Since the earthquake on Haiti in 2010, the media have produced a significant number of articles on crowdsourcing information curation in the context of crisis management. I have tried to follow the developments closely, since in our research we are trying to harness the power of the crowd for improving situation awareness of public and decision makers during a crisis event. The motivation for our work has always been the conviction that the crowdsourcing effort will reach a stage in which the organization effort to coordinate the actions of the crowd will outweigh the advantages gained, or in other words, that the deluge of data/information might become too much even for the crowd of volunteers to handle. As the experiences from the SBTF show, you have to give the crowd volunteers a minimal amout of training, otherwise their effort will not produce results reliable enough in the context of disaster relief efforts. But there seems to be another catch besides curating (or mining) the data for useful information.
After having expressed several times here on this blog my admiration and confidence in the work of the crisis mapping community, it’s about time to have a more critical look on the utility of it for relief work on the ground during the immediate response phase. This doubt is expressed in this blog poston MobileActive. It is a very interesting post, it has sparked a lively discussion and I recommend it highly. The most important arguments made by the author seem to be:
1. You cannot be sure that the crowd is there when you need it. Depending on other events happening, or the geographic area affected, there might not be a sufficient number of volunteers.
2. The basic needs of most members of the affected communities are always the same: Food, water, shelter, basic medical aid.
3. Uncertain reliability needs re-checking of information, and the information is of very transitory nature.
These arguments, which are difficult to disprove even under optimal conditions, mean the relief forces on the ground will have to check and gather intelligence about the situation irrespective of crowdsourced information.
However, I see the positive aspects in that crowdsourced disaster information can still provide the general public and the decision makers with useful information. The public, because they might be able to find information extremely relevant for them which they would not have using traditional means of information gathering (i.e. top-down authoritative broadcasting). Decision-makers, because they could get a better overall view on where the hotspots are, and where to send the relief workers. The experts on the ground will always have to decide on the spot where to engage first.