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Crisis Cartography

Published in CrisisCommons, Neogeography

The technology and methodology of digital interactive cartography is nascent but evolving. The fields of human-computer interaction and GIS are converging from both the consumer market: “where is my nearest good restaurant?”, as well as from the enterprise: “where should I open a new restaurant chain?”. Designing useful interfaces requires understanding user workflows, iterative development and testing. Too often this effort can be retarded by conflicting viewpoints, changing market and business models or even lack of imagination.

While the consumer and enterprise markets are slowly iterating through concepts, there is nothing so significant as a crisis where minutes and meters can mean the difference in saving a life. What can we learn from the agile and emergent development of tools during short-lived response events which provide insight into further research and development. This post are some notes from my talk at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in Los Angeles.

Familiarity and Expectations

During a crisis people use the tools that are available and ideally familiar. This often means repurposing in a way that was never intended but yields innovative new applications. For example during Hurricane Katrina people caught in New Orleans could not call 911 or other emergency numbers. Instead they would text their family members in remote states such as Michigan who would then call back down to Red Cross with the address of the person that was stuck in the flooding. By contrast typical mapping and analysis would take days to gather data such as shelter locations, flood modeling inundation zones and finally the proposed response. With people knee deep in water this restricted and limited capability had demonstrable and severe impact on the efficacy of the response.

Subsequent disasters demonstrated the effective repurposing and development of cartographic tools such as the New York Public Library historic map warper to instead rectify un-classified CIA maps of Haiti that were used to derive road networks in OpenStreetMap. Then using consumer-grade hiking GPS units this data was made available to search and rescue teams from Virginia to find the locations of trapped individuals. What had been designed for researchers and public volunteers provided an easy to use, on-demand, and flexible mapping interface for people around the world to provide overnight support to responders that were deploying on the ground.

This cycle of prediction, warning, response, relief and reconstruction is a well known pattern in disaster management. Unfortunately current typical cartographic products are either static aggregates that provide only cursory assessment at a coarse geographic area, of little use in actual response and planning; or they are disjointed, out of date, and paper-based. During a disaster there is cognitive overload from the inundation of information and with a static product no way to filter or zoom into a particular area of interest. It is a by product of a bygone process of unidirectional information flow through a priori information channels.

Fortunately the information landscape is dramatically evolving. In the past few years alone the ability to dynamically share data, collaborate and develop maps has enabled new mechanisms for understanding and response. In reflecting on the Haiti response, particularly relating to the public information sharing, numerous emergent technologies as well as traditional organizations were able to innovate and provide better access to important data and support. This will be an increasingly imperative capability as the types of data, and expectations of response are changing as well.

In recent American Red Cross surveys, they discovered the following surprising traits:

  • Emergency social users are also most likely to seek and share information during emergencies. While they look for the hard facts—road closures, damage reports and weather conditions—they share personal information about their safety statuses and how they are feeling.
  • Three out of four Americans (76 percent) expect help in less than three hours of posting a request on social media, up from 68 percent last year.
  • Forty percent of those surveyed said they would use social tools to tell others they are safe, up from 24 percent last year.


Simply, the people involved in the informational aspects of crisis response are changing. Technologists, domain experts, diaspora, and numerous other citizen communities are now actively and intensely engaging within moments of a disaster to build maps and gather geographic data. And the people in the affected area are leaning to their daily tools such as mobile phones, twitter, maps, and Facebook to find out and share the event as it unfolds.

The result is that cartography, and in particular interactive geographic analysis and visualization, is evolving. Ushahidi is a well-known platform for gathering and publishing crisis data from eye-witness reports and aggregated media. Emerging from the 2008 Kenyan elections, it is a simple example of the need and creation of a new tool for public and media to temporally animate, investigate and track realtime reports.

However there are still many shortcomings of the current tools. While there are clear positive impacts they have had – the combination of ad-hoc technologies that are separated from user-interaction design or disaster management workflows results in a lessened benefit from the thousands and millions of volunteer hours that are being contributed and could benefit saving lives.

Crowd Sourced Data

WaldoCanyonFire.pngAt the heart of the volunteer technical communities, and arguably the capability they are the most suited to support is creating, curating, and making data accessible. Using tools designed for casual bike-riders and pub connoisseurs has actually proven remarkably effective. Fortunately there was designed flexibility meant to accomodate peculiar attributes such as wheelchair accessibility or tree diameter meant that it could be used to house a humanitarian data model.

