How AI, Twitter And Digital Volunteers Are Transforming Humanitarian Disaster Response

Katie Collins | Wired | September 30, 2013

On 24 September a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck south-west Pakistan, killing at least 300 people. The following day Patrick Meier at the Qatar Computer Research Institute (QCRI) received a call from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) asking him to help deal with the digital fallout -- the thousands of tweets, photos and videos that were being posted on the web containing potentially valuable information about the disaster.

To help make sense of the outpouring of data, Meier mobilised two new tools he had created, but had yet to release. The first, MicroMappers is a series of microtasking apps (called Clickers), which can be used to tag the mass of online user-generated multimedia content relating to a disaster to establish its importance. OCHA also reached out to the Digital Humanitairan Network (DHN), which mobilised the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) to work with Meier's tools. The volunteers set to work and within the first few hours, 35,000 relevant tweets had been collected.

From there the tweets were uploaded to the TweetClicker, and those with images filtered into the ImageClicker to be analysed and tagged depending on the type of information they contained -- infrastructure damage and requests for help, for example -- so they could be distributed to the appropriate agencies. In all, 14,000 tweets were tweets and 341 images were collected by 100 volunteers in the first 30 hours.

This was the first test of the Clickers in a real-life disaster situation, and Meier has outlined in a blog post some of the glitches he's already come across -- how the pre-processing filters are supposed to automatically upload the relevant tweets directly to the Clickers, but currently can't, and how the VideoClicker and TranslateClicker would have been really useful, but are still in development. There's obviously work yet to do to create the streamlined real-time response Meier envisages, but still the speed of mobilisation and the efficiency with which the big data was handled is truly a remarkable feat.