I was reading (as you do) the Rochester Institute of Technology pages on Haiti geodata and disaster-risk analysis and noted a side-project: the Blue Tarp Detection Scheme, where Dr Dave Messinger used remote sensing and spectral analysis to detect and plot the locations of blue tarps. As anyone who has flown over a disaster zone or IDP camp knows plastic sheeting/tarpaulins/tarps have high contrast and are handed out during emergencies, so in many ways they make a find proxy for the presence of displaced populations, and possibly for the movement or change in these populations. I’d love to see more analysis of this as there are a number of factors that would affect a tarp count as a reliable indicator, including age, presence of temporary shelters before an emergency, the use of tarps for something other than shelter, and also the market that rapidly springs up around these products where they’re traded for cash and other goods. Nonetheless I’d expect that you could control for much of this, and generate some pretty interesting data. After a quick Google search I couldn’t find any papers that explored this use of remotes sensing which surprises me, I expect I’m just looking in the wrong place.
One reason that I’m so interested in this is that it’s pretty similar to a scheme I planned but never implemented for Darfur in 2005: at the UN Joint Logistics Center we were trying to both confirm changes to camp populations (which could be on the order of 80,000 in less than a month in some cases), and also try and understand how and when people were returning to their villages. We were also procuring and distributing hundreds of thousands of units of plastic sheeting (tarps) every season, accounting for something like 90% of the supply. With a virtual monopoly on distribution why not use a different colour each year, or label them somehow with symbols that could be detected remotely. With six-monthly remote sensing data collection and some relatively simple multi-spectral analysis, plus a bit of ground-truthing, you could expect to track how newly distributed orange tarps appear in the camp and then migrate out between camps or to villages, either through trade or by people returning (perhaps temporarily) to their homes.
Unfortunately this was yet another of those great ideas that never went anywhere: we never did anything about it, not even at the level of using the presence or change in tarps as a measure of camp population, or looking at seasonal and annual trends. There are lots of reasons it mightn’t have worked very well, and it also raises a few ethical issues particularly if we printed symbols on the tarps, not the least because we’d be potentially providing the government and other forces with a means to track movements.
I’ve gone on record before saying that in all the years I’ve been involved in the field of humanitarian information I struggle to think of more than three examples (outside of pure cartography) of where remote sensing and GIS analysis were used by humanitarian agencies to support operational – or even planning – decisions during a crisis. If we’d been more creative in 2005 there might just have been four examples.
Update (11:22 April 8 2011): Both John Crowley and Gisli Olafsson immediately suggested putting QR codes on the tarps and then using something like Walking Papers to process them. All good, but the logistics (and cost) of that printing (double sided too) is scaring me.
Whoops, somehow I missed this: my friends and colleagues at the World Bank GFDRR Labs released their Volunteer Technology Communities: Open Development Report. A great summary of various groups and contributions in this community, several of which like Random Hacks of Kindness, I’m proud to have been a part of.
Amusing side note: in this report “they” are called the Volunteer Technology Communities (VTC). Let the naming wars begin
This morning Patrick, Jaro, Rob, Anahi and Helena put up a post on the Standby Task Force blog, “Why We need a Disaster Response 2.1 report” where they pointed out a number of errors and issues with the DR 2.0 report I’d mentioned last week. Their corrections are useful, and, together with Gisli’s response to their response (my head already hurts), they raise a number of themes that remain at the heart of creating more effective crisis situational awareness and communications systems; for international humanitarian actors, for governments, and ultimately for the often neglected – in this regard at least – people affected by disasters.
As one of the people involved in the inception of the report, and (depending on how you view it) one of the editors, as well as someone quoted in it, I’ve also got much to say. Probably the most important thing is that this kind of conversation is exactly what I had hoped would happen when we set out on the journey of working with John Crowley and the team at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative to do the research and write the report. Well, I must admit that I wish things weren’t so rushed towards the end of the production cycle, and that we’d had more time for consultation and community review before publication. I wish we’d also had more time to talk to humanitarian actors in the field, and to donors and to bring in people in countries affected by disasters to offer their inputs and views: for example the team from the University of Yogyakarta who setup a Crisis Wiki immediately after the 2005 earthquake, or the team behind the Tsunami, Katrina and Flu wikis, or the Red Cross team who worked with Digicell in Haiti to prepare for the hurricane season in 2010, or many of the folks that the SBTF team rightly points out made contributions who weren’t included. I wish we could continually update it with the work that Crisis Commons and the Open Streetmap Team are doing in Japan, or have a real discussion on the Ushahidi Haiti Evaluation, or the work that the Standby Task Force did with UNOCHA on the Libya Crisis map. I could go on. Ultimately a typeset report is a stake in the sand, an opinion put into PDF and print. And the place to have this discussion is here, on the net, and in person, over beers or your non-alcoholic beverage of choice. Most likely at the Crisis Mapper Conference in Geneva later this year, if not before.
