Crowdsourcing emergency response Pt. 3 - Crowdsourcing in Action

January 2011: This is the last post in a three-part series focusing on crowdsourcing in relation to emergency response during a crisis. The idea of accruing large amounts of data from the public during an emergency, or sending data out to be crunched by the masses, is at the heart of this actionable information and situational awareness relationship: from crisis mapping to handling the incredible amount of data during an emergency.

Kim Stephens in iDisaster wrote a long piece on the anniversary of the Haitian earthquake about the lessens-learned which can be applied in the United States. Citing five different articles, Stephens wrote the pieces "relay interesting take-aways from the response, particularly with regard to the effectiveness to use new and emerging technologies to aggregate, sort and analyze information coming directly from the affected population via text messages and social media."

The five essays are: Viral Volunteer for Haiti: How Social Media is changing the face of crisis response, New Media and Humanitarian Relief: Lessons from Haiti, Peacebuilding in the Information Age: Sifting Hype from Reality, Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response: Learning from Haiti, and If All you have is Hammer: How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing?.

Of the five essays, the final article by Paul Currion in, is more critical of crowdsourcing as a successful method of response. Citing the mapping technology Ushahidi, Currion wrote that measuring the success of crowdsourcing technology would be difficult. Furthermore, finding a benchmark to which one could measure success would be as equally as hard. Ultimately Currion asks whether the technology applying crowdsourcing "had a positive impact in helping communities affected by disaster. ... Perhaps the best we can do is ask a simple question: if the system worked exactly as promised, what added value would it deliver?"

At iRevolution, Patrick Meier wrote of the major snowstorms to hit the New York City area: "Imagine how many ambulances could have been dug out if the crowd were better connected to swarm the response. Recall the example in Estonia where volunteers organized online to start a mass garbage cleanup campaign. Some 50,000 all showed up on one day and collected over 10,000 tonnes of garbage."

Meier continued, "there's a lot that disaster affected populations can (and already do) to help each other out in times of crisis. What may help is to combine the crowdsourcing of crisis information with what I call crowdfeeding in order to create an efficient market place for crowdsourcing response. By crowdfeeding, I mean taking crowdsourced information and feeding it right back to the crowd. Surely they need that information as much if not more than external, paid responders who won't get to scene for hours or days."

The "key question" Currion wrote, is to ask "whether technology can improve information flow in humanitarian response. The answer is that it absolutely can, and that's exactly what many people, including this author, have been working on for the last 10 years. However, it is a fallacy to think that if they quantity of information increases, the quality of information increases as well. This is pretty obviously false, and, in fact, the reverse might be true. ... Those working in emergency response - official or unofficial, paid or unpaid, community-based or institution-based, governmental or non-governmental - don't need more information, then need better information. Specifically, they need clearly defined information which can help them make critical decisions in mounting their programmes in order to save lives and restore livelihoods."

Finally, Anahi Ayala Iacucci wrote on her Diary of a Crisis Mapper that with using technology such as open source software for crowdsourcing information for emergency response there is an increased focus on the importance of the technology but that it not always means an increase in efficacy. Iacucci wrote that crowdsourcing technologies, though important and potentially very useful, only make up 10 percent of the overall work which needs to be done. Many times people will focus too much on the technology instead of seeing it as a means to an end.