Filtering out “Butt Dials” and saving lives with technology

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I find the combination of Qatar and humanitarian action an unlikely partnership. It’s just not something that comes to mind when I think of how the world has come together to better respond to and address large scale disasters like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, or even the current situation of Typhoon Haiyan that just passed through the Philippines and on its way towards Viet Nam and upwards to Hong Kong and China. Yet, the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), a national research institute established in 2010, has partnered with some of the most innovative thinkers and doers to come up with ways to understand how better to respond and understand disasters, and ultimately save lives.

One of these thinkers is Patrick Meier and doers is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a talk earlier this week where Meier came by to chat about the role of data (i.e. big, global, social, etc.) and technology in humanitarian action, a young field filled with promise. Meier is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for crisis early warning, humanitarian response and resilience, serves as Director of Social Innovation at the QCRI, and is an avid blogger. A shout out also goes to Andrej Verity of UNOCHA who organized the talk and is passionate about the role that (digital) volunteers and technology can play in humanitarian response.

During the one-hour talk, Meier went through a range of topics from human vs. machine computing, microtasking, the power of digital volunteers, dealing with the overload and verification of information, data philanthropy, credibility of communication, and how to find a balance or the competitive advantage between new and traditional sources of information. All the focus was on the humanitarian space and how to better respond to and provide relief in times of disasters or emergencies. Yet, the concepts behind the talk – how data can be used to make better decisions, improve planning, and create a more resilient and prepared society – can be (and is already being) applied to areas beyond the humanitarian space, for instance in social and environmental development. They key is how to take advantage of technology, the benefits of having human judgement, and how to make sense of all this “stuff”.

Overflow of information is as paralyzing as with no information.

The focus shouldn’t just be on tech because we still need “detectives” to verify information, even if algorithms and computers get better at fact checking. At the same time we also need to understand that traditional ‘crowdsourcing’ methods and ‘trusted sources’ of information also aren’t as reliable as we think they are. Here are a few notables Meier brought up during his talk:

  • BBC has been verifying user-generated content for years
  • Storyful uses skills from journalism to verify info/data by helping journalists, broadcasters and publishers filter breaking news, trending stories and local sources from the noise of social media.
  • NY Times has 7000 factual errors a year – while I couldn’t find evidence to back this up, this article highlights that “A landmark study in 2005 found that more than 60 percent of the articles in a group of 14 newspapers contained some kind of error.”
  • 911 is a crowdsourcing system collecting info from the “crowd”, yet millions of false calls are made to 911 every year, or as Time Magazine says, “Almost 40% of New Yorks 911 Calls Are Butt Dials

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Another reason why people are an important factor in all this talk about technology and the use of information for decision-making is the fact its use will be defined by society and governments. There needs to be a political will and space needed to move (humanitarian) technology and information/data forward and to be taken seriously. Released a couple of months ago, the UNOCHA report “Humanitarianism in the Network Age (HINA)” sums it up nicely on page 41:

Technology can only be as effective as the system it supports. What is clear is the need for Governments and the international humanitarian system to open themselves to new approaches.

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