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August 11 2010

Hearing those digital cries for help

Gov 2.0 Summit, 2010New research from the Red Cross shows that online, people increasingly rely on social media to seek help in a disaster. As ReadWriteWeb reported, the Red Cross survey found that 74 percent of social media users expect help within an hour.

Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., the Red Cross will convene an Emergency Social Data Summit, bringing together representatives from the White House, technologists, first responders, non-governmental communities, and citizens to "address how to reply to these digital cries for help more effectively."

What's at the heart of this phenomenon? Simply put, the Internet is helping disaster response evolve -- and quickly. In the video below, NPR's senior social strategist, Andy Carvin talks about how people all over the world are collaborating to help in crisis.

After the jump, learn more about the summit, the power of platforms for collective action, and the rising adhocracy that empowers citizens to help one another online.

Convening the Emergency Social Data Summit

The agenda includes Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, @WhiteHouse's Macon Phillips, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate>, uberblogger Robert Scoble, podcamper Christopher Penn, CrisisCommons' Heather Blanchard and Noel Dickover, Ushahidi's Patrick Meier and dozens of others who have been involved in disaster response using social media, including myself. Beth Kanter, a noted authority on "networked nonprofits" and social media, wrote about the emergency social dataevent on her blog.

In January, after the Haiti earthquake struck, if you were participating on social networks, you couldn't help but notice the many, many Tweets and Facebook status messages about the Haiti earthquake.   The messages included pleas for support or retweeting the news, but beyond that the stream included pleas from people on the ground in Haiti asking for emergency assistance or letting loved ones and friends know they're okay.

Social media has radically changed how people communicate, including their calls for help. As we have seen in natural disasters from Hurricane Katrina to the Chile earthquake, people are using social media to reach out for help. And they expect a response from emergency and disaster response organizations. To meet this growing challenge, the American Red Cross is launching an initiative to address how to reply to these digital cries for help more effectively.

Kanter's company Zoetica, and co-founders Geoff Livingston and Kami Huyse , have been working with the Red Cross on the summit for months. As Kanter pointed out, this initiative includes more than hosting the Emergency Social Data Summit itself, with an accompanying backchannel on Twitter on the #crisisdata hashtag.

As has been the case for the disaster communications, "the Summit will use both established and more experimental social media tools and platforms to involve people who are not in the room in the discussion," wrote Kanter. Along with Twitter, those tools include:

Kanter described it as "a geo location crowdsourced storytelling application. Conference attendees will have the opportunity to join an "Emergency Data Society," on the service, which Kanter said "will facilitate a self-organized, community scrapbook of the event from attendees."

The power of crisis response platforms

The Red Cross has posted the first three chapters of a white paper based on the Summit's themes at the emergency social data blog, including the case for integrating crisis response with social media, how social media has changed news gathering during disaster response, and the crisis collaboration movement, which documents the growth of Crisis Commons from camps in 2009 to a globally distributed platform. All three of these posts are thorough investigations of a shift from a citizenry limited by a broadcast model and disaster fatigue to an empowered, participatory public.

I'm humbled to have contributed to documenting the first Crisis Camp Haiti and subsequent efforts this spring and summer, and to have attended the first international Crisis Congress. As aspirations translated to code, a movement of "geeks without borders spread around the globe. More recently, responding to the Gulf oil spill, Crisis Commons delivered Oil Reporter, an open data initiative that provided a "suite of tools and resources that encourages response organizations to capture and share data with the public."

The energy, passion and innovation that collectively drive Crisis Commons are possible because we're in a unique historical moment. Hundreds of millions of people online can see disasters like the Haiti earthquake unfold on the real-time Web. Unlike the natural disasters or man-made crises of the past, however, citizens, government, media and developers can now do more to help those affected, whether by mobile donations, crisis mapping, timely tweets or random hacks of kindness.

Given the scope of the crises that humanity faces, the power of social software to empower citizens is of critical interest to many constituencies. After tomorrow's summit concludes, I'll be looking forward to hearing about making states work better from Clare Lockhart, Steve Killelea and Ory Okolloh at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington.

The challenges, successes, and opportunities presented by new platforms for civic engagement and empowerment call into question recent reports of crowdsourcing losing steam. The increasing use of online platforms for civic engagement as platforms for civic empowerment hints at what might be possible in the future, as more sophisticated tools are developed for an increasingly connected humanity. After Haiti, collaborative action between government, developers, citizens, and NGOs is no longer an academic theory: it's a proud art of our history. The "adhocracy" that Alvin Toffler presciently described in 1970 has come to be through the power of networks. To put the power of that possibility in perspective, here's Tim O'Reilly speaking at OSCON:

And here's Andy Carvin's talk and slides on The New Volunteers: Social Media, Disaster Response And You:

I hope you'll tune in to the Emergency Social Data Summit tomorrow.


