Crisis data, it’s not just for response organizations.

Post By: Kim Stephens

Recently, Jeannette Sutton wrote a brief article about what they are finding in New Zealand regarding the use of social media and data in general in the ChristChurch earthquake disaster. Her title: “Competing information, complementary information, coordinating information” sums up some of the problems citizens have with regard to understanding where to find accurate and trustworthy info on social media and other online platforms.  “Without a central, authoritative site members of the public must make serious evaluations about which information will lead to their decision-making and actions.” She noticed, however, that quite a bit of this online info, including social media, isn’t a restatement of official info, or even a contradiction as some might assume, but rather serves as a complement. She states:

For instance, volunteer technical communities that mobilize resources early on aggregate and map information from the crowd. This is a complementary activity to those serving in official capacities that are responsible for critical infrastructure and emergency response. There are other examples that also show this complementary nature of efforts that may or may not duplicate data sources, but serve specific populations and needs at varying points of the response.

The nature of this complementary data was discussed a bit in a conversation this weekend about the upcoming National Level Exercise ’11 with Heather Blanchard of CrisisCommons. We talked about the importance of everyone–citizens, government response organizations and NGOs, having access to data that she calls community indicator dataCommunity Indicator Data could be defined as any data regarding the location and state of the infrastructure that serve the affected community. This could include: shelters, grocery store availability, communications (i.e. state of cell phone towers and telecoms) hospitals, banking/ATMs, water, fuel, power, etc. Some of this data can be highly localized and can fluctuate often during the recovery. But as Ms. Sutton also points out in her article, for citizens, it is important to be able to access this information in a meaningful format.

The “ownership” of this data varies widely. Some of the information is from the private sector (e.g. grocery stores, fuel, power); some is from non-governmental organizations (e.g. shelters and feeding centers); and some is citizen or user-generated (e.g.”I’m willing to open my well of clean water for those who live nearby). User-generated data can be curated by volunteers from social media feeds such as twitter, news feeds, and/or blogs, etc or can even be sent directly to those curators via text message or email. The crisismapping community understands that citizens need access to all of this information–not just response organizations.  Their contribution is to analyze, sort, validate and format this data into visualization platform–the picture above is of a Ushahidi map from Christchurch, NZ of available fresh water after the quake.

Google has also taken up the role of sorting, filtering, and visualizing crisis data as is evident in their expanding and ongoing role in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake . Their public policy blog details the resources they have made available to all involved: impacted citizens, concerned family members, news media, first responders, and volunteer organizations. The person-finder application has now been deployed for many disasters, and it was up and running with two hours of the earthquake. It seems they have learned from each deployment, and for this event, for example, they have made the service a little easier to use for people without smartphones.

Low-tech meets high-tech:

I’ve seen several news reporters standing in shelters next to a wall of paper with lists of names people missing. Google has reached out to shelter occupants and asked them to take pictures of those lists and email them to the company. The article explains: “Those photos are automatically uploaded to a public Picasa Web Album. We use scanning technology to help us manually add these names to Person Finder; but it’s a big job that can’t be done automatically by computers alone, so we welcome volunteers with Japanese language skills who want to help out.”

Google understands the need for citizens to have access to community indicator data which is why they are providing timely updates of  rolling blackouts.  They are importing data from Honda, to display a map of impassable roads. Other data available:

…a Google Earth mashup with new satellite imagery. We’re also constantly updating a master map (in Japanese and English) with other data such as epicenter locations and evacuation shelters. And with information from the newspaper Mainichi, we’ve published a partial list of shelters.

Satellite images
We’re also working with our satellite partners GeoEye and DigitalGlobe to provide frequent updates to our imagery of the hardest-hit areas to first responders as well as the general public. You can view this imagery in this Google Earth KML, browse it online through Google Maps or look through our Picasa album of before-and-after images of such places asMinamisanriku and Kesennuma.

Since Japan has a very robust emergency response system, and their citizens are very resourceful, it is interesting to see what role this non-traditional response organization– Google– is playing during the crisis. But in general, I think this year has taught us the importance of having publicly available data. Although Dr. Sutton was talking about New Zealand, I think some of her findings apply to the Japan situation as well. She states: “…this complementary nature of efforts may or may not duplicate data sources, but serve specific populations and needs at varying points of the response.”

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