The post on this site “Data Data Everywhere…Monitoring Social Media in a Crisis” is my most popular, it seems everyone is looking for tools to help with the enormous task of organizing and making sense of the torrent of information provided through social media platforms during large scale incidents. Phd candidate Jakob Rogstadius of the University of Madeira‘s Interactive Technologies Institute commented on that post with a link to a new tool they are calling “CrisisTracker.” He indicated that the tool is currently being tested with a deployment in Syria to collect and organize millions of tweets related to the ongoing civil war. The tool’s design team includes researchers at Madeira University, University of Oulu and IBM Research.
See the video below which describes the platform and its functionality. The about page of their site also has some good information including a comparison between the tool and Ushahidi. They state:
The biggest difference between the platform and Ushahidi is that Ushahidi focuses on curation of user-submitted reports, while CrisisTracker mines Twitter for reports, clusters them, and supports curation of report clusters. Both systems require humans to annotate pieces of information with meta-data such as location and report category.
The Brisbane, Australia City Council has deployed a Ushahidi map in response to flooding occuring in their community. What is Ushahidi? Watch the 2 minute video on their website, but in general the software allows for reports from anyone (the public, first responders, government agencies) to be submitted and posted to an interactive map.
For this instance of Ushahidi they are currently only displaying three categories of information: flooded roads, road closures and sandbag locations. For example, the map above shows a pink dot for all road closures. Brisbane City Council also has a twitter feed they are using to not only provide critical information, but also to advertise the map’s existence. Citizens can report information about the flood by sending a tweet to the hashtag #bccroads or by filling in the form on the website. People are also clearly sending information by “@” messaging the Council via twitter. (Ushahidi has a mobile platform, however, I’m not sure if that application is being utilized for this event.) I like how the Council replies to the reports of flooding by also reminding the citizen, as well as everyone else, about the map.
The benefit of this map, which includes highly decentralized, hyper-local information, is demonstrated by simply clicking on one of the icons. Each blue dot represents a road closure that the user can click to obtain the full report, pictured above. This report states “Bowman Parade (road) is currently experiencing localized flooding. Please do not attempt to drive through flood waters.” The platform also allows the user to understand if the information has been verified or not, and in this case, is has been. There are 64 reports currently listed.
This isn’t groundbreaking. However, I am intrigued that a government agency has so completely embraced crowdsourced information. They understand that first responders can’t be everywhere, but citizens, armed with cell phones and an easy way to report what they are seeing, can provide critical, life-saving information for the benefit of everyone. I read a blog post just yesterday by an American first responder who lamented that there was no great way to gather information from the crowd. I’m always a bit surprised to read posts like that, which is why I continue to write about Ushahidi and similar applications. If you are aware of any US government, local or state, that has deployed Ushahidi, let me know.
The disaster events of 2011 demonstrated the power of social media to connect survivors to the outside world. This one-minute video created by Twitter provides a visual demonstration of the volume of content on their platform an hour before and an hour after the earthquake. As an aside, Twitter is just one of many social networks used in Japan, Mixi and Facebook are actually more popular.
The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, however, also served as a reminder to the emergency management community of the challenges we would face with regard to monitoring and analyzing the vast amount of information literally spewing from these sources. With 1000s of tweets per minute, there is too much information for a couple of individuals to process or even read, much less analyze. As I mentioned in another post, computer processing of all of this data is coming in the near future. Companies in the web-based content management business, such as PIER, are working to provide systems that not only help publish information to social networks, but filter social media user-generated content as well. Since I have not seen a demonstration of the tool, I cannot speak to its effectiveness, but my guess is that this is a problem many entrepreneurs are working to solve.
Volunteers Lead the Way
Organizations, however, such as the all volunteer Stand By Task Force (SBTF)–founded in 2010, understand that computer processing will only provide part of the solution. The SBTF’s organizational structure can be described by the concept of “Bound Crowdsourcing.” Jeff Howe, defines crowdsourcing as outsourcing a task in the form of an open call, which can leverage the power of many “to accomplish feats that were once the responsibility of a specialized few.” Bound crowdsourcing, according to one of the founders of SBTF, Dr. Patrick Meier, still relies on an open call, however, participants must meet a certain criteria, including training, before they can contribute.
