Crowdsourcing: how democratization of new technologies is becoming a new tool to support humanitarian operations.
There are more than six billion people around the world connected to a mobile network and one third of the world population have access to the Internet, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Based on a worldwide network of volunteers, crowdsourcing allows handling very big data sets in a very short amount of time. Crowdsourcing for rapid emergency mapping has been increasing rapidly since the 2010 Haiti crisis.
Initially developed for the 2008 Kenyan elections, Ushahidi, a mapping and reporting tool for incidents which has demonstrated the power of crowdsourcing in various deployments all over the world, also raised questions and suspicions, especially from major international organizations like the United Nations, since information coming from crowdsourcing is not using traditional communication channels.
As a response several UN initiatives were launched with focus on innovation and Open Source technologies like Global Pulse to research, evaluate and improve these new tools in order to meet the criteria of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development): Relevance, Effectiveness, Efficiency and Sustainability.
It is undeniable that during the last crises, especially crowdsourcing of geographic knowledge, has improved the response time of many operations, e.g. saving lives by being able to locate facilities down to the street level. It is also helpful getting to know the needs of beneficiaries through direct communication like sms based tools and web platforms easily accessible to beneficiaries. However, these tools will only be of relevance if they are linked to direct response
The effectiveness of crowdsourcing is now well established1, as one can see with the rapidness of deployment of the HOT (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team) or Digital Humanitarian Network, or when measuring the level of details obtained and the number of volunteers involved in such processes2.
Crowdsourcing is almost a victim of its success. For example, to monitor the Kenyan elections in 2013, no less than three mapping platforms and seven phone numbers were available for the population. That is why codes of conduct should be developed and implemented. Launched by GSMA, the “SMS code of conduct (0)” is a first approach of best practices for the implementation of crowdsourcing services for beneficiaries.
This is probably the main advantage of crowdsourcing: based on volunteering and involving the local population, the deployment costs are low compared to the results. Time savings on the collection of information through a crowd can be remarkable but it also requires quality control and dedicated resources to manage and communicate to a crowd, in order to ensure good results. Some organizations like the Stand By Task Force has created Verification Team. But also as Patrick Meier highlights with the example of Emergency numbers in the States or citing the journalists: ” We use verification and investigation processes which have proven themselves”. Also, epic tasks, like assisting after a disaster usually evoke faster response and attract more volunteers than tasks that are of less public interest.
The sustainability of these crowdsourcing projects rely on two conditions: sharing the data collected through platforms; and improving the mechanisms of rapid responses in order to capitalize for future crises. The organizations running these crowdsourcing processes also need to provide training on these new tools to local communities and beneficiaries, in particular for the young generations.
However, the anticipation and the substantive work should not be neglected. Indeed having the data and tools before the crisis should increase the success. Getting prepared for a crisis is easy to do for periodic climatic events, elections and ongoing conflicts, but more difficult for natural disasters. After the onset of an emergency, communication is the key factor in order to make crowd sourcing tools effective and useful. In fact, technology should not replace the dialogue but help to facilitate and improve it. So it is important to plan what to say to the beneficiaries in case no response mechanism can be provided after they gave their feedback.
Therefore, new technologies and crowdsourcing can also be used as direct project Monitoring and Evaluation tools with the beneficiaries reporting, which will foster and continue a long-term relationship between beneficiaries and organizations in the field, and lead to better transparency in the management of humanitarian aid and hence to greater accountability of international organizations.
The power of crowdsourcing lies in its potential to quickly mobilizing volunteers. It still requires training of volunteers and local communities. And also training or awareness from humanitarian actors to learn how to use this information sensibly and not being drowned in “big data.” Despite some resistance, crowdsourcing as support for humanitarian operations is booming, placing the beneficiary at the heart of the action and developing the concept of e-volunteering; because “it is more a matter of human commitment, dedication and cooperation, than a question of technology “(Jaroslav Valuch, Ushahidi).
This article was originally published in CartONG’s July 2013 newsletter.