Digital humanitarian groups have also led the charge in collecting, parsing, verifying, and visualizing large amounts of crisis-related data. This area of aid – improving situational awareness of formal aid decisionmakers with information collected online – has proven to represent a sweet spot at the intersection of skills digital volunteers hold and functions professional crisis responders have yet to adequately adopt. This general space is often referred to as crisis mapping, because the output is commonly a single map of the affected area with many layers of data.
Crisis maps are an early, successful, and oft-cited example of V&TC involvement. The maps and the work they represent have benefitted both formal aid groups and affected populations, but we must not limit our expectations of participatory aid to the production of maps. Although maps are often the primary visual artifacts, their production can require teams of digital volunteers to collect, clean, analyze, translate, distribute, and visualize crisis data in addition to applying geocoordinates. They are living documents, with lifespans of utility.
The process of producing a high quality crisis map from messy (or missing) data has led volunteer groups like Standby Taskforce to codify distinct volunteer teams to manage each step in the process. These teams provide a useful overview of the many different skills digital volunteers can contribute to efforts to improve situational awareness, including but not limited to mapping:
• Task Team: general microwork and support of other teams, ideal for new volunteers who have not yet been trained
• Media Monitoring team: identify information feeds for useful social and mainstream media sources, monitor the feeds, input data into the mapping platform, and flag information that needs translation
• SMS team: processes and flags actionable messages sent to an established shortcode
• Technology team: provides support installing, configuring, and maintaining technical platforms like Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS
• Geo-Location team: identifies precise GPS coordinates for Media team’s reports, information submitted via web, email, or SMS, or information requested by formal aid organization
• Satellite Imagery team: tags features identified in satellite photos as requested by formal aid organizations, such as destroyed buildings
• Translation: translates media reports and submitted information into English, and occasionally, the local language
• Verification team: verifies reports uploaded to mapping platform, checks the credibility of the sources of the reports via online identities and on-the-ground networks, and triangulates reports and information
• Data team: Curate data, share data, map data, and support after-action reports with findings and visualized data
• Analysis team: produces printable maps and identifies patterns in incoming reports
• Reports team: organizes data into reports for formal aid decisionmakers and serves as a quality control layer for other teams’ reports
Figure 3.8: Example of SMS for help from Haiti earthquake
There is very real value in this work. “The ability to use social media tools to gather essential elements of information quickly and to develop a common operating picture with that information is a compelling case for adoption in a profession in which success is often tied to timeliness.” Craig Fugate, Administrator of FEMA, tweeted that the OpenStreetMap crisis map “represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community” (although he did not play a formal role in the Haiti response).
The Standby Task Force is one of several V&TC groups that collect and parse data to produce crisis maps. Others include Humanity Road, Crisis Commons, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, MapAction (whose volunteers physically fly into disaster zones to build their maps), and Info4Disasters (which collects information before disasters occur). Some mapping projects are designed to directly inform the affected population, but many seek to improve situational awareness of the formal aid decisionmakers. Some maps accomplish both ends, but other crisis map projects are kept private to protect sensitive data or, as initially occurred in the production of the Libyan crisis map, help local sources avoid the negative perceptions attached to working with Western organizations in an internal conflict.
Mapping volunteers range from GIS professionals to lay people, and the sophistication of the maps they produce can range from basic mapping of geographic features to complicated data plotting. The GEO-CAN network is an example of a professional network volunteering to rapidly assess damage using remote sensing imagery. For an overview of the basic challenges inherent in crowdsourced damage assessment mapping and a challenge to the interpretation of “mapping” as a discrete task, see Kerle.
Other crowdsourced microwork can be broken into even more discrete tasks. This work is less complicated and doesn’t require the semi-formal team structure or group formations of V&TCs. Bulk translations and image assessment, for example, can allow large numbers of minimally-trained volunteers to contribute with varying increments of time. The Zooniverse crowdsourcing platform has been used to run humanitarian image assessment projects, such as the Cyclone Center, where volunteers are asked to classify 30 years’ worth of tropical cyclone satellite photos. The Sparked microtasking platform also leverages crowds of volunteers for quick, pro-social engagements that respect busy schedules. Lastly, CrowdCrafting is an open source microwork platform to distribute work amongst volunteers, rather than paid workers. SBTF used CrowdCrafting as part of their response to Typhoon Pablo in the Philippines.
Figure 3.9: Zooniverse crowdsources decades’ worth of satellite typhoon imagery