Crisis Management: Saving lives with the help of swarm intelligence

How quickly help arrives in a catastrophe region can mean the difference between life and death. The possibility of using social media to tap into the knowledge of as many people as possible on the ground offers completely new potential for crisis and catastrophe management. But many practical questions are still to be answered.


Be it a cyclone, a flood or an earthquake, people in need rely on prompt assistance. Survivors must be rescued, injured people require medical attention, and vital supplies like drinking water, food and emergency accommodation must be brought into the crisis region. Rescue teams always face the same questions. Where did the worst damage occur? Who is affected? How can we get to certain places? What are the major shortages? And, last but not least: What is the morale of the population like?

The spread of social networks and the availability of online map services are opening up entirely new ways of answering these questions. After all, what makes more sense than using the knowledge of local people to pinpoint where help is most needed? However, this assumes that it is possible to tap into the intelligence of the masses.

The conditions to do this have never been better: worldwide, there are approximately seven billion mobile phones. Even in countries with low and medium incomes, nine out of ten people have a mobile phone. This means that, even in remote regions, people are able to send news of unusual events, share photos, and pass on status reports.

Of course, mobile phone networks can crash during major disasters. But in many natural catastrophes in recent years, mobile phones have provided valuable services, even when parts of the network have crashed. Plans by the American Federal Communications Commission to rapidly establish a functioning communications network in an emergency using helium balloons or drones are still a vision of the future at this stage. Airborne radio stations could restore mobile phone and internet communications within just a few hours.

Mission 4636 saves lives

The first time that information from the swarm was used on a larger scale was after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Real-time posts provided aid organizations with valuable pointers that helped them assess the situation. The project “Mission 4636” was launched shortly after the quake. Those affected on the ground were able to send short messages to the toll-free number 4636. After the first week, Mission 4636 was already receiving more than 1,000 SMS per day, and over 80,000 short messages were received overall. They were assessed worldwide by Creole-speaking volunteers on an online micro-tasking platform. While the original idea had been to collect reports on missing people to facilitate targeted searches, the network was very quickly being used to handle requests for help, provide information on medical emergencies and offer logistical support for hospitals. Using the data submitted, helpers were able to focus systematically on the worst-affected regions and provide help to the people there.

The enormous potential that social media can develop in a catastrophe was illustrated two years later with Hurricane Sandy. When the hurricane made landfall in October 2012 on the US East Coast, internet data traffic in the region doubled in a very short space of time. Within the first 24 hours, a million short messages on the subject of the hurricane were posted on Twitter, Facebook was deluged with posts about Sandy,and ten images per second relating to Sandy were uploaded to Instagram.

Needless to say, standard crisis communications using telephone, radio and TV were unable to keep up. The people affected and aid workers did phone in with information, but this either did not reach the crisis team’s situation centre, or arrived late. In turn, information from the authorities generally concerned the overall situation in the disaster area, or in particular subregions, and allowed no conclusions to be drawn about the situation at specific locations.

Complex processing of data

But how can the expertise of the masses from the many different channels in the social networks be used as quickly and efficiently as possible to filter out the important information and identify trends? It is clear that analysing the data manually, as was generally the case with Mission 4636 in Haiti, is much too time-consuming and labour-intensive. For that reason, researchers around the world are working to adapt systems to obtain the key information automatically. What is needed is a platform that can summarise the diverse mass of data and then provide them to the authorities or non-government organizations (NGOs) in a clearly organised form.

Visual analytics is a promising approach for this, whereby the data is analysed and structured using special computer programs. Simply visualising the flows of messages gives a more precise picture of the situation on the ground: Where are people tweeting more frequently, and on which topics? Are there suburbs or streets that are particularly badly affected? Where are support measures most urgently needed? However, a “geotag” is required to ensure that visualization provides reliable results. This gives precise information on the location the particular message is coming from. This can pose problems, since for data protection reasons, not all users automatically attach a placemark to their messages.

The rise of mobile phones

The possibility of using social media to tap into the knowledge of as many people as possible on the ground offers completely new potential for crisis and catastrophe management.

First-hand information

The possibility of using social media to tap into the knowledge of as many people as possible on the ground offers completely new potential for crisis and catastrophe management.

Online map services provide valuable assistance

This problem also arises with crisis mapping, which is the preparation of catastrophe maps using swarm intelligence. With this approach, known as VGI (Volunteered Geographic Information), information is collected in a structured form about the situation on the ground and then entered into the relevant web applications. One of these is the open source platform Ushahidi, which was developed in 2007 in Kenya, and allows both the affected people in crisis areas and humanitarian organisations to report in a straightforward way on crisis-related events.

