[Note: This post originally appeared on MIT Scope, the blog for the students of MIT's Graduate Program in Science Writing. I became a master of science there.]
Patrick Meier is a young, unassuming man with red hair and nerdy glasses. He’s skinny and soft-spoken and as pale as a redhead should be. He also directs and coordinates international-level crisis response efforts with the geospatial web application,Ushahidi.
When the Haiti earthquake occurred in January 2010, people were stunned and, in some cases, paralyzed to the point of inaction. Haitians were badly hurt and much of the world could only stand and watch, perhaps sending a few dollars here and there via text messaging. (Commercials in the United States constantly reached out to those with texting capabilities to text “HAITI” to a certain number in order to donate money to the response efforts.)
While the rest of the world was stunned, Meier and his team sprang into action.
“Two hours after the earthquake was when I found out on CNN that it had happened, and I immediately called our tech team,” recalls Meier. His team at Ushahidi, along with a core of eighty volunteers, started pulling in maps and information about Haiti and the earthquake as fast as they could get it all in. This was geospatial technology hard at work.
Geospatial technology is the newest evolution of cartography; in its present form, it represents an ever-growing understanding of our environment, a primordial fascination that has always served as a breeding ground for technological advances. Geospatial technology—in Ushahidi’s case, an internet application that locates and displays crisis areas on a virtual map—is a North Star that’s within everyone’s reach, and it courses behind nearly every decision made, be it deliberation on where to eat, how much electricity you’ve used for the month, or, more seriously, how to best assist those in need during the Haiti earthquake. Gone are the days that maps are static, unchanging documents that double nicely as art on a den wall.
Geospatial tech takes data and hooks it onto a location. Imagine that before you stands a globe. In your hand is a fortune from a cookie with a Tweet or a text message written on it. Perhaps it says, “We’re trapped in a building on Rue Velour. We’re starving.” If you were geospatially minded, you would find on the globe where the message came from, and you would stick the tiny slip of paper right there. That’s mapping data, and that’s precisely what defines geospatial technology. Clearly things become more complicated when unfathomable amounts of data are mapped, such as worldwide ocean temperatures or population statistics. And not all data are Tweets and texts, but that’s it, wrapped up in a fortune cookie.
Geospatial information isn’t simply constrained to world-saving applications such as Ushahidi, of course. It is utilized in one fashion or another in just about every segment of the global population. Governments use it to track everything, and such businesses as cable, power, and water companies monitor resource usage. Scientists use cutting-edge software with a geospatial-technological underpinning to determine how a disease spreads, or how climate change is affecting the planet.
These examples, however, are the Superman-versions of geospatial tech, all dressed up with a cape and tights and springing into action for the “greater good.” For most of us—desk clerks, waitresses, middle managers, truck drivers, and graduate students—geospatial tech reaches our worlds as Clark-Kents, charming but ultimately trivial to the greater good. The technology lurks behind every popular social media outlet, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, tagging our photos and messages with location-based data. It drives mobile phone applications like Yelp and Gowalla so graduate students can not only find the cheapest beer in the neighborhood, but also “check in” at that particular pub to earn a fake digital prize and let their friends know where they are. Just as with any useful technology, the beneficial uses tend to become watered down the more popular they get. The internet, for instance, was created to help access scientific information; now, it’s used most commonly for Facebook status updates and pornography. Useful technology will inevitably be made trivial. We can’t have Superman without Clark Kent.
Ushahidi was a Superman, a product of necessity. Between 2007 and 2008, Kenya was experiencing a crisis. Once Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the presidential election, massive amounts of civil unrest erupted under the banner of electoral manipulation. Violence tore through the country, and clearly intervention of some kind was needed. One prominent Kenyan blogger and political activist, Ory Okolloh, proposed to her online readers that some kind of web software (or web application) would perfectly suit this escalating situation by allowing eyewitnesses-to-violence to submit accounts of trouble to those manning the software. In this way, they could map the problem areas and develop a visualization of the highest violence rates. Developers and volunteers responded to Okolloh’s call-to-action, and within days, Ushahidi was born. In Swahili, Ushahidi means “testimony.”
Ushahidi is successful because it runs off of data sent in from voluntary sources, also known as user-generated content. Anyone with texting capabilities, internet access, or a phone becomes an important source of information for an application such as Ushahidi. With the copious amounts of data that came spilling in after the Haitian earthquake, Meier and his team worked around the clock to organize and analyze the eyewitness accounts. Like the Tweet and the fortune cookie, the team tirelessly pegged each bit of verified data onto the maps in their application.
