Sahana in Haiti: More rigour, less marketing needed

The Sahana Free and Open Source Disaster Management System in Haiti by Chamindra de Silva and Mark Prustalis appears in ICTD Case Study 2: ICT for Disaster Risk Reduction published UN-APCICT/ESCAP. Though more than half of the essay is a generic description of Sahana, Section 6 onwards deals with the deployment of Sahana in Haiti earlier this year and is worth reading.

One of the most enduring memories I have of the virtual relief efforts in the two weeks after the earthquake in Haiti was reading emails on various groups and websites by Mark Prutsalis asking, nay begging at times, for vital information on hospital locations to be made public. Mark’s crowd-sourcing geo-location of this vital infrastructure is in my mind one of the best examples of how a global community can be galvanised to help an urgent humanitarian need. Precisely because of this, I wish the essay dealt more with lessons learnt and identified in Haiti and less with marketing Sahana as a platform. For example, Mark’s message on 23rd January 2010 on this Yahoo! group dealing with the exercise of geo-locating hospitals is well worth reading in full. As Mark notes,

In the past 24 hours, my call for volunteers for this effort was answered in an overwhelming fashion. We started with 100 names of hospitals in Haiti that we knew existed, but did not have coordinates for – latitude and longitude – such that we could plot them on maps. For some, we had street addresses; others, maybe only the municipality in which it was located. With little instruction other than to think creatively, we have now completed this task. At this hour, 3 remain… and I’m confident that someone will be able to track those down as well.

Though the essay deals with Sahana’s success in mainstreaming the Emergency Data Exchange Language – Hospital Availability Exchange (EDXL- HAVE) standard to meet the type of medical reporting that was necessary in Haiti (the operational status of a hospital or health facility, its bed availability and resource inventory etc), it does not go into details on how this information was found, cleaned and geo-referenced, which as Mark himself points out in January, was a significant global volunteer effort. In addition to Sahana’s own platform and a number of other web and mobile based platforms, I posted the resulting data to the ICT4Peace Foundation wiki on Haiti. This was genuinely useful information, and a cogent example of going outside the UN to crowd-source actionable information.

However, Sahana’s commendable efforts notwithstanding, it took just shy of two weeks to get this information online. This is unacceptable. Access to data repositories and data redundancy were significant challenges on the ground, but there was sadly a sense that even vital data was available – especially within the UN and Minustah – it was not always easily or immediately shared.

In a similar vein, Erik Hersman from Ushahidi on 16th January said the lack of a database of organizations on the ground was a huge impediment to relief efforts, calling for Minustah to release this information. Nicolas Chavent from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team on the CrisisMappers Google Group on 22nd January requested a comprehensive Minustah data model and data dictionaries to aid mapping efforts. The ICRC simply did not play nice with any other relief agency within the UN and especially with those outside. Tim Schwartz noted on 21st January, also on the CrisisMappers Google Group, the degree of manual labour involved in getting information out of the ICRC missing persons database and into the PFIF format used by Google and others. He averred,

I implore any of you that have any connection at the Red Cross to try and try again to get us in contact with them. It is disappointing that we have the two largest systems out there not able to talk to one another, but that is just what the ICRC’s site is: lacking communication in both the programming sense and the human relations sense.

Emphasis mine. Erik Hersman had echoed this frustration with ICRC, and also pointed to CNN’s obduracy in this regard a couple of days earlier on Ushahidi’s Haiti Situation Room.

These and a number of other processual and technical problems are flagged in several documents that interrogate the use of ICTs in Haiti. Haiti and Beyond: Getting it Right in Crisis Information Management that I co-authored for the ICT4Peace Foundation was one of the first to eschew the hype over virtual relief efforts and flag serious, enduring concerns over the quality, sustainability, effectiveness and efficient of ICTs. Haiti earthquake: Breaking New Ground in the Information Landscape by the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) of the US State Department is another excellent critical look at the relief efforts using ICTs, and what more needs to be done.