The US State Department is supporting microtasking analysis of imagery for IDP camps and structural damage. How do you train new volunteers to do remote sensing analysis and data input in a repeatable, and accurate way?

On the ground, US wildfires have demonstrated the potential for crowd-sourced photography as well as geolocated Tweets to provide updated fire progress, impact and evacuation. What are the interfaces for visualizing official models compared with potential fire models from uncertain data? And how do you account for the over-abundance of information from singular sources, “the Racerboi8 problem”.

Dynamic Visualizations of Dynamic Events

What are mechanisms for defining more structured and even dynamic information? During Hurricane Sandy High School students at IMSOCIO called gas stations to get the current availability of fuel and power that was published in a KML feed and map. How do we visualize this data to reflect recency (i.e. is older data have questionable accuracy), or trustworthiness (did the station owner not want people to over-run his shop so gave false information)?

Can we even detect an event through implicit information such as the increased viewing of imagery over specific areas such as identifying the location of the meteor through map tiles.

Mobile Citizens

Most importantly, even going back to 2005, people are increasingly connected through mobile devices. These new personal tricorders offer a continuous connection to people, alerts, and access to maps that can provide important information in evacuation as well as response; but they require a different interface for viewing and annotating this data.

And sometimes Paper is still an incredibly important medium. During a disaster text connections are surprisingly resilient, but power may not be. Having tools for personalized, and even ‘zoomable’ paper map may mean someone being able to find shelters or meetup with family members such as through Safety Maps.

Room for Exploration

Crisis events compel people to go above and beyond their normal efforts in order to help communities in a time of need. Maps serve a fundamental underpinning for responders and citizens alike. Cartography has the opportunity to evolve in order to address these important issues, and create new, innovative methods and technology that also have broad application.

Citizen Volunteer Technology for CrisisCamp Sandy

Published in CrisisCommons

After a disaster some people want to do more than just send money, they want to share their time, knowledge and expertise to provide potentially far more valuable assistance than just $10. This weekend, volunteer hackers and technologists convened at CrisisCamps in over 10 cities and virtually online to assist in developing tools to assist the ongoing response and recovery for people affected by Hurricane Sandy. Driven by requests for help from citizens as well as traditional response organizations it is clear that there is a shift into new capabilities for remotely helping in disasters.

CrisisCampDCCollaborating in realtime over Skype, IRC, Wiki, Hackpad, and likely more these volunteers in collaboration with HurricaneHackers worked on over a dozen projects to assist people in finding &reporting open gas stations, identify building damage, room sharing, getting kids back to school, and a lot more you can read about on the wiki. For the more visually inclined, Willow from Geeks Without Bounds made a great summary Prezi presentation.

On Saturday I had the opportunity to visit the FEMA National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) and work directly with people from FEMA, the White House, and Red Cross. In particular I became involved in the problem where gas stations around New Jersey and New York have been running low or out of fuel and citizens currently cannot find where to get gas near their location or what they can expect to pay. This data should be available from the companies, and indeed HESS is a model that is openly publishing their fuel inventory data.

What was surprising were other unofficially official sources of data that are from volunteer organizations and users that are more accurate and more up to date than anything that was available through official organizations. All Hazards Consortium is an non-profit that is publishing daily exports of data from the point of sales for about 70% of the fuel stations. This is augmented with data from ImSocio, a group of Youth Community maping group of high school students in Somerset, New Jersey. They are individually calling stations directly and updating the information that is published in an open KML feed and maps.

Together, a non-profit and a group of volunteer high schools students working through the weekend, represented the some of the best up-to-date information that was broadly available. Additional sources of data included social media monitoring of hashtags like #findgas, #njgas, #nygas, mobile web collection interfaces, and communities such as Waze that published their drivers’ ‘chit-chat’ notes about gas station status.

Individuals armed with easily accessible open data and no programming skills can literally publish informative interactive web maps during their lunch break and then send them out to the world via social networks. — Chris Brown

FEMA has made it very clear that they want to enable as much local support and response as possible. They are in the business of coordination and the more that citizens and local organizations can help one another the better the resiliency. The concept of “crowd-sourcing” means as much for on-the-ground scaling as it does for web scale. And the “crowd” is not just full of amateurs, but experts in a variety of domains and experience that are offering tremendous support that can provide meaningful support to affected citizens. There is still a lot of learning. It was clear in discussions at the NRCC that these concepts are new and difficult to accomodate within the traditional response protocols, but there is definitely a desire to evolve and adapt to these new communities.