The SBTF currently has a volunteer team of over 700 geographically dispersed, highly skilled “crisismappers”. Crisismapping, according to their definition, involves four key components: information collection, visualization, analysis and response. These individuals sort data obtained for the most part through open sources, including social media, into categories; verify the content; geo-locate where the information came from and place a symbol on a visualization platform, such as Ushahidi; analyze the content and provide summary reports. They also can provide other highly technical expertise, as well as translation. The services they offer depend, however, on the needs of the requestor. But in order to ask for their help you must meet their very specific activation criteria. Listed below are two of their 6:
In general, TF is activated only if the request is in compliance with the TF general principles: to provide dedicated live mapping support to organizations in the humanitarian, human rights, election monitoring and media space, with a focus on local organizations.
The TF will activate in two types of crisis: (i) a humanitarian emergency declared under the International Charter Space & Major Disaster, or (ii) a political situation that may lead to a major humanitarian disaster. The TF will in any case evaluate the activation on a case by case basis.
These skills have not gone unnoticed. This year the United Nations formally asked for their assistance during the crisis in Libya. Watch the video below describing this experience.
The SBTF is a “best of” SMEM for 2011 because they are working to solve the very problems that make social media a daunting undertaking for the emergency management community. This example, however, should also make us rethink the possible. Do we need to wait around until expensive computer processing tools are available, or can we organize ourselves to use the resources we can find in our own community, or even the global community?
I recently gave a talk to University Emergency Managers about how they can use social media to enhance their communications with students, particularly during the preparedness and response phases. This presentation is available here: Social Media’s Application for Universities.
The great thing about talking to this audience is that they understand that almost 100% of their population is using web-based and/or mobile communications. Therefore, I spend zero time putting up statistics on who is using social media and why it’s important. They get it. So instead, I introduce some concepts and ideas they might not have considered.
Universities are adept at using social media for public relations, as an example, Texas A&M’s main facebook page has 200,000+ fans. But when it comes to communicating public safety information the number of fans on those pages (both the emergency management page and the campus police page) drops dramatically. This almost begs the question whether or not this information should be posted to the main site. Some universities have already come to that conclusion, and I think it is probably a good idea.
I have also found that quite a bit of emergency preparedness info is still very much stuck in a web 1.0 world. We all have an arsenal of “fact sheets” and quite a few emergency management organizations simply post them to their website. One sheet, not from A&M, described the dangerous localized flooding that occurs almost every year in and around the University. The page implored the kids to “KNOW YOUR FLOOD RISK”. However, I have to wonder how many student ever saw or read that sheet. There are a lot of things competing for students’ attention, to say the least. Hazard identification is probably not at the top of the list–unless of course they are geography students.
So, even if information is posted to the most trafficked site, and not in the form of a bland fact sheet, how can we ensure our message gets through, particularly preparedness information that tends to be ignored?
1. Games. One new hot term is “gamification.” It is described as “the process of using game thinking and game mechanics to solve problems and engage users.” In other words, not only making something fun but also challenging and rewarding. The reward does not have to be tangible, in fact, it turns out earning status is more of an incentive than earning a trinket.
Some Universities are already using mobile or web-based platforms to engage student with games like SCVNGR, mostly to orient freshman students to campus. The game is a mobile application for iPhone or Android. Others are designing their own scavenger hunts using applications such as Foursquare. Texas A&M used this app to encourage all of their students to explore the campus (5200 acres) but with the unadvertised motive of boosting the number of student followers to the University’s twitter account.
Although this example did not include emergency preparedness information, I have to ask, why not have students find campus safety features such as tornado shelters, fire extinguishers, evacuation routes or even identify hazards, such as the aforementioned flash flood areas?
2. Games or prizes for visitors One issue for campus emergency managers is that there are often huge influxes of visitors to their campuses for special events, particularly sporting events. How can we get information to these folks? Twitter has a handy fast follow feature that’s well known to the #SMEM community but not as well known by others. A University Office of Emergency Management could ask visitors to text from their cell phones to the number 40404 “follow @universityEMA” . This would allow campuses to get all kinds of information into the palm of every visitor. In order to get people to use the feature, a free cola product could be offered at the football game, for example. In order to make people understand the benefit, tweets should have useful info such as what streets on campus are closed to traffic and how to most quickly exit the parking lot. But don’t forget to remind people how to turn the feature off after they leave!
