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New information technologies and their impact on the humanitarian sector

  • Patrick Meier
Abstract

New information and communication technologies are impacting the humanitarian sector in profound ways. Both crisis-affected communities and global volunteer networks are becoming increasingly digital. This means that the former are increasingly the source of relevant crisis information, while the latter are becoming more adept at managing and visualizing this information on live crisis maps. This article introduces the field of crisis mapping and provides key examples from Haiti, Russia, Libya, and Somalia to demonstrate how digitally empowered affected communities and volunteer networks are reshaping humanitarian response in the twenty-first century.

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1 Steven Livingston, ‘Africa's evolving infosystems: a pathway to security and stability’, research paper from the African Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University Press, Washington DC, March 2011, available at: http://africacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/ARP2_02072011.pdf (last visited March 2012).

2 See Computer Information System Company (CISCO), ‘CISCO visual networking index: global mobile data traffic forecast update, 2011–2016’, available at: http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns827/white_paper_c11-520862.html?utm_&&& (last visited March 2012).

3 S. Livingston, above note 1.

4 See CISCO, above note 2.

5 For a brief overview of various social media platforms, see ‘Social Media 101’, 9 December 2011, available at: http://www.cmlor.com/blog/social-media-101 (last visited March 2012).

6 Ibid.

7 Digital volunteers who are engaged in Volunteer and Technical Communities are playing an increasingly important role in humanitarian response, as noted in the Disaster 2.0 Report: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies published by the UN Foundation/OCHA/Vodafone Foundation/HPCR, available at: http://www.unfoundation.org/what-we-do/legacy-of-impact/technology/disaster-report.html (last visited March 2012). One such volunteer and technical community is the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), which was co-founded by the author and which figures as a case study in this article.

8 Andrew Turner, Introduction to Neogeography, O'Reilly Media, 2006, available at: http://pcmlp.socleg.ox.ac.uk/sites/pcmlp.socleg.ox.ac.uk/files/Introduction_to_Neogeography.pdf (last visited 17 May 2012).

9 The author, Patrick Meier, co-founded and co-directed this programme with Dr. Jennifer Leaning. For more information on the initiative, see: http://hhi.harvard.edu/programs-and-research/crisis-mapping-and-early-warning (last visited March 2012).

10 See ‘Crisis mappers: the humanitarian technology network’, available at: http://www.CrisisMappers.net (last visited Mach 2012).

11 See Ushahidi's website: http://www.Ushahidi.com (last visited March 2012). Ushahidi means ‘witness’ or ‘testimony’ in Swahili.

12 A political and humanitarian crisis escalated in Kenya after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner of the presidential elections that took place in December 2007. Supporters of the opposition candidate Raila Odinga cited extensive election fraud. A number of politicians and businessmen fuelled the tension, which resulted in some 600,000 displaced and over 1,000 killed. The Kenyan government played down the severity of the situation and placed some constraints on national media coverage.

13 The journalist Jeff Howe first coined the term ‘crowdsourcing’ in 2006 to explain a new phenomenon that he was observing. Some companies were no longer simply outsourcing work, but had begun to draw on a far larger ‘labour force’, namely anyone available and interested. Wikipedia is an example of a crowdsourced encyclopaedia. In Kenya, Ushahidi took the same approach to the collection of crisis information. Note, however, that the Ushahidi platform is an information collection and mapping tool whereas crowdsourcing is a methodology that can be used to collect information. Other methodologies, such as representative sampling, can also be used with the Ushahidi platform.

14 See International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2005 World Disasters Report: Focus on Information in Disasters, 1 October 2005, available at: http://www.ifrc.org/Global/Publications/disasters/WDR/69001-WDR2005-english-LR.pdf (last visited March 2012).

15 Message from the Ushahidi Haiti dataset, available (password protected) at: http://haiti.ushahidi.com (last visited March 2012).

