Tag Archives: open source

The Value of Crowd-Sourcing and Private Sector Data Analysis in Disaster Response

Today, Senior Geospatial scientist Steven Ward presented to the class the ways in which his company ‘DigitalGlobe‘ combines ICT, geospatial data, satellite imagery for use in a number of industries, including development. DigitalGlobe operates a number of satellites that take images of the earth’s surface and disseminates them to a number of clients, including the US government, Google, the UN, and various NGOs, among many others. An even more critical aspect of the company is the data analysis it provides, which is largely supplemented by crowdsourcing techniques. For example, scientists like Steven Ward will publicize certain images of a disaster area, such as satellite photographs taken of a mountain range in which climbers have gone missing. DigitalGlobe employees will then look at trends of information tagged on these pictures by the public, an analysis that is augmented by a number of algorithms that help to determine the degree of validity of the information they are receiving. They can then analyze the aggregate data to try and find precisely where the missing climbers set up their base camp, climbed, and eventually fell (find the story here). Though this specific case is tragic, it reveals a host of ways in which vital information can be amassed through ICT techniques such as crowdsourcing, as well as how tech-based firms can contribute their innovations and analysis in times of need.  The company is an important example of the private sector’s role in aiding humanitarian crises as well as its contributions in developing key information systems that can make or break disaster response.

Another important take-way from Ward’s lecture was simply the logic surrounding open-source data analysis, which is an ICT in itself. Ward pointed out that “more hands make light work”, which is a critical notion in time sensitive situations such as Guinea’s recent Ebola outbreak, where health care experts need as much data as possible to determine the pathways of an extremely lethal disease in a population dense area. Though some might worry that information coming from the masses is more likely to be incorrect, this is actually a misconception; Wikipedia, which is a compilation made by thousands of ‘amateurs’ has a credibility ranking of 8/10, while Encyclopedia Britannica, which is a collaboration of fewer ‘experts’, has a score of 8.8/10. The fact that these sources have such similar scores demonstrates a key point of value for crowdsourcing techniques: the more people that contribute to and review the data, the more accurate it is likely to be. Therefore crowdsourcing in itself is many times one of the most valuable approaches to mapping disaster and crises, as well as other, less time sensitive development sectors such as poverty, agribusiness land-grabbing, vulnerable agricultural lands, and thousands of other factors that may be critical to the interventions of stakeholders within the field.


Case Study: The Peoplefinder Project

Hurricanes, forest fires, tornadoes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters that travel distances are by their very nature able to give advance notice to significant populations of potential victims that lie in their path. It is for these types of destructive natural phenomena that the use of ICTs can mean life or death for certain groups of people.

Hurricane Katrina was no exception, as many residents of affected coastal areas who did not evacuate were unable to make contact with relatives and friends using traditional landline phones. Enter The Katrina PeopleFinder Project. This quickly-formed, massively distributed effort run by over 100 volunteer techies, and even more data-entry volunteers, created a uniform standard for collecting, compiling, data-entering, and searching information on people affected by Hurricane Katrina. Peoplefinder addressed the risk of duplicating other efforts, or interrupting existing momentum, by “structuring” their data in an open-source format. Volunteers did this by matching up partial information from one source or another, and compiling the information into one, comprehensive source- and one that complimented efforts by the Red Cross and others. Enlisting the aid of nonprofit technology assistance providers Radical Designs, Social Source Foundation, and CivicSpace Labs, the site http://www.neworleansnetwork.org was created with open source technologies designed by and for nonprofits. Using this tool, refugees and others affected by the storm could locate missing family members or access other information to help the people of New Orleans stay connected to the communities they loved.

This and other ICT services played an immense role in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Had those volunteers not donated hours of their time to searching, compiling, and entering data on victims of the storm, many would have undoubtedly been waiting far longer to find out about their missing loved ones, if they found out about them at all.


Open Source Legislation: How can the internet transform government?

UNESCO Chair Tim Unwin discusses the need for effective National ICT policies in promoting ICT for Development initiatives in his book ICT4D (2009). One reason is that, “there needs to be a forum in which civil society organisations can actively engage with governments at the national scale in determining the roll-out of ICT programmes.” (Unwin 150).

We tend to agree the expansion of ICT services can increase the quality of life for citizens, how can ICT policy and advancements increase the quality of government? How can governments benefit from creating channels of communication among citizens and to the law-making bodies?

If it is as Unwin speculates and government policies on ICT can encourage citizen input on ICT4D than can this same civil society engage with the government in other areas utilizing ICT channels?

