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Humanitarian action 2.0


Patrick Meier speaks on how internet and communications technology can help humanitarians save lives in the field.

ONCE UPON A TIME, the internet was a relatively passive place. The World Wide Web served mainly as a window through which people sought information. Now, the internet is far more interactive — Web 2.0, as this evolving digital platform is sometimes called, can serve as a collaborative workspace where knowledge, data and experience can be shared by anyone, anywhere, any time. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, Patrick Meier and other volunteers created online crisis maps that allowed victims and aid workers to use their cell phones to post up-to-the-minute data about the location of people in need of help. Meier says new technologies could have a profound impact on humanitarian action in the field.

Crisis-mapping has shown it can empower people in various crises. But is it providing measurable impact on humanitarian assistance on the ground?
It is still a relatively new field and we are just getting started. It has now been two years since the earthquake in Haiti, which is where crisis-mapping started to a certain extent. At that time, there were no standard operating procedures for how to go about mapping a crisis.

That’s because it had never been done before and it wasn’t even started by humanitarian organizations. It was student volunteers and members of the Haitian diaspora who got together and created a live crisis map. It took about a year for the first humanitarian aid organization to realize the value of these technologies [crowd-sourced data and geographic information technologies].

We know that the first responders in Haiti, in this case the US Coast Guard and the Marine Corps, actively requested and used this information for their own search-and-rescue efforts.

In the case of the Libyan crisis map, we know it was used in official United Nations OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] information products that were being circulated in Libya by UN information officers. Now the UN, or anyone using crisis-mapping, has to look at the impact the information had on their decisions.

How credible is this type of volunteered information from the field?
During the first days of any crisis, the data from the field are neither complete nor accurate. In the past year and a half, there has been a great deal of positive change in the understanding and handling of data in humanitarian organizations.

What all of us realize is that there are different levels of information and reliability at first. It is important to have different channels of information coming in and use them to paint a broader picture of what is happening on the ground. It must be said that it is better to have some information rather than nothing at all: you can always verify the reports once you have some evidence.

How do you answer concerns that the ‘crowd’ — those who are contributing data via their cell phones or computers — truly represents those most in need, and not simply those with access to technology?
It’s true, crowd-sourcing is not a random sample. But every sampling method comes with certain advantages and disadvantages. One of the strengths of crowd-sourcing is that it attains information quickly. But it may not always be representative of the entire population.

Every time you compile samples of the entire population there are trade-offs — timeliness, effort and cost, to name just three. Sometimes you have to go with what is good enough, as long as you are transparent in both your methods and the shortcomings. Crowd-sourcing is not going to solve everything. It is just another way to collect information.

As more people get involved in crowd-sourcing, is there a danger of raising expectations of the people who are sending in data or reports?
Any type of humanitarian intervention is going to raise expectations. That is the nature of our work. So the question becomes how do we best manage these expectations? One of the things we did during the Haiti crisis was to educate the public (via radio stations in this case) on the purpose of the map.

I spent hours on various stations explaining that it is an information service. It does not guarantee a response. The humanitarian community is prioritizing the most urgent life-and-death requests, and people understand this. But they must be informed: you need to be upfront, transparent and honest about the limitations of the response that can be expected.

Can this type of technology also be used in conflict environments?
It is a whole other ballgame working in conflict situations. Sometimes crowd-sourcing is not going to be an option when there is a mix of concerns: safety, privacy and security.

Still, there are some precautions that can aid users: one is to control access to the data and still provide information to stakeholders. In the case of the Libyan crisis map, there was a public and a private version of the map with a time delay and omission of locations of sources on the public copy. But these systems are only as good as the behaviour of the people using them. You can have all the technological security in the world, but if people are logging in from internet cafés, and government officials happen to be looking over their shoulders, then the system won’t be secure and people could be at risk.

What other new technologies do you see entering the humanitarian field?
I have been actively trying to bridge the gap between the technology community and the humanitarian community for the past five years. I am passionate about finding for-profit commercial applications that can aid humanitarian work.

One of the best examples of this is ‘micro-tasking’. UNHCR [Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees], for example, used micro-tasking to analyse satellite imagery for Somalia. By looking at satellite images and counting shelters in the Afgooye corridor, they could get workable estimates [of numbers of displaced people]. The problem was that in the past it took two employees a good month to tag and count all the shelters on the satellite image. When they micro-tasked the same process, they had hundreds of volunteers around the world return the analysis in days with higher accuracy... and for free.

Patrick Meier. Photo:








“I am passionate about finding for-profit commercial applications
that can aid humanitarian work.”








Patrick Meier. Photo: ©Ushahidi








The 2.0 glossary

Web 2.0: the term for interactive web technologies that allow greater reciprocal sharing of information and ideas.
Crowd-sourcing: using the contributions of data, workload or expertise of numerous people (the ‘crowd’) via the internet or other telecommunications technologies.
Crisis-mapping: Maps have always been used to manage crises. Today’s crisis mapping uses global positioning and telecommunications technology so that any cell phone and internet users can contribute up-to-the-minute data to online maps. These maps then can give relief workers a picture of what is most needed and where.
Micro-tasking: breaking big tasks down into small pieces that are then done by numerous people, often connected by the internet.




Virtual volunteering

To learn more, read Patrick Meier’s blog at:
For National Societies or volunteers who want to get involved, go to:

Digital crisis maps such as this one made during the Libyan conflict allowed people with cell phones or internet connections to post humanitarian alerts directly on the map. As more reports come in from specific locations, the red dots increase in size. By zooming in on a dot, it’s possible to learn much more about the specific needs in each location. Source: Ushahidi


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