When disaster hits, people around the world look for meaningful ways to help, but feel powerless to do much more than make donations.

When a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, things changed. From their own homes, a network of volunteers fuelled by technological know-how began to build free, open-source tools that directly serviced the relief effort.

Just two days after news of the quake, CrisisCommons organized five events nationwide to begin work on several technology projects. Among them, Haiti OpenStreetMap, a digital map of Haiti’s roads, hospitals, triage centres, and refugee camps. Another project was the We Have, We Need Exchange, a site where non-profits working in Haiti can post needs and requests and find donors.

Over 3,000 people from over 30 cities make up CrisisCommons. Crowdsourcing allows digital volunteers to support onsite volunteers—it could be as simple as taking satellite images and stitching them to a comprehensive Google map, or providing expert advice that might help in the programming, such as knowledge about water treatment.

These days, the phenomenon is not limited to CrisisCommons. In fact, many of these volunteer groups meet virtually—and in real life—to solve real-world challenges. They’re called hackathons: intensive marathons of brainstorming and programming, where software developers and designers collaborate to create new tools for solving a set of problems.

In October 2011, Stephen Sauder participated in the World Bank-sponsored Water Hackathon. 
After working for a year as an emergency manager with the provincial government, he had grown frustrated with seeing the same boil water advisories persist—many of them in First Nation communities—sometimes for weeks and months with no change. Involvement with CrisisCommons had introduced Sauder to Random Hacks of Kindness, where he met Melanie Gorka, co-founder of Toronto-based Commons11. At the hackathon, the two co-founded Water Voices in an attempt to raise awareness and provide solutions to water and sanitations challenges on reserves.

Through a fusion of data, appropriate technology, and community engagement, Water Voices provides a way to send messages to the right people and make change happen. “It’s is a simple idea,” Sauder says. “To help start the conversation, we take text messages, web forms, and voice messages, geocode the locations, and tweet messages to relevant politicians and local media.”

The project’s larger mission is to use a combination of the app’s tools and on-the-ground community engagement to drive innovative, low-cost solutions to improve access to water and wastewater. Eventually, the team hopes to add an education module which aims to improve water education by providing students with low-cost water testing kits, interventions, and mapping exercises.

With limited funding available, more NGOs are turning to crowdsourcing volunteer skills as a method of building new solutions. But, while crowdsourcing can relieve some of the financial burden of solving society’s issues, it still comes with many challenges.

Making open and useful data

Crowdsourcing projects often depend on the ability to legally access vast stores of real-time and historical data. Data is also next to useless if it’s not properly organized, so structure and interface are key elements of a successful open data project. “Housing information is an art form and a science,” says Geoff Riggs, a business development executive with Smarter Cities and Water Initiatives for IBM Canada. “The problem is that everybody has a great idea for how to centralize data. There are many platforms, and the standards [for what constitutes a good database] keep changing.”

“When I say open data is a big challenge, it’s an understatement,” says Riggs. While we make better decisions when we have more complete information, he adds, nobody wants to take on the risk, which could include the cost of vast data restructuring programs and new digital infrastructure, and, most importantly, the possibility of increased liability.

Regardless, the open data trend is growing, particularly in government. A spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada calls federal data “an untapped natural resource.” Some provincial governments, such as British Columbia, are working toward open data mandates, too (seeWeb Sense,” July/August 2011).

Currently, Canada’s open data portal, part of the recently launched federal Open Data Initiative, offers over 273,000 datasets from 21 government departments and agencies. Visitors have the option of searching for specific datasets by keywords or browsing the full catalogue of datasets by department or agency, subject, format, or geospatial collection. Datasets are also made available in machine-readable formats, making data manipulation easier for developers. Participating departments and agencies continue to add datasets to the portal, including everything from building permits and wait times for non-emergency surgeries to pollution emissions and line-up times at the border. Data deemed “sensitive,” however, does not make the cut.

“While governments are opening data, we need to push them to do it more completely and quickly,” says Gorka.

But it’s not that simple. There are two basic options, says Jean-François Barsoum, leader of IBM Canada’s Green + Innovation consulting practice, quick and dirty or slow and accurate. “One approach is to provide data as-is and without warranties. It may be inaccurate, but it is fresh and available,” he says. “The other approach is to vet and interpret the data prior to releasing it. That’s a much slower process.”

Unfortunately, the slow flow of data prohibits apps from being as effective as their potential. A live stream of drinking water advisories from Health Canada, for instance, could take an app like Water Voices to the next level, but internal due process does not always allow data to flow in real-time. Additionally, there is the valid concern that users might misinterpret the data.

To some degree, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper’s recently launched Drink Guide app (see At Your Fingertips: Drinkability,” www.wordpress-139196-653073.cloudwaysapps.com) circumvents the data lockdown. An organization called the Water Chronicles provides a feed of drinking water advisory data that it compiles from public health unit databases across the country. Because the feed does not come directly from the government source, however, this extra step of collecting and collating data means that the Drink Guide falls a bit short when it comes to accuracy. Nevertheless, it’s a great start.

Barsoum says that in the future, crowdsourcing might actually provide a way to help the open data movement accelerate. “For people who are reticent about making data open, [selective] crowdsourcing could add an extra layer to the vetting process,” he says. “This way, we could incite slower movers to move a little faster.” The danger of this approach, however, is that sometimes you can end up with a wiki that you can’t fully trust.

Technology that hums in the background

Of course, crowdsourced solutions are only as good as their demonstrated uptake, so developers and other stakeholders need to pay close attention to the end-user experience.

For the user, successful introduction of a new technology means not having to spend a lot of time learning how the technology works. Robert Ouellette, founder of MESH Cities, says a subtle technology is a complex system that is so advanced that it disappears. In effect, the technology itself should hum in the background while the user interacts with it.

Gorka agrees. “You have to use the appropriate technology for your users. A lot of people think they need to develop apps that are super sophisticated, but that’s not the case. How are your users engaging with each other on a regular basis?” she asks. “When you have that answer, then you can start thinking about designing an app.”

In many developing countries, cell phone access is markedly ahead of traditional infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and land lines. Last year, the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment, and Health revealed that in India, more people have access to cell phones than toilets.

The team at mWater was well aware of that fact when it looked into ways to reduce the suffering caused by diarrhea and other preventable waterborne diseases in developing countries. Developers John Feighery, Clayton Grassick and Annie Feighery looked around and saw that cell phones could be part of the sanitation solution.

Combined with low-cost test kits, the mWater app helps communities determine water safety. Kits cost less than $3 and do not require labs or electricity—the samples can be incubated in a pouch worn under the user’s clothing. Once the sample is ready, the user can enter data into the app, which provides a summary of any previous test results from the same water source. The user receives instant feedback regarding their own water sample while the data is uploaded to the cloud for mapping and sharing 
with others.

Integrating the user

Crowdsourcing projects are not just about smooth, subtle technology; they’re about helping the community with the problem to solve its own issues. In short: if the community isn’t engaged, the app won’t fly.

“Through the years, we’ve seen that if the idea doesn’t have the right framework in place from the start, we end up with a whole lot of half-baked software, or software that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem at hand,” says Gorka. “End-users must be part of building the solution. They must have a sense of ownership.”

Random Hacks of Kindness is unique in the space of hackathons. Before gathering a bunch of tech experts in a room to program an app, the organization begins with identifying, defining, and refining problem definitions provided by subject matter experts and local stakeholders.

It’s a good model. True crowdsourcing is not about flashy technology and sophisticated design. Ultimately, it’s about focusing efforts on solving real problems for real people, and ensuring they’re involved in the process from start to finish.  WC


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