Category Archives: Geo-location

HealthMap, an example of information curation

Sophia B. Liu, a crisis informatics researcher from the University of Colorado, gave a talk at the International Conference of Crisis Mappers in Boston describing the concept of curation. She explained how in this day of information overload it is important to find trends or “the signal in the noise”. How do we decide what information is important versus what information is redundant or unreliable? She described how the process of crisis information curation is similar to the work a curator of an art exhibit, or a newspaper editor:  one or more people decide what is important, what stories are told. The curator also provides context by relating the story to time and place.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=Health+map&iid=6873483″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”251″ /]Of course this relates to crisis mapping since, as one person in the audience tweeted, “If it’s not on the map, did it happen?” This comment simply points out how responders and governments need information in a digested format in order to make decisions, to see the trends. The Health Map is a wonderful example of information curation but with a specific focus on diesease outbreaks. From their website:

HealthMap brings together disparate data sources to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health. This freely available Web site integrates outbreak data of varying reliability, ranging from news sources (such as Google News) to curated personal accounts (such as ProMED) to validated official alerts (such as World Health Organization). Through an automated text processing system, the data is aggregated by disease and displayed by location for user-friendly access to the original alert. HealthMap provides a jumping-off point for real-time information on emerging infectious diseases and has particular interest for public health officials and international travelers.

Health Map was co-founded by Dr. John Brownstein of Harvard Medical School and Ph.d candidate, Clark Freifeld, a research software developer at the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program.  I had the pleasure of meeting both of them at the ICCM conference. Their team consist of 13 other equally impressive people with backgrounds ranging from biomedical engineering to epidemiology and biostatistics.

To learn more about what information is provided on their system see their HealthMap 3.0 Tutorial. In general, when you view the map you see either pins which represent precisely placed alerts or dots which represent country, state or province-wide alerts.  The dots are color coded based on a mathematical computation that takes into account time-frame, number of alerts and number of sources. You can customize the map to provide specific information that you are interested in, for example, by location or disease.

Users are able to add to information to the map with the “outbreak missing feature”–which can even be done on-the-go with a mobile app. People are encouraged, however, to add links to news articles which helps the team verify the information. And in fact, all reports are reviewed prior to being displayed. This user-generated information has its own category “HM Community News Reports” so that other users can understand the source of the content.

This model of curation is laudable, however, I wonder if it would work for information aggregation of real-time disaster data. The verification system mostly depends on reports from sources such as newspaper articles or Government or UN released reports; but during a fast moving crisis, by the time information is released by a news organization it could already have become overcome by events. There is no doubt, however, that this system is one of the very best for understanding disease outbreaks.

How can the Emergency Management community use technology to improve resilience?

Congestion caused by a road accident, Algarve,...

Image via Wikipedia

Post by: Kim Stephens

David Wild from the All Hazards Blog, recently asked: “How can we effectively engage citizens in disaster and emergency management?”  Read the article for all of his suggestions which include using social media more aggressively and finding ways to give people more skills and power (such as EMT or firefighter training) to help respond during disasters “when resources are stretched.” All of his suggestions were good ones, but I was most interested in his second recommendation:

Start true innovation in the use of technology in Emergency Management. Identify where the rest of the world is technologically way ahead of the EM community, and embrace these rather than trying to replicate them in an expensive fashion. Buy everyone involved in EM an iPad. Employ people to write apps for EM. Give these away free to everyone, not just emergency managers.

The desired result of any disaster preparedness communications plan is to increase the resilience of a community. By communicating risk information we hope to change behavior in some way (e.g., persuade people to complete a family response plan). Unfortunately, disaster preparedness information often is delivered in formats that are generic, static, and impersonal. But new mobile and computer aided communications, such as social media, can provide the most effective means of communicating risk information to citizens ever available to the emergency management community. Apps are an important tool because they can be written to provide mobile, location-specific risk and hazard identification information.  Also, personalized, geo-located information increasingly is becoming an expectation if not a demand of the public, owing to their experiences with companies like Amazon, Netflix, Google and even Facebook.

An interesting example of an emerging technology is the use of geo-located information in traffic navigation systems, described in Discover Magazine’s September issue; see “Future tech: Tomorrow’s cares may finally realize the driver’s great dream: a cure for the common traffic jam”. The author outlines how people’s cell phones traveling in their vehicles have provided data necessary to monitor traffic more effectively.

“Some 4 million phones now report their speed and position to Nokia-owned Navteq along; millions more report to other traffic-data service….Those numbers are sent off in much the same way that text messages are, except it happens automatically, without your involvement.”

Privacy is protected by tagging the data with a random-identifier with no personal information attached. This vast amount of information translates into better navigations systems that can predict jams and route the driver around them.

Within a few years, travel-monitoring services such as Navteq plan to refine the predictive process by turning you into a real-time, on-the-scene traffic reporter…you will soon be prompted to feed the companies information about delays.”

When a driver hits the brakes they will be asked to answer simple “yes” or “no” questions (hopefully designed not to distract the driver too much) such as “Is it an accident?” ‘Is is blocking more than one lane” etc. Once the data is anaylzed by the central computers at the nav companies, the info will be quickly disseminated to vehicles in the vicinity in order to avoid the “mess”. The article even calls it “crowdsourced navigation”.

The expression “Every citizen is a sensor”  is taken literally in this case. I like this example because it demonstrates how solutions to emergency management problems, such as how best control traffic during mass evacuations, could be aided through the use of technologies developed for non-EM functions.

Great New Source: GeoSpatial video from Penn State

Post by: Kim Stephens

Two things caught my eye today that are both worth viewing/reading.

1. I highly recommend viewing the video posted on the “GeoSpatial Revolution Project” website, produced by Penn State Public Broadcasting. From their website’s about page:

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=nasa&iid=9639582″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”181″ /]The Geospatial Revolution Project is an integrated public service media and outreach initiative about the world of digital mapping and how it is changing the way we think, behave, and interact.

The mission of the Geospatial Revolution Project is to expand public knowledge about the history, applications, related privacy and legal issues, and the potential future of location-based technologies.

Geospatial information influences nearly everything. Seamless layers of satellites, surveillance, and location-based technologies create a worldwide geographic knowledge base vital to solving myriad social and environmental problems in the interconnected global community. We count on these technologies to:

  • fight climate change
  • map populations across continents, countries, and communities
  • track disease
  • strengthen bonds between cultures
  • assist first responders in protecting safety (emphasis added)
  • enable democracy
  • navigate our personal lives

The project will have 4 Episodes, the first of which was just upload today, Sept. 15. Ushahidi and its application during the Haitian earthquake is highlighted, complete with an interview of Patrick Meier; the film also discusses everyday uses of geo-location information, such as the GPS systems in our cars. The video is a high-quality production: it was written and directed by Stephen Stept, an award-winning documentary filmmaker. It is ready-made for use in classrooms, but even if you are not an instructor, it is worth taking the 15 minutes to view it since it has the best description of Ushahidi I’ve seen to date. Major funders of the project include Booz Allen & Hamilton as well as Harris.

2. Another article worth a quick read was posted by Sarah Kessler on Mashable,  entitled: “5 Trends Shaping the Social Good“. Those trends:

  1. Crowdsourcing
  2. Location, Mobile Apps, and Other Experiments
  3. Mobilizing Action
  4. Benefitting from Cause Marketing
  5. Cooperation between non-profits and individuals.

Some of the usual suspects are mentioned, such as  Crisiscommons, but the article really focuses more on non-profits in non-emergency situations (e.g. Lance Armstrong’s “Live Strong” movement). Nevetheless, it is an interesting read.