The Humanitarian Information Dashboard 7 months later

[This blog post is an abstract of the “Next Steps Report” produced by Internews and Aptivate in August 2015]

Seven months later, I am really excited to talk about what we have done with the Humanitarian Information Dashboard (HID). The system was designed to track and analyze community views and humanitarian related data during emergencies. The platform aggregates feedback from affected communities to give humanitarian responders unprecedented insight into community information needs and make informed decisions that save lives.

The HID supports Internews’ belief that information is an essential part of humanitarian relief and helps Internews respond to issues of information overload during a time of crisis. The main goal of the dashboard is to create:

  • greater trust and security around information;
  • an improved efficiency of response efforts during emergencies;
  • identified knowledge gaps within communities affected by a humanitarian disaster;
  • more targeted information delivered to communities affected by a humanitarian disaster.

Review of developments to date

A great deal of useful, valuable and complex work has been completed during the first phase of the HID development, done between February and August 2015 with Aptivate, an established NGO that believes in the power of knowledge and communication to alleviate poverty, suffering and conflict, and in the right of every individual to inform and be informed. Aptivate is dedicated to developing ICT services that facilitate communication for unconnected communities, empowering ordinary people across the developing world to improve their lives and has been selected by Internews to work on the this project. Associated with the developments achieved to date, there has been some important learning that has strengthened Internews and Aptivate with regards to their understanding of what a successful HID comprises and what opportunities and challenges exist for future development.

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What has been delivered

  • A working prototype of the HID for use by Internews in Liberia, designed for low bandwidth and with a responsive design interface (key requirements of the HID user environment).
  • Supporting documentation and deployment support in Liberia.
  • Architectural design and technical implementation of the REST API – a significant foundation for future developments of the HID based on robust scale and connectivity infrastructure.
  • Inception report and a more refined scope for the HID based on iterative discovery, development and testing with users.
  • A comprehensive evaluation of existing practice, data streams and software tools used in gathering information in global humanitarian response efforts.
  • Refined vision and implementation scenario modelling from field work, personas and user stories, user consultation and participatory discovery processes.
  • Huge insights into field office reality and field office working within which any HID solution needs to operate.
  • A more detailed understanding and documentation of future development options in the form of a features and requirements backlog and associated future planning.
  • Field user testing and a more defined understanding of digital literacy, functions and tasks of the target users.
  • Enhanced capacity of Internews staff based on training and support on agile product owner role and user testing.
  • Scope of the project refined to focus on Liberia office needs – that has been an important development – this is a big delivery in itself. Embedding in the office has been crucial.
  • An effective project management and implementation team working environment between Internews and Aptivate staff. With improved knowledge and decision making around the project as a result.

What is unique

  • The REST API is a unique contribution to this project and the wider information for development community.
  • The demonstration prototype of the HID is a unique and promising application. It is built using Open Source technology that has the potential for adoption and adaptation by others working in this area.
  • HID end user functionality that allow tasks and actions to be completed that it was previously not possible to do.
  • User testing and field usage of the HID prototype that has allowed previously abstract ideas to be field tested and trailed in a field deployment scenario.
  • Strengthening and enhanced dialogue around “communication and information as aid”
  • An understanding of how the HID can facilitate reciprocal and active engagement between humanitarian response efforts and affected communities, and consequently encourage responders to hear and respond to the most urgent questions from the community and that the community responds and provides feedback to relief agencies to ensure its efforts are relevant and actionable.
HID REST API Development

Significant effort was used in developing the HID REST API. A REST API is a software architecture style for building scalable web services. REST gives a coordinated set of constraints to the design of components in a distributed hypermedia system that can lead to a higher performing and more maintainable architecture. This was identified as important during the inception and discovery phase of the project. The REST API has the following features;

●      It provides a common architectural framework for future technical development.

●      It enables potential future changes to information inputs or feeds, their analysis and visualisation, without the need for re-engineering what has been done before.

●      It provides a scalable architecture that will support information feeds and updates in real-time with the potential for significant data volume handling in response to incoming messages and information (Event Driven or Real time).

●      It provides a framework to support integration of different web technologies, meaning that the system is programming language and technology agnostic. External modules could be linked or development more readily as a result.

●      It provides a separation of the UI from the back-end, meaning the HID could have multiple interfaces, using different appearances, even created using different technologies.   This also allows for replacing component parts of the system (e.g. changing database choice) when a need is identified without needing to replace what has been done before.

●      It provides a caching framework so that the system could potentially be refined in future to support true ‘offline’ use, with re-synchronisation when re-connected to the Internet.

●      It enables future extension so that other systems can integrate with the HID, either by sending out or passing in data, using a standard format.

●      It enables scaling to support potential analysis of very large quantities of data from social media and other sources.

●      It supports improvement measures (such as load balancing and queueing) to handle and maintain performance under high loads of incoming data or data processing.

●      It can help maintain performance when storing very large amounts of data.

What has been learned

  • A much clearer understanding of the role and field use reality of the HID has resulted from developments and learning to date – in terms of user requirements, user digital literacy, field teams tasks and operational reality and technical requirements. However, more still needs to be learned from a wider range of field deployments of prototype HIDs.
  • A clearer vision about what the priority implementation environment, context and deployment model is required to prioritize the next stages of development.
  • A good understanding of HID potential user and requirements (personas) has been completed. These were developed as generic personas but they have been most closely tested and validated in the Liberia country office context. Additional effort will be required to extend their testing and validation to other country offices during any future phases of development.
  • The initial plan of reviewing existing tools and taking those and integrating them into the HID was misplaced in what it could achieve. Aptivate was over ambitious in what they could achieve and Internews had too high expectations about what this would result in.
  • Moving from piecing existing tools together to custom development meant the project ballooned in complexity.
  • Investment in robust scale and connectivity infrastructure takes time and effort and, as a result, has significantly slowed technical development during this first phase of work.
  • The design decisions around scale and connectivity infrastructure may be useful for continued development but they will continue to make rapid end user functionality more difficult and expensive. A decision should therefore be made about continuing development within the initial design decisions framework.
    • Important scale and connectivity infrastructure back end, architecture and data modelling has been completed. This will allow future work on processing of data / links (which can be a highly complex undertaking in terms of processing data and volume data storage issues) to be addressed, if that is still a priority.
  • Real time visualization within the HID will be both a challenge and significant opportunity in the next stage of development.
  • Team structure and working has been refined and improved. An effective agile development relationship has been established between Aptivate and Internews. This bodes well for future developments.

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Delivery of value discussion

The prototype HID that has been developed, has been tested and deployed in a single limited environment (for the Liberia office). This small country office had a 3-person team dedicated to collecting (and helping journalists respond to) rumors from communities affected by the Ebola crisis, linking journalists with key decision makers, government bodies and NGOs, conducting SMS polls and essentially acting as knowledge intermediaries to local journalists. This information is sourced from a mix of data streams, in particular; RapidPro, GeoPoll, XLXS files.

