Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 17, 2010

Crowdsourcing Solutions

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing — by Mark Chubb on March 17, 2010

In Sunday’s New York Times, the Week in Review section featured an article about the open source software application known as Ushahidi. It asked the rather provocative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek question, “Could wiki technology find Osama bin Laden?”

Ushahidi — a free and open source software (FOSS) application developed in Kenya to support user-collected reports of election irregularities — has found a sudden following in the emergency management and disaster relief communities following its deployment in Haiti following the earthquake there. In a very short time after its deployment, relief agencies sharing information using Ushahidi had collected the single most authoritative single source of information on incidents, impacts, and internally-displaced persons in the disaster-ravaged country.  And they had accomplished this despite the lack of pre-written common operating procedures and almost no prior information with which to populate geographic information system (GIS) databases.

The name of the application, taken from the Swahili language most closely translates to the English words “witness” or “testimony”, as in the first-person observations and reports of those in the best position to know what’s really happening. This, in-fact, is the single-most powerful premise underlying the application’s design and its successful deployment. In the early stages of an incident, the quantity of information is a bigger problem for responders than its quality. And those closest to the source of information are in the best position to generate both quantity and quality if properly enabled. As the incident expands, the ability to discover patterns and discern meaning from data points depends more on quantity than quality.

To many emergency managers and homeland security professionals, this seems somewhat counter-intuitive. We place great stock on authoritative sources and time-tested methods. Indeed, sources and methods are so highly prized we often hold their identity so close that we compromise our own understanding of the information they provide because we cannot or will not disclose it with others who could help us put it in its proper context.

The rather simple idea behind Ushahidi would be revolutionary enough if all it did was help diverse individuals and organization quickly aggregate, verify, and assess intelligence. But the application has spawned another important innovation that may be more important than what people can do with the software, and that has to do with how they use it.

During past disasters, the spontaneous mobilization of volunteers has proven problematic for those managing response and recovery operations.  In the days after the Haiti earthquake, cadres of volunteers from the tech community mobilized in cities across the United States and around the world in what have become known as CrisisCamps. These ad hoc gatherings deploy Web 2.0 technologies en masse to aid humanitarian relief efforts. But unlike disaster tourists, these volunteers self-organize and stay well out of the way.

Using the power of networks and collaborative techniques carefully honed in their day jobs, these assemblies have proven the power of information technology to facilitate co-production both in the technological and socio-political senses. By breaking very large, complex problems into smaller, bite-sized chunks and processing them quickly — which computers do better than people — these camps have enabled people to do what they do best: manage ambiguity.

By leveraging the resources of a worldwide network of technical professionals, those responsible for response and recovery on the ground can focus their resources and energy on resolving goal, role, task, and value conflicts that impede their efforts to get help where it is needed most. By organizing and clarifying information, tools like Ushahidi and processes like the CrisisCamps enable decision-making and foster engagement. And successful transitions from response to recovery depend on both.

If responding creatively to constraints and exigencies, successfully negotiating competition for resources, and securing satisfactory commitments from resource owners and those in need are the keys to collaboration, tools like Ushahidi are demonstrating the power of crowdsourcing solutions to our most challenging and complex problems. Whether these technologies can help us apprehend Osama bin Laden remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

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Comment by Peter J. Brown

March 17, 2010 @ 6:47 am

A California-based organization that has to be considered as one of the more tireless and diligent supporters of work in this area — “Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters” or InSTEDD — offers insights into exactly what is unfolding here in terms of Ushahidi and related developments. If you are interested in this dimension of emergency response, you should take a moment to become better acquainted with their work.



More on Ushahidi can be found at –


Comment by Mark Chubb

March 17, 2010 @ 9:16 am

Peter, thanks for sharing information about InSTEDD. Although I have been following developments around open source efforts related to disasters for a while now, I was not as familiar with them as the other FOSS efforts featured in the CrisisCamps (probably due to my Portland and NZ connections, which have invested their time elsewhere), but I am very glad to learn more about their efforts.

I am looking forward to more discussion about the value of FOSS and open source methods in general in the coming weeks. I have been genuinely impressed with the quality of the applications I have seen. We need more engagement from the homeland security and emergency management communities if we are to see both these tools and the approaches underlying their development and deployment widely adopted and used here in the U.S.

I fear that many agencies have succumbed to sunk-cost thinking about their custom configured incident management decision support systems. They may also fear that free means worthless, and are therefore afraid to try these applications because they mistake elegant for simple and equate that to “lightweight.” There’s nothing lightweight about what I’ve seen so far, and I am anxious to hear what others have to say about their work with there tools and techniques.

Thanks for weighing in …


Comment by Dan O'Connor

March 17, 2010 @ 10:31 am


Good stuff. Ushahidi suggests a new paradigm in humanitarian work. The traditional command and control methodology dispenses from the one-to-many: a consolidation of responders, aid, and assistance move to a centralized location, dispense aid and product in a linear fashion. The “new” way or “…paradigm is many-to-many-to-many: victims supply on-the-ground data; a self-organizing mob of global volunteers translates text messages and helps to orchestrate relief…”a non linear, surge as needed networked response. I think there are some similar themes in the distributive aid piece and your piece of several weeks ago.

Reading this excerpt I see a self interest (by definition) and self preservation activity. I suppose my question is; in whose interest is it to report on UBL? Certainly one can make the case that it is no one in and around him… Again from the self interest point of view, there is not great value in giving him up. It would be a death sentence. In my thinking this is buttressed by the $25M still on the table for him.

And for additional effectiveness, there is a volume of “ping” issue. How much connectivity is in and around him, if he is in the tribal areas? Would there also be a disinformation campaign executed by UBL and AQ? To me, these are all the fascinating adjuncts to this emergent tool.

I am reminded of the relative ease in which someone trying to hide can be found;



That being said, there must be a fairly large effort to keep UBL sequestered and whereabouts unknown. Hence, it’s in his “tribes” self interest to avoid detection and “pinging”.

The self preservation aspect drives the volume of activity and coalesced concentration of assistance to an area. The reality of this emergent technology is this; the “community” is exploiting technology to tell “us” where help is needed. Does the community adapt and become a more resilient nimble response organism or do we remain a more hierarchical command and control response entity? More crises are on the way. How we exploit this unsophisticated yet brilliant data mining remains to be seen. Thanks for sharing.

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