BANGKOK, 11 November 2013 (IRIN) - Micro-mapping is under the spotlight three days after Typhoon Haiyan barrelled into the central Philippines, affecting close to 10 million people, with thousands more feared dead.
“The speed in which information can be filtered, categorized, and geo-located [has] increased dramatically through the use of digital humanitarian organizations and technology,” Cat Graham, a coordinator with the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN), a community of digital technicians, translators, and other tech-savvy Samaritans working to assist humanitarian efforts, told IRIN.
Geo-mapping, a fundamental component of DHN’s efforts to assist humanitarian efforts to respond to what could prove to be the worst typhoon in the Philippines history, combines crowdsourcing from micro-mapping with machine intelligence, to filter and categorize information, which is then pinpointed on virtual maps in real time to support the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Philippines Red Cross’s joint ongoing rapid needs assessments.
“It provides real time data from people coming from various affected areas in terms of tweets, photos and messages on… what happened to their community, [and] information about their immediate needs,” David Carden, head of OCHA in the Philippines, told IRIN.
DHN digital volunteers are working alongside OCHA, the Red Cross, and the Philippines government to collect information for web maps that all responders can use and have access to, such as Open Street Map - updated up to 300,000 times for typhoon-affected areas in the Philippines over the past three days, according to OCHA.
Over the past year, DHN has been activated five times to track the effects of conflict, crisis, displacement and disasters on populations in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Samoa, Syria, and the Philippines by humanitarian responders such as the UN Refugee Agency and the Assessment Capacities Project (ACAPS).
“But this is by far the largest deployment we have ever activated,” said Graham.
OCHA activated DHN one day before the arrival of the storm, locally known as Yolanda, on 7 November.
Hundreds of digital humanitarian volunteers worldwide, including media monitors, translators, GIS specialists, statistical analysts, emotional support teams, and standby task forces, are working around the clock with rescue and recovery efforts, particularly in the hard-hit eastern city of Tacloban.
"DHN is sorting through very high volumes of social media information,” said Sara Jane Terp, a DHN volunteer with the Standby Volunteer Task Force.
Approximately 182,000 tweets have been collected and automatically filtered down to 35,715 based on relevance and uniqueness, according to Carden.
Volunteers use triangulation (comparing information against two other sources, such as traditional media and official government reports) to verify information. The time-consuming work is made easier because of the large number of volunteers working in different time zones. See this slideshow.
“Having one person go through this very large volume of tweets would have taken weeks. Instead... we distribute to hundreds, or even thousands, of volunteers worldwide and it can be done in a matter of days, or even hours,” said Patrick Meier, director of social media at Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI).
The Philippines’ active base of at least 30 million social media users, according to a 2013 report by the analytics site SocialBakers, contributes substantially to the rich data source available to the volunteers.
(While OCHA also activated DHN’s micro-mappers tool in the 7.7 magnitude Pakistan earthquake at the end of September 2013, the country’s significantly smaller social media footprint limited the amount of data generated.)
Thousands of data bits gleaned from tweets in the first 48 hours were used in OCHA's fourth situational report on super Typhoon Haiyan, according to Carden.
“The Philippines proves to be a very good test case for people to work on models that they have been promoting, building, and testing in controlled environments,” Andrej Verity, an information management officer for OCHA’s Field Information Services (FIS) based in Geneva, explained.
Although the DHN is helping to fill in the "information gap" it is still in its early deployment stages and impact is difficult to assess, according to the DHN and OCHA in the Philippines.
Internet access affected
Lack of Internet access due to damaged infrastructure has affected the amount of available data, with 18.7 percent fewer tweets posted on 9 November than the day before, according to Meier.
“But this is to be expected, and par for the course when you deal with one of the largest typhoons in human history,” said Meier. “Our job doesn’t change, our priority is still to go through this large stack of information and look for the information OCHA [needs].”
Obtaining accurate and timely information, as well as communicating with affected communities, is vital at the present time, according to OCHA.
“The last time I saw something on this scale is in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami,” said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, head of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC), noting that Haiyan had left in its wake, “destruction [on] a massive scale.”