Crowd sourcing — new buzzword in humanitarian information

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NAIROBI — “Crowd-sourcing” is a new buzzword in the world of humanitarian information.
The combined power of mobile phones, mapping technology and social networking can enable citizens in crisis to seek help, facilitate aid deliveries, bear witness to abuses and hold governments and aid agencies more accountable, advocates say.
Crowd-sourcing on platforms including Ushahidi, for example, took place on an unprecedented scale after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. According to those involved, the impact it had is undeniable: communities were able to report their needs while accurate street maps were created for humanitarians and search and rescue teams tried to save lives.
“Crowd-sourcing had been used in previous emergencies, such as the Wikis created to map Hurricane Katrina and bird flu, but none seemed to have a life beyond the particular incident,” said Microsoft’s Nigel Snoad, an adviser to the ICT4Peace Foundation. “But in Haiti, Ushahidi and its partners seemed to have a real impact on the way the humanitarian response worked.”
“There is real excitement in the humanitarian community about crowd-sourcing and what it can do for emergency humanitarian response,” he added.
But, he says, there needs to be a meeting of minds, with the technology experts ready to develop tools that can contribute meaningfully to humanitarian response and traditional organisations such as the UN being prepared to embrace non-standard methods of handling emergencies.
“Technology developers can affect how and by whom their tools are used by the choices they make; they need to look at validation, protection of data, and so on, and they are doing this,” he said. “And traditional actors like the UN have to learn how to bring in non-traditional actors and their work, how to channel them, advise them and link them to the humanitarian system while allowing them to remain independent.
“Crowd-sourcing not only brings speed to humanitarian work, it opens it up to allow more effective, non-traditional operators to engage with traditional systems of gathering information,” Snoad added. “It would also be a great way to hold humanitarians accountable — to ensure that help promised is actually received.”
Glenda Cooper, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, told Irin: “The cliché is that the aid system is reluctant to welcome innovations like this — however, I think the reverse is true. Citizen journalism, social networking and crowd-sourcing have been embraced enthusiastically by many NGOs.
Just because you have a Twitter account, or have money to put into a new website, doesn’t mean that you use it effectively.
The real challenge for NGOs is to learn what they can use effectively — and whether they are duplicating other agencies’ work unnecessarily.”
“It is important to realise that even in Haiti, crowd-sourcing didn’t work perfectly — there are problems with validation and accuracy, and codes of conduct need to be developed… (for example) it is terrible to ask people to report their problems if there is no way to solve them,” Snoad warned.
One of the main problems is the unverified nature of the information. “Anyone can now publish rumours or thoughts online, thereby bypassing an editorial process,” said Guy Collender, senior communications officer at the London International Development Centre, an academic organisation. “Proponents of crowd-sourcing recognise the concerns about the credibility of websites relying on information often generated by anonymous sources.
However, they believe the risks of false reporting are more than cancelled out by accurate reports.
Ushahidi, which was created by Kenyans trying to track and mitigate post-election violence in 2008, is trying to address this with a new open source tool, SwiftRiver, which filters large amounts of incoming information to separate the wheat from the chaff using smart algorithms and human operators.
“Crowd-sourcing does not yet have an established standard such as quality control, ground verification or sustainability,” said Akiko Harayama, an information analyst with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) New York familiar with the Haiti operation. “Crowd-sourcing is something new, and everything new requires some time to adjust and to improve.” — Irin