3. Crowdsourcing. Challenges, like the ones the federal government have been designing since early 2009–see challenge.gov, work by asking the public or the “crowd” to submit solutions in order to win a reward, usually a small sum of cash but occasionally just status. Universities are particularly well suited for this type of innovate problem solving because they have 1. a huge talent pool to pull from and 2. class credit and other natural campus incentives to give away (football season passes, etc). The emergency management community should get into the act by creating a challenge designed to find creative ways to get preparedness information to the student body. This is also important because if we try to create something #fun students might see it as #lame.
4. Crowdsourcing after the crisis. Patrick Meier of Ushahidi, I believe, was the first person to coin the term “bound crowdsourcing”. This concept limits the crowd to a smaller group of trusted agents. As an example, monitoring information from social media after a crisis would not have to be a completely open process, but could be limited to this group of trusted sources (e.g. a twitter list of these folks could be constructed) . This is another thing college campuses have in abundance, a plethora of people that are trusted with student safety everyday: graduate assistants, professors, resident advisors and staff. I propose that these people could be trained to send information to emergency services after a crisis via text message or twitter in order to indicate the situation around campus–particularly non-emergency information. SMS text or twitter are important because they tax bandwidth much less than voice. I can envision this working after a crisis where, for example, professors or RAs could text whether or not all of their students are accounted for and provide prelimarly damage assessment information as well.
School is starting soon and September is National Preparedness Month. Let’s get creative!
The storms in Joplin, MO serve as yet one more reminder of the important roles social media play in a crisis. It seems after every event social media serve these same 5 or 6 functions:
1. Documentation of the event.
Photos and videos are usually the first thing to start coming across the social media “wire”. This is not lost on the national news media. This tweet above is by NBC Nightly News and they ask people to”tweet or email us your photos & videos”. The Missouri government has also asked for people to send in their pictures and videos:
But there were plenty of pics circulating through social media immediately after the event. Here is an interactive photo stream that has some very dramatic shots, including of the hospital that took a direct hit. The picture above was shared through twitpic and is of tangled semi-trucks, illustrating the power of the storm. Click here for a larger image. (Picture via twitpic @cris34k) The YouTube video that seemed to be the most widely circulated was one with little images at all. It’s popularity (over 37,000 hits at time of writing) is probably due to the shear terror in the people’s voices. One of my fellow twitter friends pointed out that the video also demonstrates people’s ability to remain calm and help the others in the room. Listen to it yourself, but be prepared to tear up.
2. I’m safe! and 3. Where are my friends and family?
In the immediate aftermath of the storm people in the impacted and surrounding area found trying to use the regular phone lines an exercise in futility and turned instead to social media and texting. This was mentioned briefly in an article about the storm in “The Wichita Eagle” newspaper:
Phone communications in and out of the city of about 50,000 people were largely cut off. Travel through and around Joplin was difficult, with Interstate 44 shut down and streets clogged with emergency vehicles and the wreckage of buildings…
Some people [on social networking sites] were quick to post that they and their families are OK, or to get the word out that loved ones are missing or homes were destroyed. Others found themselves without access to phones because of overburdened phone lines, but able to text and use social media.
For those who were not able to find their loved ones immediately, the American Red Cross has also set up a “Safe and Well” website. People can register themselves as safe and family members can search through the registry. This information has also been widely circulated through social media sites. It seems not everyone is using the Safe and Well resource, however. There are many places to find people asking for information about their loved ones. Some are just simply tweeting the name of the missing and asking for folks to (RT) retweet the information so that it reaches as broad and audience as possible. And, almost every social media site I visited has some element of missing persons.
One Facebook page that was created to assist people find loved ones is entitled:Joplin Tornado Citizen Checks : neighbors helping neighbors. This page was stood up less than 24 after the storm and already has almost 3000 “likes”. The info tab does not give any description of who created the page, but under the content tab it states:
If you are looking for someone- please post ONE thread in the Discussions, with the name and general location of the person in the title. Others, please scroll the discussions to see if you have any information about people being searched for.
I’ve seen many, many postings from out of state family members asking about the elderly or those who live alone. We need a grassroots effort to help neighbors out. Please post where you are located, and someone can post on your comment if their family member lives nearby enough for you to check. We need to help each other!