Combing the web for Haiti-related information may sound straightforward enough—after all, it’s a clear goal—but there are so many outlets for the posting of information that it can quickly became a muddled mess, even with an extended network of over three hundred volunteers worldwide. “There’s an ecosystem of information sources,” says Meier. Within this ecosystem were social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr; there were phone-related sources like texts, multi-media texts, and traditional phone calls; and there were various other web sources, such as Skype and blog posts. Keeping track and organizing such information in order to pin it to a digital map was no easy feat. The Ushahidi team utilized a spreadsheet with links to pertinent Haitian radio stations, Twitter feeds of people that were confirmed to have ties to Haiti in some way, and relevant Facebook pages and Skype chat rooms. Also on the list were links to blogs that had been verified as reliable sources.
Validation was clearly an issue. With an operation as public and large as Ushahidi, there were bound to be bogus reports. Time lost following false reports meant time stolen from the accounts that represented real problems, real people. To validate the incoming information, they would plug each account into a database before mapping it, and then look for incoming information that supported previous reports. For instance, if three people tweeted about a collapsing church, two blogged about it, and it was subject for discussion in a Skype chat-room, it had a high “veracity score” (in other words, the team put more weight behind it). The more sources that appeared to report a single event, the higher the score. Photos appearing on Flickr always led to higher veracity scores, as well. Perhaps in these cases, a picture was worth a dozen tweets.
“Imagine you’re in a court room and you’re presenting a case: Exhibit A, Exhibit B. Witness 1, Witness 2. You’re basically trying to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that this crime really did take place,” explains Meier. For all of the incoming data, Ushahidi workers had to make a case for each. And with the team looking at about one hundred tweets per minute, the atmosphere was inarguably tense.
Once the eyewitness accounts were verified, organized, and mapped, the United States Marine Corps and other U.S. government relief teams took straight to the choppers with the new information in hand, says Meier. But instead of just some abstract information, also handed off to the response teams were phone numbers and names. They knew specifically who and what to look for.
The visualizations themselves look rudimentary at first glance, until you realize what it is you’re looking at. Picture a Google-Maps view at fifty percent “zoom” (or in cartographical terms, one inch equaling around 135 miles). On that map are about two dozen clusters of red circles of varying sizes, each with numbers inside of them. The closer the zoom, the more scattered the red circles, and the smaller the circles get. What’s happening here is that a number of reports are being mapped and displayed within these big red circles, and the numbers refer to the reports received from specific areas. Clicking on one of these circles will take the user to a full report for that region, where all the verified calls-for-help are listed, along with the date they were received, how they were delivered (phone, text, Twitter, etc), and their precise location.
Many incoming messages weren’t in English. Translators were called upon as volunteers during this time of crisis at Ushahidi. Since the core of the response team operated out of the Boston area, there weren’t a dozen Creole- and French-speaking volunteers beating down the doors. But, as Meier reflects, they found enough to get the job done.
The messages, all available online, are haunting. One text message from Rue Sicot Prolongee in Port-au-Prince reads: Please hurry today, bring food and water for us in Siko Street (Rue Sicot) prolonged. At the crossroad. We are waiting for you urgently.
Another reads: NOUS AVONS DES DIZAINES D’ENFANTS NECESSITEUX QUI N’ONT NI MERE NI PERRE CES ENFANTS SONT PRIVES D’EAUX POTABLW, MEDICAMENT ET DE NOURRITURES. (We have dozens of needy children who have neither mother nor father these children are deprived of drinking water, drugs and food.)
We are dwellers at Bwa Jalouzi, We need help. What happen, the authority forget us? WE ARE TIRED, THEY FORGOTTEN US HELP US PLEASE.
Working hand-in-hand with the response teams in the field, such as the governmental crisis relief squads, Ushahidi helped save a lot of lives. But perhaps that’s not the proper way of looking at things. In fact, it was the massive, voluntary coordination of thousands of people worldwide that saved a lot of lives. The Ushahidi platform helped, but it was really the reports filing in, one-by-one, and the volunteers with Ushahidi, that made these efforts possible.
“User-generated content can save lives. Ushahidi is the most recent example of that,” says Meier. This level of unprecedented organization and collaboration provides an immense hope to future humanitarian efforts.
Katie Jacobs Stanton, a special advisor to the Office of Innovation at the State Department and the international coordinator with Twitter feels the same as Meier. “Here I am in Washington, D.C., using this innovation coming from Africa [Ushahidi], to try to help people in Haiti, and leveraging volunteers all around the world. It’s really a flattened world.”
“Here’s an example of ordinary people together doing an extraordinary thing,” she concludes with an odd mix of humility and pride.
Since Ushahidi is open-source (it’s an application that is free to use toward any purpose) it has been adopted by a number of organizations to accomplish a variety of tasks. The city of Atlanta uses the Ushahidi platform to track metro-area crime; Kenya now uses it to keep an eye out on the wildlife sightings in the country; the swine flu has been tracked via reported outbreaks through many sources; and even Washington, D.C., used the platform to keep an eye out on the so-called “Snowmageddon 2010” in order to help residents of the area call for help when they were snowed in. It’s a versatile application, an even more versatile technology, and the need for tracking data will guarantee it sticks around for some time. That is, of course, until the next Superman comes along.