The HID in this first phase was envisioned to streamline this information gathering process as it operated in Liberia. It allows users to tag and categorize content from these different sources (RapidPro, GeoPoll, XLXS) through uploading data via spreadsheet. This information can now be handled in a single location rather than collected and processed manually and coordinated via emailing spreadsheets within the office.

Processing data has been supported through batch tagging and deletion capabilities, as well as administrator-configurable bar charts showing data by category against selected dates.

In terms of delivery of value to Internews in Liberia, there has been real value delivered in the following areas:

  1. Operational efficiency of Internews Liberia field team
  • Reduced manual effort or day to day tasks around information flows and analysis
    • Visualizations (bar charts) can be created for sharing on the HID showing categorization of information needs (Questions) from the community. These are generated automatically for tagged data and can be set to each display the same information for different time periods enabling comparison. More can be done to increase the ease by which different time periods can be compared – such as being able to visualize two different time periods on one chart.
  • Improved team coordination
    • Team members can now coordinate tagging and data cleaning for both Questions and Rumors through a single location, removing the need to pass spreadsheets by email for coordination. Data can be added to the HID through spreadsheet upload (specific format for Questions and specific format for Rumors) or by manual entry.
  • Improved usability and ease of system use contributing to increased productivity
    • The HID enables batch processing – deletion of items and categorization of Question types – making the work of initial data handling easier.
    • Data can easily be sorted by imported date, creation date, or by category where applicable.
    • The most recent additions to the system can easily be viewed. The user can choose to see the full set of information held about an item on a per item basis.

2. Increased effectiveness and improved impact of field interventions

  • Increased analysis capability by field teams
    • Questions and Rumors can now have tags applied on a per item basis. This will form the foundation of some powerful data exploration and analysis capabilities once search and filtering have been added to the system. In the interim this data can still be captured for future use.
  • Improved data or information validity through increased data handling, machine processing and improved accessibility to information
    • Categorization capabilities, such as the implemented example of question categorization, enable consistent application of terms to items.
  • Improved information visibility within teams
    • Shared access and storage of information within the HID has moved information out of individually owned spreadsheets (with associated access, security and backup risks) into a single place, visible and accessible to all HID users.
    • Information handling visibility and progress tracking e.g. staff can observe progress and quality of information handling and tagging.
  • Improved opportunities for communication of complex information issues tailored to core field partners and user groups
    • Partners (invited users) can now visit the dashboard to see current information as provided by the team through the use of configured tables, bar charts and textual updates.
  • Improved information reliability and associated trust
    • Data handling process is now shared by users of the HID (in the country office), providing a central canonical storage location for information, increasing data security and hence reliability.
    • More open and shared data handling processes build confidence and trust in data and processes among HID core and invited users.

In addition, there has been considerable value delivered in terms of organizational learning within Internews and Aptivate, that can help guide future HID development.

Regardless of next steps, some core value and important developments have been made;

  • Core architecture has been designed and developed.
  • Prototype delivered for use in the field in Liberia.
  • Experience of all involved available to guide future development.
  • A much clearer set of functions and features and implementation options for Internews to consider to guide further development of the HID. These include a much more nuanced set of effort and complexity costing estimates.
  • Learning, ideas and data to guide the next stages of HID development and deployment.

Now, we are happy to share the code developed so far on GitHub and we invite all interested organizations, developers and agencies to download it, contribute to it or let us know what do they think.

The next phase of development will start once Internews has secured more funding for it, so stay tuned!

Why the emergency will not be twitted

I have meant to write this blog post since very long time. But I never did since I realized that I am not sure I know what exactly I want to say on the matter. So, take this blog post for what it is: a reflection on what I have been thinking about the issue of using social media to communicate during humanitarian emergencies, and specifically on their usage to communicate with affected communities (I personally dislike this term, but I will use it for lack of a better one).

I’ve always been a big fan of using social media to communicate during disasters. If we look at Haiti for example, we can see the incredible use that not only “official” organization have done of the tool, but also and foremost the local population. The example of the NYC police department during Sandy or of Carel Pedre in Haiti are notable examples of the way different actors have been using social media as a powerful tool during emergencies.

On the other side, if we look at the events coming out from the Arab Spring, we see other very interesting examples of the use of social media by local communities, examples that we have just barely really analyzed, due to the fact that the majority of the interactions were happening in Arabic, while most of the analysis of those phenomenon are being done by English speakers academics.

Notable examples of people using social media during natural disasters can be found in the Philippines, like this map generated by OCHA using social media, or in New Zealand during the earthquake in 2011. 

Now, the question I have been trying to answer to in the past 2 years on the matter is: has any of those initiatives demonstrated without doubts that social media generated content can and is used to make decisions by responders (both local population and humanitarian responders), in a way that allow us to say that those tools are indeed necessary for emergency response?

Unfortunately so far the answer that I have given to this question is no. This does not necessarily mean that indeed social media cannot be used to inform decisions, but that we have not yet been able to demonstrate it.

For several reasons:

1. The technology gap is still there. We may see the future as a world where everyone will have a Twitter account, and where the entire world will have cheap and easy access to internet, but so far this is not yet happening. In the refugee camps in Dadaab, in Mali, in Niger, in Central African Republic people do not have access to those means, internet is still unreliable and where present, expensive. Their emergency is not twitted, facebooked it or youtubed it. (Photo: Meridith Kohut / Internews)

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2. Responders still use other means to gather information. So far there is not prove that any emergency responder agency has been using social media data for targeted and specific responses, apart from single and isolated cases. They still need to figure out the verification issues, the filtering of the enormous amount of data, the processing of the data, and the analysis of it. Once they will have this figured out, then they will be able to see if the intelligence gathered from that data is usable at all. On the community side, according to Internews Information Needs Assessments, people still rely on Radio, or word of mouth to gather the information they need to make better informed decisions.

3. The use of more “traditional” tools, like phones, has proven to be more efficient and more reliable. 911 is still the first number people in the US call in case of emergency, as well as in other countries (where there are other similar there are other numbers). Not only phones are much more widespread than internet, but also allow for more structured (and private) interactions in between people in need and responders – without the noise of the social media.

4. The human contact: we often tend to forget that in emergencies people do need a human contact. Talking to someone looking at him/her in the eye has a huge psychological value that a piece of information, for how useful it could be, does not have. Human interactions are still the basics of what people in distress look for, and are still a fundamental part of the recovery path. Sometimes we should ask ourselves not if a toll is useful or not, but if THAT tool is the best way to convey that MESSAGE.

5. Recents studies, like this one, and this one, and this other one, highlight that social media so far do not seem to carry a specific value when it comes to providing quality information as opposed to other sources. It also looks like it much less trusted than traditional media. Even in the social media sphere it looks like traditional media are still the one that people turn to, to understand what is going on, especially in times of incertitude. In this sense, it looks like traditional media is doing a good job at highlighting relevant information and guiding people through the noise of the social media chatter. This study form Farida Vis on the London Riots shows how the top 200 accounts during the riots where in fact Mainstream Media and Journalists:

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Those are some of the potentials and opportunities that I see in using social media during emergencies:

A. Social Media seems so far to be a very good ADDITIONAL tool to be used by official sources to spread information during an emergency. The tricky point is: how prepared official bodies/agencies are in using this tool, and how much of their strategy is being build in advance so that during the emergency they are actually ready to do it?

