9 posts about crisis

What could possibly go wrong?

Jan 23 2010

What could possibly go wrong? Thousands of volunteer hackers break ground on dozens of projects at a bunch of hastily organized unconferences promising to Save Haiti?

In a word: everything.

Tonight there are a number of people organizing some pretty intensive projects involving one of the most sensitive places in the world.

Let me tell you — most of us have no idea what we are doing. Perhaps 5% of us have ever actually dealt directly in crisis response. We are a bunch of dilettantes and armchair quarterbacks. We are normal people.

I'm co-organizing one of the "Crisis Camps" here in Portland, and after a few days of work on project I think many things could go wrong with our approach. God forgive us. We will easily rebuild code that already exists, accidentally step on someone's toes, and flub a would-be partnership. It's even likely that our community will waste this rare opportunity to work with the real relief effort. Perhaps we just still won't get our act together, or we'll have an ineffective way of putting people to meaningful work. In fact, it is possible that things could go very wrong, far beyond wasted coding effort on a Saturday — Just imagine the insanity that a few poorly trained volunteers could unleash with a simple list of phone numbers.

It is a responsibility we do not fully understand. As civic actors, we are struggling to participate and innovate remotely, with data. Very strange, that this is possible now: We can act, even from our cubicles, or in pajamas, to improve Haiti. Even though we haven't figured out all the interaction design yet, it's possible now. And the Man is starting to listen to us.

So, I will post screenshots of all the innovations later but for now, just before going to this event, I'm worried that we might flub our responsibilities in a way that could destroy lives and wreck a movement. It would not take much, to break rules that we did not even know existed yet.

Those who work as civic editors and engineers — the crazy beautiful hackers and hippies and good people who are working at crisis camps all over the world tomorrow — please remember that you are in a much larger ecosystem of response efforts and you bear a great deal of responsibility to them all. Please be diligent and critical in your many response efforts. And check the mindset you bring to the new conversation about the digital response for Haiti. We have an enormous amount to learn.

ICCM 09, the Crisis Mapping Conference

Sep 9 2009

In October I'll be geeking out at the ICCM 09, the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping. The conference is "harnessing mobile platforms, computational linguistics, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies."

If you're scratching your head wondering what the field of crisis mapping is all about ... you're not alone! Good thing Patrick Meier has proposed a sketch of the field. You have to love a guy who literally defines a field. Patrick is a collaborator at Ushahidi and Swift, and I have really been fortunate to see him at work, particularly his leadership in bridging academic and hacker-practitioner communities in this "crisis" space. It's the same thing that is making everyone so excited about this conference. Thanks, Patrick.

Cross-pollination at these conferences is incredibly important to our success. We're doing many of the same things over and over, with innovative twists appropriate to our context. We just don't know each other. Now we get to meet and work together for three days. I think it's terribly exciting because of an increasing sense that we can all be doing these things much better.

See also Crisis Camp West (Watch this space, I think.)

Here's this from the ICCM conference site:

The purpose of the 3-day conference to be held in Cleveland on October 16-18 is to bring together the most engaged practitioners, scholars, software developers and policymakers at the cutting edge of crisis mapping to define the future of the field along with best practices and lessons learned. We expect over 50 organizations to be represented and for multiple partnerships to be formed on specific projects during the conference. Please note this conference is by invitation only. See below for a list of invited partners.

I hope to meet a few of my friends that I don't get to see enough, and meet a few new people working on great stuff. Check out the people that are involved and some of the planned talks. Probably there will be a lot of discussion about how to use Swift, and I might be demoing a new project about the rapid deployment of applications like Ushahidi and Meedan.

Come out and hack on some amazing software!

Correction: You can't come out and hack because (upon closer reading) it's apparently a closed conference. Frankly I'm disappointed.

Ushahidi for the iPhone

Sep 18 2008

Update: The Ushahidi team has released a strong new open source iOS codebase.

After a few months of work, we have gotten a new wireframe of the mobile app running on the iPhone.

[http://www.ushahidi.com/images/buttons/ushahidi_button4_170.gif "Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information"]

Lately I've been volunteering a little bit for Ushahidi. Ushahidi is an open source tool for monitoring crises and disasters. It recently won the the NetSquared challenge and was called one of the top startups to watch in the MIT Technology Review. Man, I really don't have to give up anything to work on this one — it's really a top notch operation going on. Other nonprofit and open source teams could learn a lot from the Ushahidi project.

Some of the amazing things about the Ushahidi project include:

  • Participatory design. Everyone is invited to comment on these designs and hack on the psd files we created.
  • Rapid prototyping. (Really rapid: the first version of the app was built in a weekend.)
  • The application is completely open source.
  • It's a platform, not a web application: you can get the code and extend it for your own uses.
  • Strong user-centered design principles.
  • Great attention to detail in the design and insistence on top-notch interfaces (including the marketing website and the admin pages of the application).

