Digital Jedis saving lives: Deciphering Big Data in the aftermath of a Disaster

Source: Fri, 12 Jun 2015 03:33 PM
Photo: Patrick Meier presenting at BBC Media Action
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In this blog post, Faisa Abdi, from the CDAC Network Secretariat shares the highlights of a talk by Patrick Meier on Next Generation Technologies and how Digital Humanitarians across the world are responding to the influx of data in the aftermath of disaster in order to sort and verify data to help save lives.

On 1 June 2015, the CDAC Network invited Patrick Meier, thought leader on humanitarian technology, to give a talk on ‘Big Data and Affected Communities’, which was hosted by BBC Media Action at Broadcasting House in London. Meier began the event by detailing how the high influx of information during a disaster can have an immobilising effect on the ability of humanitarian organisations to respond. Deciphering ‘Big Data’ coming out of social media and other crowd platforms is proving to be a taxing task for traditional Humanitarian Organisations. ‘Digital Humanitarians’ – or ‘digital jedis’ as Meier refers to them – have begun to fill this space through online volunteerism and activism. You can listen to a recording of the talk here.

The term ‘Digital Humanitarians’, refers to everyday people who seek to make a difference in humanitarian response by rapidly mobilizing online alongside traditional humanitarian organisations, but from their computer or smartphone and undertaking relatively simple tasks that, when amassed, can make a big difference.

It is imperative that humanitarian organisations make sense of Big Data as the content can be rich in feedback and information from affected communities. It is possible to analyse large amounts of text and imagery using artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce the burden on human resources for interpretation of the data. From here we get a clearer image of a disaster zone presented, often in real time, that can be used to inform response operation i.e. assessment of damage to buildings and infrastructure, notification of information needs. Meier and his team on the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) have led the task of creating a specific programme to provide this artificial intelligence support to digital volunteers. The programme Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) is a free and open-source tool that can ‘learn’ what types of data are being processed with support of human decision-making.

Meier argues that in this new age of technology, borders have been removed and people have become increasingly interconnected, thus the crowdsourcing of information management can be outsourced to a ‘crowd’ of volunteers living anywhere. Meier also went on to discuss the capacity of digital volunteers to help verify social information; each tweet, image, video is shown to five volunteers for quality control purposes.

The second part of the discussion focused on the use of humanitarian Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones and their role in speeding up the process of post-disaster damage assessment. Meier championed the use of UAVs arguing that satellite assessments of affected areas tend to focus on damage caused to building roofs since the aerial imagery is vertical. He argued that oblique imagery provided by drones can uncover greater detail. According to Meier’s colleague Fernandez Galaretta, important damage indicators expressed on building facades such as cracks or inclined walls are largely missed preventing an effective assessment of intermediate damage states. Meier also discussed the use of 3D modelling/point clouds constructed from 2D aerial imagery as an assessment method. He argued that point clouds provide analysts with a 3D view of an area alongside the opportunity to ‘fly through’ and scan a building from all angles. This eliminates the need for surveyors to be onsite to determine whether a building is damaged.

Meier provided the audience with multiple reasons explaining why the use of UAVs is integral post-disaster. Meier explained that unlike satellites, members of the public can actually own UAVs therefore, UAVs allow affected communities to self-organise. He pointed to examples from Haiti where the local people have developed advanced capabilities in using drones for humanitarian purposes since the 2010 earthquake.

Ownership of drones can also, help to increase local communities’ disaster preparedness. Moreover, he suggests that having local communities active in analysing captured data can help to reduce the possibility for misunderstanding since they will be the most familiar with their own environment and can verify its accuracy. He closed the discussion with a Q & A session in which he stressed the point that if humanitarian responders require information from the social sphere they should get in touch with the DHN to help align their work along with that which is most useful for humanitarian agencies. Another emergent issue for the audience was how the data is then used in response. Meier urged users of the data the DHN produces to provide feedback as to how and where it was used, in order to help them develop it and in turn increase its impact.

For more information on the event please contact

Patrick Meier’s book on ‘Digital Humanitarianism’ is available online now, and his presentation can be viewed online here.



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