B. Social Media still need to prove its value when it comes to be a tool to gather emergency information from affected communities. So far, as I said before, there is little data on how social media information has been used by organization to make decisions. This does not means that the value is not there, but that we are still in the process of understanding how this data can be used, by whom and why. Anecdotal evidence is not enough, and we are still struggling to find tools that would allow us to monitor and understand what is the value of the data collected via social media during an emergency. A huge opportunity can be identified here in terms of working more with humanitarian organization in general to understand their decision making processes, so that social media data can be analyzed and provided in a format that make sense to them, and can be integrated with other data.

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On the other side, we also still need to prove there there is anything valuable in the data exchanged on Social Media during emergencies. We still need to demonstrate that Social Media is a tool that communities use during emergencies AND that carries valuable information that are not already known by responders through other means. Do communities really communicate important information during disasters using SM? And do we define what is “important”? Also, do communities on Social Media make decisions out of Social Media content during emergencies?

The third factor to consider is the comparative advantage: does Social Media provide any advantage when it comes to relevant and timely information to be gathered in order to make decisions?  In other words, is SM economically sustainable? Is the time, and people, and technology used to filter, analyze and manage social media during emergencies really well spend?

C. The Social Media network is as valuable as the real social network. If we work too much on building one and do not work enough the build the later one, we are setting ourselves up for failure. On the other side, huge opportunities lies in the study of social networks and their modeling in disasters. If we look at trusted sources and important nodes in those networks, we can observe how they function during disasters and try to predict where people will turn to in case of need. This will give us a lot of insights about which interactions to observe and monitor during emergencies.

All in all, there is a lot that we do not know, and unfortunately there is also a lot of misleading information out there. The way we carry out analysis of Social Media content from affected communities and the intelligence we get from it needs to be based on very scientific and precise methodologies.

In addition to that there is also very much a lack of fundings in this kind of research, as it seems that as much as donors are interested in funding new cool technologies and big data projects, they are not that interested in funding research to understand how that data can become really usable and relevant.

The conundrum of digital humanitarianism: when the crowd does harm

We saw this coming. It’s like when you start sniffing and coughing and you know the real flu is coming. And you know you cannot do anything about it, because even if you take a very strong aspirin, it is too late and you will get sick for at least a couple of days.

We saw this coming: the truth is that the consequences of Typhoon Yolanda are not only the one that we see on TV every day, but they are virtual, and the worst of those virtual consequences is coming.

The Digital Humanitarians (or the Volunteer Technical Communities, as you want to call them) came to be out of an amazing change in the world we live: the internet and mobile phones, with which now you can help, and talk, and share with anyone in the world. And you don’t need to have money or to be a professional to provide support to affected communities. You can give your contribution and you help just by sitting behind your desk in your comfy sofa.  But is that true? Does “the crowd” knows what to use and how to use it in a humanitarian crisis, and does it know what are the consequences of its actions? The answer is that no, most of the people in the crowd do not know what they are doing. But they are doing it anyway.

People want to help, and they can help, but they are not necessarily professionals, they have not done this before. Most of the times they do not know what the “do not harm” principle is and means in a practical way, and most importantly, they do not see the consequences of what they do.

This is not a new thing though: we have seen this in Haiti, in Pakistan, in Chile, Libya and we are starting to see this in the Philippines. And because Internet has not been restored entirely in the country yet, the magnitude of what it is gonna happen in the Philippines is still unknown.

You don’t trust me? Want some examples?

Here you are:

Facebook 1

This messages was posted in Facebook (I added the black lines to cover the information) and then reposted by several people – I counted 64,  but only the re-posts from one account. Which means that I don’t know how many others have reposted it from their accounts. To some of you this may look like heartbreaking (and it is in fact) and you may think that it is very nice for people to share this story so that maybe someone will help this family. The problem that I have with this is that whoever re-posted this did not knew that he was basically saying to whoever has bad intention: “Hey, here there is a young woman with two little kids, and two wounded people with her. Here is her location, and she is scared and alone, with no means to get for help”. This is more or less like to tweet that you have a million dollars in your house and that you are gonna go out for a drink and leave the door open.

This second one thought, is even scarier:

FB2 copyThis post, also on Facebook, has already 4000 shares and 5000 likes. The black boxes to cover the children faces were added by myself – here. The post has also 820 comments, a lot of those asking the organization that posted this to delete it, denying what they claim (that they will take all the children under 18 in the Philippines to the US for adoption). But there are also a LOT of comments asking how people can apply to adopt those children – some people even choosing which one they want from the picture. If any of the readers of this post have been to Haiti, they have seen this kind of things before.

But this is not all that is happening, there is more to come. Since the Typhoon, I have received around 10 different emails like this one:

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Now, this company is not doing anything illegal, and they are just offering a very good service to send blast SMS to multiple people in little time – a very good and interesting solution. The problem is, is that a coincidence that I received this just when the Typhoon happened? and that other 10 different companies sent me an email with very similar products or offers?

On Twitter and on several online volunteers Skype chats, I have also seen people already talking about how to set up SMS system to send messages to the people in the Philippines, how to set up a Text2Tweet account, how to harvest requests for help and geo-locate them on line, etc.

Now, don’t get me wrong: information sharing, and the use of technology to provide people with the information they need, when they need it, it is absolutely fundamental! This is why I work for an organization like Internews. Because information is KEY and can save lives. But it can also destroy lives if it is not treated properly and handled with cautions.

In Haiti we saw a proliferation of SMS services, requests for help spread on the internet with sensitive data in it, and multiple people organizing their own “shipment” of goods to the country – not knowing if anyone really needed that. A lot of the people behind those projects REALLY MENT WELL and learned their lessons the hard way. Humanitarian Organizations and NGOs were not immune to this “multiplication” of digital information systems. The real victims though, Haitians people, were the once left to deal with it: misinformation, frustration, and sometimes much more serious consequences.

Let’s be clear here: I am not writing this post to ‘demonize” online VTC or DH communities and individuals. This is not the case. I am myself the co-founder of an organization that does that, the Standby Task Force. This is in of the reason why 3 years ago with some colleagues we created this organizations: to be ready, but most of all to educate people, and to be able to support humanitarian organizations during a crisis, while making sure we can help people not to harm others. This is why we have codes of conduct and CDAC trainings for our volunteers.

But the truth is that the beauty of the internet, in humanitarian crisis, is also its curse: everyone can do everything and does not need to be “trained” or to be a “professional”, or to be part of a formal organization.

