Soon after the Libyan crisis broke, decision-makers and humanitarian workers faced a critical challenge: lack of information about events inside the country.
Within hours, Andrej Verity, information management officer at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, called a meeting with volunteer-based and/or technically focused groups. OCHA activated the Standby task force, comprising more than 150 volunteers skilled in online crisis mapping. The idea was to map out social and traditional media reports from within Libya.
That led to the creation of LibyaCrisisMap.net.
"Given that the UN had virtually no access to the country, we now had situational awareness," Verity said. "And, within 48 hours, we had 100-plus response activities collected and compiled - the same amount of data [that] took about four weeks in the Philippines, two weeks in Haiti, and two weeks in Pakistan to be made available."
Mobile information technology devices, according to the Harvard University Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, now play an increasingly important role in responding to humanitarian emergencies and providing critical data.
This helps improve the understanding of the complex dynamics of emergencies, local and international response. It has also driven the concept of crowd-sourcing via the internet. Today, Twitter and Facebook are where people turn to get firsthand accounts of world events.
"The challenge in the early phases of an emergency is how to organize information because it is sometimes very dispersed or comes in large quantities," said Jeffrey Villaveces, information management officer with OCHA Colombia. "So you end up with a lot of information which is not all useful."
There are more than 1,000 articles on the platform with some information extracted and placed on maps. "It is a different way of looking at information gathered from different sources. What we have done is to take the information and categorize it," Villaveces told IRIN.
"Currently, we are engaged in casualty monitoring, According to Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, there was a demand that the Libyan government exercise its responsibility to protect civilians, but there was no way of monitoring casualties," he added.
The LibyaCrisisMap.net site incorporates SMS (text messaging) and an online mapping service modelled on the Kenyan Ushahidi initiative. "Ushahidi", which means "testimony" in Kiswahili, was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after post-election violence in 2008, based on reports submitted via the internet and mobile phones.
Critics like Paul Currion, an aid worker who has been working on the use of ICTs in large-scale emergencies for the last 10 years, question the value to humanitarians of information obtained through crowd-sourcing. Limitations, he suggests, include the problem of connectivity where access to the internet is not reliable, reliability of the data and the functional perspectives of the interface.
|Images from the Libya frontlines|
"The visual appeal of Ushahidi is similar to that of PowerPoint, casting an illusion of simplicity over what is a complex situation," he argued in a blog. "If I have 3,000 text messages saying, "I need food and water and shelter", what added value is there from having those messages represented as a large circle on a map? ... crowd-sourced information will not ever provide the sort of detail that aid agencies need to procure and supply essential services to entire populations."
The Ushahidi interface was used in the Haiti and Chile earthquakes in 2010. So far, OCHA Colombia has implemented three such platforms, says Villaveces.
"At the start of a crisis, there is typically an information blackout, with general confusion," he said. "Making use of online tools, groups of volunteers are able to review available resources on Twitter, the internet, Facebook and SMS in order to create an overview of events on the ground. Other tools such as alerts by area via email and SMS can also provide value-added to responders on the ground."
While some of the volunteers in the Libya case brought their experience from Haiti, Chile and Pakistan, most were newly trained and brought a new perspective, said Patrick Meier, doctoral research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and PhD candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts.
"This was a first," he noted in a blog. "Unlike Haiti, we had a direct channel from day one to the main coordinating body of the UN for humanitarian assistance. We also had a trained network of volunteers on standby with protocols and workflows that had already been revised and tested several times over almost half a year."
One volunteer is Chris Roblee, a software engineer and cyber security researcher in Munich, Germany, who noted in a blog: "I find that the collegial nature of our virtual working environment allows other volunteers to take over my responsibilities whenever I am unable to respond immediately. The fact that we are so global allows us to maintain a 24-hour response centre."
More volunteers are welcome to apply online.
How it works
The volunteer teams monitor media outlets, social networking sites and reports from staff in the field, then the information follows a rigorous process of geolocation, approval, verification and analysis to ensure high quality in the final reports that are broadcast by the analysis team, says Villavaces.
The technical platform for the Libya crisis map was launched just one hour after the OCHA request. According to Meier, a second map was launched days later and in the first three days, the site received more than 18,000 unique visitors and 44,000 pageviews from 65 countries.
"One of the benefits of crisis mapping, on a platform like Ushahidi, is the concept of moving away from broad media to a 'me' concept," Verity told IRIN. "In the past, the responders and decision-makers would have a static map that was usually produced for mass consumption.
"With the Libya crisis map, anyone can drill into the map by zooming into a location and filtering what types of reports to be shown," he added. "It becomes relevant specifically to them and they can make plans or decisions based on that highly relevant information. Imagine in the future when all needs, response activities and other relevant information are placed on this type of site. Both responders and [the] affected could access a wealth of highly relevant information through a simple map interface."
The platform has been hailed as a useful tool, with Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the UN World Food Programme, describing it in a Tweet as "excellent".
"The response to last year's crises in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan revealed an exciting potential," notes Meier, who is also director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi. "Volunteers from thousands of miles away could possibly play an important role in humanitarian operations by using social networking platforms and free, open source software to create live crisis maps.
"Today's volunteer efforts on the Libya crisis map are turning that potential into reality."