World authority on digital humanitarian issues

25 March 2015

A world authority on digital humanitarian issues says lifeline organisations get overwhelmed by the overflow of information generated during and after disasters.

World authority on digital humanitarian issues

A world authority on digital humanitarian issues says lifeline organisations get overwhelmed by the overflow of information generated during and after disasters.

Mobile phones, social media, satellite imagery and increasingly aerial imagery contribute to a flash flood of big data, says Dr Patrick Meier, who is an internationally recognized thought leader on humanitarian technology.

The University of Canterbury’s digital archive CEISMIC team has invited Dr Meier to speak at the university tomorrow (March 26).

Dr Meier has given talks at the White House, the United Nations, Google, Harvard, Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He says humanitarian organisations are the product of an information environment marked by scarcity. Until recently, it would take days or rather weeks following major disasters to determine who had been affected, how badly and where. The lack of information often leads to pure guesswork, which is not efficient.

“The overflow of information that gets generated during and after disasters today can be as paralysing to humanitarian efforts as the absence of information. Organisations are no better off in either scenario: information scarcity and information overflow are both serious impediments to informed relief operations.

“These humanitarian organisations are completely unprepared and frankly incapable of making sense of this big data, so they're turning to digital humanitarians: tech-savvy digital volunteers the world over.

“Digital humanitarians use crowdsourcing and trail-blazing insights from artificial intelligence to filter through the big data and thereby provide organisations with increased awareness in the immediate aftermath of major humanitarian crises.

“The next generation humanitarian technology platforms they are crafting allow them to rapidly analyse mainstream media, social media, pictures, videos, text messages, satellite imagery and aerial imagery. These free and open source platforms combine crowdsourcing with artificial intelligence.

“The trend is increasingly towards data integration; that is, layering multiple types of information on one map. For example, relevant reports and pictures posted on social media can be overlaid with aerial imagery and other sensors.

“Digital humanitarians also face the challenge of verifying information during disasters; identifying rumours and vetting unconfirmed reports. Again, the big data challenge means that manual approaches alone do not work. So digital humanitarians use crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify and debunk rumours.

“Digital humanitarians that live in countries under repressive rule face additional challenges. Crowd sourced disaster response is a form of collective action; the latter is typically perceived by repressive regimes as a threat. But digital humanitarians are able to mobilise much faster than inept and corrupt government bureaucracies. There is a thin line between crowd sourced disaster response and nonviolent civil resistance.

“Enlightened policymaking and leadership is needed to truly tap the potential of humanitarian technologies and those that deploy them,” Dr Meier says.

For further information please contact:
Kip Brook
Media Consultant
Student Services and Communications 
University of Canterbury
Ph: (03) 364 3325
Mobile: 027 5030 168
kip.brook@canterbury.ac.nz

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