But basically I wanted to say thanks to the highly committed and awesome SBTF folks for engaging so publicly, and adding depth to both the report and, I hope, to the continued conversation.
On their detailed points: there’s a lot to say, but here I want to comment on the use of the term Volunteer and Technical Community (V&TC). As (I think) the creator of the damned phrase, it was a compromise to get us away from VTC (which was in common use in the many of the 2010 reports and discussions). Amongst those who contributed to the report, either in inception or during research and editing, there was a real struggle to come up with a term for those actors who were not “the traditional humanitarian community” in all their diversity of structures, engagement and longevity.
So we’ve fallen into the trap of categorization: by using a term to speak of “the other”, in contrast to an (admittedly vague) “formal humanitarian” group we surface the artifacts of in-group/out-of group sociology, particularly “illusory correlation” where we perceive more shared interests and alignment that really exists. It’s what we also get when we talk about race, or a bunch of other social-affect categories no matter how hard we try to do otherwise.
So to step out of the abstract: yes, the use of a term like V&TC conflates a lot of underlying differences, and there are pathologies that result from it. Because there is an IASC taskforce with a reasonably stable membership (even though it is formally open), the apparent relevance of new actors and capabilities in the Haiti response – together with the work of longstanding groups like Sahana and MapAction – caused us all to grasp on to terms, and ask for consistent interfaces. This is typical of people’s responses during crises, when we suffer from overload, and we fall back on the familiar, the easy, and on bonds of trust.
Ironically I keep being reminded in my head of many similar conversations I’ve had with “The Military” over the years: when I was doing CMCOORD trainings, or when working in the field: a Major, or a Captain pleads “can you please just give me an interface we can work with, even you, rather than 100 different NGOs all asking for their own thing?” They ask for a reason why things aren’t “just more organized”, and I’ve struggled as best I can to explain why that’s not possible, and to also provide an interface as best we can. It’s why coordination structures exist, and why I was so glad to see these conversations evolving last year at the Crisis Congress and particularly at the Crisis Mappers Conference. Them, us, we, are in this together.
Disclaimer: I should, of course, note that these opinions are mine, and not necessarily those of my current or past employers.
Update: Apr 7 2011. Interestingly the recently released and related World Bank GFDRR labs report uses the term “Volunteer Technical Communities”.
Great new post on the Atlantic Blog from Kentaro Toyama, the co-founder of Microsoft Research India, where he write about his frustrations trying to get technology to change the lives of the rural poor in India and elsewhere. It’s not really a surprise to many of us, but it’s important to hear, over and over again, comments like this:
“In project after project, the lesson was the same: information technology amplified the intent and capacity of human and institutional stakeholders, but it didn’t substitute for their deficiencies.”
I find this particularly refreshing because the MSR India team produced one of the all-time simple (and open-source) SMS toolkits for using a cellphone (actually Windows mobile smartphones) connected to a computer as a SMS base-station. Just by updating a spreadsheet you could setup a price-query system, a mass messaging system, or an alerting system. While systems like FrontlineSMS do this very elegantly, and even add forms, my old team at Microsoft adapted the open-source MSR toolkit to work in Afghanistan as a prototype gateway that connected simple feature phones to internet search and other services. That’s a story for another time though.
Just finished my first piece of live radio in years and it was huge fun: I did an interview for the first edition of the BBC’s “Click” radio show. We talked a bit about how online volunteers can get involved in crisis response, and the newly launched Disaster Response 2.0 report.
The best part was that my friends Richard and Siobhan were sitting at home in Barwon Heads outside of Melbourne, listening in, when suddenly my voice came on the radio. They Skyped me immediately and we had a good natter. Sometimes I just love this crazy new world of ours.
Two maps to point to:
Libya Crisis Map, a collaboration of the Crisis Mappers Standby Task Force and UNOCHA. It’s been running for a while, and is now using a different group of volunteers, but it’s provided a single place for crisis information to be aggregated.
