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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