Archive for August, 2007

The Continuing Discussion on New Tech Approaches to Disaster Response

The discussion on disaster response and new technologies continues. At the same time, disasters and responses happen — communication in response to the Peru earthquake is in part flowing through WorldWideHelp, and MapAction is preparing to deploy to Jamiaca, for Hurricane Dean

Paul Currion wrote an insightful first response to my presentation on OpenStreetMap and disaster response. His main point is that there are two different issues I’m trying to deal with here, one being the issue of transparency and efficiency in aid organizations, and the other the empowerment of aid beneficiaries to communicate on a level playing field with aid providers. I can see these are separate issues, though with some interesting overlap, and a clear definition of these boundaries would be helpful. He’s also wary of the ability to vet accurate and appropriate information in an open system, and I agree knowing the source of the information is crucial, just as its crucial to know the source on the web as a whole (look at the illuminations of the Wikipedia Scanner). So certainly sourcing information in such a distributed reporting system would be a core requirement.

Paul has since kicked off a very interesting email thread among a varied group of folks interested in these new tech approaches to disaster response, some with a great deal of field experience, some from the tech side, and some sceptical of the need for more technology. I believe this kind of frank and open discussion of real situations and technology is going to lead to some interesting work, and I hope this wealth of experience communicated in this private forum will be opened more widely. Paul has reproduced a portion of the thread here, and others have been blogging their experiences.

My point of view is from someone who’s never actually been out in these situations (though I’m looking to change that) and only has an inkling that there are some systematic problems and potential solutions, or a means to a solution, through new approaches to information management informed by the web. The more I have the privilege to discuss these things with people who have real experience, the better informed this inkling becomes. I still definitely think there’s something here, and it hasn’t been tried yet.

Some things I’m gleaning. There’s little time to capture and report data. Certain kinds of data, in certain situations, can lead to security exposure. For various reasons organizations are by nature resistant to sharing data. Bandwidth is severely limited. Other means of distribution like DVDs have vulnerability. Open systems require very accurate reporting of sources, and ability to rank and filter those sources. Existing technology on the ground is very limited and needs may be even more basic than the sophisticated systems I’m proposing. Thinking about these restrictions poses one of the greatest system design problems I’ve ever seen.

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OpenStreetMap Events I’ll Be Missing

There’s a load of great OpenStreetMap and Geo Related Events coming up that I’ll be missing :(. The wiki has an even bigger list.

Steve Chilton is hosting the Society of Cartographers Summer School, and to gauge the tenor of that event, there’s a great interview with Steve on cartography and neogeography.The OSM Anniversary is the same day as our wedding anniversary. FOSS4G is on the opposite side of the world from where we’re heading in September. Mapping parties in the Edinburgh, Isle of Man, Ljubljana, Shoreditch, Leeds, Sweden all sound regretfully great.

One thing I’d like to make happen is an OSM Brighton launch event. OSM Brighton is nearly finished. I might try to coordinate something for BarCamp Brighton


Reflections on Cloud Berries

We’ve been berry picking and it has my head picking at ideas. Geo on multiple scales.

In typical Berry Picking Attire

In Sweden, in the summer, the forest can provide everything for your dinner. Fishing, hunting elk (the population is over capacity and well managed generally, and things you might not favor elsewhere seem completely natural in Northern Sweden), picking mushrooms, and picking berries. It’s a careless over-abundance, and even a bush full of fresh raspberries can be passed right by without thought. A basketful of berries can make you believe again that nature is a sweet, bountiful provider.

Smultron © 2005 by Marco Bodrato

In this part of Sweden, 100 km south of the Arctic circle, you never quite get a midnight sun, but the sunset and sunrise do swoop so low to the north, you actually feel the earth’s axis tilting into the brief, intense summer of the extreme northern hemisphere. With so much sunlight, the flora grows at an astounding rate, and the super clean environment leads to great variety of berries. Familiar types like raspberry, blackberry, blueberry. Wine berries and lingon berries are made into jam to go with meat. The most special are Smultron, a small woodland strawberry that tastes like candy, and åkerbär, the “berry of kings” and definitely the tastiest fruit I’ve ever had.