Japan Crisis Map was setup and is maintained by members of the Open Street Map team in Japan. It’s not formally connected with the UNOCHA or UN efforts, but some of that team have been working with us on a number of projects, and it’s great to see them responding in this way.
About a year ago I helped write the terms of reference for a study on how the “formal” humanitarian system was, and could, work with volunteer and technical groups. Today the report is out: Disaster Response 2.0: the future of Humanitarian information sharing has been launched by my boss, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos in Dubai. My friend John Crowley from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative was the lead author, and the work was commissioned by the UN Foundation/Vodafone Foundation technology partnership and UNOCHA.
I’ve been doing a bunch of press around the launch, and I’m pretty happy to have made the New York Times: Online Mapping shows the potential to transform relief efforts. There are a bunch of other articles and blogs worth reading. This whole effort is continuing in some great ongoing work by colleagues and friends, and we’ll see where we end up at this time next year, notwithstanding the rather trenchant comments of my old colleague Paul Currion.
After four pretty good years I’ve sent my resignation to Microsoft. I’m going to be starting at UNOCHA on the New Year. Back into the belly of the beast, but a chance to think and re-think, and re-learn how Information Management can best make a difference in humanitarian responses.
Hopefully this means I’ll end up blogging a bit more.
I’ll have to write more later, as right now I’m fried, but we’ve just had a great weekend here at Parsons the New School for Design hosting the NYC RHoK 2.0 event. The full details are on the wiki but there were a hundred or so people hacking on some amazing projects, and a bunch of photos on the flickr account.
The featured, prize winning, hacks were
- Task me up: where Nico and team implemented a really elegant solution to the Task Turking challenge I posted at RHoK 1.0.
- Incident Commander for Android project which provides volunteer first responders with a basic incident command system.
My favourite moments on the weekend? It would be hard to go past the launch co-hosted by UN Global Pulse, where the UN Secretary General spoke, along with Joel Towers the Dean of Parsons the New School for Design, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and Alfred Spector, Google’s VP for Research.
@Kim26stephens thanks, but wrong @ handle! Where's that spreadsheet mapper of fire links?
RT @Kim26stephens: #DG2G @snoad Points out that corrections on SM travel quicker than rumors. See this story about the London riots: htt ...
@OliverLaceyHall What about aftershock: seems to have generated a bigger tsunami
Now, can I claim @snoad and finally get back in charge. Having not gotten @nigel way back in the day even though I had the chance d'oh
finally reading the twitter terms of service
RT @smsradio: RT @jqg See what Karel Pedre Radio 1 did in Haiti , documented in #infoasaid report http://t.co/lgYYkj9o #commisaid
@ushahidi massive jump in tsunami queries from HAWAII after Japan earthquake. See more http://t.co/DxlAlS1r
#smem somehow we need to recognise and deal with the fact that the most vulnerable are the least connected
@poplifegirl #smem no formal pathways for tech in NIMS EF? No surprise, but how to include virtual members?
"need wisdom of crowds, power of algorithms and instinct of experts" @rgkirkpatrick ht @digiphile #SMEM
@poplifegirl tech companies have more to offer than just infrastructure during crises. All options should be on the table.
RT @MikePriceWrites: Alex Howard of O'Reilly Media: "Journalists write the rough draft of history, the difference today is more people h ...
Callout for volunteer task force for the red cross by @noeldickover. @redcross has new program. #SMEM
@poplifegirl companies formally a part of EF-2? Most likely informally.
Back at the red cross, listening to @PatrickMeier and @digiphile talk about social media and disasters #smem
@andrejverity wait and see
em-dat disasters report for '11 (PDF) http://t.co/YuhuVFMQ: more events, less deaths than 10 yrs avg. 30yr trend not good tho.
@texasinafrica Thanks. you made mine.
I work on a bunch of projects, but spend most of my time thinking and talking about how design, crowdsourcing, networks, complexity theory and other strategies can reshape humanitarian operations, and how information management, decision making and risk management all come together. Implementing change is, of course, harder.
Sometimes I get sick of just talking and end up in the field, usually in the middle of a disaster. Helicopters, twenty hour days, meeting tents, frustration, malaria and all that. Thankfully most days you can find me in Brooklyn, riding a bike or cooking for the family.