16 About 1,200 volunteers from the Haitian diaspora, based in 49 different countries, translated some 80,000 text messages sent to 4636. Of these, about 2% (or 1,500) were mapped on the Ushahidi–Haiti platform.

17 Ushahidi Blog Post, ‘Taking stock of how we're doing’, available at: http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2010/02/06/ushahidi-how-we-are-doing (last visited March 2012).

18 Ushahidi blog post, ‘Crowdsourcing the response’, available at: http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2010/01/20/crowdsourcing-the-response/ (last visited March 2012).

19 See UN Foundation/OCHA/Vodafone Foundation/HPCR, above note 7.

20 See Patrick Meier, ‘Haiti and the power of crowdsourcing’, 26 January 2010, available at: http://irevolution.net/2010/01/26/haiti-power-of-crowdsourcing (last visited March 2012).

21 See OpenStreetMap's website at: http://www.openstreetmap.org; also see Andrew Turner, ‘OpenStreetMap Haiti’, 29 January 2010, available at: http://opensource.com/osm (both last visited March 2012).

22 See ‘OpenStreetMap in the first month after the Haiti quake’, available at: http://www.maploser.com/2010/09/06/openstreetmap-in-the-first-month-after-the-haiti-quake (last visited March 2012).

23 See Crisismappers' website at: http://crisismappers.net/page/iccm-2010-haiti-and-beyond (last visited March 2012).

24 See Standby Task Force, ‘On standby doesn't mean always-on: an update on the SBTF’, 27 March 2012, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com (last visited March 2012).

25 See Standby Task Force, ‘Our model’, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/our-model/ (last visited March 2012).

26 See Standby Task Force, ‘What we do’, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/about/what-we-do (last visited March 2012).

27 See Standby Task Force, ‘Deployments’, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/deployments (last visited March 2012).

28 See Standby Task Force, above note 25.

29 See ‘Al Jazeera's crisis map of the snowstorm emergency in the Balkans’, 22 February 2012, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/al-jazeeras-crisis-map-of-the-snowstorm-emergency-in-the-balkans (last visited March 2012).

30 See, for instance, the ‘Somalia Speaks’ project developed by Ushahidi in collaboration with Al Jazeera, Souktel, Crowdflower, and the African Diaspora Institute to aggregate and map out voices and stories from inside the country, available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/spotlight/somaliaconflict/somaliaspeaks.html (last visited March 2012).

31 Map available at: http://russian-fires.ru (last visited March 2012).

32 Gregory Asmolov, cited in Patrick Meier, ‘Information and communication technology in areas of limited statehood: a new form of governance?’, 3 April 2011, available at: http://irevolution.net/2011/04/03/icts-limited-statehood (last visited March 2012).

33 See Georgy Bovt, ‘Putin's vertical power disaster’, in Moscow Times, 13 August 2010, available at: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/putins-vertical-power-disaster/412296.html (behind paywall) (last visited March 2012).

34 See survey ‘Which source of information about fires in central Russia do you trust most?’ (ICRC translation), 2–4 August 2010, available in Russian at: http://www.vedomosti.ru/poll/opinions/48/748 (last visited March 2012).

35 See ‘Libya Crisis Map deployment 2011 report’, 1 September 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/libya-crisis-map-report (last visited March 2012).

36 See Andrej Verity, ‘The (unexpected) impact of the Libya Crisis Map and the Standby Volunteer Task Force’, 19 December 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/sbtf-libya-impact (last visited March 2012).

37 Ibid.

38 Josette Sheeran, ‘Excellent Libya Crisis Map can help UN, WFP plan humanitarian food, also 4 borders w/ Tunisia, Egypt’, Twitter message, 6 March 2011, available at: http://twitter.com/#!/JosetteSheeran/statuses/44358346014334976 (last visited March 2012).

