It was clear pretty early after the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 that the disaster was exceptional in the scale of destruction as well as it was exceptional in the scale and type of response it triggered. Particularly unprecedential was the response from tech and crisis mapping community.
I was a part of the team that deployed haiti.ushahidi.com platform at Fletcher school in Boston, spent first two weeks as a SMS processing lead coordinating the flow of incoming SMS reports, their processing and dispatching to the first responders. Right after that I worked directly in Haiti in order to collect feedback, identify local hand off partner and assess the potential place of ushahidi data feeds in traditional humanitarian information management systems. Later on I participated in a number of events that were focused on the lessons learned from Haiti.
Ushahidi Haiti deployment was already documented in a variety of sources so I am not going to go in too much details here. Based on the lessons learned so far, it is clear that this deployment introduced a new concept of communication with disaster affected communities. However, it still needs to be clarified what was the actual scale of impact and what are the lessons learned for the future. External evaluation is ongoing and lessons learned process is unfinished as we continued working in Haiti also after the emergency period was over (http://blog.ushahidi.com/index.php/2010/08/18/haiti-noula/).
One question nevertheless resonated within our team for months already: What could be the ideal scenario of Ushahidi deployment in case of another major disaster? Finding the answer was difficult especially given the fact that Ushahidi is a tool and the way it is used only depends on the group(s) that decide to use it. Looking back on the first days at Boston sitroom, I remember more than clearly, how handy it would be to have some guidance or at least single advice based on previous experience. There was nothing much available, particularly for the case of deployment in humanitarian crisis. We had to go through undiscovered paths and learn on the run.
Despite the reported success stories from Ushahidi deployment in Haiti, there were also some concerns raised repeatedly by the humanitarian community as well as tech community - part of it based on reasonable arguments that if Ushahidi should be a part of the emergency response systems, the way it is deployed has to be absolutely predictable. Nevertheless part of the concerns is based on misunderstanding of what Ushahidi actually is – what it can do, where are it’s limits and what is it’s place in the humanitarian response environment. To effectively address some of those concerns we still need more data and experiences, not only from Haiti and Chile.
When the disastrous floods hit Pakistan, it was clear that there will be a need and space for crisis mapping initiatives. Also Ushahidi was deployed again. This time in a way that it provided lot of answers to questions we had about the ideal scenario of future deployments: it was deployed locally. Faisal Chohan, TED Senior Fellow, mobilized a team around the pakreport.org platform and 3441 shortcode. From the moment we got in touch it was clear that his team will face some similar challenges we did, plus will have to face the expectations that were raised by the Haiti and Chile deployments. But it was also clear that they are serious about this and they are ready to invest all their capacity into this initiative. Based on the experience from Haiti, I would like to summarize some major concerns that are being raised regarding the deployment of Ushahidi in humanitarian crisis as well as I would like to outline some ideas (partly already implemented, partly still just ideas) that could help to understand the potential and added value of Ushahidi platform in disaster response.
It is not an uncommon perception, that Ushahidi aims to be a tool with ambition to replace the humanitarian needs assessments by crowdsourcing, but fails in that. Well, first of all, Ushahidi is just a tool, platform. It is accessible to anyone who is interested. How this tool is being used and for what purpose depends only on the goals and capacity of the entity that deploys. Speaking for Ushahidi Haiti team (and having a good insight into Pakreport.org deployment), it was never our goal to be a replacement for traditional humanitarian needs assessments. Collection of the data from the affected population can never be comprehensive enough without intensive field work of the teams collecting data directly on the ground in a standardized way all across the affected area. However, today, with increased access to technology enabling individuals and communities to become reporters of incidents in their area, I believe we simply cannot ignore such potential. Having this in mind, here is the list of roles that platforms such as Ushahidi can play in the disaster response:
- Filling the information gap in the very early emergency period
- Providing critical information about the needs of individuals and communities that may be lacking in rapid needs assessments
- Providing reports on sentinel events as well as reports that are time sensitive (such as outbreaks of diseases etc)
- Providing critical information from areas that are hardly accessible either for logistical constrains or security threats
- Providing up to date situational awareness that can be very useful for the teams on the ground
- Providing a source of data for cross reference
Anyway, seeing Ushahidi deployments as a tool solely for supporting the international relief efforts would be misleading. Humanitarian NGOs are only of of many potential audiences. The strength of Ushahidi is the potential to provide community based reporting for community/locally based response. Ability to provide locally based reporting can be very well utilized by the local groups of responders, governments, traditional community leaders as well as journalists. Such capacity should be encouraged especially in the situation when there are serious and unpredictable security risks for international responders.
Pakreport.org initiative is not asking the affected population to provide information about the needs. Obviously, such request would raise the expectations that reported need will be met. This brings the risk that unmet needs will increase frustration of the affected population. The message going to the population from Pakreport team asks for reporting observations related to floods – making anyone with access to mobile phone or email a reporter. Maybe slight difference from asking to report needs, but clearly addressing the survivors as a resource and partner, not as a liability.