There is immense potential in the emergent coalition of Sahana, InSTEDD and Ushahidi outside of the traditional UN Cluster approach and platforms like UN OCHA’s OneResponse. Every single one of these actors contributed significantly to the underlying technical architecture that allowed standards based information generation, exchange and archival in Haiti. InSTEDD for example has an excellent write up on this here, and Ushahidi’s writing on this score are innumerable, and just a Google search away. With due respect to their work however, as Chamindra’s and Mark’s essay in this compelling tome demonstrates, the marketing of a single platform – necessary perhaps for fund / profile raising – in contradistinction to others negates and risks undermining the value of the collective, which is greater than its constituent members. It also risks glossing over vital and enduring concerns about the use of ICTs in relief work related to, inter alia, challenges faced actual use cases, the hugely instructive nature of project failures that are often hidden or cast away, lessons identified and learnt, issues of local ownership, stakeholder interaction, language, accessibility, gendered concerns, community participation and sustainability.

For example, though the essay goes into some detail about the potential of Sahana’s Shelter Registry (SR) module, it also notes that it is not used at all in Haiti. The authors don’t ascertain why it is not used for what is clearly a vital need on the ground in Haiti with tens of thousands of IDPs, and what, if any alternative ICT platforms are used for this purpose. Is non-use to be interpreted as a rejection of the SR’s functionality, and by extension, Sahana’s usefulness in long-term recovery coordination and collaboration efforts? Is it that actors on the ground don’t know about its potential capabilities? Are there other, better more effective systems out there that Sahana can incorporate features from? These are questions not asked, but should have been.

Sahana’s work is a source of pride as a Sri Lankan, and their technical innovations are no less significant than say those by Ushahidi. Sahana has also matured as a platform, from what it was post-Nargis in 2008 to its implementation and work in Haiti this year. And yet, devoting more than half an essay in a vital publication to the mere marketing of the platform, sans any anchor to real world use cases, suggests Sahana – even after 5 years of existence – is, needlessly may I add, insecure over how it is perceived and used.

I really hope they follow up with a more rigorous essay expanding on Sections 7 and 8 in particular.

Google Latitude for human rights activists

I’ve written about Google Latitude earlier on this blog. What dedicated GPS devices like a Garmin did in the past, most mobile phones can now do out of the box. Location mapping is a new dimension in web services, and while platforms like Ushahidi are in the limelight for using location data via mobile phone to, for example, channel humanitarian aid in Haiti, any organisation or individual can leverage completely free products and services from Google to incorporate location mapping in their work.

Since early 2009 and beginning with Colombo and Kandy, Google Maps has progressively improved the level of detail on maps in Sri Lanka. Many major cities now feature street level data, and main roads across all of Sri Lanka are now plotted. Google Latitude is a free service that allows you to plot on Google Maps your current location, using the web or automatically via a client that can be installed on a range of mobile phones models, including:

  • Google Android-powered devices
  • iPhone
  • most color BlackBerry phones
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ phones
  • most Symbian S60 devices (e.g. Nokia smartphones)

Google Location History, which is pegged to Google Latitude, allows one to plot on the web all travel over a certain period of time.

I have a Blackberry Bold 9700 (which has A-GPS) running Google Latitude, set up to update my location automatically, and this is a video of my travels over the 8th of May 2010, at the end of which I took a flight out of Sri Lanka.

Google allows one to plot the last 500 odd location updates, which can even span multiple countries. This is not information available publicly or on any timeline shared without my explicit permission. I uploaded this video only to demonstrate the power of Google Latitude’s location awareness. As Google notes,

  • Your history will not be visible publicly or to your Google Latitude friends.
  • You may delete your entire location history or portions of it whenever you like.

Admittedly, it is a tad disconcerting to see one’s movements tracked with such unerring accuracy. Yes, I’ve chosen to share my current location information, but seeing my daily routine plotted on the web – including my movements from home to and around Colombo and my route to the airport – is a stark reminder of how seamless and sophisticated Google’s technology really is, undergirded by developments in telecoms infrastructure and the sophistication of mobile devices. Some might even argue, and not without merit, that these technologies are invasive, needlessly opening up one’s personal life to Google’s scrutiny.

But consider this.

If one already has a compatible mobile handset, this are technologies that without any further expense can help colleagues, friends and family keep tabs on one’s movements, especially valuable for human rights activists at high risk of personal harm or abduction. All everyone needs is a Gmail account. Coupled with simple measures like calling ahead with an estimated time of arrival when attending meetings and travelling, this is an easy, effective and once set up, completely automatic way of plotting one’s travels on a map which can be accessed by trusted parties in case of an emergency.