“Hold on one second,” she said, whipping out her iPhone 4. “Let me find a good place to eat here.” Helena, a 26-year old graduate student from Atlanta, had never been to Boston before. She stood out fiercely, a Clemson-orange sweatshirt amidst the sea of Red Sox blue-and-red, but here she was, an expert around town with her trusty handheld web of navigation applications.
Hunching over the device, Helena started delicately punching away on the display, a strangely intimate relationship unfolding on a bustling Boston sidewalk. After a few seconds of tapping and deliberating, the two of them, woman and machine, had come to a decision. “So Yelp says there’s a Chinese place about two blocks from here that’s got, like, a ton of 5-star reviews.”
Sure enough, she was correct. Traipsing boldly into the well-rated restaurant, Helena plopped down as if she were at home, once again pulling the iPhone close to her face. She had to “check-in,” she said, so she could add the restaurant to her long list of prior check-ins and, maybe, find a digital prize. Once Gowalla was open, I leaned over to watch her work. On the initial screen of the application (or “apps,” as the kids say), she was shown a long list of locations that we had passed on the way there, from the cleaners to the obscure, lower-level coffee shop. And, of course, the Chinese restaurant in which we now sat, impatiently awaiting our egg drop soup.
By checking in on Gowalla—a smart phone application that runs on Google Maps—Helena could see other Gowalla users that had checked in recently as well. One Joseph Greene of Watertown, Massachusetts, who had checked in only three hours prior, was particularly handsome, Helena noted. She showed me his picture with a rude grin on her face.
One sodium-rich meal later (a few Yelp reviewers had recommended the Kung Pao Chicken, so Helena went with that. It was grotesquely salty, which previous diners had failed to mention), she requested of her phone the fastest route back to the hotel. The phone, ever the willing and dependable companion, responded accordingly. With Google Maps, Helena tapped in the address of her destination (that’s all; the app already knew where she was starting from) and voilà, no more worries. She’d just hop the 1-bus and catch the Red Line the rest of the way. Fifty years ago, she would’ve appeared to be psychic.
Before heading back, some tweeting was in order. She tweeted about the trip and uploaded a few photos of herself (standing beside some random kids in colorful, full-body leotards) to Facebook. Both let her friends and followers know her location.
The phone, of course, is simply the conduit. It’s the applications that are getting down and just-a-little-dirty with geospatial technology. With apps like Yelp, Gowalla, and Google Maps—the ones that allowed Helena to know a city she’d never before been to—users all over the world can have access to geospatial information systems (called GIS by those-in-the-know) technology. With such increasing dependence on smart phones and their playful geospatial applications, an initial reaction to such technology is a quick, melancholy shake of the head. Kids these days.
These apps are the Clark Kent to Ushahidi’s Superman. They represent the who-the-hell-cares side of the geospatial equation. And this side is vast. It doesn’t stop with Yelp and Gowalla. From there are dozens of off-shoots, from apps likeInstagram, which lets you take a picture, tag it with the location from whence it came, and then post it to Twitter (and attach comments like “Here’s what I ate for dinner!”). There’s SCVNGR (pronounced “scavenger”), which lets users play through real-life scavenger hunts that are set up through local businesses in order to encourage sales. Foursquare, an app like Gowalla, asks that its users check-in all over the place, only Foursquare raises the stakes: the person with the most check-ins becomes Mayor. With that position, by the way, comes no power. It does earn you loads of virtual respect from real people.
But really, who the hell cares? It’s a reasonable question that likely has no perfect answer. The only people who might care are the ones using the apps. Helena’s friends might just care to know that she’s in Boston (if she neglected to inform them personally), and they might care to see the photo she uploaded from a cemetery in Harvard Square. Restaurant reviews are practical and useful to those who fear a bad experience, but apps like Yelp aren’t contributing to any humanitarian effort, unless that effort is to allay annoyance and dyspepsia in diners.
But the people behind these apps aren’t claiming to be saving the world, either. The apps are supposed to be trivial, even though the technology behind them can fuel a movement like the one that started Ushahidi in 2007. They’re not trying to save any lives, not trying to make the world a significantly better place. What these apps accomplish is akin to a new level of gaming. If we have our smart phones with us, it’s basically like having the gamer’s guide-to-life along for the ride. Yelp tells us what to expect around the corner. Gowalla tells us who we might find at our destination. Google Maps can tell us how to get there. It’s all one big guide to make life just a little more predictable.
Just before hopping the bus back to her hotel room, Helena looked over with a goofy smile, putting her phone in a bright Clemson-orange pocket.
“Maybe you can pick the restaurant tomorrow night,” she said as the bus pulled up.
Hands in my pockets, I felt around for my own iPhone, wondering which eateries I’d bookmarked recently.
“Sounds good,” I reassured her as she hopped the 1-bus on her geospatially-guided trip back to her hotel (which only had 3 stars in Yelp, she’d inform me later).