There will likely be more CrisisCamps coming up in the future that you can join. If you just have a computer and internet connection you can help.

Humanitarian Disaster Coordination Workshop

Published in CrisisCommons, Neogeography

CrisisCamp PHX MeetingThis week I attended and spoke at the Humanitarian Disaster Coordination workshop held at UVA’s Darden School of Business. Focused primarily on the role of logistics in response activities, organizations such as DHS/FEMA, UPS, US Coast Guard, American Red Cross, and academic institutions like LSU and Michigan State University shared their experiences in supporting the emergent, dynamic, and chaotic operations of distributing resources. The topics for this workshop primarily focused on Demand Signal Visibility – who needs what, where?

I found the world of crisis supply chain operations fascinating in the complexities of moving something like tents to remote areas of China or even locally like Louisiana. There is a very complex landscape of Federal, State, and Local government, VOADs (Voluntary Organizations Acting in Disaster) such as Red Cross, FBOs (Faith Based Organizations) such as Salvation Army, and the Military. And that’s not even considering the complex organizational and operational processes within these organizations. Clearly the effect is a working, but highly inefficient and potential fragile operational capacity in responding to disasters. The flood of unwanted in-kind donations (as high as 90% of donated goods need to be discarded because they are unusable), competing interests, conflicting operations, and communications issues result in frustration and a concern that in a catastrophic disaster – particularly within the United States – that we would be ill-prepared to respond effectively.

However, these organizations are very interested in understanding how they can better coordinate and collaborate. There is a clear realization of the need to put in place better plans before a disaster occurs. The entire purpose of the workshop was to convene the different communities of government, military, NGO, private industry, and academia in order to share difficulties and brainstorm solutions.

Emerging Trends

In particular, my talk shared the emerging drivers, trends, and issues in information sharing and collaboration in humanitarian activities. Major events from Katrina, through Haiti earthquake and reconstruction have highlighted that citizen engagement through digital media is dramatically changing the on-the-ground needs sharing and response capabilities. Traditional crisis response organizations currently utilize a very top-down approach, be that at the “local” level of first responders in the country or region – but also through national efforts led by FEMA – that is being faced with these trends but currently not clear on how to incorporate the data. “Social Media” is currently primarily supported through external affairs and is considered a publicity mechanism. However, as was made clear in the recent American Red Cross Survey, 74% of the polled adults expect less than a 1-hour response to their need when published through a service such as Twitter or Facebook.

Open Sharing
The internet has provided a global, connected network that dramatically lowers the barrier to free exchange of data. Administrative policies focused on open-government, combined with general acceptance that shared data improves the quality and grows value is leading organizations to more readily share their data – particularly with open-standards.
Realtime Data
Inexpensive, connected, and prevalent mobile devices are dramatically increasing the number of ‘sensor nodes’ that are publishing data continuously to the web. Social media, resource tracking, news, weather and climate sensors are all providing continous streams of data that have a huge value in providing situational awareness and communications.
In order to understand the deluge of information, analysis tools are being put closer to users – particularly domain experts and locally situated groups that
Social Networks
People are connecting and collaborating through online networks, bridging social, family, professional and local communities. They’re able to communicate in real-time about issues they care about.
Crisis Crowds
Around any crisis, communities of interest – diaspora, family, and general good will – is causing people to want to actively participate in helping the survivors.
New sensor platforms
Mobile phones, Texting, broadband internet allow anyone, anywhere to be sharing data and providing information and feedback. In addition, inexpensive digital devices are allowing people to build ad-hoc balloon imaging and other sensing platforms.
‘Citizen’ Engagement
Combined, all of these capabilities are actually allowing the local, affected populations to have an immediate, positive impact on their response. Neighbors and communities are able to assist one another and coordinate with official response organizations.