So here there are some suggestions to EVERYONE that is today looking at the internet to help and to support people in the Philippines:

1. Do not re-post/share or re-tweet ANYTHING that has sensitive information in it. Sensitive informations are: location of people that need help, names of people, GPS coordinated of their location, picture of children or minors. If you see a message like this, you should do 3 things:

A. Tell the person that posted it to take it off, and explain why

B. Contact the relative NGO working on the ground in the Philippines – use this resource here to find out who does what.

C. If you think that the message is really urgent, and that someone CAN do something about it, look for a hot line number – the government in the Philippines is setting those up for the municipalities locally. See here.

2. If you want to help in any way, contact an NGO, or a humanitarian organization and ask them. If you don’t find anyone, email me(I am at or @anahi_ayala). I swear, I will make time to answer to you. DO NOT DO ANYTHING ON YOUR OWN INITIATIVE IF YOU HAVE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE. You can also join one of the many online communities that have been doing this for some time, see here a list.

3. Do not try to send information to the local communities online unless you are SURE that the information you are giving is correct. If you see a request for help, use the internet wisely: search for a governmental agency, local or international NGOs, UN agencies that are working in that area, see if they have a contact information.

4. Use this resource to find out what is being done and how.

5. Think before you do. I know, we are emotionally touched by what happened and is happening, but the fact that you are online does not means that the people in the Philippines are virtual. Everything you say or do has consequences in their real life.

6. Do not create new software, technologies an other techie stuff to help the humanitarian community without talking to them first. Here is why and how you can do that.

7. If you hear something that sound crazy, probably it is crazy. Do not  report/share or re-tweet it automatically, but try to figure out from other sources. Do your homework!

8. And for the love of god, DO NOT SET UP YOUR FREAKING SMS SYSTEM!!!!!! Unless you are the PH Government, or a coordinated effort from all the RESPONDENTS on the ground. Really, just don’t do it.

The Internet is a powerful tool, use it wisely and think twice. You are not in an emergency, so you can take the time to do that. Keep willing to help, contributing to the community and make your a contribution to a better world, just make sure you don’t screw up.

Asia Trip 2013: Follow the adventures of a crisis mapper in Asia!

I owe an apology to my readers: I did not disappeared or stopped blogging, I just changed platform for a little while. No worries, this is still my official blog, but for the time being you can see what I am up to here. I am using this platform because it is simpler and easier, it allows me to post from my phone and not necessarily original content. As to say: different methodology, different content, different technology.

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I have started a long trip in Asia, visiting 6 countries in one month to work on social media, local technology communities, crisis mapping, local context with regard to communication with communities, media and much more. For the trip, I have set up a Tumblr, so I am using it to write about my trip, my discoveries, and interesting projects or people I am meeting.

I will be back blogging here once I am back into a more of a normal life, but for the time being, please refer to my Asia Trip 2013 Tumblr for more information about what I am up to 🙂

And, as always, contact me if you have any tips, suggestions or comments 🙂

Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information during the Libyan Civil War

Steve Stottlemyre from the Office of Intelligence & Threat Analysis, U.S. Department of State and Sonia Stottlemyre from Georgetown Public Policy Institute, have recently published an article titled “Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information during the Libyan Civil War: An Exploratory Case Study”.  The article touches on one of the most interesting topic related to crisis mapping applied to civil unrests or conflict settings, and has some very good points in it, as well as some very big mistakes and misrepresentations. The article is definitely worth a reading though!

Let start with the good points:

1. The way Twitter users fused crowd-sourced data during the Libya War resulted in the creation of tactical military intelligence. This is indeed a super interesting matter, that in a way leads us to a broader discussion about the fact that tasks performed by hierarchical centralized systems may now be taken on by networked decentralized systems, in a way that may (or may not) lead to the same outcomes. What this means is also that crowdsourcing is creating a new way to process information that before was only possible by organizations that had the means and the money to do it. These new processes are so decentralized and embedded inside such a huge network (the Internet) that may be able to reach the velocity and accuracy of the centralized hierarchical systems and gain value because completely free and much larger in volume.

2. During the Libya Crisis War it was members  of the “crowd” who planned and directed collection efforts, and established  operating procedures for intelligence operations. This point is in a way very similar to what this article is formulating when talking about the “self-regulation” of Twitter. The social media space seems to be more and more described as a self-regulating and self organizing environment more than an “anarchy”. Balances and collective planning seem to happen in this space even with the complete lack of a unique authority to direct it.

3. Twitter provides both a platform for reporting information, and much of the infrastructure required to convert information into intelligence. The power of Twitter in this sense is incredible and undeniable: this platform I think has by far exceeded the expectations of the same people that created it. More than Facebook has done, or if you want in a different way, Twitter is being used for a range of tasks that all together make it one of the best real-time coordination tool. The division of tasks and the consequent combination of its component can be done, again, in a decentralized, real- time dimension, while the vetting of the information combined is distributed to the all network.


4. Twitter acted as a platform for collaboration on and compilation of intelligence products. Again, the inherent structure that Twitter has and the use of hastags makes is a very efficient curating system. What is happening is that this curation process is being done collectively and intelligently in real-time, making it possible not only to access already curated information, but also to have a sort of continuous verification/vetting system that constantly reiterate itself.

So, let’s make it clear here: people creating crisis maps and people using social media were and are creating intelligence. This was true for the Libya war, as it is for ANY crisis mapping deployment or social media coverage of an event. The first time I had a conversation about this, it was with Heather Blanchard, co-founder of Crisis Commons, in 2010, discussing about PakReport, a crisis mapping deployment in Pakistan. A big kudos to the authors of this paper to have reached the same conclusion 3 years later!!! 🙂

Now, let’s go to some of the major mistakes in this paper and to some of the weird points that the authors make in an attempt to prove their thesis.

Vocabulary and Glossary mistakes

1. Crisis Mapping is not equal to Twitting. Unfortunately it looks like the authors of this article are a bit confused about the vocabulary they use, when they attribute to people twitting the definition of “crisis mappers” and the contrary. For example, the Libya Crisis Map was clearly a crisis mapping effort, but did never engaged in active twitting, while people twitting were not necessarily the same one creating crisis maps out of twitter messages, even if involved in the curation of the data that was subsequently mapped. I suggest the authors to read this blog post to learn more about this.


2. Hashtags do not equal @. This is the most disconcerting mistake in this paper, namely because you would think that people writing a paper about social media would have done their due diligence work in understanding how social media work. In the paper the authors infer that people using the hashtag #NATO wanted to address the information in that tweet to NATO. At the contrary though, people use hashtags to underline a topic, or a specific actor involved in the action reported. For this reason if I am tweeting that the US have just passed a law on cybercrime, I will add an hashtag to US and one to cybercrime, but the reason why I do it, it’ s because I want people interested in the cybercrime topic to find that information, as well as people looking for information about the US. The very interesting part of this mistake in understanding how Twitter works is linked directly to the intentionality that the authors want to attach to everyone that used the hashtag NATO. In fact the thesis they are trying to support is that everyone that used the hashtag NATO wanted to actively pass information to NATO.