It is potentially a life-saver.

And as I have noted before, the potential uses for this in real time election violence monitoring, IDPs and refugee movement tracking, Human Rights and Ceasefire monitoring, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and disaster management are impressive and beg to be explored.

Meeting Ushahidi’s Juliana Rotich

After nearly 2 years of email contact, I had the pleasure of meeting in person and for the first time, Ushahidi’s co-founder and TED Fellow Juliana Rotich in Geneva last week. Disarmingly charming and with a deliciously wicked sense of humour, we talked about the more interesting requests Ushahidi has received to use its platform and, with suitably husky undertones, how Ushahidi’s installation instructions could be for purposes very far removed from what it was originally intended to support!

The ribald laughter aside and more seriously, Juliana was a key voice in a Getting it Right in Crisis Management: Going beyond the hype on ICTs, a panel held during ITU’s WSIS 2010 week as well as in a closed door roundtable discussion on the Haiti response and crisis information management, both of which were organised by the ICT4Peace Foundation.

At the closed door roundtable discussion, I made the point that what UN agencies had to recognise, whether they liked it or not, that actors like Ushahidi, using models of crowdsourcing and volunteerism, were faster in deploying crisis information management platforms and tools after the earthquake in Haiti than any UN agency.

I find that much more than the voices usually associated with marketing Ushahidi’s work, those like Juliana and David Kobia, who I met earlier this year in New York, are the real stars of the platform. Revealingly, they have a more cautious, considered and ultimately compelling approach to their work and Ushahidi’s evolution, which I have no doubt will significantly inform and frame debates on crisis information management in the future.

Juliana Rotich at the ICT4Peace Foundation's closed door meeting on Haiti and CiM
Photo by Juliana Rotich

Haiti and the perennial challenge of information lock-in

Erik Hersman from Ushahidi makes the following pertinent observation, amongst others, in a recent blog post on the Ushahidi Situation Room for Haiti.

“Decision-makers on the ground still do not have access to accurate, real-time data. That may be because of firewalls, lack of bandwidth, people are unaware these resources exist, the command structure of an org does not allow people to use open sources, or the decision makers do not want that data.”

My response to Erik was based on the immensely frustrating phenomenon of locking in vital, life-saving information into formats not easily integrated with other system, accessed, downloadable or mashable. I said,

“One example is the hugely valuable master contact list in Haiti published yesterday by OCHA and available on the OneResponse website as a ZIP download containing an Excel 2007 format spreadsheet with multiple tabs. Far more simpler would have been to just upload this information to the web for people to access and search? In fact, what I did was to save each tab in that huge spreadsheet as a separate file, upload it to Google Docs, publish them as webpages and link to them on the ICT4Peace Foundation wiki… Simple, effective, efficient.”

OCHA’s master contact list that I refer to comes as a ZIP file, which contains a single, very large, Excel 2007 format spreadsheet. I make that point because I know a good many people in Sri Lanka who have older versions of Office / Excel, have not installed updates and thus cannot by default open this file. So while the file was great for offline use for those who could open it and among other uses, for emailing around and uploading to various communities of practice, it struck me as rather odd that this information wasn’t more easily accessible online. So with a minimum of fuss, I created the following:

  1. Primary Contacts in Haiti
  2. Cluster Leads
  3. IM Focal Points
  4. OSOCC – MINUSTAH Base / OCHA – UNDAC team list

Erik’s response to my comment is even more pertinent. It’s a small example of many others I have observed during the first two weeks of the crisis information management response to the Haiti earthquake that I’ll write about in more detail in the coming months.

Ushahidi’s Goma release incorporates features from ICT4Peace Foundation’s crisis information management prototype

Ushahidi’s launched a major new update to their platform called Goma. I’m looking forward to downloading their new thin client mobile apps. Their J2ME app does not yet support the Blackberry Bold, so I’m going to download the Windows Mobile version of it on a Samsung i780 later today.

I was very pleased to see key features in Ushahidi’s Goma release that had evolved directly from ICT4Peace Foundation’s Crisis Information Management prototype, including in particular a new feature to track veracity and trust of users by the admin and email and SMS proximity-based alerting functionality.

