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How Scalable Web 2.0 is Changing the World of Disaster Management

Tanya Gupta's picture

Disaster management 2.0: scalable human connections fired by high technology

Scalability, virtual communities and Web 2.0 have changed the world of disaster response.  The most successful and disruptive inventions of modern times owe much of their success to scalability.  Although people always had the ability to read books, it was only with the invention of the printing press that it became possible for millions of people to do so.  Web 2.0 and social media make the ability to connect with people scalable.  Scalable human connections combined with open source software and platforms, and unprecedented computing power, results in human-machine synergy also being scaled up. This human-machine synergy results in disruptive technology innovations.  Such disruptive innovations have most recently been seen in the area of humanitarian support to disaster and conflict affected countries.  USB drives were an innovation that disrupted the market for floppy disks.  Although they are not likely to go the way of the floppy disk, the world of traditional disaster relief organizations with proprietary systems, closed data sets and bureaucracy have been up-ended by the disruptive human-machine synergies of Web 2.0 and crowd-sourced humanitarian volunteer organizations.

These synergies, using Web 2.0 tools and social media have helped create a multichannel scalable communication between disaster and conflict-affected populations, humanitarian groups and volunteers, and intelligent data and systems. Recent examples include Haiti, Libya, and Japan, where organizations such as OpenStreetMap, CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Sahana and Ushahidi and others are active in mapping related to disaster management and conflict.  Volunteer and technical communities or VTCs work on building intelligent disaster and conflict maps using SMS, social media and satellite imagery; building communities around humanitarian efforts; creating technology tools such as wikis, using open source software and platforms, and using free cloud based services in affected countries. It should be noted though that VTCs, in spite of their good work, and contribution to integration of Web 2.0 tools to solve disaster management challenges, continue to face major challenges.  Disaster Relief 2.0: The Future of Information Sharing in Humanitarian Emergencies, a report produced by the UN and partner organizations, examines these issues in detail. 

Collaborative crisis mapping: the power of connecting people

Crisis mapping has helped save lives in Haiti, Japan and other countries.  The term refers to the use of dynamic mapping technology to help detect and respond to patterns of conflict situations and natural disasters.  It involves collaborative collection and graphical representation of relevant information in a manner that allows the user to make queries and detect patterns that help rescue teams on the ground. Collaborative mapping can save lives through sheer speed, as it involves a large number of experts working together. In Haiti, OpenStreetMap, through crowd sourced, collaborative mapping, helped build the most detailed map available at the time in just two weeks - something that would normally take at least a month! As Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, noted, during the Haiti earthquake, more than a thousand Creole-speaking volunteers in no fewer than 49 countries around the world contributed thousands of hours of their own free time to translate tens of thousands of text messages coming from the disaster-affected population in Haiti.  The volunteers behind the Libya Crisis Map numbered 220+ and were from 30 different countries.

Web 2.0 tools in disaster management: social media-based tools and the mobile platform

Social media, open platforms, and wikis can add value to crisis maps.  Social media can add a layer of information via social media tools.  For example, a Hypercities project on Egypt maps live Twitter messages on a map of Egypt, showing the location and picture of the Twitterer.  Technology tools such as wikis and open source mapping platforms are also helpful.  CrisisCommons, for example, has an active wiki, that helps support the use of open data.  Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" in Swahili), is an online crisis mapping platform designed to be a tool to crowd source information, and is being used extensively by citizen journalists, NGOs, and other groups.

Mobile technology is integral to the scaling up of disaster response.  The most widespread computing device of today is the cell phone. The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International Telecommunication Union. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cell phone than have access to a clean toilet, says the United Nations.  This increase is being fuelled by mobile technology growth in developing countries like Kenya, India, Brazil, South Korea, and even Afghanistan – where cell phone towers leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks.  In many poor countries up to two-thirds of people have access to a mobile phone. Therefore mobile device-based services that benefit the poor and under-privileged in developing countries hold rich potential as a pathway to economic development.  In Haiti, inspite of the earthquake, many thousands of citizens communicated their needs to the world.  InSTEDD, Digicel, and others came up with a free short code (4636) for SMS texts that allowed cell phone users to send free messages to central information centers about emergencies or missing relatives.  4636 was used extensively by the citizens and several rescues were attributed to its use (30,000 text messages in the first month, 80,000 total). 

Web 2.0 tools including social media, open platforms, wikis and mobile technology have helped create a multichannel scalable communication between disaster and conflict-affected populations, humanitarian groups and volunteers, and intelligent data and systems.  The future for Disaster Management 2.0 appears to be bright (see my blog on ReadWriteWeb for details).  The development community can help by addressing the challenges faced by the VTCs, encouraging and supporting the growth of mobile computing and embracing innovation.

Photo Credit: digital.democracy (on Flickr)
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Submitted by Stevenr on
Tanya, this is a really nice piece. I have presented at 3-4 events around emergency and disaster management in the last few weeks (in Europe and the Middle East) from an open standards perspective - we have 55 working groups and several of these relate to this area. One of my observations has been the plethora of social media, Web2.0, open source organisations helping out in disaster response. I asked one of the VTCs earlier this week if there was any kind of schema or image to highlight how and where they all fit, but none seems available at present. I know UNOCHA engages a number of them, as does NATO, as does the World Bank and a number of other coordinating organisations. My point was, isn't there a possibility that there is fragmentation and risk of duplication or confusion for those on the ground, e.g. MapAction and those working remotely? This is NOT a criticism, it's just an observation because I am sitting in the middle of many activities and being invited to participate in expert meetings on crowdsourcing and other related areas, where I see multiple groups all tackling similar issues. Share the wealth. Another related point is open standards. Some of the organisations mentioned may have a perception that standards can take a long time to come to fruition, or that they may be 'clunky' or too 'heavy' for use in modern, lightweight architectures. The OGC [Open Geospatial Consortium] has been developing open geospatial standards for 17 years, so there's a fair amount of knowledge and know-how in the consortium and the standards are based on mainstream IT standards. Some moves have been made recently to fast track the standards development/adoption process and there are now some communities bringing their de facto standards to the OGC for formalisation and internationalisation. All of these actions have been taken to try and address concerns around the use of open geospatial standards. One of these de facto standards brought into the OGC is Open GeoSMS, which is being used in Taiwan. This is about providing a standard way of encoding location in an SMS. The entire standard is less than 10 pages and there is an SDK available (software development kit provided to encourage developers). I would like to encourage VTCs, CROs, and others to take another look at open geospatial standards and see if during training phases and other preparatory stages of disaster planning, how this interoperability approach can help...and what else we could be doing to support the community.

Submitted by Tanya G on
Thanks for the insightful comments Steven. I am often struck at the cross-sector commonality of development problems, and of course, aid coordination is one of them, whether we are talking about aid coordination in general, or specific areas such as disaster management. In other sectors, the most influential and largest organization takes the lead in coordination. For instance, some years ago, when I was working in Bangladesh, the World Bank typically took the lead in coordination of aid efforts and established an aid coordination body for the country. Given the technology we have today we could make aid coordination a lot easier (e.g. no need for physical meetings, shared wikis etc) as well as add value to coordination efforts (e.g. graphical representation of organizations involved) In the new Web 2.0 world, it seems to me, that real change takes place mostly through bottom-up efforts until progress goes beyond a certain threshold. Beyond this threshold, top down efforts are needed to keep the progress going. Thanks also for the great information on interoperability and open standards - two areas where much more work is needed in the development sector

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