We are increasingly interconnected by modern technology. Web 2.0 allowed people not only to post information about their daily lives, but also activated decentralized forms of crisis management in natural disasters, conflicts and emergencies. I want to draw your attention to one of the aspects of this revolution: engaging online volunteers in crowdsourcing and crisis mapping. (For clarification on terminology, see: Diary of a Crisis Mapper)
Since the launch of the first open-source Ushahidi platform dedicated to reporting human rights violations during the post-election unrest in Kenya in 2008, more than 20,000 maps were created and used to record earthquakes, floods, elections, human rights violations, food insecurity.
In 2010, during the earthquake in Haiti, 80,000 text messages were sent to a dedicated SMS short code “4636” with information on urgent needs of the population.
Crisis maps have been set up to support information sharing in sudden short-term emergencies as well as in long-term political crises, such as the Syria Tracker Crisis Map.
Analyzing the large amount of data created in this way would not be possible without teams of global online volunteers working around-the-clock. Humanitarian and development workers began to understand such contribution and integrate it with their own efforts.
I started working on crisis mapping as an online volunteer in 2011, verifying reports for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Libya Crisis Map. Reports were created in real-time, based on traditional and social media, text messages, online videos and photos and they varied from information on emergency supplies and civilian casualties to locations of displaced populations.
The task required a rigorous search for supporting evidence. What did I learn? First, that all information can be potentially unreliable and needs to be triangulated with other sources, even information from reputable media sources.
Most recently, as part of a network of over 700 volunteers, the Standby Task Force, I contributed to the first crowdsourcing event organized by USAID to code and research information on 20,000 records related to economic programming. It drew great attention from volunteers who finished the three-day assignment in just 16 hours!
Why is this interesting?
The main advantages of the combination of online volunteering, crowdsourcing and crisis mapping lie in the ability to process large amounts of data from affected populations in real-time and distill the most critical information from them.
Workflows and tasks (or rather micro-tasks) can be very flexible and complement the face-to-face information sharing often impossible due to human resources constraints and logistical problems.
What are the challenges?
As this is a very new field, many challenges are recognized with time and use, but the most important include:
- The need for common procedures for verification of submitted data,
- Establishing feedback mechanisms between volunteers and people on the ground, and
- Privacy and identity protection.
The last one is perhaps the most important as in political crises the data collected for crisis maps may be manipulated or misused against people.
Could we use it more in our work?
Would you be willing to share the development space with volunteers?