Top Crisis Mapping Challenges and Selected Solutions
To wrap-up our series of blogs on crisis mapping, we’re selecting the top five challenges that face crisismappers globally and presenting some tried and tested solutions to those challenges. This, however, is not a comprehensive list of challenges that crisis mappers have encountered.
1. The challenge of information overload and limited human resources was one of the major obstacles and a burden to mappers in the early years of crisis mapping. MicroMappers was born out of this earlier experience of crisis mappers who realized that mapping requires a huge amount of human resources, because of the phenomenal amount of data that needs to be processed, and that is often generated by social media and survivors on the ground. This usually meant that volunteers were quickly overwhelmed, and that there was a huge backlog of unprocessed tweets and SMS messages–it was simply not sustainable during huge a crisis.
The MicroMappers platform, was hence set up to provide a community of volunteers who can be called upon, when needed; to gather, analyze and map social media data about a specific disaster area. It allows anyone in the world, with an internet connection to become a digital humanitarian. MicroMappers is made up of a number of applications called “Clickers” (some of which are still under development), that allow users to tag tweets and/or images (TweetClicker and ImageClicker).
All one has to do is log into the MicroMappers website, and start categorizing tweets and images that are geotagged. It takes three volunteers to decide if a tweet is relevant, and only then will that information move to more experienced mappers building the map, which will be used by humanitarian agencies, as well as survivors, to make important decisions.
MicroMappers was first used, with a huge margin of success, in south-west Pakistan in September 2013, when a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck the region. United Nations reached out to the founder of MicroMappers, Patrick Meier, asking for help. This presented an opportunity to test MicroMpappers even before it was fully developed. Within the first few hours 35,000 tweets were collected and categorized by 100 volunteers. Out of which 14,000 tweets were deemed “relevant” and about 400 images were mapped. MircoMappers was also used in the Philippines during typhoon Haiyan.
This was all made possible through the tireless efforts of the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) (working under the Digital Humanitarian Network), which is an online volunteer technical community of more than 800 mappers from over 70 countries; who are deployed upon request by the United Nations and others to work on large-scale emergencies. This approach reduces the costs of coordination and pulls together a technical network of experts to respond faster and on a larger and more sustainable scale. In the next development phase of MicroMappers SMS, video and translation applications are being developed to make the data available to mappers using the platform richer and more diverse.
2. Coordination of tasks and communication messages during a humanitarian crisis can be a major challenge. Many maps and SMS short codes can pop up leading to the replication of work and data, and to the confusion of communities receiving this information. During a crisis access to information for those affected is a basic need that can save many lives by raising the awareness of communities about their situation and getting their feedback on immediate needs; hence improving the prospect for service delivery. However, lack of coordination by those responding can mean that beneficiaries are not getting the information that is most relevant to them.
Some experts have advised that an “SMS code of conduct” be set up to streamline and centralize the flow of information; and to make sure that information provided to communities is demand driven. Specific recommendations here include allowing recipients of SMS messages to request specific information depending on their location and to unsubscribe. As well as setting up a “clearinghouse” that screens all outgoing SMSs, in addition to a complaint mechanism.
One tool that can be used to streamline the division of labor amongst different actors responding to an emergency is crisis clean-up, which is an open source US-based service that’s built on google App Engine and allows organizations to log-in and take ownership of tasks. Those tasks are then marked as “claimed” in a log that is transparent to all users of the platform. Tasks can be claimed remotely, hence reducing the need for coordination meetings. Locations in need of support can be identified and people who need help can also access the system to see if their area has been served. Crisis clean-up can therefore allow for more transparency and accountability, and has so far been used in four countries in response to 12 disasters.
3. Using technologies closer to the local reality: It is vital that communities in need are reached through technologies mostly accessible locally to them; such as local media, community radios and SMS or text messaging. Organizations like Internews and First Radio Response, specialize in setting up public radio stations in local dialects during emergencies.
Additionally, the free and open source software FrontlineSMS can assist with sending large amounts of text messages; as well as receiving and managing SMS. While FrontlineSMS does not require an internet connection and the software can be downloaded for free, you will be paying for each text message you send and might want to consider negotiating a rate with your local telecom provider.
4. Low or unstable internet connectivity is an expected challenge in many developing countries or after natural disasters. If this is the case, make sure to set up your system so data can be collected and saved offline and later synchronized when the internet is available, or use a platform like First Mile Geo, which is adapted for low bandwidth.
5. Verifying information
User generated content in the aftermath of a disaster or emergency can be very high and can include a fair amount of rumours or inaccurate information. Nonetheless, user generated content remains a valuable source of information for journalists and crisismappers during a humanitarian crisis or political upheaval.
Some would go as far as to say that social media has revolutionized journalism and allowed real-time coverage even in situations when journalists were not able to be on the the ground.
One such journalist is, Andy Carvin, the senior social media strategist for National Public Radio (NPR), who shot to prominence for his live tweets about Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011 during the Arab Spring. In his book, Distance Witness: Social Media, the Arab Spring and a Journalism Revolution, he describes how he created a “twitter newsroom” by gradually compiling a list of trusted sources on twitter, who were based in the region and had specialized knowledge and presence in specific locations; with whom he collaborated to verify information posted on twitter. However, Carvin stresses that it is important to get acquainted with ones sources outside social media and to know their affiliations, weaknesses, strengths and biases. He noted that he would often press his sources for verification and would deeply question the context, because a lot of context can be lost when people are posting updates in a state of shock or from a very specific frame of reference or location.
Crisis mapper Patrick Meier, points out that the future of verification in crisis mapping is moving toward the use of advanced computing options that include combining the use of machine computing and human computing (i.e., outsourcing tasks to a human crowd and then collecting and analyzing that information automatically). He notes that both fields are new but are developing quickly, and gives the example of the Verily platform; a human computing tool used to verify social media content. “A parallel goal of the verily project is to crowdsource critical thinking”, says Meier. Verily is like a blackboard where information shared is discredited or verified by users of the platform. It will be especially useful for verifying conflicting information during disasters, such as images and/or videos. The platform has an incentives mechanism where people are given points to build their credibility and reputation for accuracy. Users of the platform can also post questions on Facebook or Twitter that need to be answered with a yes or no. Those with evidence can reply directly to Verily with text, pictures or video and are required to write a justification or explanation. Verily is expected to launch in 2014.