Here is an incomplete list of hospitals that took St Johns patients and people injured in the tornado:
Integris Baptist Health Center in Miami – 918-542-6611
McCune Brooks Hospital in Carthage 417-358-8121
St. John’s Hospital in Springfield 417-820-2000
Via Christi in Pittsburg 620-231-6100
Barton County hospital in Lamar 417-681-5700
Labette County hospital in Parsons Ks. 620 421 4881
In addition, people have been found in Springdale and Kansas City hospitals.
4. Where to get/give help.
This function via social media is just gearing up (less than 24 hours after the storm), but with that said, there’s already quite a few lists of where to donate items and where to receive help. The State of Missouri itself is working to build a list of aid dropoff locations and sent out the following tweet:
On Craiglist a Joplin Tornado Volunteers List has been created that has aggregated information about the storm to including useful Facebook pages and crowd sourced maps. This “Joplin Tornado How-to-help” page set up by msnbc.com, however, seems to have an even better list of online resources.
One Facebook page entitled: Joplin, Mo Tornado Recovery is up and running and has almost 73,000 “likes”. I honestly can not tell what organization has put this page up, but the “about” page states: “Find out how to help those suffering from the Joplin, MO tornado. To find disaster information, shelter information and referrals, please call 211…” So far this page mostly has posts from well wishers as well as people interested in helping and asking about what items are needed and where to go, etc. There is also a mix of people mentioning loved ones that are missing.
A crowdmap powered by the Ushahidi software has also already been stood up, and as of writing, reports include information about donated items as well as information regarding where to go to volunteer. There are also reports of people missing. Here’s a sample:
“Golden Paws Pet Resort is accepting animals that need shelter because their owners have lost their homes.”
From Twitter: Meek’s #Joplin has Emergency Supplies (Water, Chainsaws, Tarps, ETC) available & is open.
Volunteer reception site set up at Missouri Southern State University at the Beimdiek Recreation Center.
“Cat litter and pet carriers needed. Phone number…”
5. Recovering Lost Items (Pets, and in this case Hospital records!)
One very interesting aspect to this disaster is the personal hospital record data that was strewn across 60 miles. One person on twitter indicated it was a HIPPA nightmare. It seems that people are being honest about wanting to return the found items and St. Johns will be using their facebook page to direct people on how to do that. As you can see in the item below, right now they are telling people to just “hang on to these items at this time”.
Lost pets are always an issue after a crisis and social media helps people find their lost furry or even feathery loved ones. The facebook page Animals Lost and Found from Joplin, MO, Tornado has over 2000 “Likes” less than 24 hours after the crisis, and as of time of writing, has people posting to the site about once per minute. The site includes a lot of people posting that they can foster animals and that they are willing to help in other ways as well, and of course, there are some pics of missing and found animals. This site doesn’t seem to be hosted by the humane society or the ASPCA, but does appear to be modeled after the Animals Lost & Found from the Tornadoes in Alabama on 4/27/11 (which has over 32,000 likes). I can’t help but wish people would post their credentials to these facebook sites, or at least write on the info tab who they are. Nonetheless, they are popular and they appear to be doing a good job.
One last item, that might be the most important of all–government agencies are reminding people that they should not self-deploy to the scene of this crisis:
Here is a great video by PBS published May 13, 2011 that explains the power of crisis mapping. They explore its use in Haiti to the most recent crisis in Libya.
This extraordinary ability to connect has turned a modern convenience into a lifeline through a system called crisis mapping. It first gained prominence after the earthquake in Haiti, when people used their cell phones to send text messages to a centralized response team. Since then, crisis mapping has been used to help victims in emergency zones following the tornadoes in the Midwest, the earthquake in Japan and the unrest in the Middle East.
Whenever someone presents the concept of using social media for emergency management to people new to the medium, the same questions emerge again and again. I’m not going to pretend I have the answers to all of these questions, but I would like to put forth the top 3 questions and propose that the SMEM community develop a repository of FAQs with succinct answers to be housed at either the First Responders Communities of Practice “MakingAmerica Safer through Social Media” portal (registration required), and/or the sm4em.org website. The answers I’m giving below are examples and by no means 100% complete.
