Needle in a haystack

Last year I read Patrick Meier’s Digital Humanitarians. The book focuses on the rapid rise of the use of technology and mapping to improve the information available to humanitarians. It is an interesting read, particularly for this digital skeptic. When the Queensland Police successfully used facebook and twitter, our industry erupted with OMGism, it was as though they had invented the wheel. It was quickly being touted (not by QPS I might add) as the solution to all problems. Social media was the topic of every conference, on everyone’s lips. One of my concerns was the way it was being touted as the only solution to communications with people, not a solution.

Where I started to see the benefit come in was in talking to my friend and former colleague, Jen Walsh. She was part of FEMA’s digital team during and after Super Storm Sandy. Her team spent a lot of time analysing tweets and facebook posts to understand what was happening. Many people now subscribe to “I tweet, therefore I am”, and post their innermost and not so inner most thoughts. This behaviour, while I have seen derided as narcissistic (yes it is), and insensitive (here’s me at the Sydney siege site), is actually useful for emergency managers, as it forms an rich lead of unfiltered information, live from the site, generally better than any assessment team  can muster. As someone in a previous role that relied upon information from the field (mainly to report to the minister, who demanded hard facts to report to the media), information gathering and initial assessments has always been challenging. There is now the potential to enhance what we know, with rapidity, by being able to mine this data. But there is more, the ability to analyse and pick up trends, may led to unidentified needs being planned for and met. Jen told me about their team picking up a lot of Russian tweets in Brooklyn. When they had a Russian speaking staff member read them, it was apparent that a small pocket of the Russian community was isolated, without power or water, and not sure what to do. They were able to mobilise a Russian speaking team to meet the people.

Meier’s book is a refreshing read. He charts the course of Digital Humanitarians from dorm rooms in a University, helping create an impressive impact map of the Haiti Earthquake from twitter feeds, through to working with the UN and developing a range of platforms, and human and artificial intelligence assessment tools. What is great about the book, is that Meier recognises the limitations of what they are trying to achieve, and not sell it as a panacea. Some of the things they achieved are impressive, tracking population movements in Africa with HD satellites, and mobile phone records. (These people are registered in this place, they are now using their phones in that place, and that place they generally visit during festive periods, so they must have moved to family).

Much of the work in digital humanitarianism is focused upon crisis. I would really like to see how it could be used in recovery, and preparedness. In recovery, I think that longer term trends may be able to be picked up, particularly if people are still using hashtags relating to the incident. Or maybe there is a way of just analysing social media data, if it’s geocoded, and linked to an area known to be recovering. #I’m exhausted, from someone in the Lockyer Valley 6 or 12 months or two years after the floods, could be an indicator we are not picking up from other sources. Knowing what to look for is always the challenge.

There have been some advances in using social media in preparedness. Katelyn Rossiter from CDU is examining the use of social media in preparedness, as is University of Sydney’s Billy Haworth. Crisis mapping could be used in preparedness context to crowd source community and social assets. The neighbourhood site, Nabo might be a way of sharing preparedness information digitally. I would also like to see when people have prepared, they are able to load a badge to the property on google maps. This would create an effect of being able to see who is prepared in the neighbourhood, and inspire action. It’s a little bit similar to people putting out the recyclables on bin night. The real reason recycling took off, was less about formal campaigns, and more about early adopters demonstrating positive behaviour, and others following suit.

It’s an exciting and interesting new dimension to add to emergencies.

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