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Crisis Tracker: An Open Source Map that Curates Crowdsourced Information

BY Lisa Goldman | Thursday, November 1 2012

With the proliferation of smart phones and social media platforms, data generation is increasing exponentially at a rate that can be dizzying. During a keynote address at a recent International Crisis Mappers Conference in Washington, DC, Robert Kirkpatrick of UN Global Pulse made the startling statement that more data was generated in 2011 than in all of human history. How is one to make some order of all that information — especially when it moves at warp speed and is all-too-frequently repetitive?

An open source map created by a Swedish doctoral candidate at a Portugese university offers a partial solution. Crisis Tracker mines information from Twitter, which is then curated manually by volunteers. The interactive map is the research project of Jakob Rogstadius, a PhD candidate at the University of Madeira.

This short video provides a cogent explanation of how Crisis Trackers works.

Introduction to CrisisTracker from Jakob Rogstadius on Vimeo.

For a journalist or a researcher who has neither the time nor desire to monitor Twitter all day, Crisis Tracker is an invaluable tool. Even for someone who does monitor social media constantly, the speed of incoming information can become unmanageable. During crisis events like the Egyptian uprising, the Syrian civil war or, most recently Hurricane Sandy, Twitter can move faster than the Matrix. An important tweet can be missed, while incorrect or unimportant information can be repeatedly retweeted so that it buries new, incoming information that might be significant.

Crowd sourcing information has its drawbacks, of course, as this blogger points out: Given that the information is hand-curated, is there an ethical or legal responsibility to verify before publishing?

if I know that a real person has looked at a piece of information before adding metadata etc, I automatically assign that information a higher value. I assume that whoever looked at that piece of information also judged that information to be true. In a way, the volunteer has changed the authority of the piece of information by looking at it.

Rogstadius acknowledges the drawback in curating unverified crowdsourced information. Crisis Tracker is a work in progress that is not ready for launch. But there is really no ready solution to the issue of verification when it comes to mining and curating tweets that are coming in at warp speed. One can only offer some order by indicating which stories are receiving the most attention, and then let the user deal with the fact-checking.

In that sense, he explained, Crisis Tracker is probably most useful in the hands of someone with organizational and analytical skills who is using the interface as a tool for his organization — a humanitarian organization, perhaps. Ideally, this would be a person with management skills, who could direct volunteers toward gathering information from certain areas, or ask them to follow up on a particular rumor. Otherwise, he said, there is a risk of volunteers wasting time following up on red herrings.

It is easy to imagine Crisis Trackers being used in the near future not only by humanitarian organizations, but by transparency advocates intent on gathering and curating crowdsourced information about irregularities at polling booths, for example, or government activities in remote areas that contradict their official position on budget disbursement. This has the potential to become a valuable tool. It's certainly well worth your time to visit the Crisis Tracker site and experiment with the interface.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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