1. How do you know who you are talking to when you are using social media?
I can almost understand why this is a question. Looking through available information for government agency types on the Howto.gov website, most of the content relates mostly to “pushing” information. There’s only one sentence about answering questions directly from the public, in which they implore you to, ironically, “Be a real person”. So, how do you know the person on the other end of the conversation is a real, particularly on twitter?
Read through the twitter rules for some comfort regarding how they deal with account impersonation:
What is impersonation?
Impersonation is pretending to be another person or entity in order to deceive. Impersonation is a violation of the Twitter Rules and may result in permanent account suspension. Twitter users are allowed to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts. Please refer to Twitter’s Parody Policy for more information about these accounts. Accounts with the clear intent to confuse or mislead may be permanently suspended.
Observe twitter in action by signing up and participating in the medium. You will learn that the people are as real as the people in your email inbox (and yes, your email inbox gets spam too).
2. How do you know the information is true/valid?
There really isn’t a succinct answer to this question, it depends on many factors. If a response organization is trying to verify large amounts of data from social media streams during a crisis, Swiftriver is one of the few tools I’m aware of for this function. I’ve written about it before, but here’s a summary:
SwiftRiver is a free and open source platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short amount of time. The SwiftRiver platform was born out of the need to understand and act upon a wave of massive amounts of crisis data that tends to overwhelm in the first 24 hours of a disaster. Since then, there has been a great deal of interest in this tool for other industries, such as news rooms and brand monitoring groups.
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. This might include journalists and other media institutions, emergency response groups, election monitors and more.
If you are not employing a filtering tool, such as the one mentioned above, you can understand the validity of the information in various ways:
Through your understanding of the person sending you the information, e.g. have they sent me correct information before?.
Through deduction, e.g. CNN has not reported an earthquake yet, but I can see on TrendsMap hundreds of tweets coming from Japan indicating they’ve had an earthquake.
Or by aggregation (20 people are saying very similar things about an event).
There are many articles and blog posts that address this topic, here are a few:
3. What is the Return of investment (ROI)/and how much time does SM take; how do you measure success? (These are all related so I lumped them together.)
The community interested in social media and emergency management needs to come up with a succinct answer to these related questions in order to dispel the myth that social media is an expensive endeavor that has no real rate of return and that participation requires too much staff or personal time. As a point of comparison, the 311 system was implemented in some cities in order to take pressure off of the 911 system, and this effect has been documented; similar research might be required for social media interactions. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence indicates that people will not call EOCs or 911 as often if they have information through other means. When you are talking on the phone, almost by definition, you are talking to one person–that is very time-consuming. But by answering a person’s question on a social media platform there’s a high probability that you’ve answered that question for others. Here are a few other points:
News media will not call PIOs begging for updates if they are receiving a constant stream of info from twitter or RSS feeds (according to an account by Jeremy Heidt, PIO Tennessee Emergency Management Agency).
Citizens post questions and concerns directly to facebook page or ask through twitter accounts rather than calling (QPSMedia, Australia).
The amount of time spent going through email decreases (EMs Cheryl Bledsoe and Jeff Philips both indicate this has happened for them).
People start showing up to events that were never well attended before (this is a recurring story from MANY different public agencies I’ve spoken to).
People will turn to you in droves if you supply information on social media platforms: In Australia the “likes” on the Queensland Police Service facebook page pre-flooding crisis=6,400: post crisis=165,000. (I’d say that’s a pretty good measure of success.)
The IACP Social Media “how-to” website site does have an analytics fact sheet if you are interested in hard numbers to measure social media success. But in general, if you are doing social media effectively and are fully committed, you will know you are successful based on the feedback you are getting from the community. You could measure this good will by taking surveys of people’s opinion of your agency, as long as you have a similar survey to compare it with pre-social media. We aren’t the only ones worrying about this topic. Read this transcript of this discussion of local government types in Great Britain. The top suggestion, I thought:
Measure channel shift & behavior change. Measure ratio online v offline interactions to see the effect digital communications have.
None of this is as easy as we’d like it to be. But maybe a FAQ repository would be a good start. Please add questions you are hearing as a comment. I hope we can take this up as SMEMchat topic as well.
