An iRevolution reader very kindly pointed me to this excellent conceptual study: “The Theory of Crowd Capital”. The authors’ observations and insights resonate with me deeply given my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response. Over two years ago, I published this blog post in which I wrote that, “The value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) exists in the first place.” I was not very familiar with the concept of social capital at the time, but that’s precisely what I was describing. I’ve since written extensively about the very important role that social capital plays in disaster resilience and digital humanitarian response. But I hadn’t taken the obvious next step: “Crowd Capital.”
My team and I at QCRI have just had this paper (PDF) accepted at the World Wide Web (WWW 2013) conference in Rio next month. The paper relates directly to our Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) project. One of our main missions at QCRI is to develop open source and freely available next generation humanitarian technologies to better manage Big (Crisis) Data. Over 20 million tweets and half-a-million Instagram pictures were posted during Hurricane Sandy, for example. In Japan, more 2,000 tweets were posted every second the day after the devastating earthquake and Tsunami struck the Eastern Coast. Recent empirical studies have shown that an important percentage of tweets posted during disaster are informative and even actionable. The challenge before is how to find those proverbial needles in the haystack and to do so in as close to real-time as possible.
So we analyzed disaster tweets posted during Hurricane Sandy (2012) and the Joplin Tornado (2011). We demonstrate that disaster-relevant information can be automatically extracted from these datasets. The results indicate that 40% to 80% of tweets that contain disaster-related information can be automatically detected. We also demonstrate that we can correctly identify the type of disaster information 80% to 90% of the time. Because these classifiers are developed using machine learning, they get more accurate with more data. This explains why we are building AIDR. Our aim is not to replace human involvement and oversight but to significantly lessen the load on humans.
Both humanitarian and development organizations are completely unprepared to deal with the rise of “Big Crisis Data” & “Big Development Data.” But many still hope that Big Data is but an illusion. Not so, as I’ve already blogged here, here and here. This explains why I’m on a quest to tame the Big Data Beast. Enter Zooniverse. I’ve been a huge fan of Zooniverse for as long as I can remember, and certainly long before I first mentioned them in this post from two years ago. Zooniverse is a citizen science platform that evolved from GalaxyZoo in 2007. Today, Zooniverse “hosts more than a dozen projects which allow volunteers to participate in scientific research” (1). So, why do I have a major “techie crush” on Zooniverse?
Oh let me count the ways. Zooniverse interfaces are absolutely gorgeous, making them a real pleasure to spend time with; they really understand user-centered design and motivations. The fact that Zooniverse is conversent in multiple disciplines is incredibly attractive. Indeed, the platform has been used to produce rich scientific data across multiple fields such as astronomy, ecology and climate science. Furthermore, this citizen science beauty has a user-base of some 800,000 registered volunteers—with an average of 500 to 1,000 new volunteers joining every day! To place this into context, the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a digital humanitarian group has about 1,000 volunteers in total. The open source Zooniverse platform also scales like there’s no tomorrow, enabling hundreds of thousands to participate on a single deployment at any given time. In short, the software supporting these pioneering citizen science projects is well tested and rapidly customizable.
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One of the most attractive features of many microtasking platforms such as Zooniverse is quality control. Think of slot machines. The only way to win big is by having three matching figures such as the three yellow bells in the picture above (righthand side). Hit the jackpot and the coins will flow. Get two out three matching figures (lefthand side), and some slot machines may toss you a few coins for your efforts. Microtasking uses the same approach. Only if three participants tag the same picture of a galaxy as being a spiral galaxy does that data point count. (Of course, you could decide to change the requirement from 3 volunteers to 5 or even 20 volunteers). This important feature allows micro-tasking initiatives to ensure a high standard of data quality, which may explain why many Zooniverse projects have resulted in major scientific break-throughs over the years.
Resilience is often defined as the capacity for self-organization, which in essence is cooperation without hierarchy. In turn, such cooperation implies mutuality; reciprocation, mutual dependence. This is what the French politician, philo-sopher, economist and socialist “Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term ‘anarchism,’ namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule” (1).
As renowned Yale Professor James Scott explains in his latest book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, “Forms of informal cooperation, coordination, and action that embody mutuality without hierarchy are the quotidian experience of most people.” To be sure, “most villages and neighborhoods function precisely be-cause of the informal, transient networks of coordination that do not require formal organization, let alone hierarchy. In other words, the experience of anar-chistic mutuality is ubiquitous.”
The existence, power and reach of the nation-state over the centuries may have undermined the self-organizing capacity (and hence resilience) of individuals and small communities. Indeed, “so many functions that were once accomplished by mutuality among equals and informal coordination are now state organized or state supervised.” In other words, “the state, arguably, destroys the natural initiative and responsibility that arise from voluntary cooperation.”
This is goes to the heart what James Scott argues in his new book, which he does in a very compelling manner. Says Scott: “I am suggesting that two centuries of a strong state and liberal economies may have socialized us so that we have largely lost the habits of mutuality and are in danger now of becoming precisely the dangerous predators that Hobbes thought populated the state of nature. Leviathan may have given birth to its own justification.” And yet, we also see a very different picture of reality, one in which solidarity thrives and mutual-aid remains the norm: we see this reality surface over & over during major disasters—a reality facilitated by mobile technology and social media networks.
GeoFeedia was not originally designed to support humanitarian operations. But last year’s blog post on the potential of GeoFeedia for crisis mapping caught the interest of CEO Phil Harris. So he kindly granted the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) free access to the platform. In return, we provided his team with feedback on what features (listed here) would make GeoFeedia more useful for digital disaster response. This was back in summer 2012. I recently learned that they’ve been quite busy since. Indeed, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the stage with Phil and his team at this superb conference on social media for emergency management. After listening to their talk, I realized it was high time to publish an update on GeoFeedia, especially since we had used the tool just two months earlier in response to Typhoon Pablo, one of the worst disasters to hit the Philippines in the past 100 years.
Humanitarian donors and organizations are increasingly championing innovation and the use of new technologies for humanitarian response. DfID, for example, is committed to using “innovative techniques and technologies more routinely in humanitarian response” (2011). In a more recent strategy paper, DfID confirmed that it would “continue to invest in new technologies” (2012). ALNAP’s important report on “The State of the Humanitarian System” documents the shift towards greater innovation, “with new funds and mechanisms designed to study and support innovation in humanitarian programming” (2012). A forthcoming land-mark study by OCHA makes the strongest case yet for the use and early adoption of new technologies for humanitarian response (2013).
These strategic policy documents are game-changers and pivotal to ushering in the next wave of humanitarian technology and innovation. That said, the reports are limited by the very fact that the authors are humanitarian professionals and thus not necessarily familiar with the field of advanced computing. The purpose of this post is therefore to set out a more detailed research framework for next generation humanitarian technology and innovation—one with a strong focus on information systems for crisis response and management.