Post by: Kim Stephens
Photo courtesy FEMA photo library: Heckleburg, AL
A couple of weeks ago the #SMEMchat group discussed crowdsourcing and crisismapping and I’d like to revisit that topic again today. Whenever I give talks on this subject a lot of people indicate that they have never heard of crowdsourcing. But the wikipedia definition is fairly straightforward: Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call. Jeff Howe, one of the first authors to employ the term, established that the concept of crowdsourcing depends essentially on the fact that because it is an open call to an undefined group of people, it gathers those who are most fit to perform tasks, solve complex problems and contribute with the most relevant and fresh ideas.
I think this definition is best understood by using an example. If you have ever watched the local news and heard the station ask folks to send in pictures of an event (usually weather) then you are witnessing crowdsouring. There is an implicit incentive structure here: the local news channel gets to choose from hundreds of pictures and does not have to hire a photographer; those who contribute get to have their picture shown on television. (There are many books and articles written on this topic–see my bibiliography, I have an entire section on the topic.)
Essentially there are two types of crowdsourcing during a crisis:
1. The provision of intelligence/information.
During this past week’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs hearing on the importance of social media in emergency management, the Administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, alluded to crowdsourcing by referring to citizens as sources of information. The “task” that is being outsourced is simply the task of providing information from the field. This information answers the first question after a crisis: What just happened?
Image via Wikipedia
In Administrator Fugate’s written testimony, he states: “We value two-way communication not only because it allows us to send important disaster-related information to the people who need it, but also because it allows us to incorporate critical updates from the individuals who experience the on-the-ground reality of a disaster.” In other words, the technology now exist to crowdsource the inflow of critical data regarding the situation after a crisis. Just like the local news station asking people send in pictures, emergency managers can have access to information that allows them to understand the event from the perspective of those immediately impacted, just by monitoring YouTube. For example, there were hundreds of videos of the tornados in Alabama on Youtube, posted in realtime, giving anyone with a computer or a smart phone a great perspective on the amount of damage that likely occurred. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HhzDs1B4YA&feature=related
2. Gathering/Sorting/Making Sense of Crisis Data
If people in emergency management are uncomfortable with data provided by the crowd via social media, then this second type of crowdsourcing is even more uncomfortable: Asking the “crowd” to help gather and sort this data. The emergency management community, however, should understand this concept because it has become a reality after every recent disaster.
There are many organizations whose stated missions are to help organize the crowd as well as the data: CrisisCommons, Org9, Humanity Road, Crisismappers: StandbyCrisis Task Force; Sahana, Tweak the Tweet, and Ushahidi–I’m sure I’m missing a few. The mission of CrisisCommons and the sub-group CrisisCamp–whose co-founder Heather Blanchard also testified before the above-mentioned congressional committee, can serve as an example of the type of support these groups provide after a crisis:
…to connect a global network of volunteers who use creative problem solving and open technologies to help people and communities in times and places of crisis. CrisisCampers are not only technical folks like coders, programmers, geospatial and visualization ninjas, but we are also filled to the brim with super creative and smart folks who can lead teams, manage projects, share information, search the internet, translate languages, know usability, can write a research paper and can help us edit wikis.
The recent tornadoes provide a great example of all of the above mentioned groups’ work. One of the task they are currently performing can be boiled down to one sentence: matching need with the desire to help. This, of course, is fundamental task after a crisis: all disaster plans have Volunteer and Donations Management Support Annexes because it is well understood that if not well organized and planned for, volunteers and donations can sometimes hinder instead of help the response and recovery efforts. Furthermore, volunteers that are turned away can become vocal about not being “allowed” to help, creating a political problem for the responding organizations as well.
One of the main tasks these new volunteer organizations perform is what Patrick Meier, co-founder of CrisisMappers, describes as crowdfeeding: providing information from the crowd for the crowd–skirting or bypassing the “official” response organizations altogether.
How is this done? New communications technologies, such as social media, allow people to broadcast their needs to anyone willing to listen. Above is an example of a “tweaked” or MT–modified tweet, by a Humanity Road volunteer. The stated need was posted by the Salvation Army, who tweeted that they are serving meals for volunteers (the hyperlink provided allows those interested in helping serve get more information). RVAREGal simply tweaked the information so that it could easily be read by a computer for inclusion in a database. She added hashtags for #need, #info and location #loc. As this database of information is built, it can then be upload into a visualization platform, such as Ushahidi. This has been done in support of the southern storms and you can view it at Alabama Recovery Information Map.
The Ushahidi map is a not only a visualization of the information, but also creates an entire ecosystem: links to original source, the date it was submitted (which is key since this information does expire); a description of the information and additional reports with similar data; as well as a form to submit needs or resources directly.
In conclusion, I always like to ask: what are we learning?
- Non-governmental organizations and the volunteer technical community are working to gather data from the crowd after a crisis and put it into platforms easily used and understood by the general public–they are not waiting for permission by any government agency, and they are usually not registered as a “VOAD”.
- The public freely shares information about their situation (I need help/I can provide help) on social platforms that can be seen by anyone in the world–not just local response officials.
- Response organizations could turn to the volunteer technical community for help in sorting through large amounts of data after a crisis in order to process it into usable information.
As Patrice Cloutier stated on the chat, “We ask the public to be prepared, with social media plus mobile technology, they also want to participate….embrace it!”
For more information on the origins and descriptions of crisis mapping see “What is Crisis Mapping? An Update on the Field and Looking Ahead” by Patrick Meier.