The missing point here is that as much as we can assume that the NATO was following its hashtag, we can infer that the rebel groups would have done that too, as well as the Gaddafi forces, as well as the media, as well as everyone on the Internet that wanted to see what the NATO was doing during that period of time. This of course is a very different issue than the Twitter messages that had @NATO or @NATOPress, since this was indeed a way to make sure that the specific accounts were getting that information. Without going into details about the actual intentions behind the willingness of people adding the @NATO to their tweets, those two groups cannot be merged together, nor can their motivations.

Factual Mistakes

As one of the person managing the Libya Crisis Map project I have to say that I am definitely pissed off by one main factual mistake done in this paper.

The mistake is about why and when the volunteers working in the project where reporting about military operations happening in Libya. Interesting enough the assumption that the authors make is that we started reporting about military operations because we wanted to actively support the NATO Operations in Libya. What looks strange is that the  Stottlemyres did not connected the fact that military related reports were increasing in the platform to the fact that military actions overall were increasing in number – since there was a new actor in the battle field, and namely NATO. The second factor that they seem to ignore is that NATO military operations were much more visible and reported than military operations done by the rebel groups or the Gaddafi soldiers.

In addition to this, the authors seem again to ignore a very important point here: if we are assuming that the Libya Crisis Map was reporting more military related information to support the NATO , why not to support the rebels? or the Gaddafi soldiers? as the internet is accesible to everyone in the same way, no causality can be drawn by the simple fact that more information was reported.

In addition to this, what really strikes me in this strong tentative to accuse 300 volunteers of wanting to support a military operation that caused thousand of victims, in a very complex emergency, is the subtle idea that the Standby Task Force is a unique body composed of people that are all politically aligned,  or, the even more annoying idea, that we, as the Core team, could have been instructed people to search and publish information specifically for the purpose of supporting NATO operations in Libya. Both those scenarios are not only unrealistic but also offensive.


To be added to this is the simple fact that the SBTF was acting under the activation of UNOCHA, one of the most independent and imparcial body of the UN. In fact, if the authors of this paper would have taken some more time to actually support their accusations, they would have seen that once UNOCHA took full control of the deployment, the reporting of military related operations stopped entirely. One of the main reasons why this happened was because, while in the beginning of the deployment the SBTF was mandated to give UNOCHA an overall idea of what was happening, and what was the humanitarian situation, in the second part of the deployment, when UNOCHA had more information coming from the ground, the focus switched to more attention to the provision of humanitarian relief.

Let me also add something else here: in order for the SBTF to give an overview of what was happening on the ground in Libya, the location and intensity of the combat was indeed a very useful information. For example knowing that Benghazi was under attack for days, and that the port was blocked, was indeed valuable to infer that civilians would have been in need of water and food, and that they most likely would have been trying to run away, causing an influx of IDPs and refugees in other areas. All in all, saying that combat information do not have a relationship with humanitarian needs is like to say that hunger has no relationship with availability of food.

Specifically in this instance, I would like to think that the authors of this paper are rather ignorant than to think that they are intentionally trying to accuse the SBTF to be an ally of NATO, which would not only be malicious but also dangerous for some of our volunteers, that live in Libya and could be subject to repercussions due to those accusations.

A piece of advice for the authors, is also to remove the twitter account names from the article, especially when they are publicly accusing those people of being NATO supporters.

Totally not supported assumptions

As I said before, this paper is a very good piece of research when it comes to the relationship in between the military intelligence process as done by the army, and the same process as done by the collectivity in the social media or in crisis mapping projects. I find this topic extremely fascinating and definitely in need of more research and possibly in depth research. What is very curious about this paper is the decision of the authors to infer intentionality for everyone using social media or doing mapping to support the NATO. I have been reading this paper over and over and I cannot find a good reason for the authors to add element this to their paper.

In addition to this, what is extremely curious is that, while in the paper the authors repeatedly use several reasons to support the argument of intentionality to support the NATO (i.e. the use of the # NATO or the number of tweets or maps monitoring the military operations), they also specify in the conclusions that “we cannot precisely extrapolate the motivation of crisis mappers who created finished intelligence products, nor can we determine how responsive crisis mappers would be to official PIR and RFI issued by military commanders.” It definitely looks like some confusion is going on there, but we can also notice that there is a huge stretch in the tentative to infer intentionality by using an argument that could be used as well as to infer intentionality to support the Gaddafi soldiers or the rebel groups, or whoever was in the field at the time.


The main questions were basically not asked 

This paper is just scratching the surface of the real issues. What is a shame is that the authors of the paper did not asked the right questions, as if they did not want to actually find out the two main  issues:

1) If the military was actually really using the data produced by crisis mappers or social media;

2) and related to that, if the data produced was of any additional value to what the military already had.

In this matter, clearly the authors of the paper did not noticed that the Libya Crisis Map, for example, had a delay of 24 hours – meaning that data posted one day on social media would have only been visible and usable the day after in the Libya Crisis Map. Would that data be of any value for military purposes?

The authors themselves say that “Public information is unavailable about the extent to which military commanders used information from crisis maps during the Libyan Civil War. Nevertheless, commanders had access to such information, and likely used intelligence products derived, at least in part, from information pulled from social networking websites.”  Forgetting for a moment that this is stating the obvious, since it would make no sense to even think that military do not look at social media data, the actual question for me is to which extend, and how, this data was used by the military, if it was ever.

Hoping that someone competent in the issue will take this topic on, I would love to understand this and know more about how the collectivity is being (or not) more reliable, fast and articulated than the military is in creating intelligence.

Kenya: one election, 7 phone services, 3 maps and some confusion!

We all knew it. We saw this coming in Haiti and talked about it in Egypt, when 5 Ushahidi maps popped out the day before the elections. But the Kenyan elections are somehow different, and the reason why they are, is that the possible outcome is indeed a civil unrest that could bring the country years back to 2007.

I have lived 3 years in Nairobi, and I have been working with journalists, media, technologists, mappers and so on. I admire and respect most of the organizations I will be mentioning in this blog posts, but still, there are some important questions that really need to be asked here.

Today is election day in Kenya, and a lot of organizations have been preparing for this day by setting up their own branded, advertised, funded and public electoral monitoring system.

Let’s have a look at them:

1. Uchaguzi. This is the well known Ushahidi project to monitor the elections in Kenya. Uchaguzi was used already 2 times, for the Constitutional referendum in 2010 and for the by-elections in February this year. Uchaguzi will be receiving SMS at the short code 3002 and also via social media #uchaguzi and via web forms, as well as via Android app and iPhone app.

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2. Voice of Mathare. This is a project from Map of Kibera Trust, monitoring only electoral events happening in Mathare. The project also has an SMS number 0726300400, and also has a web form to report to.

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3. Amani Kenya @108. This is a project from the National Steering Committee on peace building and conflict management, under the Ministry of state for provincial administration and internal security. The system will make use of the current District Peace Committees (DPCs), Peace Monitors and other relevant parties to gather crucial information from the field. Once information is gathered from various sources on the field, an analysis group will be able to analyze the information and to issue an indicator based Early Warning Report to the relevant parties for a response. Amani has its own short code for reporting on election related events, which is of course 108. In addition to this there is also a web form to report to on-line.

