Q+A - Connecting geeks with aid workers in Haiti, Philippines, everywhere in between

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 28 November 2013 14:00 GMT

Jessamere Enriquez, 14, helps her mother inform their family in Manila of their situation using Facebook on Nov. 11, 2013, at a free internet kiosk provided by an internet service provider after Super Typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban city in central Philippines. Due to the scarcity of resources, each person is allowed only 3 minutes of use. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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OCHA’s information manager - founder of the Digital Humanitarian Network - pulls together crisis maps and infographics with data from aid workers on the ground and volunteer nerds online

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From Haiti to Libya to the Philippines, Andrej Verity has been connecting geeks with bleeding hearts on the humanitarian frontline to map emergencies and streamline the flow of information during crises.

As an information management officer with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and as a founder of the Digital Humanitarian Network, Verity brings two very different worlds together through the use of technology to support humanitarian response.

He spoke to the International Conference of Crisis Mappers in Nairobi from the Philippines about the use of technology and data - gathered from digital volunteers around the world and aid workers on the ground - to visualise crises and the humanitarian response.

Q: Has it been easy for you as OCHA to map the humanitarian response in the Philippines?

A: In my opinion, the map is one of the easiest crisis maps to use and actually show to non-technical people. They could really easily understand it, rather than drilling into big red dots or clicking on a thousand little images somewhere to see what might be there.

In the package of infographics Valerie Amos [the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator] received, one was by an independent volunteer, a Filipino. I found what he was doing… These were great graphics and we shared them with Valerie Amos.

A little over half the [operational response] data that’s in this map is from our traditional partners, the humanitarian cluster. Also there is data from a website called bangonph.com. There’s data from Map Action which was collecting it from different individuals around the country. Probably around a quarter to a third is public data collected by the Digital Humanitarian Network.

Q: So the traditional responders, like the U.N., are now working closely with the new digital volunteers?

A: We’re really bringing these groups together. We are moving into this network age where technology is really starting to enable us to build these networks during times of crisis. It’s a really exciting time.

Q: How many the organisations are responding in the Philippines?

A: I think that we ended up with 95 in total. The Digital Humanitarian Network probably found somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of those.

Q: What’s the difference between the Philippines response and that of the Haiti earthquake in 2010?

A: I was in Haiti. We were in a tent. It was 40 degrees. There were cargo planes taking off over our head every three minutes. It was 100 percent crazy. We went in. We delivered the regular thing, and we delivered it fast. We had 1,600 or more people come through the operating centre asking for information within 10 or 12 days.

All sorts of organisations were sending us random emails saying we’ve got the greatest thing since somebody figured out how to slice white bread. We want you to use it.

I remember being sent the Ushahidi map, and I opened it up and I saw a bunch of red dots. I sent myself an email saying there is something here. I don’t have time, but the data behind it is a goldmine, and we need to figure it out. We were very disconnected.

After Haiti I spent a lot of time trying to understand what is it that these groups are trying to do? How do we interact with them? As a result of Haiti, a lot of people started forming into groups, the Standby Volunteer Task Force, the Crisis Commons. This is when I would say many of the volunteer communities started forming.

Q: And Libya was your first chance to collaborate?

A: We didn’t have access to the country. People were leaving. OCHA and regular partners wanted us to do everything we usually do. But without access, we had to do something different.

We put out a call to Standby Volunteer Task Force, Open Street Map, Map Action and so on, and we had these different ideas and one of them was to create a Libya crisis map and we went ahead with that.

This was a big first in the U.N. world, in the sense that we were using data from volunteer crisis mappers around the world. This was the beginning of a change.

Q: Do innovations happen during emergencies?

A: It’s meeting people outside of emergencies and having discussions. This is when you are going to have innovation happen. I am getting multiple Skype messages, multiple emails from different people. So we are getting all kinds of ideas forming in this emergency.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth to take on all the amazing new ideas. But the ones we spent time with before the emergency, this is when we are able to do things.

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