Cutting through crowdsourcing

Paul Currion has a very interesting post that cuts through a whole lot of codswallop on the potential of crowsourcing in disasters. His pointed post refers to two by Patrick Meier, entitled Internews, Ushahidi and communication in crisis and Ushahidi: From Croudsourcing to Crowdfeeding

I consider both to be significant thought-leaders in the domains of humanitarian aid and in particular, the use of technology for relief and effective response. Paul notes, inter alia, that,

Because crowdsourcing is unfamiliar, it’s untested in the field and it makes fairly large claims that are not well backed by substantial evidence. Having said that, I’m willing to be corrected on this criticism, but I think it’s fair to say that the humanitarian community is legitimately cautious in introducing new concepts when lives are at stake.

As I noted in response to Paul’s post and referring in particular to the vital challenge he presents of having to prove the direct benefits and impact of ICTs in humanitarian aid,

Just to note that not everything generated from the field, and subsequently verified to the extent possible, is for decision support in the present context. Much of what I and others are able to gather today from the field in Sri Lanka (and information from the ground is precious and dangerous to produce) is bearing witness, silently, at what is going on.

Used for parochial optics and propaganda, the value of crowdsourcing soon diminishes. This is not to say that information cannot be used howsoever their handlers choose to. I am merely trying to respond to your question as to whether a Twitter feed can shape events. Perhaps not the one you point to (but then again, who knows?) but the technology certainly can. Used to bear witness, cognisant that there is no one truth and that a multiplicity of viewpoints is better than fewer, technologies such as Ushahidi, Twitter and many others help a great deal in my line of work – which is self-effacing and outside the domain of headlines and handshake moments.

Making victims witnesses is possible through new technologies. We are just discovering how.

Please join the discussion here.

Updates – 1st April 2009 | 6.21pm +5.30GMT
Paul responded to my comment by saying,

The general principle of collecting detailed information about human rights violations and making them available in some useful form is not controversial. What bothers me is whether a) “crowdsourcing” as a methodology yields more information benefits than costs and b) how useful this information actually is in the form(s) that it will be collected. Our starting position is that technology can make a huge difference to the effectiveness of our work; I just want to see somebody explain to me exactly how this technology will make the specific difference that is claimed for it. So far I haven’t seen that explanation.

I reciprocated by saying,

This is a shared bother. From Ushahidi’s own Swift River concept to the ICT4Peace Foundation Crisis Information Management Demonstrator that seeks to augment the platform with more robust information qualification and analysis tools (and for a closed, trusted network – not public writ large) there’s work afoot to make sense of the noise of crowdsourcing.

I like the term though, but that’s because I live (and have grown up in) a country hugely partial to violent censorship. More eyeballs on events and processes is for me refreshing, even if they are by definition partial accounts. The danger in crowdsourcing though is that they may not be seen as such, and this is where a single SMS can exacerbate violence hundreds of miles away – rapid onset disasters facilitated by new media!

As for your second points – it depends? A “camjo” with a mobile phone who captures footage of police abuse can post this video to Witness to create a storm of advocacy against police brutality. Quieter initiatives such as oral histories through audio and video, or even celebrating champions within Govt who stand up against corruption, or document, through the eyes of children armed with mobiles, life in conflict or with HIV / AIDS – these can be moving, powerful narratives that lead, over time, to social change. Eyeballs on Darfur through Google Earth catalyses and sustains limited and transient global interest in claims of genocide. An initiative like Wikileaks can support whistleblowers and strengthen transparency and accountability in polity and civil society, including in NGOs.

My gut instinct, forged through the bloody difficult work I do is that tech helps, but I would be the last to suggest that it is a panacea. The metrics of measuring impact, or put another way, building up the evidence base of ICTs actually “making the specific difference that is claimed for it” would be an interesting study for luminaries in the field like you, Tom and Paul to take on?

I’ve also responded to some key points brought up by Tom Longley.

This will be my last update, but I’m glad Paul’s original post has stimulated such a lot of great comments.

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