlled organizational structures that face mounting challenges in terms of capacity, cost and access. The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide new opportunities to overcome some of these challenges through crowdsourcing. At the same time, however, crowdsourcing raises new challenges of verification and information overload that have made human rights professionals skeptical of their utility. This chapter explores whether the efficiencies gained through an open call for monitoring and reporting abuses provides a net gain for human rights monitoring and analyzes the opportunities and challenges that new and traditional methods pose for verifying crowdsourced human rights reporting.
Surprising Findings: Using Mobile Phones to Predict Population Displacement After Major Disasters
Rising concerns over the consequences of mass refugee flows during several crises in the late 1970′s is what prompted the United Nations (UN) to call for the establishment of early warning systems for the first time. “In 1978-79 for example, the United Nations and UNHCR were clearly overwhelmed by and unprepared for the mass influx of Indochinese refugees in South East Asia. The number of boat people washed onto the beaches there seriously challenged UNHCR’s capability to cope. One of the issues was the lack of advance information. The result was much human suffering, including many deaths. It took too long for emergency assistance by intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations to reach the sites” (Druke 2012).
Phi Beta Iota: We continue to advocate free cellular service for all humans as a foundation for creating infinite wealth. OpenBTS is ready — combine that with Open Spectrum and we have an accelerator effect.
There’s a new Crowdmap in town called DeadUshahidi. The site argues that “Mapping doesn’t equal change. Using crowdsourcing tech like Ushahidi maps without laying the strategic and programmatic ground work is likely not going to work. And while we think great work has been done with crowdsourced reporting, there is an increasing number of maps that are set up with little thought as to why, who should care, and how the map leads to any change
In some ways this project is stating the obvious, but the obvious sometimes needs repeating. As Ushahidi’s former Executive Director Ory Okolloh warned over two years ago: “Don’t get too jazzed up! Ushahidi is only 10% of solution.” My own doctoral research, which included a comparative analysis of Ushahidi’s use in Egypt and the Sudan, demonstrated that training, preparedness, outreach and strategic partnerships were instrumental. So I do appreciate DeadUshahidi’s constructive (and entertaining!) efforts to call attention to this issue and explain what makes a good crowd-sourced map.
At the same time, I think some of the assumptions behind this initiative need questioning. According to the project, maps with at least one of the following characteristics is added to the cemetery:
No one has submitted a report to your map in the last 12 months.
For time-bound events, like elections and disasters, the number of reports are so infinitesimally small (in relation to the number of the community the map is targeting) that the map never reached a point anywhere near relevance. (Our measure for elections is, for instance, # of submissions / # of registered voters > .0001).
The map was never actually started (no category descriptions, fewer than 10 reports). We call that a stillbirth.
Mapping doesn’t equal change, but why assume that every single digital map is launched to create change? Is every blog post written to create change? Is every Wikipedia article edit made to effect change? Every tweet? What was the impact of the last hard copy map you saw? Intention matters and impact cannot be measured without knowing the initial motivations behind a digital map, the intended theory of change and some kind of baseline to measure said change. Also, many digital maps are event-based and thus used for a limited period of time only. They may no longer receive new reports a year after the launch, but this doesn’t make it a “dead” map, simply a completed project. A few may even deserve to go to map heaven—how about a UshahidiHeaven crowdmap?
I’m also not entirely convinced by the argument that the number of reports per map has to cross a certain threshold for the crowdsourced map to be successful. A digital map of a neighborhood in Sydney with fewer than one hundred reports could very well have achieved the intended goal of the project. So again, without knowing or being able to reliably discern the motivations behind a digital map, it is rather farfetched to believe that one can assess whether a project was success-ful or not. Maybe most of the maps in the DeadUshahidi cemetery were never meant to live beyond a few days, weeks or months in the first place.
