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
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
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
Can this type of technology also be used in
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.