by Stuart Ridgway, Original Music for Film and Television

I originally posted this article on the AWAREForum.org on June 29, 2011.

On June 17, 2011 the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) sponsored an event that brought together “crisis mappers” from the government, private sector, and from conflict zones around the world.  The two-hour discussion revolved around Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping.  In addition to the interest I have in new capabilities such as mapping crisis situations such as post-election violence, I also learned several lessons on how tools such as Ushahidi can be used to facilitate online discussions around emergencies.

Ushahidi is one of many online tools for crowdsourcing data about an event and mapping that information.  It provides a community platform for the public to voice their concerns, perceptions, and thoughts regarding an event.  But the resulting map is only a tool for informing the next steps.  Upon submitting data, the public is empowered to engage with others, create social ties, and take collective action.  Furthermore, responders can use this data to improve their situational awareness and make informed decisions: where are resources needed; what trends are emerging; can further crisis be averted?

Collecting and Disseminating Information

Organizations often have very little data upon which to make their decisions.  At times they must take their best guess when determining how to deploy support and aid during a crisis.  They often rely on mainstream media for intelligence although they are now looking to social media for information an event.  Yet both channels bring concerns.

While mainstream media may be able to provide information about a crisis, they certainly cannot be in all places at one time.  Furthermore, because the media is typically deployed after a crisis has begun, it is not present during the escalation phase of an event.  Consequently, they can only provide limited and reactive insight and may infuse biases as to what is truly needed on the ground: they miss the contributing factors to the perfect storm that resulted in the event.  As one of the panelists mentioned, “You may come to me with food when I need water, schools when I need hospitals.”

Similar problems emerge with alerts and warnings.  Mainstream media typically reacts to an event after it has occurred and is deployed to a minimal number of sites.  Consequently, it becomes a bottleneck through which the media provider must prioritize and linearly disseminate information.

On the other hand, crowdsourced data from social media tools and community tools such as Ushahidi enable a more comprehensive and evolving view by recording events from their initial sparks to their ultimate conclusion.  The process of collecting data actually enables the public to engage further with each other and responders.  They are able to collectively provide insight into immediate needs as well as identify who the stakeholders are.

Finally, community tools like Ushahidi provide space for documenting accountability.  Once the public identifies its needs, organizations in power have an opportunity to demonstrate their leadership by improving the situation.

Filtering, Verification, and Geo-targeting

Using crowdsourced data does not come without concerns.  First, once the floodgates are opened, there is the possibility of an onslaught of data.  How can that data be filtered to be useful?  One audience member suggested using the same strategies you would use when performing a Google search and receiving five million results.  Organizations that leverage crowdsourced data should develop criteria in advance for organizing and filtering data whether manually or by using automated tools.

Second, how does an organization verify crowdsourced data?  There is always the risk that a user posts careless, corrupted, intentionally misleading, or incorrect information.  Nevertheless, having some data is often better than none.  The validation process often gives an organization a starting point for learning more about the event.  Furthermore, as with any shared online space, community policing is necessary.  New users must build trust within the community and “power” users must curate the space.

Ushahidi’s automated “Swiftriver” tool addresses these issues by adding context to the content.  For example, Swiftriver can track whether a user has contributed data in the past and if it was deemed accurate.  If so, that user may be more of a trusted source than a user who has never contributed data before.  Furthermore, if the user as contributed a resource with a phone number, Swiftriver can search the Internet for established uses of that number and validate its affiliation with the resource.

Ushahidi map showing sites in Port or Prince that provide medical assitance

Finally, various events need different levels of geo-targeting.  Ushahidi enables users to contribute data through various channels such SMS, the Ushahidi smart phone app, email, Twitter, and the web.  Accordingly, geo-targeting varies for each channel.  For example, if users share information using the Ushahidi app, then their location is derived from local cell towers.  However, if they use Twitter or email they might need to write a description of the area and include pictures so that others can pinpoint the location.

Conclusion

Ushahidi is not a cure-all for community discussions about an event.  Not everyone has access to the Internet to submit data during a crisis.  Furthermore, it may be difficult for those in need to take advantage of the aggregated data in a timely fashion.  As such, Ushahidi should be treated as one tool in a large toolbox.  It can be used by support organizations to inform their decisions when supplemented by other sources.  It should also be used as a resource dissemination channel along with local radio, public gathering spaces, and even voicemail.  Redundancy is key so there is no single point of access for disseminating the information.

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