Tag Archives: Humanitarian aid

International Conference of Crisis Mappers, Four Themes

 

Intensity map for the 2010 Haiti earthquake

Image via Wikipedia

 

Post by: Kim Stephens

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (Oct. 1-3) brought together many different groups of experts, with disciplines ranging from geospatial intelligence to international humanitarian relief, to focus in part on lessons learned from the response to Haiti. At the start of  the conference Patrick Meier, one of the event organizers, asked participants to reflect on how communication, cooperation and coordination can be improved for future responses to large-scale disasters. He reminded the audience, “Haiti is a clear outlier…we should be inspired by the response…but should not use it as our only model for moving forward.”

By examining tweets from the audience made during the morning presentations, I was able to tease out several themes that emerged:

1. Response organizations in Haiti mostly had to rely on low-tech solutions for mapping since the country had little technology infrastructure.

  • Paper maps were the norm for those working the response on the ground.
  • Information gaps existed, according to some, due to a lack of technology and spatial awareness of both the citizens in the affected country and the response community.
  • Information overload on the ground is what stops most collaboration/coordination from happening.
  • No matter how many digital maps are made, ultimately, decisions are made from sitreps and verbal agreements on the ground. Therefore, there are real challenges in incorporating crowdsourced information into established organizations and data flows.

2. Finding information about the affected area was sometimes easier to gather from those not in the impacted zone (e.g. , those in the Diaspora), although getting that information into the hands of responders in the field was a   challenge.

  • Discovering information about a particular place doesn’t always have to come from  survivors. Sometimes a “local” can be physically very far from the disaster location (a large number of ex-patriots wanted to help and had first hand knowledge of the impacted area).
  • Ushahidi’s best accomplishment could very well have been crowdsourcing volunteers.
  • Crowdsourcing also occurred in traditional organizations. The World Bank’s Galen Evans described how over 600 earthquake engineers were essentially crowdsourced to analyze aerial data.
    • Everyone wants to help in a disaster, but we should think about what experts can be utilized during an event before the event.
  • Was the information coming from SMS texts reliable? Christine Corbane from the Joint Research Centre explained how their research found geo-tagged, crowdsourced SMS text messages highly correlated to the spatial distribution of building damage intensity in Port-au-Prince.

3. The crisis mapping community can add value to the response community, but processes to do so need to be established.

  • The crisis mapping community can translate each affected person’s story during a disaster into actionable data so that crisis managers can act. (See great new blog post by Gisli Olafsson on this topic.)
  • But, creating a common language among cartographers, humanitarians and beneficiaries is tricky: we need to develop baseline cartographic literacy.
  • The UN’s OCHA representative described how the emerging technology community and the humanitarian community don’t speak the same language. The one thing we have in common is that we all want to help. Questions remain:
    • Who coordinates the crowds?
    • How does the tech community fit into the UN cluster groups?
    • Can the crowd be used for data processing and data cleaning?
    • Why didn’t these groups coordinate during the event? Everyone was overloaded, pre-event coordination needs to occur.
  • The keys to success will be shared standards, shared situational awareness, and shared goals.
  • Standard operating procedures should be put in place to help govern this information sharing.

4. Affected populations or nations can and should be empowered to help themselves.

  • Ushahidi representative noted how empowering the local community in Haiti was key, and the locals eventually took over information curation.
  • The Grassroots Mapping Network discussed how simple technology can be employed for data anaylsis:  anyone can use their kit to fly a kite or balloon with a camera attached and gather data without the need for a satellite connection.  This inexpensive solution can help communities do their own mapping.
  • A representative from Development Seed discussed how we should think about needs first and technology second because there are many places that have limited technology capabilities. He stated:”This is why we are building really tiny software” and introduced maps on a stick, or maps on USB drives loaded with spatial data for low resource settings. This can help people in the field, even those that don’t have internet connections.

One tweet sort of sums up the day: Does better data come from improved technology or more meaningful engagement of locals?”

For a complete summary of each speaker, see the blog of  Jillian C. York who transcribed the talks as they occurred.

For a more complete after action report on Crisis Information Management during the Haitian earthquake: see: “Haiti and Beyond” by the ICT for Peace Foundation, March 2010.

Huff Post blogger calls for investment in collaborative technology.

Huffington Post blogger, John D. Volpe, in a post entitled “Where Obama Should Invest Now” addressed the question of why the US government’s mapping tool deployed by the US Army in Pakistan, called HARMONIEweb, is not as effective as the crowdsourced products outlined in the Wired Danger Room’s report. I also mentioned those crowdsourced products, which include Ushahidi and Crisiscommons,  in my post yesterday. I asked the question: Will government agencies utilize existing social media and crisis mapping tools or feel compelled to pay contractors to create unique applications?

In Mr. Volpe’s piece, he argues that the US government should invest in building a proper infrastructure for disaster response, “perhaps even using Ushahidi’s collaborative platform.” However, he somewhat contradicts himself in the following statement:  

The bottom line is that we cannot continue to primarily rely on the open-source community to guide our military humanitarian efforts, disaster relief or other essential services. If the White House made the decision [to invest $250 million into this project]…by Thanksgiving, I believe that one-year later:

  • The State Department would have a robust tool conducing and measuring public diplomacy;
  • The Pentagon would have tools for managing humanitarian aid;
  • The Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force would have the resources to truly help military families in need;
  • The Education Secretary would have a tool for keeping in constant contact with teachers, parents and students about the issues of the day and areas to improve; and
  • Law enforcement would have the tools necessary to curb violent and white-collar crimes.

The author states that if the investment were made: “Jobs would be created. Lives changed. And with everything that’s bad going on, what’s better than creating opportunities for Americans to go back to work and help their country.”

Maybe. But here’s what my cynical self thinks would happen: Big-time contractors would win the bids for the $250 million and then would completely recreate the wheel (e.g. HARMONIEweb 2.0); to continue the analogy, the wheel would not fit any cars currently made, and would have a proprietary system associated with it, so that when it goes flat, only that company would be able to fix it.

Maybe I’m being too cynical…