When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, that familiar feeling of helplessness was palpable: Other than donating money, what can most of us do? Utilize social media, of course! MicroMapper is a new technology that can quickly assist with relief efforts in disaster areas around the globe and transform anyone with Internet access into a digital humanitarian.
Cocreated by Patrick Meier, the director of social innovation at Qatar Computing Research Institute, MicroMapper collects disaster-related tweets (which contain geolocation information) that may be asking for or offering help, reporting that there are injured people, cautioning others to stay away because a building, road, bridge, or some other infrastructure is damaged or destroyed—or it may be a tweet that doesn’t contain any factual information but instead is simply offering sympathy for the victims. To sort through what’s helpful and what isn’t requires volunteers.
People anywhere in the world can log on to micromappers.com, sign up, and become activated to use the TweetClicker to categorize the tweets into four categories: "request for help," "infrastructure damage," "not relevant," and "not English." The ImageClicker employs the same idea for photos, and they are grouped based on the amount of damage shown, from severe to none.
For an image or tweet to move to the next phase, three volunteers must look at it and click. Only those marked "relevant" by all three are passed along to more skilled volunteers who use it to construct a map, which is sent to agencies providing aid on the ground that need the most up-to-date status of an area. The maps not only keep ground workers safer, but they let agencies know which areas are in most dire need of assistance and what kind of help they require.
Meier admits that sifting through so many social-media messages in the hopes of finding something that can be of use is like "searching for a needle in a haystack," but they are seeing results. After a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck Pakistan in late September, the United Nations reached out for assistance. Once volunteers were found, they collected 35,000 tweets within hours. Those were uploaded to the clickers and categorized. In less than two days, 100 volunteers sent 14,000 relevant tweets and nearly 400 images to be used to update maps of the area.
The UN clearly felt it was a success—the day before Typhoon Haiyan made landfall, the agency contacted the Digital Humanitarian Network, cofounded by Meier, to find volunteers and use MicroMappers to map the impact of the storm. The request was for 48 hours of monitoring, but it was extended to five days. "We had several hundred volunteers between TweetClicker and ImageClicker," Meier says.
He now believes that the technology is "halfway there" and will be complete in a couple of months. Possible additions being considered are an SMS clicker, and one that lets users tag voice messages.
No matter what volunteers are tagging, MicroMappers makes it easy to get involved. "You don't have to be a superhero to make a huge difference to a humanitarian operation. Maybe you aren't highly skilled or don't have hours of time to volunteer—but you have five minutes on the bus ride to work during which you can click through 20 tweets," Meier says. "This is digital activism."