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4. The Independent Electoral and boundaries commission Whistle Blowing Portal, where people can report via web any issue competency of the Director Risk and Compliance
Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. They also have an election hotlines for issues, complaints or inquiries: 0711035606 / 0711035616

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5. SiSi Ni Amani. Sisi Ni Amani Kenya has worked with local peace groups to set up an SMS-based programming available to subscribers through USSD code *762#. Subscribers are able to dial in for free from any Safaricom line to subscribe and receive SMS from SNA-K. The project aims at looking at rumors spreading via SMS and have a team of “peace-keepers” on the ground responding timely to it by directly addressing the problem.

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6. And finally the actual formal national emergency services aka, Kenya Police: 0800 720002 and the ambulance service: 0700395395 or 0738395395, which also has a web-form reporting system.

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7. And lastly the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights toll free hotline for election monitoring: 0800721410

So, let’s be clear here: I am all for more transparency and for multiple channels of communication. Especially in emergencies, the more people are ready to respond, the better it is. Now, the problem is exactly this one: are all of these people really ready to respond?

I have been looking and reading all the pages of those organizations and what strikes me is that, apart from SiSi Ni Amani, which is a system that has been working for almost 3 years now, and it is not a reporting system really, but more a prevention tool; the Kenyan police, which I believe everyone knows what it does; and Amani 108, which is using a very predefined system of Peace Monitors, all the rest of the projects here have very vague explanations of what is that they will be doing with the information they want to collect. Will they respond? Will they have responders on the ground? Will they only monitor for the sake of transparency and accountability?

But other questions are really coming out from this picture is: DO WE REALLY NEED ALL OF THOSE PROJECTS??? Do we really need 3 maps, 7 phone numbers, and several web-forms? Is that really such a crazy bad idea to have one coordinated number/web-form that could then have in the back-end multiple responders and organizations working together?

I mean, seriously, what the hell should a Kenyan do today when something happens? Send 7 SMSs and compile a bunch of web-forms for each event they see? They should all go around with a list of the specific topics that they should report on and which platform they go to?

This would look like something like this: “If you are in Mathare send a report to 0726300400 and to 3002 and to 108, but only after you have alerted the police at 999 or 112. But if it is something related to human rights violations, and more in particular IDPs, then remember to also text 0800721410. If the issue is related to violations competency of the  Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission then you should text 0711035606 / 0711035616, but if you get a rumor via mobile phone you probably should send a text to 8762 just in case SiSi Ni Amani is also working in your area. Oh, and by the way, keep safe and keep reporting to us. If you still have any credit in your mobile phone or if by the time you send us a message you did not ended up being killed!”

Now, I do know that coordination and partnerships are not easy things to do and set up, and that all of those organizations have been meeting on a regular basis before the elections. I also do know that they talk to each other and know what everyone else is doing. But on the other side I believe that the messages being sent out to the actual people that are supposed to benefit from those systems is vague, misleading and possibly dangerous. If technology is supposed to make our lives easier, than I am not sure we are really getting there.

Just a week ago GSMA launched their SMS Code of Conduct. I believe this document is still far from being complete and from addressing all the issues related to the use of SMSs during emergencies. But it is a great starting point, and a very necessary one. Looking at it though, I cannot not shake my head and think that there is still a long way to go from the “Code of Conduct” the piece of paper, to the reality of a Code of Conduct.

Some guidelines in that document COULD BE a good starting point for all of those Kenyan organizations and projects mentioned in this report are namely:

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Breaking news: Journalism is dead!

ok. I needed a catchy title for this post, and yes, I do not think that journalism is dead, but I do think that most journalists will be, if they do not understand what is going on in this new connected world. I will proceed gradually. If you are a journalists and you agree with all of the statements listed here, then yes, your job is dead and you should think about finding another job.

1. Journalists are the gatekeepers of information. No they are aren’t anymore. Today I gather most of the information I need simply by using twitter and facebook, or, if I am looking for some specific technical informations, I look for blogs written by experts in the area. Information’s landscape today goes much beyond journalists and traditional media, since everyone can reach everyone at any time, independently form their physical location. This is not valid only because of the internet, but also because of mobile phones.

2. Journalists are the one that have access to information before anyone else. Again, this was valid before, because journalists could get access to place and information much easier than others, but also because an information needed to pass from eyewitnesses through them to get out. Today eyewitnesses get information out before they even talk to a journalist: they tweet it, they facebook it, they blog it, they text it. For this same reason the meaning of “Breaking News” is becoming blurry and definitely not part of the “journalist” jargon anymore.

3. Journalists are the only one that can push information out more then anyone else. Again not true anymore. it is till true that probably there is not blogger that has as much readers than the New York Times or the Guardian, but the aggregated number of bloggers, twitter accounts or facebook pages that can push information out will always be higher than a single media outlet.

So what is the role of journalists? Is journalism really dead?

I was lucky enough to participate and moderate a panel titled “Verifying Crowdsourced Information – Journalists as Curators” and featured Matthew Eltringham, Founding Editor of the BBC UGC Hub, Erik van Heeswijk, Digital Editor-in-Chief of VPRO, David Clinch, Editorial Director of Storyful, and Charlie Beckett, Director of LSE Polis. The panel was indeed an incredible discussion on how user generated content can be and is indeed used both by traditional news outlets such as the BBC or by new typology of media initiatives  like Storyful.

What emerged in this panel was the extreme importance of context and analysis as well as the value that traditional journalisms has in terms of the ability to apply traditional media tecnics, like investigative jounralisms, to new media . In this context all panelists agreed that the rise of social media is an opportunity for journalists to turn user generated content into high quality news sources. But this also require traditional media to accept the new important role that social media is playing in today’s information landscape and the new role that journalists need to create for themselves.

A couple of months ago in a lecture given by Ethan Zuckermann in Nairobi, I asked him how to handle the difficult relationship in between traditional media and social media actors. Zuckermann replied back by saying that there should be no real difficulty and that the both actors needs to accept that they are now covering both tasks: journalists needs to be also social medi actors as well as social media actors needs also to realized that they are performing journalism tasks. The video of his presentation is here and I really suggest you to watch it!

Of course the usual argument used by traditional media stating that there is not such a thing as citizens journalism, since journalists are the only one that can do in-depth verification and analysis is not valid anymore. Looking at this very interesting article on the use of Twitter during the hurricane Sandy, it seems that “the crowd” itself is getting very close to elaborate spontaneous ways to verify information.

