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Published on May 28th, 2014 | by EJC


Featured Tool: MicroMappers

1) In a nutshell

  • The tool: MicroMappers assists in the creation of crisis maps by providing a compilation of MicroTasking apps used by volunteers worldwide to tag and categorise social media items posted during disasters. The apps, called Clickers, are free and open-source, allowing volunteers to help mine humanitarian and disaster information in affected areas, all with a few clicks on their computers at home. Launched in September 2013 during the earthquake in Baluchistan, Pakistan, Patrick Meier and his team at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) collaborated with CrowdCrafting to create these Clickers. They also co-ordinate the Standby Task Force (SBTF), a global community of digital volunteers who organise and coordinate digital humanitarian relief responses to areas affected by crises. At the moment, MicroMappers is under development, with features and Clickers still being added, and should be finished by September this year, allowing anyone to customise and launch their own Clickers.
  • Technology: When a disaster strikes, tweets and other social media content pours in. Volunteers around the world are forwarded these items and tasked with assessing and locating them (a translating option is currently under development). Via “Connectors”, the tweet, image or video gets pushed forward to the next volunteer for a different assignment. To ensure data quality, each item needs to be shown to three individual volunteers before it gets sent off to the subsequent step. The TweetClicker asks volunteers to go through tweets, tagging each according to available labels (“request for help”, “population displacement” or “not relevant”). Through the ImageClicker, the visible level of damage can be determined as “severe”, “mild” or “none”. Tweets are geo-tagged using the TweetGeoClicker, which also assists in determining the GPS coordinates in any given tweet. Likewise, the ImageGeoClicker geo-locates user generated images. Both GeoClickers enter when the relevant item is not automatically geo-tagged. Recently, a VideoGeoClicker feature for assessing and locating recorded material was also added. Finally, translated, assessed and located items are placed on the live Crisis Map, a creation of the partnership between the STBF, GISCorps and ESRI.

Photo: iRevolution

  • Information: The most palpable benefit of MicroMappers clearly belongs to disaster relief and aid organisations. By indicating geo-specific tags, organisations like the Red Cross or the UN are able to access highly specific information on the basis of where aid is needed the most – in real time. Furthermore, this information can be used by governments and media agencies. The motto is: the more information, the better, and there can never be enough volunteers.

2) Case studies – Typhoons Pablo and Yolanda in the Philippines, Earthquake in Baluchistan

MicroMappers had its first trial in late 2013 during the earthquake in Baluchistan, Pakistan, when the Standby Task Force activated MicroMappers in response to calls from OCHA-Pakistan. Volunteers tagged over 30,000 tweets and text messages as well as 350 images during the 7.7 magnitude earthquake.

While MicroMappers in Pakistan was challenged by a lack of digital material, efforts during Yolanda in the Philippines in November last year gave a much more visible account of its potential. In accordance with categories specified by UN-OCHA, who asked for tweets referring to infrastructure damage and requests for help, over 230,000 tweets were collected and categorised by 35,000 clicks.

Additionally, the crisis maps created during these disasters depicted the aftermath in detail, including displacement, infrastructure and agricultural damage alongside details of location and the level of damage. This information was used by the Philippine government and UN agencies, and was also made publicly available on the official Google Crisis Map with added interfaces showing detailed information on the type, content, data collector analysis, date, time and link to the image, video or tweet.

3) State of progress

As CrisisMappers is a developing tool, certain aspects are naturally not yet fully matured. Most notably, CrowdCrafting servers were often overloaded during Yolanda, slowing the loading of tweets and thereby inhibiting the process of tagging items and providing much needed information. Plus, in contrast to the amount of crowdsourced information uploaded during the Philippine Typhoons, the Baluchistan earthquake clearly constitutes an example of a country with much less social media and internet penetration, thus limiting the capacity of user generated content to provide fully comprehensive situational overviews. Inhibited access to electricity will result in a plunge of social media use during natural disasters. Yet, as NBC points out, in such cases analysing and comparing previous tweet activity in specific regions can help relief organisations find the location of such electricity shortages.

Human factors may also constitute a challenge for the development of MicroMappers. During Yolanda, many volunteers spent much needed time tagging items as “not relevant”, with level of damage as “none”, in spite of a raging typhoon, simply due to a lack of relevant content. Using the Artificial Intelligence For Disaster Response (AIDR), more specifically the AIDR Classifier, volunteers can create detailed Tags. This presents a narrower and more relevant variety of choices for future volunteers to classify incoming tweets on MicroMappers.

Yet, the concept is still relatively young and constantly developing. Despite minor drawbacks, MicroMappers has great potential to streamline communication channels for disaster relief agencies. An Aerial Clicker is currently being added which will enable tagging of aerial images captured by civilian UAVs. Meier and his team have also collaborated with Taiwanese developers for the June 2014 release of easy-access smartphone apps for Android and iPhone.

2)            What’s in it for journalists?

  • Allows for reporting on geographically specific information regarding damage and disaster
  • Provides reliable, real-time information to help track stories as they break


About the Author:

Pauline Lendrich currently writes and works for the European Journalism Centre. She is originally from Germany and studied International Relations and Security at Maastricht University as well as at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Follow on Twitter: @Paulinelliott

Photo: Prevention_web

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