Tag Archives: SMS

Columbian Earthquake Simulation: Testing ground for volunteer mapping and response cooperation

Homeless Haitians set up tents nearby the Pres...

Image via Wikipedia

Guest Post by:  Jaroslav Valuch, Standby Task Force @jvaluch

Cross posted on Ushahidi blog

In the aftermath of some of the recent disasters we witnessed an increasing number of new actors entering the field of international humanitarian response operations. The development of ICTs opened to a variety of individuals and groups unprecedented space for engagement, regardless their physical location and affiliation to traditional responders.

It was predominantly the Haiti earthquake response that pointed out the potential (and limitations) of this volunteer online engagement. Despite the fact that the actual impact, added value and benefit of these emerging initiatives is still being determined and evaluated in order to clearly identify the lessons learned and future steps, some baselines are already obvious and undeniable.

During emergency situations, the very first and the most effective responders are the affected communities themselves. However, for variety of reasons they very often remain unconnected to the traditional emergency response management systems. Simultaneously, with increased access to technology, particularly the mobile and social networks, people will not only spontaneously share information about the meal they had for lunch, but undoubtedly also information about their needs during emergency and crisis situations. Furthermore, the local and international public is seeking innovative ways of engagement in the emergency and humanitarian response.

Simply ignoring such emerging trends would be a short sighted solution – people will be sharing crisis information through any channels available, no matter if the process will be managed by someone or not. This type of information can be potentially transformed into highly valuable real time data that can significantly improve the situational awareness of non-local humanitarian responders, particularly in situations and areas where physical access to the affected community is limited. Similarly, such information sharing can significantly improve the capacity of the communities to rapidly respond to cases of emergency themselves.

The data processing and mapping based on aggregated reports from the affected population requires capacity that can hardly be found on the ground and within traditional organizational structures during emergency. The community of online volunteers that is ready to jump-in and provide the lacking capacity could potentially improve significantly the rapidness and effectiveness of the response. The potential is obvious, as well as the challenges that need to be addressed first:

  • How to practically leverage the potential of emergency information that is being shared and communicated by the affected communities and turn it into actionable data that can improve the real-time situational awareness of the local and international responders’ communities?
  • How to coordinate and organize the emerging online volunteer crowd and turn it into more reliable and predictable partner for the responders’ community without harming the volunteer nature and genuine flexibility of such initiatives and efforts?

Looking for answers in the middle of emergency situations already proved to be a challenging task. It is the preparedness, continuous dialogue and open sharing that can help to gradually build-up the networks and partnerships based on trust and understanding. And this is a run on a long track. Nevertheless, the traditional international humanitarian actors already repeatedly expressed interest in understanding the functionality and potential of variety of technological tools as well as in partnering with the volunteer crisis mapping initiatives. Such collaboration can help to improve the collection and processing of data generated by the affected communities and the communication with crisis affected communities in general.

The above mentioned issues informed the decision to establish a crisis-mapping Standby Task Force (SBTF; announced at the ICCM conference in Boston in October 2010) in order to streamline online volunteer support for crisis mapping following lessons learned in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan and to provide a dedicated interface for the humanitarian community and this volunteer technical community focused on the core component crisis mapping.

In addition to that, UNOCHA (United Nation’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) Colombia requested the participation of the Standby Task Force in the earthquake simulation exercise in order to test the ability of the crisis mapping volunteer network to participate and contribute to the emergency operations. The request specifically mentioned deployment of an Ushahidi platform since this tool was initially tested by UNOCHA Colombia during the earthquake simulation in 2009. What else could be a better opportunity to test some of the ideas and suggested protocols that are a result of lessons learned process?

The OCHA exercise plan was to simulate an earthquake that causes significant structural damage and loss of lives. Internet is down or very spotty, making it difficult for responders to coordinate online. Mobile networks are affected, but not completely. People are still able to send SMS and make ad hoc calls, in some cases to send emails. Traditional local responders are heavily affected and their ability to respond to crisis and coordinate is very limited.

The SBTF was entering into this cooperation with specific objectives, particularly to test the SBTF activation protocols, work-flows designed for effective processing of emergency messages, to evaluate communication channels established for coordination, as well as to evaluate the ability of SBTF to respond to specific crisis mapping requests from humanitarian responders. This experience identified list of recommendations for the further development of such initiative.

While the SBTF participation in the Colombia Earthquake simulation was widely perceived as successful, the task force has identified a number of key issues that merit further attention. It is important to address these issues to improve the capacity of the SBTF to provide reliable, predictable and sustainable support to disaster-affected communities through coordination with local and international humanitarian responders.

