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Ushahidi's CrisisNet Aims to Provide Usable Crisis Data "Within Seconds"

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, June 10 2014

Screenshot: Ushahidi.com

Open source technology-maker Ushahidi only launched their new crisis data tool this week, but there are already several neat examples of potential uses, like this map of social media-reported violence in Syria and an analysis of the Twitter protests of the 2014 World Cup. Co-founder Chris Albon describes CrisisNet as a “crisis data firehose” that automates time consuming processes like cleaning and formatting data streams to make it easier and much faster for crisis responders to make use of crowdsourced information.

Only two years ago, when Typhoon Pablo struck the Philippines, it took 12 hours to collect and process tweets for a quickfire damage assessment, and in the end only 100 tweets with multimedia content were geo-referenced and mapped. At the time, the United Nations told Patrick Meier, Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation Computing Research Institute and former Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, that it was a very “big deal.”

CrisisNet will reduce the time it takes to generate clean, structured crisis data “from hours (even days) to seconds.” And the free tool is available for anyone to use.

To test their tool, CrisisNet partnered with citizen journalist Eliot Higgins, who became an authority on the Syrian crisis by going over hundreds of YouTube videos with an eagle eye, breaking news about the conflict on his blog, including the evidence he found of chemical weapons. The process, however, is hugely time consuming.

Albon and his co-founder Jonathon Morgan took Higgins' carefully curated social media feeds and began pulling the information into the CrisisNet System, mapping the results. To test the accuracy of the map, they compared it to one produced by the BBC based on on-the-ground reports.

Morgan writes:

While the manually-generated map is more detailed, the fact that machine-aggregated social media reports collected over two days clearly correlate to the documented situation on the ground has incredible implications. Namely: if we can understand a conflict via social media, do foreign journalists need to be there at all?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Morgan elaborates:

Even though we’ve shown that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networks are a viable source for first-person accounts of regions in crisis, in covering the Syrian conflict we obviously relied heavily on Eliot Higgins' research to generate a meaningful stream of data for our analysis. Subsequently, while it’s likely that our algorithms and computer-assisted insights will continue to improve, it's unlikely that data science and machine learning will ever replace the need for journalists, human rights workers and domain experts in documenting conflict.

However, they do see CrisisNet as a tool to augment on-the-ground reporting, and to reduce the gap “between the knowledge we need to understand regions impacted by conflict and disaster, and what’s possible given the realities of modern newsroom budgets and rising safety concerns.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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