Looking at studies like this one on the spreading or rumors on Twitter, we can already identify ways in which “influential sources: on Twitter manage to spread counter- rumors in a timely manner. This specific study does also highlight how incredibly important the roles of journalists is in the sphere of social media. I had the pleasure to listen to a presentation done by Farida Vis, Research Fellow in the Social Sciences, Information School at the University of Sheffield, UK (@flygirltwo) on her study about the use of Twitter during the London Riots and 2 points she made were very interesting to me:

– The crowd on social media seems to still trust more than anything else traditional journalists and media, as shown in this graph:

– the use of less sophisticated content (like videos taken with the mobile phones) did not only not affect the user experience, according to the number of users accessing an using it, but increased the physical security of the journalists on the ground

To conclude, this is what I think is the situation right now:

1. Traditional Journalism will still exists as long as journalists will understand that they have no choice in embracing social media and the technology revolution.

2. The added value of journalism, being it in the creation and implementation of verification technics or the reliability of their voice as opposed to the noise of the crowd need to be created and demonstrated, it will not be given for granted forever.

3. There is not such a things as citizens journalism as opposed to “traditional” journalism  There is journalism, and it both a new and an old concept that needs to be continuously adapting to the change in the reality of information systems.

4. Tools like Storyful and the BBC User Generated Content Hub are demonstrating that journalisms is not really changing, it is doing the same things it was doing before but in new ways. The skills and the knowledge are there, we only need the will.

The very first Humanitarian “Customer Calling Center”

Several weeks ago I had the fortune to meet with Fatuma Abdulahi, Communications Officer for Accountability for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the person behind the HIF project called “Piloting Accountability Systems for Humanitarian Aid in Somalia”, in partnership with UNICEF through the CDRD project (Community-Driven Recovery and Development). Also called “SMS Beneficiary Feedback”, the project is a quick and convenient way for Somali beneficiaries to give feedback about projects funded or services provided by the Danish Refugee Council using an SMS feedback system. The system enables beneficiaries to have a direct access to DRC and a voice in the decision-making process to allocate funds to local projects. It also helps DRC better monitor the effects of the projects on the ground (For more info see here).

I have been interested in accountability systems for Humanitarian organizations since long time and I blogger before about this very topic. This DRC project is the first project I have heard about (ever) that uses mobile technology and crisis mapping to create a completely transparent and direct communication system in between a humanitarian organization and its beneficiaries on the ground. And if this wasn’t enough, this project is taking place in Somalia, not exactly the safest place on earth.

The SMS Beneficiaries Feedback project is a very simple system that basically creates something that most NGOs and humanitarian agencies should have done and learned from the private sector: it creates a calling center for DRC beneficiaries in Somalia. Since the start of the project in September 2011, beneficiary SMS feedback has been implemented in 31 towns and villages in the North and East of Somalia. Now, the project is extended to a number of districts in Mogadishu from where hundreds of SMS’ are submitted every months (see here).

Since then Fatuma has been going around in Somalia basically talking to all those families and beneficiaries and explaining them the project and the possible outcomes of it.

The fact that she actually went to meet all of them in person respond to one of the first possible criticism against this project: managing expectations and deliver a clear message. The fact that beneficiaries can contact the aid organization in fact is always seen as possible disaster in terms of what they will expect once that direct channel is created.

For the past 2 years, every time I have been talking about the possibility to do something like this, the answer I got from aid organizations was that this would have let people think that once they communicate their needs, the aid organization had to respond by delivering what beneficiaries need or ask for. The nightmare of humanitarian organizations thinking about doing something like this, is the prospect of thousands of messages asking for more help, that would then become thousands of angry people that have seen their expectations deloused by overwhelmed aid agencies.

Fatuma did what is the most simple and easy way to do this: went to meet people in person and explained to them what they could expect and how – leveraging also on the fact the Somali society is based on an oral culture. She also explained to them something really simple: this is not a crowdsourcing/help line, this is a system to find out how and if beneficiaries of the DRC program are actually satisfied from the service provided to them and what can be done better.

The ways people can communicate with DRC is channeled in two ways: SMS and phone calls. So what happen next?

1. The first thing that happened is that all the messages are translated into English and channel to the right department/office inside the organization. Each message is reviewed and given an answer to. The speed of the answer depends of course on the readiness/speed of the relative office/officers inside DRC that can respond to that inquiry.

2. Once the relative person has provided an answer to the question/comment, Fatuma’s team delivers the answer directly to the person sending the information. This communication happen in 2 ways: they can send an SMS, if the information they have to deliver is appropriate to this mean (short and not sensitive) or they directly call the number that send the SMS/called. See here the workflow:

3. This all process is documented step by step on a Ushahidi platform, where all SMS are mapped and all responses/commentaries are showed.

The incredible part of this project is that the entire process is completely public and open: all messages and all answers are made public in the platform, including complains, no yet responded messages, appreciations messages and so on.

See here an example:

Another part of this project also provides the mapping of all the DRC projects in the area allowing everyone to brows the map, search for projects, and see what DRC is actually doing on the ground. See here:

Again, this is not just “dots on a map”: each mapped project had attached the financial and beneficiary report, where it is possible to monitor how much  money have been spent, where and from whom the money are coming from.

The reason why I love this project is that it is really showing not only that transparency and accountability is possible in humanitarian aid, but also that it is pretty simple and can be done avoiding to raise expectations with very simple technologies.

In addition to this, the system is also supported by a Flickr page, a Twitter account and a Blog. Again all messages (complains as well as compliments or appreciation messages) are shared on the Twitetr page, while it is possible to see the sites and the projects pictures on the Flickr page and to read stories from Somalia on the Blog.

The SMS system, based on a Galaxy Tab app to receive and send messages to the Ushahidi platform,  needs to be online to work. The system DRC is using, based on a Galaxy Tab app to receive and send messages to the Ushahidi platform that therefore needs to be online to work, could be improved by using a simple method like FrontlineSMS or, if the number of SMS is actually high and she envision the possibility to receive hundreds of SMS a day, to use something more robust like RapidSMS or Souktel.

What DRC could also to make this system faster and more sustainable in the long term would be to outsource or better crowdsource the translation and processing of the SMS by using, for example, students from the Universities in Somalia and giving them credits in exchange of this. DRC could also think about creating a Crowdflower account and have the entire translation process done by anonymous volunteers around the world – something that could be done only giving a closer look to the sensitivity of the information and the possibility to anonymize the sources.

This pilot project is an incredible project that should be looked at the first experiment in the field of transparency and accountability for humanitarian organizations and crisis mapping. The M&E of this project could be used to pave the path for more projects like this, and lessons learned from this project could be used by other organizations to follow the same route.

If I have to think about the lessons learned so far, after my discussion with Fatuma I would say that there is a lot to learn already:

1. Do not use technology to replace the in person dialog. Use it to support it.

2. Manage expectations with dialog and timely accurate information, not with silence.

3. Make sure that  a response mechanism is in place, so that people may not have what they want, but they feel they are being heard and they are having a dialogue.

4. Integrate all the system you have and you can possibly use: face to face, SMS, voice calls, social media. A combination of tools is also a combination of resources and people, and as such as a great potential.

5. Transparency in humanitarian aid is and will continue to be a fundamental factor that will not only make the difference in between successful and unsuccessful projects, but also in between sustainable and not sustainable relationships with beneficiaries on the ground.

Kudos to Fatuma, the DRC team and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund for this incredible project!