Work we’re doing

Groups like CrisisCommons have a lot to offer as it combines members of these response organizations with technologists, private industry, and citizens in developing agile and supportive capabilities. In the workshop it became clear of the potential and growing need to utilize digital media as part of operational support and not just as public outreach. Integrating aggregation, analysis, and curation tools of the huge flows of data are vital to organizations so that they can understand their own operational picture as well as the broader ‘common operating picture’ across the entire disaster.

At FortiusOne, we’ve built GeoIQ to integrate dynamic data such as Twitter and Flickr with logistics information of shelters, hospitals and other infrastructure to provide these common operating pictures both within organizations as well as on the ground through field-deployed systems. GeoCommons has served as a tremendous repository of data and information analysis that augments these operations by providing to the general public the capability to contribute and share these analyses.

Disaster response is changing quickly – information technology playing a key role in quickly augmenting local and remote capabilities. The future is in combining these with actual logistics of materials through the international and national responders to be more effective and supportive.

CrisisCommons at Harvard and Sloan Foundation

Published in CrisisCommons

Last week, Noel, Heather, Chiara and I traveled to Cambridge to speak at the Harvard Berkman Center. Surrounded by open internet luminaries such as Clay Shirky, Dave Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman, and many others, we shared our experiences in creating CrisisCamp and growing the CrisisCommons. Our purpose was to gain insight into what has become apparent as a yet unmet, but highly desired role of a volunteer crowd advocate to crisis response organizations.

CrisisCamps emerged and have been successful by having connected with the inherent desire for humans to help one another – and preferring to do so in a way that is more meaningful than just donating $5. They want to give of their time, expertise, and capabilities. The last two decades have additionally provided a global information network that has embraced open communication, open source, and open information. The CrisisCamps were venues that hosted people that were willing to spend their spare time, and many times take time off of work, to contribute to the larger community response.

Along the way, we learned many lessons. CrisisCommons was created as a way to capture the knowledge and relationships that were passing through the various response and volunteer communities. We’ve held events such as CrisisCongress to convene the many leaders of the local groups. Together we identified the successes, failures, and gaps in our approach. The goal was to identify what the potential role and methods of CrisisCommons and CrisisCamps should embrace.

Insight Redoubled

While presenting this history at the Berkman Center, the room of normally very loquacious individuals sat in focused attention. Some with knowing and understanding looks, and others with new interest and inquisitiveness. As we stopped to ask for questions we were urged that we had spent much more time thinking about the problem and were providing valuable knowledge on the current response and volunteer landscape and potential to the audience. Where we had sought to get immediate feedback we were providing new information and insight to this experienced group.

Of course, after we had shared the history, evolution, and current plans for the future the audience was ready to share their own experiences (see Ethan’s thoughts)- many summarized as “You’ve done amazing work – and have seen the issues I’ve noticed during my career but have deftly avoided some of the larger pitfalls.”

A major issue that was discussed revolved around the specific role CrisisCommons has with respect to Volunteer Technical Communities (VTC) and Crisis Response Organizations (CRO). Is CrisisCommons an advocate of VTC’s, or is it more of a CRO that has relationships and responsibility with official organizations and also the ability to effectively communicate with VTC’s.

Final Draft - Sloan Presentation.png

CrisisCommons needs to find a way to act and be perceived as a member of the major organizations without quelling the grassroots and emergent behavior that have made CrisisCamps successful and effective. Yet with more process and research, CrisisCommons can provide real guidance and shepherding of CrisisCamp and VTC efforts that would affect both real, needed, innovation to unmet problems as well as adoption and reliability of developed solutions.

Today we are headed to the Sloan Foundation to share our work and lessons learned. The Sloan Foundation provided funding to support the research and meetings such as CrisisCongress that brought all the active leaders to one place to discuss these larger issues and set a direction forward. We’re truly grateful for their support and look forward to learning what they see as the future of CrisisCommons.

CrisisCommons and Congress

Published in CrisisCommons

A little more than a year ago, a small group of volunteers coordinated to host the first CrisisCamp in Washington, DC. At the time, we just wanted to pull together first responders, technologists, government, NGO, and interested citizens to discuss crisis mitigation, response, and humanitarian relief efforts. The two-day event was a complete success in connecting these communities in dialogue and projects that led to field deployed projects. In the last meeting of CrisisCampDC we discussed the potential future of these camps – and on a whim I registered, installed MediaWiki and Mikel provided a logo.

