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“If you can click on a Facebook picture, you can be a digital humanitarian,” author and technologist Patrick Meier says.
The old sentiment “Information is power” is so much more pertinent in today’s age where, every minute, over 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube and 300 000 tweets are posted. Beyond all those funny videos of cats getting vacuumed and celebrity twars, there is stuff being done on social media that can make a real difference.
Gathering this data and making sense of it all is where the real challenge lies. And it has never been more critical in times of disaster, when both swift and informed decision-making are required. This became the hard truth in 2010 during the devastating Haiti earthquake, when humanitarian groups urgently needed damage reports to make evidence-based decisions and allocate resources most efficiently.
“If you can’t map a need or a damage report it’s not actionable. Telling the United Nations that a bridge has been destroyed in San Diego, Chile doesn’t mean anything without knowing where, when and how bad the situation is,” Meier tells Memeburn. “The tools we are developing are meant to make rapid sense of disaster areas within the first 72 hours.”
“Evidence, data-based decision-making within the UN’s humanitarian arms are still lacking. Decision-making is still very subjective,” he says. “We help authorities make sense of the situation so they can better make decisions.”
While Meier was launching his book in Cape Town, South Africa we caught up with him to talk about his journey as a thought leader in the field of humanitarianism, as well as the book itself, Digital Humanitarianism: How Big Data is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.
Meier notes that the main reason behind writing Digital Humanitarianism, as opposed to sticking to his popular blog iRevolution — which attracts over 1.5 million people every month, was to reach a wider audience.
These are incredible stories about human hope, especially in contrast to everyday headlines about the NSA, killer drones and robots. Yes, they are scary but there are also good people doing great things out there, with great technology.
These “people” Meier refers to are the digital humanitarians: everyday folk who commit a few minutes to categorising messages, tweets or photos online. The net result of crowdsourcing hundreds or thousands of people’s actions is that humanitarian networks can now better map and make sense of disaster areas. Crises maps created by online tools enable both humanitarian groups and journalists to better understand and ultimately coordinate actions.
MicroMappers: single-click volunteering
A lot of single clicks can make a huge difference.
Meier and his team have been developing a crowdsourcing tool called MicroMappers, which asks the online user to click or tap a button. A volunteer simply reads through a tweet, tag it in its relevant category with a single click.
“You don’t necessarily have to be a superhero to do good,” Meier adds reassuringly. “You only really need to care in order to make a real difference in the world.”
Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines forced the UN to activate the Digital Humanitarian Network, which was tasked to gather data on the ground. “Humanitarian relief efforts were interested in identifying all tweets that refer to urgent needs,” Meier explains.
Through MicroMappers, volunteers were asked to go through small clips of satellite imagery and identify areas where coconut trees were uprooted. “This is really critical because if you had millions of uprooted coconut trees, you’re talking about food security impact.”
MicroMappers saw between 500 and 1 000 volunteers during Typhoon Ruby. Meier says he hopes to increase the 1 500 signed volunteers to 10 000.
Similarly, MiroMappers was used in Namibia where a small squad of rangers from a wildlife reserve had to identify and classify over 25 000 aerial images in order to keep track of the animals in the area. The tedious process took them hours, and so, Meier presented MicroMappers as a lending hand. More than 700 people from around the globe participated in classifying photos of elephants, buffalo and the like online. Within 24 hours, the whole area was completed.
The good side of tech
There are great things being done in tech but they are overshadowed by fears and common misconceptions. Authorities therefore can be reluctant in their uptake.
AI (Artificial Intelligence) is today being ushered as something of the next Antichrist with respectable and forward-thinking individuals like Bill Gates joining Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking in saying it’s scary and we should all be “concerned“. Musk goes as far as comparing it to demons. Meier, on the other hand, makes a point of highlighting the benefits and good of AI and other powerful technologies.
“It all started in Haiti when we crowdsourced this crisis map of needs and damage,” Meier says, referring to the devastating earthquake that left 220 000 people killed and over 300 000 injured. “We realised 12 hours later that crowdsourcing alone is not going to be enough. We were still not being able to filter all this big data.” Manually going through tens of thousands of tweets just wasn’t feasible enough.
“We’ve done the mapping part right, it was the filtering of relevant and valuable data that was lacking,” he explains. Naturally, as a team of techies would, they looked to machine learning and AI.
“It’s a method of combining human computing (crowdsourcing and micro-tasking) with machine learning. There’s a real sweet spot in marrying these two,” Meier asserts. “It’s not just machines on the one end and humans on the other. Both are good at one thing, but if you combine them, it’s magic.”
For digital humanitarians like Meier and his troop of online volunteers from around the globe, leveraging computers to do the heavy-duty tasks (filtering through million of tweets in real-time) became a blessing.
AIDR (Artificial Intelligence Disaster Response) — which is based on statistical machine learning — will go through all the tweets classified by human volunteers, recognise patterns and automatically classify all future tweets for up to 2 million and hour. “It’s about humans teaching the computers what to look for,” he says. So instead of relying on 1 000 volunteers, data gathering can rely on as few as a hundred human volunteers.
Read more: 7 ways to use social media for social change
Similar to AI, drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a notorious reputation — from the Predator Drones responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in the Middle East over the last few years, to amateur idiots flying their devices into no-fly zones like airports or the White House. This perception has forced governments around the world, including South Africa, to impose laws and regulations restricting the use UAVs, thus proving its “social good” applications unfruitful.
“We want to make the crowd and public part of the solution, and not the problem, but it takes one idiot to do something stupid and it’ll reflect badly on all of us,” explains Meier.
As an example of drones’ good applications, Meier was recently involved in the international Drones for Good Challenge held in Dubai which saw over 800 entries. These included collision-resistant drones, organ transplant delivery systems and water delivering machines that can be used to douse forest fires.
Meier explains that while digital humanitarianism is on the rise today, education for both authorities and civilians about where to draw the line still has a long way to go. “Technology alone won’t solve the myriad of challenges that digital humanitarians face,” Meier writes in his book. “Enlightened leadership and forward-thinking policy-making are equally — if not more important than — breakthroughs in humanitarian technology.”