Here is a summary of key findings:

  • SBTF’s human capacity should be increased both quantitatively (the current number of volunteers should be at least doubled) and qualitatively (the teams of volunteers have to be trained in variety of fields in order to be able to provide better support).
  • The SBTF internal structure should be improved with specific focus on identification and training of team coordinators.
  • Deployment and communication protocols need to be further discussed and finalized in close collaboration with the response coordination actors (such as UNOCHA).
  • SBTF core team should engage in ongoing discussion with humanitarian responders and other actors in the field of crisis mapping response to ensure that SBTF provides added value to the response operations and does not duplicate efforts of others.
  • The SBTF should improve the ability to provide analysis support. The provision of concise analysis to responders during simulation proved very useful in increasing their situational awareness.
  • The SBTF should improve the use of automated message translation system which showed very informative results that revealed its ability to expand the volunteer workforce’s capability to prioritize and categorize messages and therefore shortening the time necessary to translate and process reports.

For more detailed description and evaluation of the SBTF deployment see the attached document Standby Taskforce participation in OCHA Colombia Earthquake Simulation 2010”.

The SBTF volunteers expressed great satisfaction with the exercise and expressed strong interest in further learning and participation in SBTF operations. Also the feedback from responders is positive and confirmed interest in future development of protocols and cooperation.

Whether we like it or, people will use any available channel of communication to share and communicate their situation during crisis. The online crisis mapping volunteer community has an unique opportunity to become a facilitator in this process that can help to turn these conversations into data that are actionable for the humanitarian responders, both local and international. And simultaneously, the volunteer crisis mapping community can respond to the demand of the traditional humanitarian responders who seek the ways to more effectively incorporate the community generated data into their standard operating procedures. The question is not whether the community generated communication is useful or not, the question is HOW to make it useful. The Colombia EQ simulation gave us some valuable ideas what next steps should be taken towards the overall objective that is more effective and accountable communication with crisis affected communities.

Swift River: A tool for organizing Social Media Crisis Information

Post by: Kim Stephens

Although I usually don’t advocate any particular tool,  today I do want to talk about Swift River. Swift enables users to make sense of lots of information across the web in a timely manner. The ability to aggregate data is a key feature that should make this (mostly free) and open-source platform attractive to emergency managers.

Why do emergency managers need to aggregate data from the web and social media sites? The answer is simple, they don’t.  But, if your community is using social media to connect to citizens during non-disaster events, you should expect your citizens will use that same conduit to ask for assistance or to inform the city/county of problems during a crisis. The recent snow storm in the Northeast provided ample examples of how this may occur. Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, had an active twitter account before the blizzard–over a million followers; after the snow fell in prodigious amounts, the citizens used this communications platform to let him know about problems they were experiencing.

The pic left has a few examples, most were messages about streets that had not been plowed or problems with signs and fire hydrants. Although it appears he was able to handle the amount of information and questions that he had to sift through during the strom’s aftermath, I think this type of engagement made a lot of emergency managers nervous: How will we be able to keep up with the torrent of requests from citizens during large-scale disasters?

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to introduce SwiftRiver today. In the future–very near future, we will need to be able to do four things quickly:

  1. curate relevant/new situational awareness data as seen from our citizens’ perspective (they are everywhere–our city workers are not)
  2. verify information from non-governmental sources
  3. discard duplicative information
  4. display information in a interactive format with access to and from multiple agencies (including potentially volunteer organizations)

Currently there are not too many platforms that will do all of those tasks, but the folks at SwiftRiver have been working on this concept since March of 2009. From their website:

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.

The key word here in this description is  “users”. Although there is quite a bit of automation in this platform, it still requires actual humans to comb through the data. Some of the tedious work is eliminated, for example the software deletes duplicates or “flags” potential duplicative information, but the act of assigning a veracity score still depends on the user. If your organization does choose to employ a tool like this one, I would recommend that multiple people be trained on how to sort data. (Could this be a job for CERT members?)

This application works well with the mapping tool “Ushahidi” and its developers are members of the Ushahidi team. Ushahidi, at its core, is simply a platform that allows users to place information on a map. You might recall its use during the Haitian earthquake response in which volunteers mapped crowdsourced information regarding damage and injuries.

I expect that in the future there will be lots of competitors for the Swift product, but for now it is difficult to find anything with all of these capabilities. Nonetheless, the website still feels like a start-up.  I’m also not sure how long they will be able to offer the product for free. Currently they still list it as a “free and open source” platform, but their website has a tab for “pricing”.  I’m guessing parts of it will remain free, but organizations, such as  local governments, will probably be expected to pay for the service if they want to take full advantage of all of its capabilities.

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.