Whenever I mention the concept of obtaining situational-awareness information from citizens, the people in logo shirts cringe. The question of data veracity is always the chief concern, as demonstrated by the discussion on this blog a couple of weeks about the Oil Spill Crisis Map (which displays an aggregation of citizen reports regarding the BP Oil Spill). Others in emergency management completely dismiss the notion out-of-hand.
The international humanitarian response community, however, does not have the luxury of ignoring “real-time streams of data” from citizens impacted by either man-made or natural disaster events. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as my Texas mother would say, processes, both human and technological, have been developed to address the issue. I should note that this effort is occurring mostly in the NGO sector. (But , see a tangentially related initiative by the U.S. State Department call Civil Society 2.0, announced last Dec.)
The organization leading the way is the non-profit tech company, Ushahidi. What is Ushahidi?
Ushahidi …specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection,visualization and interactive mapping. We build tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories. We’re a disruptive organization that is willing to fail in the pursuit of changing the traditional way that information flows.
Since the Ushahidi software is available for any organization (public or private) to use, the creators developed a guide for users that specifically addresses how to verify data from citizens. You can peruse the one-page document, but in general it touches on everything from direct communication with the source, to looking out for “poison data”, or intentionally misleading information.
Another way to verify data is with the deployment of their newly upgraded software “Swiftriver.” This software enables the user to do several things: mine intelligence from the web; aggregate data from multiple sources; monitor mentions of your company, organization, or agency; and categorize information based on semantic context. From their website:
SwiftRiver is a free and open source platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time. …
In practice, SwiftRiver enables the filtering and verification of real-time data from channels such as Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds. This free tool is especially useful for organizations who need to sort their data by authority and accuracy, as opposed to popularity. These organizations include the media, emergency response groups, election monitors and more.
The SwiftRiver platform offers organizations an easy way to combine natural language/artificial intelligence process, data-mining for SMS and Twitter, and verification algorithms for different sources of information. Swift’s user-friendly dashboard means that users need not be experts in artificial intelligence or algorithms to aggregate and validate information. The intuitive dashboard allows users to easily manage sources of information they wish to triangulate, such as email, Twitter, SMS and RSS feeds from the web.
I think this is interesting because it is a completely different way to sort information during a response. Although currently Ushahidi might be one of the few companies developing these technologies, I suspect many more software applications will become available as organizations, response and otherwise, see the benefits in “mining data”. I also predict that privacy concerns will surface as these practices become more common.
This might make a lot of emergency managers uncomfortable. I like this quote from the article “Aid groups using cellphones to reach the world’s poor” in yesterday’s Washington Post :
“Tech is an enabler, not the end goal,” said David Edelstein, vice president of technology programs for Grameen. “It’s about putting information into people’s hands and empowering them.”
- SwiftRiver: Curating in an Age of Information Overload (whiteafrican.com)
- Swift River: Trying to Filter the Social Web Firehose (gigaom.com)