Professor Clark Shirky from NYU gave a TED Talk in which he explores the potential of Open Source collaboration to influence the law-making process in democracies. Coders and programers are already using this technology for “cooperation without coordination.” “Legislation comes in the form of bills which are essentially patches to existing legal code”, a process familiar in open source world.

Clark asks: “why don’t we use git hub (a web-based hosting service) to show what a citizen developed bill might look like.” Several states are experimenting with e-government strategies to allow citizens to “explore some ideas around how to better facilitate the legislative process” using open source editing methods.

I must admit that some of the content of this video is above my level of understanding of ICT’s. However, it still poses some interesting questions: How could the internet transform government? How could democracies gain from utilizing the knowledge and innovations of its citizens? How could increasing internet participation and access also increase political participation?

Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

Small Business Reap From Kenya’s ICT Innovations

Small businesses in Africa often suffer huge set backs by lack of the needed finances to efficiently run their small enterprises. Having a system that manages the business such as accounts, payroll, and business transactions is not always possible due to its high cost. However, a new application through OpenWorld run by Geoffrey Kamau could help change this. This new application built upon open source software can help small businesses in Africa become more efficient in an affordable way. OpenWorld allows small businesses to move away from paper usage in their businesses, such as book keeping and payroll management. Utilizing the platform known as OpenBusiness that runs on the cloud, small businesses can subscribe monthly through a small fee, of around $7.50 USD, enabling them to manage employees, payroll, accounts, online sales, tax and point of sales through the platform. Before, this could cost up to several thousand dollars, but now small businesses can pay monthly at a low price to access the same software and manage their business. This will also allow small businesses to run consumer royalty schemes that were only available through big retailers like Uchumi, Naivas, and etc that charged small businesses more than they can afford. For example now, barbershops no longer have to keep track of customers’ visits through a handwritten notebook, but through the automated OpenBusiness. This allows small businesses in Africa to become more efficient and encourages formalization of the informal economy. This new tool was revealed at the AITEC East Africa ICT Summit in Kenya this month, hopefully utilization of the tool would be widespread soon. Optimistically, with this new ICT that is both affordable and easy to use, small businesses can become more efficient and expand, helping the developing economies in Africa.

FrontlineSMS: The Impact of Open Source Tools for Development

Through Mission 4636, 80,000 earthquake victims throughout Haiti were able to solicit help via text message. What’s most astonishing about the project is not the large number of people it was able to help, but the speed at which it was set into motion. From conception to launch, the Mission 4636 came together in a mere 48 hours. People from 10 organizations from around the world dropped everything to build the best platform possible. Among these organizations was one that caught my eye, Frontline SMS:medic, whose director was responsible for obtaining the short code “4636” for the project.

Frontline SMS:medic is one of many programs that utilizes the FrontlineSMS free software program. Through FrontlineSMS, users can text large groups of people anywhere there is a mobile signal. FrontlineSMS enables instantaneous, two-way communication on a large scale by utilizing computers and mobile phones—two technologies that are available to most NGOs. This means a laptop plugged into a cell phone can become a low-cost communication hub. Frontline SMS makes use of open-source software to support development services across the globe and provides easily implemented solutions to many communication barriers in developing countries.

FrontlineSMS:medic is one of the most successful initiatives of the 5 FrontlineSMS programs (others are credit, learn, legal, and radio).  It utilizes FrontlineSMS to improve and extend healthcare delivery systems by helping health workers communicate, coordinate patient care, and provide diagnostics using appropriate cost-effective technologies. The pilot program was launched in 2009 to great results: in six months, hospital workers saved 1200 hours of follow up time and an accompanying $3000 in motorbike fuel. In less than one year, FrontlineSMS:Medic grew to 1,500 end users who were serviced by clinics seeing approximately 3.5 million other patients. Growing from the first pilot at a single hospital in Malawi, programs were subsequently established in 40% of Malawi’s district hospitals and the software was introduced in nine other countries, including Honduras, Haiti, Uganda, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, India and Bangladesh.

FrontlineSMS demonstrates the importance of building upon and implementing open source tools to serve end users and achieve impact in the field of development. For complete information on FrontlineSMS click here. For complete information on FrontlineSMS:Medic click here.