For the next 9 months, side projects occured and interesting conversations continued, but without a single coherent focal point. What happened in early January completely changed how we thought about volunteer crisis response. In the hours and days following the Haitian earthquake thousands of volunteers around the world began brainstorming and contributing to projects that would hopefully have a positive benefit to the response and affected communities.


CrisisCommons.jpgBy Thursday we had decided to host a CrisisCampHaiti in Washington DC and very quickly similar groups decided to hold events in 4 other cities. The CrisisCamps provided a focused venue for developers, volunteers and organizations to coalesce and collaborate on developing needed solutions and information that would assist on the ground efforts.

OpenStreetMap had already been identified as a key resource in the response – starting first with the use of unclassified 1990’s paper maps, and then increasingly with the availability of high-resolution and up-to-date commercial satellite imagery. This provided for a very simple task for general volunteers with a computer and internet connection to begin tracing road networks and infrastructure. Videos like got new volunteers up to speed and mapping within 10 minutes.

The technical expertise brought to bear was powerful. Mobile phone apps such as Tradui for translating between Kreyol and English; We Have We Need, a place where relief organizations can quickly post their most urgent needs and have them matched by generous donors during a time of crisis, and more.

Developers conceptualized and created green field applications, others worked on adapting existing tools to new uses or connecting them together – such as an Ushahidi to OpenStreetMap bridge that would allow for people on the ground to send mobile messages that could update the actual map data.

The outpouring of effort was amazing. In essence, the realization was that people wanted to contribute. And instead of sending $5 via a text message they wanted to donate their even more valuable time and expertise to provide true value and support.

Crisis Continuity

These efforts have been widely discussed, and the power of thousands of connected, capable, and caring technical and helpful people immediately pointed at a problem is compelling. However, what is not immediately apparent is that these efforts, tools, and communities are not completely ad-hoc and spontaneous. They have evolved through joint experiences, social networks, technical exchanges, and personal needs. The tools were developed around an initial kernel of a problem, and then modified, evolved, cajoled, and carried from one event and use to the next. Jesse & Mikel have espoused this concept before.


It is this continuity through many experiences and efforts that forges the applications and organizations. Following the initial surge, a core component of the community continues to talk about lessons learned, how to expand the tool, integrating with other workflows. An interim solution in one event slowly becomes more integrated as part of a response with new features, languages, and capabilities along each step.

This is primarily possible through openness: open-source, open-data, open-collaboration. Open Source software means that any solution developed can be reapplied and improved upon as new requirements and capabilities are needed. Open data guarantees that there is a free flow of information before, and during an event that can reach to any and all responders and volunteers as appropriate. Unforeseen needs can be met by modification and analysis of the data. And finally Open Collaboration means that people freely exchange needs, solutions, and ideas that ensure best options are available.

The continuity is further expressed in the tools and data remaining in the affected areas for citizens and government to utilize. There is less of a vacuum remaining after organizations withdraw as local groups can take ownership of the tools as well as stay connected with the community to build capacity.


What has been missing is a community that provides support and coordination of these various efforts. New projects will start and be deployed. But how do NGO’s and response communities identify which tools are available, reliable, and meet their operational requirements? How do they work with the volunteer communities to identify needs, provide ideas and specifications and adopt these tools as they are developed, tested, and supported?

A goal of CrisisCommons is to provide this role. Through international communities as well as local and regional organizations and camps that understand relevant risks and responses to provide for pertinent and continued support.

Organizations such as the World Bank, MapAction and others clearly have identified the potential of working with organizations such as CrisisCommons that can be an interface to the moving surges of volunteers, companies, and tools that they can leverage in reconstruction efforts.

There is a change in how the public is engaging and supporting in crisis response. They are able to augment capabilities and provide surge support. But it is necessary to recognize that the capability to respond and engage quickly and effectively occurs through continuous evolution. In preparation, prevention, and mitigation of disasters we can apply our tools and knowledge. In reconstruction we can modify and integrate the viable solutions into sustainable operations.


There are still a number of questions that have yet to be answered about this type of model. This week the first international CrisisCongress is convening with individuals from around the world to discuss the models of volunteer crisis response and technology. Through our discussions, shared experiences and problem solving we will have a clearer vision for how to continue the successes we have had and grow the capability for people to respond and help in moments and places of crisis, whether across the globe or in their own community.