A post on terminology: get it right or shut up!

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.


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:

  1. Tool: a device used to implement, esp. one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
  2. Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity
  3. 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:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Crisis Map Visualization
  3. Crisis Map Analysis
What it is extremely important to notice here is that crisis mapping is NOT necessarily related to the use of technology – meaning you can do crisis mapping without necessarily using social media sources for example – and also crisis mapping is NOT necessarily related to the use of the crowdsourcing methodology – you can map data is collected through representative sampling for example. All in all crisis mapping is a way to visualized information in an interactive map providing in this way an analytical temporal and spacial dimension to the information itself.

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!

Managing expectations..or hiding responsabilities?

At ICCM 2011 we could not miss the usual conversation about “rising expectations” in the local populations when doing a crisis mapping deployment. I have already said that, but I will repeat it here, since it seems a very difficult concept to understand: rising expectations is not an issue that is proper or specifically linked to Crisis Mapping. Rising expectation is linked to any humanitarian crisis, to any action taken in those cases and not only to humanitarians but to all subjects acting in environments where the local population is treated as a “receiver” rather than an active actor.

Now the real issue is that there is no way not to rise expectations, since I believe that expectations will always be there. What can be done, on the contrary, is to minimize those expectations by providing timely and reliable information and by being entirely honest about the purposes of the actions taken. I will use a practical example for this.

In April of this year I went to do an information need assessment in Central African Republic. My goal was to go in one of the villages where there are several refugee camps and IDPs camps and see what information they did have or not have, to better inform the local radio stations about it. In almost all the interviews that I have done, I was explaining at the beginning that the organization I worked for, was not there to deliver any aid, but to gather information and then work with local media. Despite the fact that I was taking some time to explain this, and the fact that I had a translator all the time to make sure that the info was passed in a very clear way, when I was asking questions about what information do the local population needed, the answer was always: “I need to go home, I need more food, I need a blanket”. In almost all the interviews I did, it took me almost 20 minutes of listening to all the things that the interviewed person need before I was able to talk about information needs. My boss explained it very well with another example: he went to do an assessment in Chad and asked to the refugees there “What would u like to listen to the radio if there was one?” and the answer was “that I can come back home”.

So to cut a long story short – I could give you another million examples of how expectation will rise no matter what you do or say.

The point here is simple: since expectations will be there anyway, people needs to be as informed as possible to minimize misunderstandings and people doing crisis mapping project need to be realistic and honest about their actual possibilities. Simple as it is, we need to learn from the past and current mistakes of the humanitarian community, to be honest.

Three things needs to happen according to me.

1. One is to spread as much as possible information about how do you communicate with disaster affected communities, how do you inform them about the actual possibilities of your project in terms of connection with the humanitarians. In Pakistan for example, we ask the local population to report what they were seeing around them, and not their needs, and we also actively send information out about the fact that we were not in the situation of knowing if the humanitarian community was using our information. Could we have done better? Yes we could, since you can always do better but at least we tried and we were really honest upfront about our goal and out possible outcomes.

My lessons learned in this years as related to this problem are:
– If you want people to send you information make clear what you will do with that info
– If you do not have contact with humanitarians or you are not a humanitarian organization, make that clear too
– Use radios, Internet, leaflets, posters, word of mouth to spread the voice as much as possible about the fact that U DO NoT HAVE the possibility to respond to the needs identified ( if you indeed not not have this possibility)
– Use a language that is not only comprehensible to the local population, but also a phrasing that leave no doubts, for as much as u can, about the fact that u do not have the possibility to respond.

2. The second thing that needs to happen is that we need to stop thinking that people that before the crisis were doctors, farmers, mothers and fathers, teachers, after a disaster or during an emergency will become suddenly retarded. I am well aware of the psychological consequences of being affected by displacement, war, natural disasters and so on, and I am not minimizing such effects on affected populations. What I am criticizing here is the victimizing stereotype that we attach indiscriminately to all affected communities at all times in favor of the “we need to protect them” approach. Protection of victimization are two very distinct issues, and we should not confuse them or use them as interchangeable.

Too many times the approach of who is calling for the “not rising expectations” seems to ignore the autonomous capacity of affected communities to understand and make decisions when they are well informed about what is going on. More or less the same way that lots of people talking about empowering communities to be resilient ignore local coping mechanisms. I believe effective communication can play a very important role on the expectations issue, but not only that: I believe there is an underlying thought in both the humanitarian community, and the crisis mapping community sometimes, that makes us confuse “protection” with not giving information to affected communities in the name of their inabilities to understand what is going on or to act logically as a consequence.

3. The third issue, and one of the most important according to me, is the one linked to accountability.

Let’ s do another example that I really find appropriate here. If tomorrow something happen, let’s say in New Orleans. If I am a journalist, then I decide to go there, and ask a lot of questions, do investigations, ask people what is going on and why. Some of those people will think that, since the media are there, and they will be reporting, and since a journalist is going to make this public, someone will respond to the government for example. Now in this case, the very act of journalists being there, even if people know that the journalists will not respond, is rising expectations, isn’t it?

The problem here is not rising expectations clearly. The problem is that we are talking about accountability of the humanitarian community, or responders in general, with respect to their work and the way humanitarian aid – or political decision, – are implemented. The existence of mechanisms where affected communities are allowed to express their views and their opinions about the way humanitarian relief is provided, is scarring for the humanitarian community because there are not a lot of existing used mechanisms to call for accountability in this sector.

In this sense crisis mapping is an uncomfortable and undesired approach most of the times, and this unease is masqueraded often as “need to protect” or “need to manage expectations”. The truth is that the is a need for more accountability systems in the humanitarian world that allow not only for external M&E, but that incorporate the opinion and the vision of affected communities as fundamental part of the evaluation of the humanitarian work. Taking into consideration all possible variables, from cultural perspective to different roles and duties, and to mandates, the inclusion of the affected communities’ opinion is and can be a winning key point for the humanitarian world. Often in fact, problems and issues arising from the delivery of humanitarian aid are related to the absence or the lack of cooperation from affected communities themselves in the process, or from their inability to understand the mechanisms behind it. A better informed and knowledgable “client”, if we want to call it this way, means that the work of the humanitarian community itself will be easier and smoother, and that also responsibilities will be clear to everybody.

I am well aware that this is a generalization of the humanitarian community and of the approach to humanitarian aid, since there are efforts going on to involve and incorporate the opinion of the affected communities in the evaluation of the aid system, but still the is a lot to do. Until affected communities will be kept under the umbrella of the “protection” paradigm, and therefore will not be fully informed about what is going on around them during an emergency, expectations will be rised, independently from the existence or not of a crisis mapping project. But saying that doing a crisis mapping project and asking people to report what their needs are during an emergency, is like to have a 911 number with no one answering to it, is simply too much of a simplicities way to approach the issue, that will always make me doubt that behind this statement there is a deep fear that letting people speak will highlight responsibilities and mistakes of the humanitarian community that otherwise will be be kept hidden.