OLPC Applications in Burkina Faso

Warschauer and Ames’s article, Can One Laptop per Child Save the World’s Poor?, provides insight into the many flaws of the OLPC initiative. Though the program has good intentions, “the poorest countries targeted by OLPC cannot afford laptop computers for all their children and would be better off building schools, training teachers, developing curricula, providing books and subsidizing attendance” (Warschauer and Ames, 34). In February of 2008, three years following the launch of the OLPC initiative, the national knowledge sharing platform on ICT4D (NTIC) in Burkina Faso held a workshop to discuss the possible implementation of the program in Burkina’s education sector. The workshop provided sector experts the chance to demonstrate and discuss the usefulness of the specialized XO computer. After much heated debate, it was decided that the OLPC could not successfully be integrated into the education sector at that time.

On the surface, the XO computer seemed like the perfect solution for connecting kids in developing countries– it was cheap, small, rugged, and efficient. Very little power was needed for it to run and it could withstand the harsh environmental conditions of countries like Burkina Faso. The open source software and content meant that users could alter programs and expand on existing software, but what the program failed to account for was the lack of capacity in the targeted countries to support, maintain, and rebuild various parts of the XO computers when they broke down. The problems encountered with this top-down distributing laptops approach brought about many questions for the Burkina NTIC to focus on. Would the OLPC meet the needs of the schools and people in the educational sector in Burkina Faso, what were the pros of the system, what were the cons, how would the program be introduced, and when would be the right time to introduce it?

It was determined that even though the laptop would increase access to knowledge, enable people to take part in the information society, introduce children to technology at a young age, and withstand harsh environments better than an ordinary computer, the OLPC could not be successfully applied in Burkina Faso because it needed to be adapted to local needs.

The OLPC would not be useful in Burkina Faso for many reasons. Foremost the current infrastructure, ie. bad connectivity, lack of energy, etc., could not support the OLPC. There are no resources available for technical maintenance of the laptop, and there are other problems within the educational sector that are much more pressing (lack of school rooms and bad working conditions for teachers).

In the end, the workshop led more to discussions about how ICTs might be used in the Burkina education system; the focus was on changing teaching methods rather than on the use of the OLPC itself. It was concluded that substantial efforts must be made to improve infrastructure, teacher training, curriculum development, and technical support networks before a program like OLPC could be successfully introduced to the nation. For the OLPC to work, both teachers and students should be trained to work with the software/hardware. OLPCs should first be distributed through community centers rather than just among children aged 6-12, and the content should be adapted to existing educational curricula. Further, the maintenance and life-expectancy of the computer parts also need to be improved.

Even “developed” countries do not have the means to buy a computer for every single child, so how do we expect the OLPC to reach everyone among the poorest of the poor? Only a few years ago, people did not ever think that a mobile network could be successfully implemented into countries like Burkina Faso, but look where we are today. Over 90% of people worldwide now own or have access to a mobile phone– maybe someday that same 90% will be able to own or access a computer and internet. It may be far off, but with some much-needed changes and re-considerations, the OLPC could provide a platform off which to grow connectivity around the world.

For more information and specific findings for the Burkina NTIC conference, follow this link.

Open Source & Open Content

The debate about open content and open source software ICTs is mentioned briefly in Chapter 4 of ICT4D: Information and Communication Technology for Development (114-18).  Although the debate between those in favor of open source vs. proprietary software and information sources continue, I think it is important to recognize how much open content has become a take-for-granted part of our culture already.

This article  points out that “it used to be pretty clearly defined whether a vendor or product was open source, but as we’ve seen the largest vendors in the industry — all of them — embrace and integrate with open source software, those lines of definition have bled together.”  The distinction is no longer black-and-white, and it has become nearly impossible to completely oppose open source software and open content material.  The debate may still be a lively one in theory, but it seems that the open source culture has become an unstoppable phenomenon in most people’s everyday lives.

Even children are being taught about open sourcing, a topic that anyone born before the turn of the century probably never hard of or learned about in Elementary school.  There are now animated videos and teaching tools, such as this animated video, to help explain open content sources to children and videos, such as this one, to encourage a positive perception of open sourcing and open content to today’s youth.  While some focus on the issues related to profit, licensing, and privatization, others celebrate this new democratization of information and the wide range of possibilities it opens up, especially for poor and marginalized populations.

The textbook, ICT4D: Information and Communication Technology for Development, explains that “at the heart of this debate is the way in which we conceptualize the value of knowledge, and whether it is something that should be individually or communally ‘owned'” (114).  Although this debate may continue to exist in theory, I believe the global community has already made up its mind.  Now that knowledge is becoming more accessible and available for free, it will be very difficult to find mass support for taking steps backwards towards a more exclusive, privatized conception of knowledge.