Leveraging the crowd: how people can contribute to disaster management

February 26, 2016

Data–Pop Alliance has been conducting ongoing research on Big Data, climate change and environmental resilience. With funding from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID), we published a synthesis report evaluating the opportunities, challenges and required steps for leveraging the new ecosystem of Big Data and its potential applications and implications for climate change and disaster resilience. This report will feed into the World Humanitarian Summit to be organized in Istanbul in May 2016. This is the third in a series of companion pieces that offer insights from the synthesis report. The authors of the series attempt to go “beyond the buzz” to lay out what we actually know about Big Data’s existing utility for disaster science and for building practical resilience.

When human communities are affected by disasters, collaboration is essential to mitigating their negative impacts. There are many interesting examples of collaborative bottom-up insights building on the “wisdom of crowds” to help optimize response to disasters through humanitarian assistance. This is mostly happening through digital tools, which are playing an increasingly important role in this field. Mobile devices and open source software (e.g. Open Data Kit and Frontline SMS), enable non-expert users living in remote and/or underserved communities – especially in developing and emerging regions – to collect and share data. Additional tools allow the seamless integration of distributed data, real-time information sharing and collaborative analysis of the information produced thanks to data collected by the crowd.

In particular, spatial information is central to disaster response. This includes ‘traditional’ geographic information and aerial imagery produced by governmental organizations as well as Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI), happening as per Goodchild’s definition through “the widespread engagement of large numbers of private citizens, often with little in the way of formal qualifications, in the creation of geographic information.” Such information is often joined with other unstructured data and information released (not necessarily voluntarily) on the social web during disasters to enable the real-time mapping of impacts as well as response efforts.

The most renowned collaborative platform is Ushahidi (meaning “witness” in Swahili), an application developed by Kenyan journalist Ory Okollah and technologist Erik Hershman to allow crowdsourced reporting of violent incidents in Kenya after the post-election crisis in 2008. An online map aggregated citizens and journalists’ reports, and more than 45,000 people used the website for contributing and/or reading reports during the first month of activity. Communities employed Ushahidi for a variety of purposes – including election reporting in Mexico, as well as to report malaria surveillance with micro-monetary incentives in India. Clearly, the platform was leveraged to track impact of various disasters, as well as for matchmaking between requests and offers for help, as in the case of Nepal earthquake in 2015. For more, please click: http://datapopalliance.org/leveraging-the-crowd-how-people-can-contribut...

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