Crisis and emergency mapping could be the way forward in emergency media and community information. In my experience it is a great way to give an overview of specific information relating to an emergency by placing data on a map. For example, if the emergency was a bushfire, information that could be displayed could include where the bushfire was sighted (flames), where smoke can be seen from, where spot fires are occurring, wind direction at specific locations, where firefighters are and where residents are leaving properties. This is by no means an extensive list; there could be many more details that could be included. By placing all this information on a map, the users has the ability to get a general overview of the situation, or focus on any specific area they’re interested in to gain more information.
Why is this the way forward? This information comes from the community on the ground. Perhaps the leading example of crisis data mapping currently is using the Ushahidi platform.
Ushahidi isn’t exactly new, it’s been around since the beginning of 2008, and was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout. A short, basic, rundown of it is as follows.
The platform can be downloaded onto your computer, and deployed from there. Reports are integrated into your platform from sources such as SMS, Twitter, email, submitting to a website or using a smartphone app. In a large scale emergency, teams of volunteers can be used to validate information that is posted on the map (they can call/email/SMS back to those who submit asking for more information if required). Posts appear on the map as either ‘verified’ or ‘unverified’.
But knowledge of what Ushahidi is, what it can do and how it can help in an emergency is growing, both here in Australia and overseas.
It has been utilised for many emergencies around the world, including, but not limited to, the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill, snow storms in Washington, New York and Boston in 2010, the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and the Pakistan floods in 2010. Most recently, the violence in Egypt has been mapped, although it currently doesn’t appear to be live, which could be for a number of reasons.
Here in Australia, there have been a couple Ushahidi deployments in recent times. The ABC set up a flood crisis map for the Queensland floods. The map has now closed, but you are able to view all the information posted up to 31 January 2011. Over a thousand pieces of information from the public have been posted, ranging from reports of road closures, property damage, where evacuations are/have taken place, where the electricity is/was off and where volunteers are needed. This is all community information, from people on the ground, in the know, going out to the world, effectively saying ‘this is what’s going on’.
What are the implications of this on emergency services agencies in Australia? To them, I suspect Ushahidi is a whole new (and scary) way of information coming in. Here is a fantastic opportunity to grasp community to community and community to agency information and use it to inform the emergency response.
Ushahidi say ABC’s deployment of the platform was “one of the biggest Ushahidi deployments to date, both in terms of popularity” and how many different Ushahidi apps the ABC utilised. This shows the community in Australia has a thirst for on the ground information they can use. This has the potential to grow exponentially if a number of factors align, including but not limited to: emergency services recognising this as an avenue for information and providing appropriate resources, the community finding this information useful, volunteers and those with the appropriate knowledge to maintain the platform 24/7 during a deployment and Internet and phone coverage stability during an emergency. I’m sure there are more issues that would need resolving.
It’s important to remember crisis mapping is by no means a replacement, or the same as calling 000 to report an emergency. Nothing can replace this at the present moment.
I mentioned above that there has been a couple of Ushahidi deployments in Australia, and got carried away with the ABC’s Queensland floods. Whoops. There is also Bushfire Connect, run by a not-for-profit, which went live on 7 February 2011. More on that next time.