April 05 2010

Good data cuts through the chaos in Haiti

Palantir screenshot showing SMS activity in HaitiAs computer scientists and technologists, we're used to dealing with large numbers in the abstract. But expressed in human terms, the mind-boggling numbers of the Haiti earthquake -- 250,000 dead, 300,000 injured and more than 1 million people left homeless -- are hard to comprehend.

The recovery from a disaster of this magnitude presents some important tasks for information technology: coordination of effort, triaging those most in need, and getting good data into the hands of decision makers and aid workers.

Here's a partial list of aid, relief, and rescue organizations currently in Haiti, gleaned from Wikipedia:

  • An Argentine military field hospital.
  • The Red Cross/Crescent, in various forms.
  • The U.S. military.
  • Multiple U.N. agencies.
  • Remnants of the Haitian government.
  • The French navy.
  • Sri Lankan relief workers.
  • At least 2,000 rescuers from 43 different groups (along with 161 search dogs).

A wealth of collaborators like this presents unique challenges around information fusion. Unlike business competitors or opposing sides of a war, the different groups want to share as much information as possible to achieve their common goal.

Each organization has a produced a fairly detailed picture of the parts of Haiti they are interacting with. Each organization also wants to consume every other organization's detailed knowledge of the situation. To act effectively, they need to integrate that knowledge into a common operating picture that accurately models the situation on the ground yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Better coordination through data

Our reaction to the earthquake was to try to help in the best way we knew how. We set up a publicly available instance of our Palantir Government product, already loaded with relevant data, for use by aid workers and organizations working in Haiti. Using relevant, open-source data, we started modeling a picture of what's going in Haiti.

Our first cut was to include the locations and names of collapsed buildings, internally displaced people (IDP) camps, and Misson 4636 SMS messages, among others. We also added in map layers that let us see what administrative zone any point on the map was located in.

Having mapped the data into this model, users have access to it through a suite of visualization, analysis, querying, and collaboration tools that allow them to get useful answers to practical questions. Here are some examples:

  • Which administrative sectors have had the most SMS requests for food in the past 24 hours?
  • What collapsed buildings are suspected to contain hazardous materials?
  • Are any IDP camps close enough to hazmat sites to warrant special precautions? Should residents be moved?

Next: Stay ahead of Haiti's rainy season

With the infrastructure of the country destroyed, Haiti's rain and hurricane season will be more dangerous than usual. Not only are the normal structures that protect citizens from the waters gone, but people have moved out of the ruins of Port-au-Prince to hastily constructed IDP camps, some of which are sitting in the flood plains of Haiti's waterways.

The essential question facing relief workers is: Which of the approximately 2,500 IDP camps are most at risk from flooding?

In a place like the United States, an earthquake response and recovery team could engage the services and expertise of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which maintains the National Water Information System. No such luck in Haiti, where the closest thing to the USGS is the Centre National de l'Information Géo-Spatiale. A quick look at the organization's website shows it didn't really make it through the earthquake.

We decided to help out. Since we're starting from square one, we put together data from the Army Geospatial Center, the U.N., NOAA, Haiti-based NGOs, a number of academic papers, and even geo-tagged photos from Flickr. The time it took to integrate this data? About six hours. Time it took to do the analysis? About seven minutes. Amount of that work that is reusable? All of it.

The best way to improve this analysis is to add detailed information about flooding, gathered from the field. We're looking to get new conduits of information into the Haiti instance as the rains really pick up.

If you'd like to help us, we're accepting new data sources, analyses, and contact with relief organizations.

Volunteers, supplies, and goodwill are only the raw ingredients to recovery. It's the efficient and timely application of those resources to Haiti's most pressing problems that will make recovery a reality.


March 11 2010

How crowdsourcing helped Haiti's relief efforts

Tech-minded volunteers quickly pitched in with a variety of communication and data services in the days following the Haiti earthquake. One company -- crowdsourcing platform CrowdFlower -- repurposed its service as a text-message translation tool to aid Mission 4636. Crowdflower founder and CEO Lukas Biewald shares his story in this guest post.

