Crowdsourced activism. Those two words don’t often find themselves in the same sentence. Crowdsourced tech, sure. Even crowdsourced science. But activism? I can hear you scoff. Likes don’t feed starving Africans.
But believe it or not, real activism is coming straight to your screen. And it’s thanks to one incredibly driven man, digital humanitarian Patrick Meier. Digital Humanitarians is the name of Meier’s new book; it’s all about using tech, Big Data and the power of the crowd to make a real difference in crisis situations. I was lucky enough to see him speaking about the book at a recent launch organised by Creative Commons SA.
In the beginning, it was personal
Like so many of life’s journeys, Meier was thrown head-first into this field by a personal crisis. In 2010, his then-girlfriend (now wife) was in Haiti when one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history hit the poverty-stricken island. With no word from the island, Meier says he was at a loss as to what to do with himself.
At the time, he had been working on mapping violence in Kenya through an organisation called Ushahidi. With nothing but time and anxiety on his hands, he took to Twitter and Facebook, and started to haphazardly map damage reports and requests for help. Twenty-four hours later, he and his friends had established a crisis room and were frantically trying to map the deluge of social media reports pouring out of Haiti. Within a few days, Meier’s initiative had turned into a global volunteer effort involving the Haitian diaspora and thousands of faceless activists behind their laptops and PCs.
At some point, this haphazard, crowdsourced disaster-response initiative took on a life of it’s own. They managed to obtain a free short-code SMS line that allowed Haitians to share their most pressing needs. Via community radios on the ground, these messages were also mapped. An organisation called OpenStreetMaps got involved to map large parts of Haiti for the first time, also using the power of volunteers. Within two weeks, major crisis organisations started to sit up and take notice:
Crisis Map of Haiti represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community http://haiti.ushahidi.com/
— Craig Fugate (@CraigatFEMA) January 22, 2010
Slacktivism? Not quite.
The power of the crowd
This was the start of the so-called digital humanitarian movement. In the five years since Meier’s Haiti crisis map experiment, more and more organisations are realising the value of Big Data in a crisis. And Meier is at the forefront of this movement.
Micromappers.org is a simple platform that harnesses volunteers (who Meier calls Digital Jedis) to evaluate social media images and text for information that might be important in a crisis, such as human needs, location, or damage to infrastructure. In a crisis, organisations like WHO, the UN or the Red Cross can contact Micromappers to process data on their behalf.
The really exciting part about Micromappers, is that below the surface is an AI called AIDR – Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response. And it’s learning from every tweet, every click and every volunteer. Soon it will do as good a job as a human volunteer, and do it much faster.
Another one of Meier’s projects is Veri.ly, a similar service that uses the crowd to decide whether an image is genuine or not. In the age of information, disinformation is rife, and that can be dangerous in a crisis situation. Veri.ly is trying to prevent that.
Meier’s most recent effort is another automated solution to crisis management, but this one is more physical than digital. UAViators.org calls itself a humanitarian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) network, with the goal of linking drone operators with crisis response teams. UAVs can provide timely surveillance and transportation in areas where they are most needed. UAviators has already been put to good use in combination with Micromappers to estimate populations of animals in a Namibian Reserve.
Be humble, get involved
So then, take home messages. My first is that despite saving probably tens of thousands of human lives over the last five years, Meier is incredibly humble about his work. He constantly praises his Digital Jedis and his team for their work. I was blown away by that selflessness and humility.
The second is that it really is ridiculously easy to get involved. Micromappers doesn’t even have a mandatory sign-up. Just click through to the website or download the app, and starting saving people’s lives.
As easy as clicking that little blue thumb.