The promise and peril of crowd sourcing crisis information

Several excellent example of how mobile phones are being linked to the web to create new crisis reporting (and response) systems, as well as several examples from recent conflicts of how such tools can be used as another weapon of war.  

In this video from Pop!Tech, Ken Banks explains how his software is being used by various humanitarian NGO’s for quicker reporting, monitoring, and mobilisation.  Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, a site which helps local, national and international non-profits get their jobs done through mobile phone services.  

Kiwanja.net makes software called FrontlineSMS, which is being used by another piece of brilliant software application called Ushahidi (Ushahidi is also a finalist in the USAID Development 2.0 Challenge)  Ushahidi allows people to:

•    send and receive SMS alerts;
•    set up a local or international alert number at short notice;
•    work on different smartphones;
•    send MMS messages (images and video);
•    send GPS coordinates.

Forbes.com has an excellent article on how this is being used to cover emerging humanitarian crises. Al Jazeera is already using this to cover the crisis in Gaza, the software is in use in the DRC right now (also on the BBC website here), and for AIDS relief projects in Malawi.

These kinds of real-time disaster discovery and reporting technologies are likely to play a larger and larger role in the humanitarian sector over the coming decade. But there are dangers to these developments as well as opportunities. Jeremiah Owyang, a senior strategist in social computing at Forrester Research, reports on how Twitter is being used to report disasters. He observes several risks when relying on these technologies;

1) Sources may panic, and over or under state the situation.
2) Determining who is a credible source is a challenge,
3) Echos from the online network may over pump or mis state very important facts that could impact people’s safety.

He argues that lessons from a recent explosion in Toronto offer several key take away thoughts:

  • The new News Wire is now Twitter, the “Twire”?
  • News continues to break from first hand sources, in the past, the press would break the stories.
  • The jobs of the press are both easier and harder: They’ve improved access to sources in real time, but the level of noise has increased.
  • Press and Media must monitor Twitter: we’ve never seen information break as fast as this.
  • Press still have a very important role: vetting out what’s true and false to the best of their ability.
  • The community must be mindful of what’s real and what’s not, over hyping or spreading false information could impact lives.
  • Emergency response teams and local municipalities should monitor the online chatter, just as they do emergency short wave channels.

All of this is tremendously important for humanitarian researchers, field workers and strategists to consider when integrating these technologies into their work.  Crowdsourced news sources can cut both ways.  We already know how politically biased official reporting of disaster impacts can be; governments are prone to over- or under-report numbers as per their political preference.  If anyone can report anything now, and an eager news media is prone to catch the scoop and broadcast it loudly, how might local political vendettas play into the disaster response process?  One imagines that natural vetting sources, including reputation ranking, will likely arise to counter-balance what is otherwise a total free-for-all.  But we’re still very much in the Wild, Wild West when it comes to these frontiers.

ADDENDUM 1: See the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) use of Twitter and YouTube in the current Gaza conflict for an example of the “politically motivated” potential of these tools.  Examples here, here, and here.

ADDENDUM 2: On Gaza and the use of web tech, Slashdot notes:

“The war of words over the conflict in Gaza has moved from the real world to the Internet. Besides a furious stream of mini-debates on Twitter between supporters of and critics of Israel’s military actions, there have also been demonstrations in Second Life at an Israel-themed sim and a collection of Facebook applications, including ‘QassamCount’ and ‘Stop Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.’ Another project — ‘mapping the war in Gaza’ — was launched by Al Jazeera and takes user-submitted reports, tweets, and Microsoft Virtual Earth to track the number of casualties and other developments.”  In addition to this, the series of website defacements we discussed a few days ago has now extended to sites controlled by NATO and the US Army

ADDENDUM 3:  It gets even weirder! The BBC reports that China has hired an army of anonymous bloggers to post pro-Chinese comments on blogs, forums, and message boards around the world.  Boing Boing quotes an estimate that this group is 300,000 strong, but their source is unclear.  The technical term for this kind of thing is astroturfing, where advertising or PR campaigns fake spontaneous grass roots agreement on issues for personal gain.  From the BBC (although Danwei has an excellent piece on this as well):

Comments, rumours and opinions can be quickly spread between internet groups in a way that makes it hard for the government to censor.So instead of just trying to prevent people from having their say, the government is also attempting to change they way they think.

To do this, they use specially trained – and ideologically sound – internet commentators.

They have been dubbed the “50-cent party” because of how much they are reputed to be paid for each positive posting (50 Chinese cents; $0.07; £0.05).

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4 Responses to The promise and peril of crowd sourcing crisis information

  1. katrin says:

    Hi, nice post. Just a point of clarification, though — the Ushahidi deployment for Gaza by Al Jazera uses a local SMS service run by an NGO called Souktel. Gaza is a case where SMS gateways are few and strictly controlled so Frontline would not have worked there. Souktel has a gateway in and out of Palestine, both Gaza and the West Bank that is already established and operational for their job-matching service in the area. Souktel has also offered its service at cost for any humanitarian NGO needing to get SMS in and out of the region. For more, see http://mobileactive.org/gaza-update-mapping-and-citizen-reporting-sms-al-jazeera.

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