August 29, 2010

My First CrisisCamp

On Friday I attended CrisisCamp Silicon Valley. I didn’t really know what to expect, since I was unfamiliar with the nascent field of internet-facilitated crisis response and was unable to find a high-level overview of how people—both techies and non-techies—can really make an impact.

The Bird's Eye View

As I understand it, this is the big picture of internet-facilitated crisis response:

  1. People on the ground in a disaster are told, through various channels, to report what they're seeing to the public through a variety of media: SMS, Twitter, Facebook, whatever's easiest and most understandable for them. In the case of the floods in Pakistan, for instance, people are encouraged to report by sending an SMS text message to 3441, making sure to add FL to the beginning of the message.
  2. These raw reports are collected or found by programs on the Internet that send them all to a site for processing by humans, who classify and categorize them in various ways: for instance, does the report represent an emergency that needs attention, or a dangerous obstacle that aid workers should be aware of? Does the report need translation from a different language? To what area of the disaster area does the message refer? In the case of the Pakistan floods, you can visit right now to do this yourself—all you need to enter is your email address, and you're presented with a brief message that someone on the ground sent.
  3. Multiple people actually process the exact same report, which allows a computer program to correct for errors and combine information in the various responses—much in the same way that having two eyes is better than having one. This means participants don't need to get too stressed-out about accidentally providing inaccurate information.
  4. The processed reports are then collected at another site on the internet, where they effectively constitute a public resource that anyone can use. The most obvious consumers of the data would be the relief workers on the ground. The public data set, its associated software, and its user interface is sometimes referred to as Ushahidi or an Ushahidi instance—check out the Wikipedia entry on Ushahidi for more background on why. There's a Ushahidi instance for the Pakistan floods at

If you’re familiar with real-time strategy games like StarCraft II, this whole process could be envisioned as crowd-sourcing a mini-map of a disaster area. The people involved in the crowd-sourcing aren’t directly helping in the sense of actually rescuing people, but their mediation between people on the ground is providing a valuable set of “eyes and ears” for everyone involved.

The Dirty Details

In practice, this process is a lot more chaotic than it seems, which creates new problems that need solving. For instance, while I’m very used to Google Maps containing highly accurate data about where I live, many of the cities, towns, roads, and other places mentioned in reports from Pakistan either aren’t visible on Google Maps at all, or are known by multiple names, depending on language and locale. Because of this, one of the ways people familiar with the disaster area can help is by using OpenStreetMap, a sort of cross between Wikipedia and an atlas, to add information about places that conventional commercial sources don’t contain.

While I was at CrisisCamp SV, one of the technical problems that needed a solution was the fact that Facebook was reportedly much more popular than Twitter in Pakistan; relief workers on the ground wanted to be able to tell the public that they could join a Facebook group and post their reports on its wall, but they didn’t know how to import the data from the wall into the site that processed raw reports, so I wrote a simple Python script to convert the wall data into an RSS feed using Facebook’s Graph API.

Crowd-Sourcing and Communities of Practice

The interesting thing about my contribution is that it was just one possible solution to a problem: humanitarian agencies on the ground didn’t actually know if posting to a Facebook group’s wall would be a solution that the population would use, but just having a solution available was better than complete uncertainty. I don’t typically write code when I have a low degree of confidence that the code will actually be useful to someone, but I nonetheless decided to write it up.

In general, a number of people I talked to at the CrisisCamp had a less-than-ideal degree of confidence that their individual contribution was providing concrete aid, but there was a lot of faith in the sum of what everyone was doing as a whole, the belief that people on the ground would benefit immensely from this crowd-sourced radar we were creating.

I’ve typically been very skeptical of the term “crowd-sourcing”, primarily because its use in language has a tendency to abstract away the notion of human individuality: people become fungible processors or gadgets that are doing things that we simply haven’t figured out how to do with computers yet. In a lot of ways, the language surrounding it dehumanizes us in the same way that assembly lines and mass production dehumanized the nature of work during the industrial revolution.

From this perspective, one of the greatest strengths of events like CrisisCamp, and organizations like CrisisCommons, is their ability to provide group membership, to create meaningful connections between people who want to help, and to create new kinds of communities of practice. If I hadn’t attended the CrisisCamp event, I certainly wouldn’t have written that Python script, but because of the social context—the notion that I would be creating something that could be recognized by people with similar interests and lead to connections with them—I found a lot more meaning in it than I otherwise would. This is, of course, the same kind of motivation that engages people to volunteer, to create resources for their World of Warcraft guild, or to contribute to an open-source project.

How Mozilla Can Help

A few days ago, Mitchell Baker wrote a blog post in which she wondered how Mozilla could help with humanitarian crises. One thing I noticed about the chaos surrounding the Internet-based efforts was that, like Mozilla, they were formed very organically: this meant that there were a plethora of activities going on which anyone could participate in, but the picture presented to a newcomer was confusing and messaging wasn’t always consistent. Tasks needed to be completed urgently; the changing landscape on the ground meant that problems and solutions were constantly changing, and assumptions were frequently challenged. Keeping the Web in-sync with reality could be difficult, especially since the Web doesn’t forget things.

Combined with the distributed nature of the solution, acquainting newcomers with a reasonably humane workflow for contributing was non-trivial: just processing a report on, for instance, often meant switching between tabs containing, OpenStreetMap, and a Google Docs page containing advice and other resources. There was a lot of copying and pasting involved.

There’s many ways browsers could help with this. For one thing, addons or GreaseMonkey Scripts could make the experience of contributing easier. While I didn’t get around to it, for example, I could easily imagine an addon or Ubiquity command that mashed-up with, OpenStreetMap, and other services to provide a streamlined interface, potentially eliminating the need to learn how to use those other websites and copy/paste. In other words, since the solution to these problems is on the Web, we can use the inherent hackability of the Web to make the solutions much easier to use.

Another thing I noticed was that the vast majority of browsing activity occurring while helping out was largely privacy-insensitive: reports were submitted from the ground with the expectation that they would become public, the CrisisCommons wiki was completely public, as was any activity on Twitter or even the Facebook group. There was also a lot of link-sharing and people looking at one another’s screens as they figured out workflows and discovered solutions, so the notion of a sort of “public browsing mode”, or perhaps a separate browser tweaked to broadcast all its activity to the internet or a specific group of people, is an interesting one.

Aside from that, some of the affordances present in the Mozilla community and other open-source projects seemed like they could help the CrisisCommons efforts a lot. As far as I could tell, for instance, there wasn’t any kind of real-time virtual space or chat room where the community could hang out. There also wasn’t any kind of issue tracker, which seemed like it could be useful, too.

In any case, CrisisCamp SV was a really interesting experience, and I’m looking forward to attending more events like it.

© Atul Varma 2020