Did Crowdsourcing work for the BP Oil Spill? One local official says “no”.

Image representing Ushahidi as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Post by: Kim Stephens

Last week I found an article on another blog, Emergency Management , about Santa Rose county in Florida that used the off-the-shelf mobile software called”Xora” to track the oil spill. Xora’s publicity explains how it works:

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=bp+oil+spill&iid=9527089″ src=”http://view4.picapp.com/pictures.photo/image/9527089/drilling-relief-well/drilling-relief-well.jpg?size=500&imageId=9527089″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]”… the Emergency Management team members go out on water patrol boats to scout for oil spill product or boom problems. When product is found, the team member photographs them and then fills out a form on a mobile phone, noting the type of product. The photo is attached to the mobile form, and both are submitted from the phone directly back to the EOC for follow-up. Xora automatically captures the product’s GPS coordinates for documenting precise location, thus giving the EOC real time reporting and pictures. The EOC can then decide how and when to respond based upon the type of products found and what resources are needed to respond to the situation. The pictures could easily be forwarded to other operational command areas to dispatch the appropri- ate equipment.”

This reminded me of the deployment of Ushahidi software for the Oil Spill Crisis Map, which is a visual representation of reports of oil and its effects.  One of the key differences between the technologies is that instead of only responders reporting oil, citizens are allowed and encouraged to contribute: “This map visualizes reports of the effects of the BP oil spill submitted via text message, email, twitter and the web. Reports of oil sightings, affected animals, odors, health effects and human factor impacts made by the eyewitnesses and the media populate points on a this public, interactive, web based map. The information will be used to provide data about the impacts of the spill in real time as well as document the story of those that witness it.”

I was interested in whether or not Santa Rosa county  integrated any of the information found in the Oil Spill Crisis Map into their GIS system, or even if any of the data in the Crisis Map was being used to deploy emergency response personnel to verify or follow up on the information. I contacted a Daniel Hahn in their emergency management office, here is his reply:

“We are not integrating any of our information into ushahadi, a site I have recently become aware of and looked into. We were using Xora so as to be able to photograph and pinpoint potential oil threats to our inland waterways. It was also used to show the condition of deployed boom and confirm or refute the presence of response vessels. One problem I see with ushahadi in its current form is that it appears that  anyone can post anything, and as we soon learned during Deepwater Horizon, EVERYONE had oil in their backyards, or saw it in the bay, when in reality it was something else entirely (Sargassum, June grass etc…).

I too have been very interested in the use of social media as an emergency management tool, and the recent Red Cross study gave me hope that we as an EM community might keep up with technology and societal norms. I think controlled mediums where information is put out by EM is the best form of social media. In this way EM can have followers, and control over what is put on the site (i.e., the ability to delete incorrect of erroneous information). I do not see this ability with ushahadi. Ushahadi is good for what it was created for, which if I am correct is capturing and reporting human rights abuses. As an example I pulled up Santa Rosa on Ushahadi and saw where someone had posted oil washing up on Baldwin County beaches, when Baldwin County is in Alabama, not Florida. An organization called surfriders posted they were doing dispersant testing off shore. Who are they and what are their qualifications (rhetorical question)?” Daniel Hahn, Santa Rosa County, Florida.

This official clearly is interested in social media but doesn’t necessarily trust the public to provide valuable or reliable information. I think it would be interesting to see if any emergency response organizations along the Gulf Coast utilized this tool.  Hopefully, the map was able to provide a way the citizens of the Gulf to testify, which is what Ushahidi means, what they saw and the impacts that they felt. However, a more in depth analysis will be needed in order to determine whether or not the Oil Spill Crisis Map had any impact on the response effort.

6 responses to “Did Crowdsourcing work for the BP Oil Spill? One local official says “no”.

  1. Hate to sound cynical, but the real issue here seems to be control. On the output side, emergency managers tend to like social media applications that replicate the “I talk, you listen” paradigm of 20th-century mass media. On the input side, being able to control the definition of the problem is halfway to guaranteeing that the response will be perceived as successful.

    Some years ago Kevin Kelly, in his book “Out of Control,” suggested that many human undertakings have reached levels of complexity that confound traditional top-down approaches to analysis and management. He proposed that in order to break through that “complexity barrier” we need to be willing to sacrifice some of our sense of control of things. But many emergency managers still see their job as requiring them to maintain and, when necessary, reestablish control.

    Social media pose, among other things, a fundamental challenge to officialdom’s ability to define the reality of emergent situations. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends largely on how one feels about officialdom.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree, it is very difficult to let go of control. This was evident when CNN and cable news became widely available and emergency management officials had to adjust to the new news cycle which also defined “the reality of the emergent situation” in a completely new way; now, information is available to the public to an extent we could not have imagined even 3 years ago. As I have repeated often, its an adjustment.

      • That’s a great example. At first even their fellow news folk made fun of “Chicken Noodle News.” But while cable news didn’t have a day-long editorial cycle, it did have a continual process of feedback and updating. It turned out that CNN et al. could get the story only partially right (or even downright wrong), get beat up for it, and get a corrected story on the air and still be hours ahead of its traditional competition.

        At the same time, officials learned to use “war room” techniques to monitor and feed back corrections (“rapid response”) to the new 24/7 media. The news evolved from a daily compilation of official pronouncements into a non-stop conversation between media and sources.

        And today if you go to any modern big-screen equipped EOC, what do you almost always see on the wall? CNN or Fox or MSNBC. So while nobody’s claiming that mass media are perfectly accurate, emergency managers are pretty obviously voting with their clickers.

        And what insights can we draw from this bit of parallel history? For one thing, that new media can pursue quality in different ways from older ones. And for another, that imperfect information is better than no information, especially if the flow is consistent enough that we can learn how to compensate for its imperfections.

  2. Art, you missed the part where I was quoted giving 2 examples of incorrect or unsubstantiated indormation within minutes of looking at the site. If I had taken time to look at every posting I could probably have found many more inconsistancies. One problem with the software is it did not give a time/date stamp, unless you clic several layers into the system.
    I prefer the facebook model where responses (2 way communication) are allowed, but if they are wrong or abusive they can be removed.

    • No, I saw that part, Daniel. Quality control is a common concern in official critiques of external information sources, be they mass media or social media. (Wish we always were as cautious about the quality of “official” sources; inaccurate field reports are the bane of initial response!)

      But the point is precisely that there’ll always be errors. The more information we have, the more errors, and the more time consuming it becomes to evaluate each individual report. At some point we start to take to a statistical approach that prioritizes “outliers” for review; a report that doesn’t fit the overall pattern might be an error, or it might be a crucial clue.

      Whereas with too little information we risk having blind spots and the impact of any single error is magnified. That could become be hard to justify when larger datasets are available. And those larger datasets are becoming available whether we ask for them or not.

  3. I thought I would just post this article on a new approach to sharing information that was used during the spilll. http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODE/MissionCritical/

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