How data gathering has helped in Nepal

A new generation of tech-savvy humanitarians are busy categorising data coming from affected areas

Residents look for their belongings among the rubble of their destroyed homes in Nepal after the recent earthquake. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

Residents look for their belongings among the rubble of their destroyed homes in Nepal after the recent earthquake. Photograph: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

 

After a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Nepal at 11.56am on Saturday, April 25th, an army of volunteers mobilised and worked around the clock as part of the relief effort. These volunteers were not ‘boots on the ground’ in Nepal, nor were they on the way to the landlocked Asian country where at least 8,583 people were killed. They were volunteers around the world who analysed satellite imagery and other data, generating maps to provide relief agencies with crowdsourced information.

Until a few years ago, crowdsourced disaster response was informal, uncoordinated and often haphazard. Now, it is being embraced by humanitarian organisations and integrated into relief operations in response to the overwhelming amount of information that is generated by affected communities following a crisis or disaster.

If the April 25th earthquake had happened 10 or even five years ago, the emergency response would have looked very different. At that time, one of the biggest hurdles humanitarian agencies faced was a lack of information. When disaster struck, they didn’t know for days and weeks how many people had been affected, how badly or where.

Today, thousands of people in Nepal have mobile phones due to significant growth of the country’s telecom networks and cellular internet services. According to 2014 data from the Nepal Telecom Authority, 86 per cent of the country’s 28 million population have a mobile phone, with almost 30 per cent able to access the internet.

Steep decline

AkamaiDynHenrik Westman

Piggybacking on this, just moments after the shaking stopped, huge volumes of messages and photographs of the destruction were shared on Twitter and Facebook through 3G services and smartphones.

These social media posts provide an instant view of conditions on the ground. For first responders and relief organisations, however, there can be such a thing as too much information, too few people and too little time to process the mountains of data. The challenge is how to comb through the information overload on social media and categorise it in such a way that it can be used to inform a humanitarian response. Enter digital humanitarians – or digital jedis – who aim to turn each social media post into rich data. This new generation of humanitarians are thousands of tech-savvy volunteers from around the world who physically and virtually converge on the crisis and sift through mountains of data to help humanitarian agencies direct their aid.

Patrick Meier, director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Computing Research Institute, is one of a new generation of – as he calls them – humanitarian jedis, working to make sense of the massive amount of real-time data. One of the technologies he has spearheaded is crowdsourced platform Micromappers.

The platform’s apps help volunteers identify and map useful social media data by breaking down larger analytical tasks into small, easily completed microtasks. The apps – called Clickers – are designed to help volunteers tag tweets with situation-specific terms; tag pictures to categorise the amount or type of damage visible (eg: mild, severe, not relevant); and geo-tag tweets and images that are not already automatically geo-tagged. These tasks can be performed by anyone, anytime and anywhere so once the information is uploaded, bandwidth is no longer an issue.

Microtasking is not a new idea – citizen science initiatives are perhaps the most successful “microtasking-for-good” efforts. Galaxy Zoo, for example, has enabled hundreds of thousands of amateur astronomers to map obscure corners of the universe since 2007. Hundreds of thousands of images from Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope are examined by citizen scientists who are asked to catalogue galaxies or tag images of the moon or the sea floor. Zooniverse, a Galaxy Zoo project, involved 83,000 volunteers cataloguing 300,000 galaxies in under two years.

When typhoon Pablo hit the Philippines in December 2012, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) requested support from Micromappers and a broader standby taskforce of digital humanitarians to analyse Twitter activity and map-relevant information.

Requested support

Google

This data feed was shared with Kathmandu Living Labs, a nonprofit technology company, operating from an undamaged building in the city. They used whatever internet to map reports from affected areas and connect them with relief workers such as the Nepal Red Cross and the Nepalese army, said executive director Nama Budhathoki.

A joint initiative between Kathmandu Living Labs and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team provided offline maps for relief workers to locate places.

Alongside all of this, experimental web platform Verily was used to crowdsource information verification, such as images and aid delivery, using “digital detectives”. Developed by researchers from the Masdar Institute of Technology and the Qatar Computing Research Institute, Verily enlists people to collect and analyse evidence to confirm or debunk reports. As an incentive, it awards reputation points – or dings – to its contributors. A photograph with captions asks “Is this Sindhupalchowk?” Another asks “Has help arrived in Sindhupalchowk district Banskharkha Ward no 7?”

Crowdmapping as part of disaster response has become a crowded space since another devastating natural disaster – the 2010 quake in Haiti. Mapping efforts have grown substantially since then, according to Dale Kunce, head of the geographic information systems team at the American Red Cross. In the two months after the Haiti quake, 600 mapping contributors made 1.5 million edits. In the first 48 hours after the Nepal earthquake, 2,000 mappers had already made three million edits, Mr Kunce said.

Another crowded space post-disaster is the sky above the destruction. Many of the photographs that volunteers analysed to create crisis maps were collected by flying camera-bearing robots, aka drones. Manned helicopters were used for rescue missions and Indian and Nepalese authorities used drones to search areas inaccessible by land. The footage was the first to show the shattered landmarks, cracked roadways, buckled buildings and refugees who were filling up parks. Some of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carried thermal cameras to help find survivors by detecting body heat.

Drones were also used by journalists to report on the quake. News reports, including ones in this paper, used drone videos to tell the story of devastation. However, it was reported the Nepali government became irritated with reporters collecting disaster footage using drones. Concerns raised about the leaking of sensitive information about valuable heritage sites prompted the government to ban UAV flights with the exception of flights carried out for humanitarian purposes.

In disaster response, coordination has never been easy and Meier says it remains a challenge. “And leveraging a new, disruptive technology for disaster response is also a major challenge,” he writes in his blog, irevolution.

It will remain a challenge it seems when, in a connected world, help now comes from all corners, even when the disaster is thousands of miles away. Earthquake in Nepal: Other techie responses Aid agencies now view re-establishing communication networks as critical to the humanitarian response – enabling locals and aid workers to make phone calls, send texts or access the internet.

In Nepal, a number of kits were deployed to help re-establish communication networks.

The World Food Programme (WFP), in collaboration with the Luxembourg government, phone company Ericsson and Nethope, a grouping of NGOs, has developed mobile data antennas small enough to be taken on a commercial flight. “They look like beach balls,” said the WFP’s Mariko Hall, describing them as “inflatable, light and quick to deploy”. They work like a wifi network, providing an internet connection to teams in remote areas where existing signals are down.

The Vodafone Foundation deployed the Instant Network Mini in a backpack in the Kathmandu Valley.

The network, which can be set up in 10 minutes and is battery-powered, can connect five users at a time to global telecoms networks and allows thousands of messages to be sent.

As the rucksacks weigh only 11kg, the kit can be taken by foot into remote locations that cannot necessarily be easily accessed by vehicle.

Galway-based Disaster Tech Lab, a nonprofit organisation specialising in IP-based services and wifi access in crisis areas, launched a mission to Nepal. They previously worked in many disaster zones, including the Philippines where the volunteer team installed wifi access points at a base camp, which became the regional communications and networking hub. As more volunteers arrived, they provided supplies and equipment to the local ambulance service and established medical clinics.

Tech giants Google and Facebook got involved too. For those concerned about friends or loved ones in the disaster zone, Google revived Person Finder, the search tool it developed after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. People enter any identifying information – name, sex, age, address, photo, or social network profile – and receive notifications when others post updates.

Facebook has launched its own Safety Check, which relays messages to people in Nepal, urging them to click a button to let their Facebook friends know they’re safe.

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