My last post discussed the Queensland Police Department’s effective use of social media during the current flooding disaster to disseminate information. Now I would like to turn to examples of how social media can facilitate “citizen helping citizen”. Citizens aiding each other during a crisis is obviously not new, what is new is the ability to leverage technology, such as social media and crowdsourcing platforms, to amplify efforts and potentially even take some of the pressure off traditional response organizations.
Eventually, it would be worth examining the efficacy of these campaigns based on some sort of established criteria. For example, the five criteria outlined in Ushahidi’s own evaluation of their effort in Haiti were: relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, impact, and sustainability. But for now, I’d like to just catalog some examples of these endeavors and take a quick stab at their relevance based on number of users/distribution.
1. Citizen to Citizen Aid: Housing
Finding shelter is a common problem in any disaster. But Oz Flood Help.org (a “social media project by “Get-Up Australia”) has essentially crowdsourced the problem by providing a platform where people can describe their housing needs and then be matched with homeowners willing to open their doors. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen home-sharing sites, during the Colorado wildfires around the Boulder area there was a similar effort. This one, however, seems to have more widespread participation, with about 400 homes offered–22 pages of homes were listed at time of writing.
OzFloodHelp is provided on an “as is” basis, and without any warranties, representations or conditions, express or implied, in respect of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose.
Under no circumstances are we liable or responsible to you for: (a) any direct loss, claims or damages (including negligence and breach of contract); or (b) any special, punitive, indirect or consequential loss including loss of profit or revenue, loss of data, loss of opportunities, loss of goodwill or reputation, or liabilities arising from third parties, (even if we have been advised of the possibility of your loss) resulting from any aspect of your use, or inability to use, OzFloodHelp or the Services.
You indemnify us, our officers, directors, employees, agents, affiliates and representatives against any claim, loss or damage incurred by you or any third party arising directly or indirectly in connection with your use of OzFloodHelp and the Services.
2. Citizen to Citizen Aid: Pets
Finding your lost pets is another common problem in a crisis. Facebook pages, such as the one pictured on the right, have sprung up to fill this need. The “Lost and Found” site uses the power of social media to disseminate information about animals affected by this event. The stated goal is simply “just hoping this page can help to reunite some owners with their pets after the devastating floods that have hit QLD 2011”. As stated in the paper “Crowdsourcing Critical Success Factor Model” by Ankit Sharma, one criteria for success is sufficient crowd participation. That seems like an obvious criteria when trying to reunite animals with owners. This site, with over 10,000 fans, seemed to be a great example.
3. Citizen to Citizen: Situational Awareness Information
The Australian Broadcasting Company is currently using the Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform as a way to determine the extent of the flood’s impact by receiving reports directly from the citizens. They stated reason for the effort: “ABC correspondents, reporters, presenters and photographers have been covering many dimensions of the flood disaster. However, the mainstream media cannot be everywhere at once.”
Their goals: “This Crowdmap aims to combine verified reports from government agencies and media outlets including the ABC but potentially invaluable information supplied by people like you, who simply see, hear or record incidents or situations due to the floodwaters.” They indicate that they are “particularly interested in incidents (things that “happen”) or situations which provide useful information to those affected by this disaster. This includes situations such as: Property Damage; Road and Bridge Closures; Evacuations; Injuries and Electricity Outages.” In other words, situational awareness data.
As of writing, they had 99,769 reports filed with about 99% of them verified. (By quickly looking through the data, however, it’s easy to spot exact duplicates). The reports are broken down into categories listed below. The best part of the platform just might be the ability to receive location-based Alerts based on categories of interest, although I think one shortfall is that you can only receive them as an email. Anyone can sign up to receive alerts on the following categories:
Recovery Assistance Required
Again, the efficacy of this campaign will need to be studied, but the amount of reports is initially impressive. I’d be interested to know, however, if local response organizations signed up for alerts and if they did, did it provide them with any new information? Did it aid them in their response efforts? At least local officials are aware of the map: the QLD police facebook page included a link to the platform.
I’m sure there are many more examples, but I think these three give a taste of the impact social media and technology are having in crisis response and recovery, and it is especially interesting to see this unfold in a modern country with a modern response apparatus. There is a lot to learn from this event.
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.
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.
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:
curate relevant/new situational awareness data as seen from our citizens’ perspective (they are everywhere–our city workers are not)
verify information from non-governmental sources
discard duplicative information
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.