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'Going Spatial' is my personal blog, the views on this site are entirely my own and should in no way be attributed to anyone else or as the opinion of any organisation.

My tweets on GIS, Humanitarian, Tech, Games and Randomness

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Cloud Computing, GIS and the Crisis Mappers

The International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) this year in Geneva brought together a large and varied crowd of about 400 persons all eager to learn from each other and share common experiences of using GIS, mapping, social media and ICT in responding to humanitarian disasters.

The Crisis Mappers is a movement of likely minded individuals and organisations who see the utility of using social media, crowd sourced data along with web- and mobile-centric tools to provided support to the responders and the public to complex humanitarian emergencies. Co-founder and co-directors Patrick Meier and Jen Ziemke have been drivers of this rather remarkable gathering.

In addition to the one-man band organisations, there were some large commercial heavy weights such as Google and Esri Inc, non-governmental organisations and research institutions as well as a smattering of respected United Nations organisations.

Of interest to me, were the discussions of leveraging social media tools (twitter, facebook, youtube, ushahidi etc) to provide data and information that would compliment existing sources of data. Large volumes of data being stored and manipulated and displayed might require a lot of resources and everyone appeared to be using some form of cloud based technology to collaborate.

Esri Inc has thrown it's weight in and has started to really engage with the crisis mapping community by providing a set of tools and applications for Social Media.They have also created an Open Street Map editor (link) and a plug-in to Ushahidi, the link goes to a recent Australian example, a new one is due soon.

A lot of the participants were users of GIS in one form or another and most used some form of cloud infrastructure for their participatory work. I made notes on all the ignite talks (5 minute presentations with 20 slides only changing every 12 seconds)...so this made it for a nice fast delivery.

A highlight for me was Adam Finck of the NGO 'Invisible Children' and their implementation of the Lord's Resistance Army's (LRA) Crisis tracker. The talk concentrated on an early warning system for those on the frontline, warning of ongoing attacks, tracking the movements of the LRA and historical data. It's role is to spread the news of one of Africa's longest wars and advocacy of social media as an agent of change. The data and application is all hosted via Salesforce.com, the well-known cloud-based CRM provider. http://www.lracrisistracker.com/media/video/lra-crisis-tracker-introduction

The second day was all self-organised sessions and two stood out:

-Making crowdsourced data, 'actionable' remains a problem. While everyone is familar with twitter, facebook etc. Representatives of 'user' organisations, especially the major UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF etc, say it would be very unlikely that they would rely solo on crowdsourced data to trigger relief actions. Certainly crowdsourced data would give a strong corroboration to more established lines of communications and could speed up the pace of actions. For example, tweets (if they're geocoded) could give strong evidence of a specific event with a geographical property. Very useful for speedily allocating resources for example. However, it is unlikely that an international response will be triggered off by a single tweet or a million tweets

- Verifying crowdsourced data. Can one trust crowdsourced data? A great example of trusted crowdsourced data is OpenStreetMap (OSM) - where tens of thousands of users each can edit any part of the OSM map with their work being peer reviewed, probably in real time. However, the thrust the talk was the more well known crowdsourced data that was subjective in nature such as tweets, short wave radio and SMS. Questions over quality, accuracy and 'trustfulness' were all explored. One can't verify and QA a tweet can we? Thus the problem of event driven data, ephemeral in nature; very fluid and subjective in content poses significantly problems to decision makers. However, if this data is someone geolocated (many can be) if there's 1000s of tweets from one area, all about the same event (told through the eyes of the tweeter)

The event was a success with all participants hungry for their work to be mainstreamed and accepted into the humanitarian practise. GIS and intelligent mapping was evident throughout the conference with everyone aware of the utility of having a location or place to link up a wide variety of ephemeral crowdsourced data. Data and information remain big topics as everyone tries to grappy with the well known issues of access rights, ownership, data standards, interoperability, quality and in the case of social media, trust.

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. This website has since been accessed from 191 different countries. As the world's premier crisis mapping hub, the Network catalyzes communication and collaboration between and among crisis mappers with the purpose of advancing the study and application of crisis mapping worldwide.