I know I am not the best and most diplomatic person ever ever when it comes to arguing about things that I know about. On the other side I am also a big fan of the theory that if you don’t know what you are talking about, then you better just not talk about it.
In the past year I have eyewitness a lot of conversations, blog posts, papers and so on, on Crisis Mapping, Crowdsourcing and related issues that were completely misleading, not because the statements or the ideas in it were wrong, but because the underlying definition that the authors had about the subject that they were addressing was fundamentally wrong.
For this reason I want this blog post to be a sort of Glossary, a kind of “check list” for people talking about specifically Crisis Mapping, Crisis Mappers, crowdsourcing and Ushahidi related issues, to be used when they want to write about it. This is not because I think I have the Truth, actually I am far from being an expert in this subject, but because if we want to continue having constructive conversations about sensitive topics like security, privacy, verification of information crowdsourcing projects and so on, we need to make sure that we are indeed clear on what we are talking about.
TOOLS, METHODOLOGIES AND PEOPLE
One of the most comment mistake done by several people is the one were methodologies, tools and groups of people/organizations are mixed together as if they indicate the same thing.
Let’s start from the very first definition according to the dictionary:
- Tool: a device used to implement, esp. one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
- Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity
- People: human beings in general or considered collectively
An example of misleading discussions about this very issue is this new piece from the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) where Crisis Mappers (a group of people) seem to be necessarily associated with doing Crowdsourcing (a methodology) and indeed only using the Ushahidi platform (a tool). This association of thoughts crowdsourcing-crisismapping-ushahidi platform is very common, and the mistake done by the authors of this piece is not new – or a single case.
So let’s look closely at this problem.
When people talk about Ushahidi, they are indeed talking about a tool most of the time, but they get confused because the same Ushahidi word is also the name of an organization. What this means is that the specific tool in question can be used by different group of people, applied to different topics and used with different methodologies. Example: this Ushahidi platform used to collect data bout the best burger/fries in the US makes use of the crowdsourcing methodology, using a specific tool. The fact that they are using Ushahidi does not make this project a Crisis Mapping project, for example.
You can also use the Ushahidi platform but not do crowdsourcing and still do crisis mappig if your platform is used in the context of collecting, analyzing and displaying information in a crisis context.
On the other side they may be talking about Ushahidi Inc. the organization, and in this case they are talking about a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software. Ushahidi Inc. is indeed NOT responsible for all Ushahidi deployment around the world, as Bill Gates is not responsible for all the documents written using Microsoft Office Word.
So here there is the little “glossary” I promised you:
CRISISMAPPING (field): Crisis Mapping is by definition a cross-disciplinary field. Crises can be financial, ecological, humanitarian, etc., but these crises all happen in time and space, and necessarily interact with social networks. We may thus want to learn how different fields such as health, environment, biology, etc., visualize and analyze large complex sets of data to detect and amplify or dampen specific patterns.
Crisis Mapping can be then described as the combination of the following 3 components: information collection, visualization and analysis. Of course, all these elements are within the context of a dynamic, interactive map. So it is possible to use the following taxonomy:
- Crisis Map Sourcing
- Crisis Map Visualization
- Crisis Map Analysis
CROWDSOURCING (methodology): Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. In the classic use of the term, problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—submit solutions. Solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer. The contributor of the solution is, in some cases, compensated either monetarily, with prizes, or with recognition.
The term is nowadays also used to indicate collaborative problem solving or collaborative and distributive activities, which do not necessarily comes from a direct open call to solve a problem. Media monitoring for example, collecting information form social media like twitter and facebook, can be called passive crowdsourcing – meaning that the crowd is not necessarily answering to a call, but the crowdsourcerer still is collecting and aggregating all the information to crete a collective picture of an event.
The important thing to know here is that crowdsourcing is NOT necessarily related to the use of new technologies: you can crowdsource information using a letter box, a normal phone, a black board, or any other tool you want. This means that using social media is not necessarily crowdsourcing. Also crowdsourcing can be applied to crisis mapping but also not: I can crowdsource information and then displayed them on an interactive map (crowdsourcing information for a crisis mapping project), or I can crowdsourced information and compile a nice spreadsheet with all the information collected (crowdsourcing for something for information collection – not crisis mapping).
CRISIS MAPPERS (group of people): The International Network of Crisis Mappers is the largest and most active international community of experts, practitioners, policymakers, technologists, researchers, journalists, scholars, hackers and skilled volunteers engaged at the intersection between humanitarian crises, technology and crisis mapping. The Crisis Mappers Network was launched by 100 Crisis Mappers at the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping in 2009. The website used by the community has since been accessed from 191 different countries. As the world’s premier crisis mapping forum, the Network catalyzes communication and collaboration between and among crisis mappers with the purpose of advancing the study and application of crisis mapping worldwide.
On the other side, people doing crisis mapping projects are by definition crisis mappers, even if they are not part of the International Network of Crisis Mappers. The Crisis Mappers network is NOT an organization in the legal term, and does not “deploy” projects; it does not have funders and does not act as a unique homogenous hierarchal group. All crisis mappers around the world may not even know they are doing crisis mapping and that they are indeed crisis mappers.
USHAHIDI (an organization and a tool): Ushahidi, Inc. is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software (LGPL) for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers/selected monitors to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. Some of those productos are: the Ushahidi platform, Crowdmap, Swiftriver and SMSsync. Ushahidi – the platform – can be use in crowdsourcing (methology) projects and in crisis mapping (field) projects, but those are just two examples of a very vast and diversified typology of applications.
Important to notice here is the fact that the Ushahidi platform is not (and repeat to make sure IS NOT) the only platform exiting on earth that can be used to do crisis mapping projects or for crowdsourcing. Examples of other platforms that can be used to do crisis mapping are for example, the Sudan Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), Citivox, Development Seeds (organization that creates customized maps), and so on. Also Ushahidi is NOT a crowdsorcing platform, but a platform that can – or not- be used to do crowdsourcing.
To conclude: there are a lot of discussions going on about crisis mapping and security issues, as well as about crowdsourcing and the use of the Ushahidi platform, or crowdsourcing and data protection. I think that the more we talk about it, the better is it; but it is necessary that we start understanding what we talk about, otherwise arguments and positions that have a value, immediately loose it, because they are based on wrong assumptions. All in all the lesson learned is: do your homework!