39 CrowdGlobe survey conducted by author in December 2011.

40 Comment made at a World Vision-sponsored workshop in Geneva, in November 2011.

41 See A. Verity, above note 36.

42 Ibid.

43 Patrick Meier, ‘Crowdsourcing the analysis of satellite imagery for disaster response’, 6 October 2010, available at: http://irevolution.net/2010/10/06/crowdsourcing-satellite-imagery (last visited March 2012).

44 See ‘Crowdsourcing satellite imagery analysis for Somalia: results of trial run’, 31 August 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/somalia-imagery-analysis (last visited March 2012).

45 See ‘Crowdsourcing satellite imagery analysis for UNHCR-Somalia: latest results’, 10 November 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/unhcr-somalia-latest-results; also ‘Beyond brute force: unexpected lessons from crowdsourcing satellite imagery analysis for UNHCR in Somalia’, 22 November 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/unhcr-somalia-lessons (both last visited March 2012).

46 See ‘Thank You video from UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner’, 15 November 2011, available at: http://blog.standbytaskforce.com/thank-you-video-from-unhcrs-deputy-high-commissioner (last visited March 2012).

47 Message from the Crisis Mappers' Google Groups Forum, 12 February 2012.

48 See Patrick Meier, ‘Information forensics: five case studies on how to verify crowdsourced information from social media’, 29 November 2011, available at: http://irevolution.net/2011/11/29/information-forensics-five-case-studies (last visited March 2012).

49 See Patrick Meier, ‘Why bounded crowdsourcing is important for crisis mapping and beyond’, 7 December 2011, available at: http://irevolution.net/2011/12/07/why-bounded-crowdsourcing (last visited March 2012).

50 This methodology was used to perfection in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. See Patrick Meier, ‘How to use technology to counter rumors during crises: anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan’, 26 March 2011, available at: http://irevolution.net/2011/03/26/technology-to-counter-rumors (last visited March 2012).

51 See Peter van der Windt, ‘Voix des Kivus: a crowd-seeding system in DRC’, 16 May 2011, available at: http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2011/05/16/voix-des-kivus-a-crowd-seeding-system-in-drc (last visited March 2012).

52 See Patrick Meier, ‘Calling 911: what humanitarians can learn from 50 years of crowdsourcing’, 22 September 2010, available at: http://irevolution.net/2010/09/22/911-system (last visited March 2012).

53 See American Red Cross, ‘More Americans using social media and technology in emergencies’, available at: http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.94aae335470e233f6cf911df43181aa0/?vgnextoid=7a82d1efe68f1310VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD (last visited March 2012).

54 Gilbert, Claude, ‘Studying disaster: changes in the main conceptual tools’, in Quarantelli, E. L. (ed.), What is a Disaster? Perspectives on the Question, Routledge, London and New York, 1998, pp. 1118.

55 Hilhorst, Dorothea, ‘Complexity and diversity: unlocking social domains of disaster response’, in Bankoff, Greg, Frerks, Georg, and Hilhorst, Dorothea (eds), Mapping Vulnerability: Disasters, Development and People, Earthscan, London, 2004, pp. 5266.

56 See Patrick Meier, ‘How to crowdsource crisis response’, 14 September 2011, available at: http://irevolution.net/2011/09/14/crowdsource-crisis-response (last visited March 2012).

57 See Meg Garlinghouse, ‘The future of service is data’, available at: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679444/the-future-of-service-is-data (last visited March 2012).

58 The company's website is available at: http://www.sparked.com/ (last visited March 2012).

59 See ‘New app helps Queensland coordinate volunteers’, 2 March 2012, available at: http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20120302-new-app-helps-queensland-coordinate-volunteers (last visited March 2012).

60 See American Red Cross, ‘The American Red Cross and Dell launch first-of-its-kind social media digital operations center for humanitarian relief’, available at: http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.94aae335470e233f6cf911df43181aa0/?vgnextoid=1cc17852264e5310VgnVCM10000089f0870aRCRD (last visited March 2012).

* Patrick Meier blogs at iRevolution.net.

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International Review of the Red Cross
  • ISSN: 1816-3831
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