David Kobia speaks about the new release:

What I am interested in, and the ICT4Peace Foundation as well, is the development of concepts like Ushahidi’s own Swift River, plus the Foundation’s own information visualisation and crowd-sourcing qualification routines that help decision makers improve the signal to noise ratio during a crisis. Whereas Ushahidi’s emphasis is on the public display of information, the Foundation’s emphasis is on a platform with similar characteristics that facilitates greater information sharing within networks of UN agencies and their partners. We want to see the back-end of the system providing a database based matrix for the qualification of information entered that can then be manipulated to give decision makers the knowledge they need to respond appropriately from the myriad of information feeds flowing out of a crisis, and into their screens and systems.

I’m looking forward to the evolution of Ushahidi in this regard as a tool that helps in the analysis and response to a crisis.

The pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring

Sharek’s Katrin Verclas has a great article looking at the pros and cons of crowdsourcing election monitoring, based on the experience of Lebanon recently. 

I agree that crowdsourcing anything leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy and information fit to feed into critical decision support processes. This is why the ICT4Peace Foundation is working on a crisis information management demonstrator, built on top of Ushahidi, that has information qualification routines built in. The tool will not be for the masses, but for agencies with trusted networks of field personnel who will feed in information, with the system itself open to social media input that can be vetted by agency trusted personnel. This opens up the system to be wholly crowdsourced, à la the Lebanese model, or completely closed to those outside the trust network(s) of an agency / agencies working on a particular issue, in a certain region or towards a shared goal. The design also allows the system to be anything in between these two extremes, so that the key responders to a crisis can determine the best degree of openness.  The important point that even if different international and local agencies had different approaches to what degree the system should be made public (i.e. extend to untrusted, initially unverified crowdsourced information) the common underlying information management architecture and standards would make for far greater and easier interoperability and information harmonisation. 

I’m interested in how Ushahidi’s evolving Swift River concept tackles this problem, that Paul Currion has succintly and accurately expressed here.  

Until such time there’s a better solution, I’ll still be training election monitors at the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) how to enter data into Google Maps that are verified for accuracy in a timely manner. Right now, there’s no escaping the labour required for the task – each location and incident is entered into the map directly, no automated source from the web is used to populate maps. Helps us give as close to a real time image of the ground situation in the lead up to and on the day of election, more useful we are told by extensive feedback from local media, than a mashup that just puts unverified reports on a map along with other data streams.

Mapping violence during elections and voter education

This is not the first time I’ve helped plot violence related to elections in Sri Lanka. In my first post I noted that the map helped journalists better understand the degree of violence on the ground. Things are no better in the lead-up to the Western Provincial Council elections.

Just like previous maps, this map is so packed with incidents of violence that you need to zoom into some places (e.g. Horana) to see the degree of violence on the ground. Shooting, arson, intimidation, assault, looting are common.

Must democracy countenance the worst of us in public office? How can we improve, through civic education using mobiles and the web, voters more informed about key issues, candidates, their positions and political parties that are contesting?

Kantipur in Nepal ran a comprehensive website in Nepali featuring information on candidates during their key Constituent Assembly Elections in 2004, interviews with them and their stances regarding vital policy issues. I don’t see a comparable effort here. Some leading bloggers have made an effort to interview som candidates and candidates themselves have leveraged web media (including Facebook), but overall there is little real awareness about the (oftentimes criminal and sordid) history of candidates.

I feel that election violence can only be addressed if voter education results in the electoral defeat of those who indulge in such activities. For example, Vote Report India powered by Ushahidi is a great example of just how vexing elections in the world’s largest democracy can be.


But unless awareness campaigns before an election, and advocacy campaigns after which bring to light, including name and shame, perpetrators of elections violence, these exercises alone, including my own, have little chance of really strengthening democracy. The problem with raising awareness before an election is that NGOs can never match the reach of an incumbent government’s propaganda, or even that of a political party, both of which have vested interests in keeping the public ignorant about the history of candidates and their violence.

The problem with post-election advocacy is that placing the violence of winners in public scrutiny will almost always be (a) seen as a conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy of their victory (b) cast as a rival party political bid to discredit the electoral victory and the ‘will of the people’ (c) be seen as some sort of NGO / civil society campaign to discredit the winners.

Technology alone then is no guarantee of cleaner elections. But technology can be part of the solution.

Any ideas?