Before January 12, I knew little to nothing about Haiti or the role of crowdsourcing in disaster relief. My company, CrowdFlower, offers a crowdsourced labor platform to clients who are mostly Silicon Valley tech companies. The January earthquakes in Haiti ignited a completely new type of emergency response that involved the contributions of individuals, companies, NGOs, and staffed by thousands of volunteers around the world. On a more personal level, it led to the discovery of a very surprising application of our product.

Despite the massive devastation of buildings in Port-au-Prince, most of Haiti's cell tower infrastructure remained intact. Within 48 hours of the earthquake, Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic and Katie Stanton of the U.S. State Department convinced DigiCel, the largest telco in Haiti, to set up a short code -- "4636" -- that any individual could text for free to get help. Robert Munro of Energy for Opportunity and Brian Herbert set up a workflow where Kreyol-speaking volunteers could translate and classify the messages for aid workers to send relief.

Once the system was working, InSTEDD (in collaboration with Thompson Reuters) worked on the ground to broadcast the existence of the "4636" short code to as many Haitians as possible using radio and other means. Through word of mouth, the number of volunteer translators grew throughout the Haitian diaspora.

It was immediately clear that people were using this system to send absolutely urgent and heartbreaking messages. Here's a few examples:

"I am in the town of Jeremie in the Grand'Anse Department. My boyfriend died, I'm 8 months pregnant, I don't have any money. Whatever you can do for me will be a deliverance" (More info here.)
"My name is J. W. my brother is working in Unicef and I live in Carfour 11 Alentyerye I have 2 people that is still alive under the building still ! Send Help!" (More info here.)

As the volume of urgent messages grew, there became a growing need for a more robust workflow platform. At CrowdFlower we specialize in the creation and management of high volumes of microtasks completed by hundreds of thousands of online workers. The Haitian SMS translation and classification work, as well as the coordination of contributions by a large number of volunteers around the world, was a natural fit for our system. We began pulling in feeds of SMS messages, facilitating their translation and posting feeds of translated messages.

Before the first earthquake, Samasource (a nonprofit specializing in socially responsible outsourcing) had just set up a work center in Haiti. This Samasource service partner assumed a large amount of the earthquake relief responsibilities, providing not just labor for the emergency message routing but also creating badly-needed jobs on the ground. At peak volume in one hour we processed over 5,000 SMS messages.

Parts of the feed of emergency SMS messages -- and maps generated by Ushahidi -- are now used by a growing number of organizations, including the Red Cross, Plan International, charity:water, U.S. State Department, International Medical Corps, AIDG, USAID, FEMA, U.S. Coast Guard Task Force, World Food Program, SOUTHCOM, OFDA and UNDP.

Craig Clark of the Marine Corps commented on the text message project:

"I wish I had time to document to you every example, but there are too many and our operation is moving too fast ... I say with confidence that there are 100s of these kinds of [success] stories. The Marine Corps is using your project every second of the day to get aid and assistance to the people that need it most."

A few weeks after the first earthquake, I was invited to Haiti immediately on the heels of a sales trip to Europe. The contrast between these two trips was striking. Driving through Port-au-Prince and seeing so many collapsed buildings gave me a sobering understanding of how 200,000 people died in this crisis. Meeting with survivors of the quake was a testament to their motivation to rebuild their country.

The massive number of volunteers and the workforce quickly brought online by Samasource means that there’s very low latency when someone sends an emergency message. For messages like "Non mwen se luÇaint luÇoit madanm mwen ansent li rive lè poul akouche nou nan dèlma 31 ri maryen n 21 nan lakou legliz apostolik anfas site jeremi, mpa" ("condition bloody about. undergoing children delivery corner of delmas 31 and rue marine") it is crucial not just to be fast, but to have local knowledge to get the exact longitude and latitude from an ambiguous 140 character message as well as an accurate classification so that the right aid agency can be deployed. In this case there was a happy ending, USGS responded "just got emergency SMS, child delivery, USCG are acting, and, the GPS coordinates of the location we got from someone of your team were 100% accurate!"

The advantages of a flexible crowdsourcing workflow to managing disaster relief are huge. Businesses like crowdsourced work because they don’t have to plan unknown work capacity in advance, and managing a crisis is an extreme version of this problem. There would be no practical way to have thousands of trained Kreyol speakers ready to handle emergency text messages, but through viral channels and a microtask framework it was possible to have thousands of people around the world doing mission-critical work within days.

When you run a company, you worry constantly about whether or not your product is something that your customers really want, whether or not your product is a necessary solution, whether or not it is reliable, etc. It was clear to me through Mission 4636 that our product was capable of not merely changing lives, but of saving them. As saddening as it is to reflect on the devastation and mortality caused by the Haiti earthquakes, the collaborative impact of Mission 4636 is truly inspirational. I hope it will become the model for future emergency relief efforts.

