On Thursday July 8, 2010, residents of Oakland took to the streets after a jury convicted police officer Johannes Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black youth. Race-related riots are not new to California. But this time, the first people to learn about violent incidents tied to the protests weren’t riot cops — they were the Oakland residents behind OscarGrantProtests.com, a website that allowed people near the action to map incidents of violence and view reports from others. Established in a few days, OscarGrantProtests employs crisis mapping technology from a group of open-source developers called Ushahidi, who built the software to report violence in the aftermath of the 2008 disputed Kenyan presidential election.
Ushahidi has radically altered the way we respond to disasters by placing reporting power in the hands of people who might otherwise be victims. Virtually every disaster affecting large groups of people presents the same problem: in the absence of real-time data, emergency responders don’t know where to go and when. Technology can solve this problem quickly and cheaply, but governments and relief agencies don’t often use it.
Telecommunications infrastructure is now ubiquitous — even in sub-Saharan Africa, eight out of 10 adults have access to a mobile phone. The four billion cell phones in use around the world create massive amounts of data and demand for crowdsourcing technology to aggregate, categorize, and otherwise make sense of it.
Mission 4636 provides a good example of how we can use data from mobile phones to make relief efforts more effective. In the aftermath of the January earthquake that shook the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, millions of Haitians lacked food, water and shelter. Aid workers flooded the capital, but lacked information about who needed help, and where. Voila and Digicel, Haiti’s two major telecommunications carriers, had their cell towers up and running immediately following the quake, but huge call volumes exceeded their capacity and resulted in service outages. Text messages offered a solution — texts take up less bandwidth than calls, and are much less affected by network delays.
A group of companies, including Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, CrowdFlower and Samasource, collaborated to set up a text message hotline – “Mission 4636” – supported by the U.S. Department of State. The Haitian government collaborated with radio stations to advertise the hotline, and a few days after the disaster, anyone in Port-au-Prince could send an SMS to a toll-free number, 4636, to request help. The messages were routed to relief crews at the U.S. Coast Guard and the International Red Cross on the ground.