Cloudberry by Philocrites

Cloudberry an acquired taste. Swedes put them warm, on ice cream. There slightly musky in flavor, an echo of the boggy forests they grow in. Usually these damp places are full of aggressive mosquitoes in the summer, but the rain that day kept them away (a general tip for cloudberry picking, choose a rainy day to go out). So, rather than being a painful experience as I was warned many times, picking cloudberries was pretty enjoyable and a reflective experience. The ground was arrayed with mutli-colored mosses and the air fresh yet pungent with the forest, and I was bent to the ground picking berries with a blood rushed head, everything had a full sensory presence and clarity.

Out secret road to the berry patch

Though I carried a GPS, I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the location of the cloud berry patch. As a guest I agree, but not without cognitive dissonance. In Sweden, most forest land is in the commons — it may be owned by someone, but it’s free for use for camping, herding reindeer, picking berries. The cloudberry berry patch doesn’t belong to anyone, but knowledge of the berry patch is guarded tightly.

In the summers, Polish berry pickers head north all over Scandanavia to gather berries. Recently, Thai berry pickers have started making the trip. We picked about 20 kilos in a couple hours, on the retail market worth 100-200 GBP. So there’s a serious international economy here. Do the local inhabitants have some greater right to this wild harvest? And what is local — we drove an hour to reach the patch, and perhaps people in the nearest village feel that we were the foreigners.

This is the kind of local knowledge my work endeavors to reveal. Secrets and exploitation of public goods is anathema to my core working principles. Who has the right to hoard a public good?

I guess some places become better the more they are known, others function better with limited knowledge. It depends on the sensitivity of the place to a shared set of norms. Openness can not exist without some social framework of trust. Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap can function in the open because there is a core group of people with a shared idea of the direction, routines, and care of the work of that community, and they actively sustain it. Berries in the forest require the community, but it’s a limited resource, and knowledge of them can be shared openly only within a community that shares a value of fair use of that resource.

GPS Trace of Cloud Berry Picking

Gathering is an ancient social pattern. Four of us went to the forest without some plan method of spatially covering the entire patch. There are a few agent based rules for picking — from the current position look within a few square meters for more berries; but buffer your distribution from other pickers by a few meters more; but if you wander too far from others, verbally communicate the relative density of berries in your area and close ranks accordingly. By this bottom up coordination, we pretty effectively picked all the ripe berries. The GPS trace above shows my movement in a broad arc across the patch, along which smaller, tighter circuits along the path. Next time I want to outfit everyone with devices, illuminating the coupled spatial interactions.

Our cloud berry haul

A component of Environment 2.0 is widespread monitoring of the environment, in distributed networks of sensors. Detect humidity in levels along every redwood in the coastal fog belt, or the activity of every nesting duckling. But what’s the appropriate level of sensing. There’s speculation on what happens in the world when every surface is measured and somewhat cognizant. Or on the 1:1 scale map. But is it even necessary?

Would there be a use in deploying an nano-sensor net on the cloudberry patch, which could detect when and where each individual cloudberry is ripe and ready? Are the resources expended in deploying the net balanced by greater efficiency in collecting the berries? Or, is the general knowledge of the location and time of year when cloud berries are ready sufficient? I’d say that technology and information here adds nothing, and simply costs resources and adds noise.

Features are such a powerful concept in geography/cartography. The choice of how to abstract the landscape, what abstraction is actually useful. It’s a choice made on every OpenStreetMap survey — what’s important in the world and how to represent it. Cloud berries really aren’t useful as points, but are areas. Smultron patches are so small, they’d probably be a point.

Geography is sweet.

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A stealth transformation: introducing wikis to the UN

Anna and I have an article in the current issue of Knowledge Management for Development Journal, on our experiences in producing wikis at the United Nations.