That said, I do think that one of the main challenges with Ushahidi/Crowdmap use is that the average number of reports per map is very, very low. Indeed, the vast majority of Crowdmaps are stillborn as a forthcoming study from Internews shows. Perhaps this long-tail effect shouldn’t be a surprise though. The costs of experimenting are zero and the easier the technology gets, the more flowers will bloom—or rather the more seeds become available. Whether these free and open source seeds actually get planted and grow into flowers (let alone lush eco-systems) is another issue and one dependent on a myriad of factors such as the experience of the “gardener”, the quality of the seeds, the timing and season, the conditions of the soil and climate, and the availability of other tools used for planting and cultivation.
Or perhaps a better analogy is photography. Thanks to Digital Cameras, we take zillions more pictures than we did just 5 years ago because each click is virtually free. We’re no longer limited to 24 or 36 pictures per roll of film, which first required one to buy said roll and later to pay for it again to be developed. As a result of digital cameras, one could argue that there are now a lot more bad quality (dead) pictures being uploaded everywhere. So what? Big deal. There is also more excellent amateur photography out there as well. What about other technologies and media? There are countless of “dead” Twitter accounts, WordPress blogs, Ning platforms, customized Google Maps, etc. Again, so what?
Neogeography is about democratizing map-making and user-generated maps. Naturally, there’s going to be learning and experimentation involved. So my blog post is not written in defense of Ushahidi/Crowdmap but rather in defense of all amateur digital mappers out there who are curious and just want to map whatever the heck they well please. In sum, and to return to the gardening analogy if I may, the more important question here is why the majority of (Usha)seeds aren’t planted or don’t grow, and what can be done about this in a pro-active manner. Is there something wrong with the seed? Do would-be gardeners simply need more gardening manuals? Or do they need more agile micro-tasking and data-mining tools? The upcoming Internews report goes a long way to explaining the why & what and TechChange’s course on Ushahidi may be one way to save some future maps from ending up in the DeadUshahidi cemetery prematurely.
Within weeks of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, I published this blog post entitled “How to Royally Mess Up Disaster Response in Haiti.” A month later, I published another post on “Haiti and the Tyranny of Technology.” I also called for an SMS Code of Conduct as described here. Some of the needs and shortcomings expressed in these blog posts have finally been answered by InfoAsAid‘s excellent Message Library, “an online searchable database of messages that acts as a reference for those wanting to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency.”
“If used in the correct way, the library should help improve communication with crisis-affected populations.” As my colleague Anahi Ayala explains with respect to the disaster response in Haiti,
“One of the main problem that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.”
My doctoral dissertation compared the use of live mapping technology in Egypt and the Sudan during 2010. That year was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in those two countries. So it is particularly interesting to see the technology used again in both countries in 2012. Sudanese activists are currently using the platform to map #SudanRevolts while Egyptian colleagues have just used the tool to monitor the recent elections in their country.
Analyzing the evolution of live mapping technology use in non-permissive environments ought to make for a very interesting piece of research (any takers?). In the case of Egypt, one could compare the use of the same technology and methods before and after the fall of Mubarak. In 2010, the project was called U-Shahid. This year, the initiative was branded as the “Egypt Elections Project.”
According to my colleagues in Cairo who managed the interactive map, “more than 15 trainers and 75 coordinators were trained to work in the ‘operation room’ supporting 2200 trained observers scattered all over Egypt. More than 17,000 reports, up to 25000 short messages were sent by the observers and shown on Ushahid’s interactive map. Although most reports received shown a minimum amount of serious violations, and most of them were indicating the success of the electoral process, our biggest joy was being able to monitor freely and to report the whole process with full transparency.”
Contrast this situation with how Egyptian activists struggled to keep their Ushahidi project alive under Mubarak in 2010. Last week, the team behind the current live map was actually interviewed by state television (picture above), which was formerly controlled by the old regime. Interestingly, the actual map is no longer the centerpiece of the project when compared to the U-Shahid deploy-ment. The team has included and integrated a lot more rich multimedia content in addition to data, statistics and trends analysis. Moreover, there appears to be a shift towards bounded crowdsourcing rather than open crowd-sourcing as far as election mapping projects go.