Ushahidi

Great idea for handling public information in a crisis, called Ushahidi, though I wonder how practical it is. There are several systems that work the other way: what about combining the two?

Ushahidi allows people (anyone) to text or SMS or enter data via a website, to report incidents, and the idea is “to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response. ” The data is then aggregated and presented: they have maps showing the use of the system during the recent troubles in the Congo and elsewhere. Its an intelligent idea, and they are looking at ways of making it more intelligent: eg using Bayesian techniques to help classify, cluster and authenticate data reports, which of course can come from anyone anywhere with no identification.

Of course one problem with any collective intelligence system is that it only starts to be useful once a critical mass of people use it., and its difficult to see how that mass could be achieved. (Particularly in Africa where I imagine there arent as many mobile phones and browsers as, say , Manhattan). Plus it would take a lot of brand-building before you remembered to send them an SMS in a crisis, and remembered their url and so on. Their Congo map does look quite thin as a result. It appears to have about 50 incidents on it: surely there were many more. (Of course this was the first time they used it, so even 50 is excellent in one sense.)

Theres a political issue as well. Who would control it? I could see some of the data being quite useful intelligence for an army: movements of rebels (eg this report), sitreps (such as this), etc. Presumably all these things go through in pretty much real time. The initial government response would be to censor it – theyd turn off local mobile phone nodes or ISPs if they hadnt done so already. Also it provides scope for deliberate misinformation (rebels reporting themselves somewhere else) or propaganda (governments reporting victories), or simply news manipulation to prove that the situation is under control, eg as Mugabe wants us to believe there is no famine in Zimbabwe, or by rebels to prove that the government is wicked.

There are already plenty of systems that work the other way, ie send data out to people: eg the Environment Agency has , or used to have, an automatic flood warning service that contacted households by telephone and left messages warning them of serious floods. And lots of companies use proprietary systems that pass call-out messages to their staff. These are usually internet based but also use phones and pagers. You set a distribution list and the system does the rest whenever you give it an alert message.

Perhaps we could have a combination – a duplex system, in which the public reports and the public is notified by the same system. So that, eg, if lots of people in one area report incidents, others in that area are warned? One example I suppose is radio traffic reports, which are often contributed by drivers and then relayed out to other drivers. But it could be more sophisticated than that. The technical ability is already there. The problem is to find a good idea, to market it, and to organise the information usefully. Crisis response is not a bad start.

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