You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

The Problem With Crowdsourced Disaster Response

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 30 2011

On Code for America's blog, their communications director, Abhi Nemani, picks apart the use of crowdsourcing in New York City around Hurricane Irene and comes out wondering if crowd submission platforms, while they invariably attract a lot of buzz, wind up doing more harm than good.

There was a map from the New York Times and WNYC soliciting indicators of preparedness or lack thereof; there was the city's own specially created CrowdMap, built on an adaptation of the Ushahidi incident reporting platform; and, leading up to the storm's arrival, back when it was still a hurricane, a group of New York local geeks built their own CrowdMap instance but later deferred to the one created by the City Office of Emergency Management. CrowdMap is a tool that allows people to submit incident reports online, allow others to verify and respond to those reports, and map all of this out geographically and over time.

These were not official channels to submit problems to the city, though — the city offered its map, for instance, only to make it easier to understand what was going on. It was either that or have to piece together an idea of what people were reporting in places other than 311 by looking at several maps instead of just one, and be seen as not willing to play nice; if the city didn't propose a central place to crowdsource incident reports out in the open, digital activists would surely start up one or more instead.

Here's the takeaway for Nemani, who spends his days figuring out how to promote the work of civic hackers building tools to connect governments to citizens and citizens to one another:

This disconnect between information and action acts as a hollow barrier for meaningful civic participation. Not only is there a skewed perception then of the actual damage, there’s also a bad image of hundreds of seemingly unresolved problems. Just putting dots on a map is sometimes a bad thing. Especially in the context of service requests and citizen/government interaction, where it’s said that so much trust is built through two-way dialogue and conversation.

A counterpoint to that is that the city never promised the CrowdMap would be a conversation; rather, the administration was nudged towards standing it up so intelligence about what was happening would be open and shared. There's no telling whether or not the city was going to knock down the real-world problems behind each of the dots that citizens put up.

New Yorkers could be forgiven for being uneasy about the city's response to the hurricane. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration, by its own admission, categorically flubbed response to a snowstorm in January that left much of New York with unplowed streets and hazardous conditions for days; that was the disaster response from city officials foremost in Gotham's mind. Because the administration was clearly not going to make the same mistake twice and because the hurricane was not nearly as bad as it could have been, that didn't happen this time. But it could have. And if 311 was the only place people were sending their reports, people might not know right away if their block was the only one with tree limbs the city had yet to remove or power Con Edison had yet to restore.

In this case, no one appears to be holding the city to task for the dots on its CrowdMap, which represent 166 issues reported online in the metro area. Streets are, by and large, clear, and damage picked up. But if they weren't, advocates and other elected officials would know where to look to find things to ask the city to fix.

It should be said that the Bloomberg administration has made gestures towards wanting to get better at dealing with service requests that are made out in the open, and at working in the digital world, although it's clear to all that it isn't there yet. For instance — while it wasn't working for me today, natch — the city has launched a map offering a window into most service requests submitted via 311. But Nemani is right that there are no apparent results or concrete outcomes from the CrowdMap effort — so maybe digital activists on the other side of the equation don't have it all figured out yet, either.

This post has been updated to fix a formatting issue.