ICT for humanitarian aid

“If all You Have is a Hammer” - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?

Posted by admin on Oct 20, 2010

Editor’s NoteUrban Search and Rescue Team, with assistance from U.S. military personnel, coordinate plans before a search and rescue mission: In this article, guest contributor Paul Currion looks at the potential for crowdsourcing data during large-scale humanitarian emergencies, as part of our "Deconstructing Mobile" series. Paul is an aid worker who has been working on the use of ICTs in large-scale emergencies for the last 10 years.  He asks whether crowdsourcing adds significant value to responding to humanitarian emergencies, arguing that merely increasing the quantity of information in the wake of a large-scale emergency may be counterproductive. Instead, the humanitarian community needs clearly defined information that can help in making critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods. By taking a close look at the data collected via Ushahidi in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, he concludes that crowdsourced data from affected communities may not be useful for supporting the response to a large-scale disaster.

1. The Rise of Crowdsourcing in Emergencies

Ushahidi, the software platform for mapping incidents submitted by the crowd via SMS, email, Twitter or the web, has generated so many column inches of news coverage that the average person could be mistaken for thinking that it now plays a central role in coordinating crisis responses around the globe. At least this is what some articles say, such as Technology Review's profile of David Kobia, Director of Technology Development for Ushahidi.  For most people, both inside and outside the sector, who lack the expertise to dig any deeper, column inches translate into credibility. If everybody's talking about Ushahidi, it must be doing a great job – right?


Ushahidi is the result of three important trends:

  1. Increased availability and utility of spatial data;
  2. Rapid growth of communication infrastructure, particularly mobile telephony; and
  3. Convergence of networks based on that infrastructure on Internet access.

Given those trends, projects like Ushahidi may be inevitable rather than unexpected, but inevitability doesn't give us any indication of how effective these projects are. Big claims are made about the way in which crowdsourcing is changing the way in which business is done in other sectors, and now attention has turned to the humanitarian sector. John Della Volpe's short article in the Huffington Post is an example of such claims:

"If a handful of social entrepreneurs from Kenya could create an open-source "social mapping" platform that successfully tracks and sheds light on violence in Kenya, earthquake response in Chile and Haiti, and the oil spill in the Gulf -- what else can we use it for?"

The key word in that sentence is “successfully”. There isn’t any evidence that Ushahidi “successfully” carried out these functions in these situations; only that an instance of the Ushahidi platform was set up. This is an extremely low bar to clear to achieve “success”, like claiming that a new business was successful because it had set up a website.  There has lately been an unfounded belief that the transformative effects of the latest technology are positively inevitable and inevitably positive, simply by virtue of this technology’s existence.

2. What does Successful Crowdsourcing Look Like?

To be fair, it's hard to know what would constitute “success” for crowdsourcing in emergencies. In the case of Ushahidi, we could look at how many reports are posted on any given instance – but that record is disappointing, and the number of submissions for each Ushahidi instance is exceedingly small in comparison to the size of the affected population – including Haiti, where Ushahidi received the most public praise for its contribution.

In any case, the number of reports posted is not in itself a useful measure of impact, since those reports might consist of recycled UN situation reports and links to the Washington Post's “Your Earthquake Photos” feature.  What we need to know is whether the service had a significant positive impact in helping communities affected by disaster.  This is difficult to measure, even for experienced aid agencies whose work provides direct help.  Perhaps the best we can do is ask a simple question: if the system worked exactly as promised, what added value would it deliver?

“If all You Have is a Hammer” - How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing? data sheet 21264 Views
Countries: Haiti

Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists?

Posted by LeighJaschke on Jul 15, 2009
Who is Afraid of Citizen Journalists? data sheet 3738 Views
Hattotuwa, Sanjana
Publication Date: 
Dec 2007
Publication Type: 

Large-scale disasters are growing. On the one hand, global warming and unprecedented
environmental change are resulting in disasters more frequent and calamitous than before.
Natural disasters such as earthquakes (Kashmir, 2005), floods (Bangladesh, India and
Nepal, 2007), landslides and mudslides (Bam, 2003; Chittagong, 2007), volcanic eruptions
(Merapi, 2006), tsunamis (South and Southeast Asia, 2005) and forest fires (across
Europe, 2007) continue to severely affect the lives and livelihoods of millions. On the other,
the iconic images of the London bombings (7 July 2006), the Twin Towers in New York on
11 September 2001, Madrid train bombs (2004) and the Bali bombings (2002 and 2005)
coupled with hundreds of gruesome local incidents -- including suicide bombings in coun-
tries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq -- are a stark reminder that man made disas-
ters, often the result of terrorism, are a permanent feature of domestic life in many coun-

But how do we make sense of such disasters -- their causes, their impact on those in-
volved as victims and perpetrators? How do we maintain compassion in a world with com-
peting human tragedies? Does the increasing availability and affordability of Information
and Communications Technologies (ICT) -- covering PCs, radio, mobile phones, blogs,
SMS and the Internet -- result in the coverage and awareness of disasters qualitatively bet-
ter than before? Or does reportage across a hundred thousand websites and blogs by
those who are untrained in professional journalism diminish the importance of and, by ex-
tension, the response towards a disaster?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Whether we like it or not, new technologies
are changing the manner in which we gather, store, disseminate, consume and comment
on news. The overall experience after the tsunami in Sri Lanka and the subsequent design
of ICTs for humanitarian aid suggests that ordinary citizens can play a pivotal role in facili-
tating the flow of information in relief and conflict management mechanisms.