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Published on October 23rd, 2012 | by EJC


Identified Issues, Positive Developments: Coverage From Crisis Mappers’ Conference

In an emergency situation, journalists are confronted with the challenge of validating and using a huge amount of data, ranging from official sources to unverified user-generated content. Filtering useful information from the “noise” has been identified as one of the biggest issues, particularly during crises and disasters.

But it is not an issue confronted by journalists alone. First responders, such as humanitarian aid organisations, volunteers and technology experts, have identified even bigger gaps to fill in order to conduct effective aid operations.

Emergency situation requires speed, accuracy, consistency, responsiveness, and simplicity of shared information. A better communication ecosystem would lead into more effective process of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Today, the Crisis Mapper’s Network has established a community of over 4600 members from 162 countries. This trusted network includes experts from various backgrounds: policymakers, skilled volunteers, content curators, geospatial experts, tools developers and hackers.

On 11-14 October 2012, hundreds of the network’s members gathered at the fourth International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM), which took place in Washington D.C. at the headquarters of the World Bank and George Washington University.

Patrick Meier (@PatrickMeier), co-organiser and co-curator of the ICCM, identified three challenges: handling big data (including crowdsourced content), verifying the data, and monitoring as well as evaluating how this data was collected and used for humanitarian response operations.

Big data could potentially contribute to better early warning systems, real-time awareness and feedback. Yet, Robert Kirkpatrick (@rgkirkpatrick), director of UN Global Pulse, pointed out that there is the important question of privacy protection in big data, which is furthermore a big human rights issue. Kirkpatrick asserted that analysing confidential, personally-identifiable data as well as hunting for and re-identifying individuals should be avoided.


While a crowd can circulate information in a matter of seconds, filtering it is a challenge as it may contain sentiments and false information that does not need to be shared with the wider public. Satellite imagery can also be problematic if the location is too dark or stormy to generate concrete data. In addition, there is a question of data ownership as a lot of data is hidden behind firewalls and on the servers of corporations, such as telecommunications companies.

“We need a global real-time public and private data commons. We think a data commons is the only way we are going to survive as a species for the next 100 years.” – Robert Kirkpatrick, UN Global Pulse Director.

This issue concerns not only inaccessible data, but how to reorganise the information sharing ecosystem. While there are large networks of volunteers and experts using digital technology to help disaster-hit communities, there is no single point of entry to access all the information and datasets that they gather and filter.

Although flexibility among volunteer networks has been an important contributing factor to successful efforts in the past, having a more organised structure was identified as crucial to improving the coordination of information sharing.

While a number of organisational restructuring efforts are being made, a new initiative called the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork) is hard to ignore. DHNetwork is a meta network of Volunteer & Technical Communities (V&TCs) aiming to provide an interface between professional humanitarian organisations, skilled volunteers and technology experts, with a core group of coordinators handling activation requests.

Within 24 hours of an activation request, the network is equipped to take up tasks such as: live monitoring of mainstream and social media content, analysing and gathering sufficient data including GIS, and creating real-time crisis maps.

A simulation of this process was successfully completed at the ICCM using the 2009 Samoan earthquake and tsunami as a case study. Possessing a single point of communication to coordinate efforts with member organisations such as Esri, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, MapAction and The Standby Task Force, DHNetwork could become a new organisational framework to support humanitarian organisations and bring about better aid actions.

Next year’s conference is to be held in Nairobi, Kenya. The organisers of previous events are introducing independently organized CrisisMappers events following the model of TEDx, where there is more local involvement, initiatives and actions taking place to meet the needs of the local communities.

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One Response to Identified Issues, Positive Developments: Coverage From Crisis Mappers’ Conference

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