You can learn more at and via the following video:

Mission 4636 from CrowdFlower on Vimeo.

March 09 2010

Nigeria: Jos erupts in violence again

In Jos, conflict seems to recur in ever-narrowing cycles: deadly riots rocked the city in 1994, 2001, 2008 and –not even two months ago– in January 2010. The current conflict is said to have started in reprisal for the destruction that occurred in January — there have been reports of children and the elderly being particularly targeted by roving gangs armed with guns and machetes.

Like the previous riots, the current conflict in Jos has been fought along sectarian lines – Jos lies on the border between Nigeria's Muslim-majority North and Christian-majority South. Access to land and resources is often determined by whether one is a native, or “indigene”, of the historically Christian city, or a “settler” from elsewhere (“settlers” are most often Muslims from the North; see a Human Rights Watch report on the subject here for more on the subject).

Many sources have placed the death toll in the hundreds: Al-Jazeera and the BBC both reported more than 500 casualties, although one government source put the figure at 55 official deaths. Quick burials make it difficult to accurately assess the total dead, while political considerations also lead to discrepancies in the numbers. Shuaibu Mohammed of Reuters gives one explanation:

Death tolls have been highly politicised in previous outbreaks of unrest in central Nigeria, with various factions accused of either exaggerating the figures for political ends or downplaying them to try to douse the risk of reprisals.

In the blogosphere, horror, shame and empathy were the prevalent emotions. Linda Ikeji posted a photo on her blog which graphically displayed the carnage. She wrote:

NO, I won't take the picture down. This is our shame and failure as a country. Let's all stare at it!

A commenter on her site agreed with her decision:

Thanks for leaving it up because we have to stop pretending everything is alright…it is time for these things to stop….

Several bloggers drew parallels between the earthquake in Haiti and the violence in Jos. Tywo, another commenter on Linda Ikeji's post wrote:

God has blessed Nigeria so much. I mean, we rarely have natural disasters and things like that. We only have deaths that are caused by heartless humans. The truth is we are not moving forward.

Babajidesalu shared a similar view:

As the world is experiencing natural disasters, Nigeria is experiencing self inflicted disasters. The latest massacre in Jos attests to this observation.

In the aftermath of the January 2010 riots, one blogger started a site, We are Jos, to help the victims of the rioting. She explained her motivation as follows:

It was the effort of wyclef jean that made other stars come together to give towards Haiti. I noticed some Naija bloggers even gave towards Haiti while at the same time decrying what happened in Jos, VERBALLY while saying God should help Nigeria.

I've often wondered why we Nigerians complain and proffer no explanations or solutions to the problems that herald us. In whatever small way I can, I try to solve a problem or even make an effort.

F, another commenter on Linda Ikeji's post, saw the problem as broader than religion, and endemic to the country as a whole:

The nonsense will stop in Jos when the nonsense stops in Abuja. All this shadowy politics needs to cease so that the people can have access to basic amenities. They say a hungry man is an angry man. It is the same in the Niger Delta. If everyone was well-fed, had access to quality education, power supply, clean water and a decent standard of living, who would think of trying to kill off another religious/ethnic group seen to be “competing for space”?

…We will continue to express anger/disgust at these killings- this will not stop them from happening. Dealing with the root cause is the only solution to this on-going tragedy.

Adeola Aderounmu expressed a similar view, laying the blame with Nigeria's leaders:

The Jos issue is not a local issue. It is a reflection of the lack of democracy and failure of the system. We have no defined system and the country is built on very useless people instead of strong institutions and good principles of governance.

But a commenter on his post disagreed:

You are always separating the elite from the masses. At one time or another the elite emerged from the masses. So you can’t really separate them. (Many members of the masses are striving to join the elite).

The failure of Nigeria and Nigerians as a people collectively has to be shared all round.

Nigerians will have to look at themselves as a society and question why they have systematically over 50 years done nothing to arrest the slide into oblivion and hopelessness? Why is it when the get a sniff of power, they do all the wrong things? The fact is that most of society is corrupt, as such corrupt practices are condoned, in some cases celebrated…

Since the violence began on Sunday, army and police forces have taken control of the city, making more than 100 arrests. SolomonSydelle reported on the possibility that the International Criminal Court may step in to bring judicial resolution to the situation and avert a spiral of future reprisals.

Read about the January 2010 riots here.

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