Anyway here's the latest mockup. Here's the latestsource PSD. It's v0.2 and still has a long way to go. We did the iPhone app first and will be using lessons learned from this one to port the project to other platforms.


I did most of the sketching and developed the concepts that were flying around, and then my man Joe Jones did all the real work in Photoshop. It's been a really fun time so far and I am looking forward to implementing some of the changes being discussed on the Ushahidi blog.

Also make sure you check out some of the geniuses behind the project:

Kenyan Pundit

White African



The Foldaway Emergency House and Other "Afrigadgets"

Dec 11 2006

Rajan Harinarain, a South African entrepreneur and inventor has come up with a temporary foldaway house for use in emergency situations complete with electrical wiring and fittings, doors and windows that can be erected by a small team in 5 minutes.
Afrigadget is a great site (though with irregular posts) about a bunch of interesting developing-world-inspired inventions and tinkerers. Their most recent post covers a new type of emergency shelter. (Via Ndesanjo on Global Voices.)

Foldaway House

Need Magazine Debuts

Dec 6 2006

I'm looking forward to getting this in the mail. I am excited to see a publication that is addressing this type of issue from a nonpolitical stance. (Or rather, I think, it is implicitly political). If you subscribe now you can still get the first issue from the Need Magazine website.

NEED magazine is an artistic hope-filled publication focusing on life changing humanitarian efforts at home and abroad. ... We are not out to save the world, but to tell the stories of, and assist, those who are.

ReliefWeb Maps for Humanitarian Crisis

Feb 25 2006

[Image: DRC-migration]

I have a love for maps because they can be the most rich, yet easy-to-understand communication tools. ReliefWeb, a website devoted to distributing time-sensitive information about humanitarian crises, is an excellent resource for insightful maps and infographics. You can sign up to receive email updates of all their new maps. Stuff like this map showing displaced persons in the DRC.

Maps in the mailbox? Wonderful.

Mapping Bird Flu

Jan 9 2006

I have spent an awful lot of (relative) time writing about maps in this space over the last month, but this one really caught my eye.

Declan Butler has recently worked with the journal Nature to publish a map of the H5N1 avian influenza virus outbreaks over the last two years. He used some data from various government sources, an MS Access database, and the ever popular (astoundingly fun) Google Earth application.

This is why the new breed of online maps are such wonderful tools for creating understanding: With a little technical work (and perhaps a lot of fact-checking), you can create simple yet information-rich presentation of a pandemic that is affecting millions.

Good writeups of the new map can be found on the Nature website and at WorldChanging. (You can find details of the programming side on Declan's Blog.)

The trendiness of "mashups" is frustrating to me when I see it only being applied to giving superfluous but super-detailed information about movie times and local gas prices.

In this anticapitalist, curmudegonly spirit I appreciate journalist Glyn Moody's alternative description of Google Earth "conceptually simple scaffolding for other data to be brought together and displayed." As he points out in his bioinformatics/open source blog, this type of platform has incredible implications for the sharing of scientific resources. Like all open source concepts/applications, this has the greatest impact on science in the developing world, where resources remain scant.

Geeks Responding to Katrina: Relief 2.0

Sep 14 2005

Ethan Zuckerman is one of the best bloggers in the world; he must get paid by Harvard to do it, or something. (He does.)

His musing last week on the ICT/geek community's response to the Katrina relief effort is a fascinating look at how we can potentially respond with the full weight of technology's resources.

Most notably, Ethan has been recently instrumental in organizing and developing the Katrina Peoplefinder database (in record time, no less), which exceeded 100,000 entries in the first week of September. I think that this is, for once, an example of how activism in a purely digital sense can in fact be utterly essential, not a trival, isolated indulgence.

Please Note: This database (at http://www.katrinalist.com) still has a growing amount of data; you can still volunteer to enter data remotely (from anywhere in the world, in your pajamas, at The Katrina Peoplefinder Wiki.

What is amazing is that this activism has been the work of a very loosely organized group of more than 2,000 people all over the world. The work done by organizers was largely administrative - they assigned various "chunks" of data from fragmented bulletin boards to volunteers who put standardized information into a central database. This I think, was impressively smart, and it needs to be replicated in many other contexts, present and future.

And I believe that the folks involved in the development of the project are acutely aware of this need, and they are taking admirable leadership roles. Online code guru Dave Weiner wrote, for example, about the need of a standardized, open, XML format for transmitting data about missing people. A day later, there it was, the People Finder Interchange Format.

These developments have rediscovered the power of existing technologies. Innovative uses of our everyday-geek tools - including VOIP phones, podcasts, wikis, weblogs, SMS text messages and databases - can affect change in the world. Really, they can. But in the highly developed world we are accustomed to treating them as though they were simply luxuries, toys. I commend the folks who have done so much in the last few weeks toward making them real, social tools.

Ethan Zuckerman's fascinating post reviewing the online post-Katrina relief effort is here:

…My heart’s in Accra: Recovery 2.0 - thoughts on what worked and failed on PeopleFinder so far