Using either SMS, e-mail or special web forms, anyone can share site-specific information about destroyed buildings, gaps in aid provision, and the like. A group of volunteers then determine the GPS coordinates for the reported incidents and check the information for its reliability. When transferred to a map, this produces an overview that gives valuable pointers on the situation in the crisis region.

The Crisis Response Project from Google, which was set up in response to Hurricane Katrina in the USA, operates in a similar way to Ushahidi. The Google Crisis Map is also based on information obtained from crowdsourcing, but is directed more towards those seeking help than towards aid workers. The former can find information on evacuation zones, hospitals and police stations. Google also provides a special database that makes it easier to conduct targeted searches for missing people.
The possibility of using social media to tap into the knowledge of as many people as possible on the ground offers completely new potential for crisis and catastrophe management. © Ke wei - Imaginechina
For some time now, well-functioning mobile phone communications have been considered essential for catastrophe response. Charging station in Ya’an City, China, after the earthquake in April 2013.

Crisis management team on the internet

In the Philippines, crisis mapping proved to be a lifesaving tool both before and after Typhoon Haiyan. People were able to monitor precisely in high resolution the probable track of the cyclone and determine which locations were at risk. Users on the ground also supplied crucial information, for example if bridges had been destroyed, which roads were impassable, and which hospitals could still take in patients.

With the crisis mapping for Typhoon Haiyan, invaluable assistance was provided by the standby task force, a network of over 1,000 volunteers spread across 70 countries. The task force is like a crisis management team on the internet, which comes together when required.

It has taken on the task of trawling through the internet and social media for information following catastrophes and other events. Anyone with a computer who registers on the homepage can participate. For the volunteers, the standby task force operates as a flexible network, organizing the work of its members and motivating them in their efforts.

The work of the standby task force is all the more important because virtually no aid organisation can afford its own social media emergency centre. One exception is the American Red Cross, which has been operating a Digital Operations Center (DigiDOC) since March 2012. It forms part of the Red Cross National Disaster Operations Center in Washington D.C. and evaluates news from catastrophe regions on social media platforms. During Hurricane Sandy and in the weeks that followed, more than 2 million posts were monitored, with over 10,000 tagged and categorised. The organisation has also developed a series of apps that warn people at risk from forest fires, floods, earthquakes and windstorms, and which provide crucial information on shelters, etc.

Mapping of collective data

The possibility of using social media to tap into the knowledge of as many people as possible on the ground offers completely new potential for crisis and catastrophe management. © Source: OpenStreetMap tiles © OpenStreetMap contributors CC by-SA 2.0
A map showing damage in the Philippine city of Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan. Members of the non-profit organisation, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), had already mapped the housing stock after the region was categorised as at risk. HOT was then able to display the scale of the damage on the map using aerial photos and information from observers on the ground.

Uniform norms and standards required

There is no doubt that social networks are a valuable tool for managing catastrophe situations. Since they are also useful for quickly determining the extent of damage, they are also of increasing value for insurers (see the following article on forensic disaster analysis). But these digital tools still provide only some of the many functions needed for comprehensive situation reports. Up to now, the mass of information and messages has been difficult to process because there are not many suitable ways of filtering it.

For example, with the earthquake in Haiti, Ushahidi was only able to display around 3,500 individual items of information on the map. A further problem is the lack of data validation: Is the information correct, does it describe the situation in detail, and can it be connected to a precise location? Uniform norms and standards would be helpful to exploit the full potential of this tool.

What may prove to be a hindrance in this context is the range of different crowdsourcing platforms. While they all follow the same objective, they use different approaches and implementation mechanisms. For example, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap project, launched in 2009, has set itself the further goal of assisting aid measures worldwide by coordinating the compilation, production and distribution of catastrophe maps.

Absence of standards for data collection remains the biggest problem

The biggest problem in connection with the use of information from social media remains the absence of standards for data collection. A proper framework needs to be established here to facilitate the flow of information between different platforms.

However, there is a good chance that the weaknesses of crisis mapping can be eliminated over the next few years. A forum for this has already been established in the form of the annual International Conference for Crisis Mappers (ICCM). Since 2009, representatives from leading development and media organizations have been meeting at this event with technology companies, software developers and scientists to initiate new projects and promote innovation in the field of humanitarian technology.

In addition, the international network of crisis mappers (Crisis Mapper Net) provides valuable stimulus. It comprises over 7,000 members in more than 160 countries, and has good connections to more than 3,000 different institutes, including more than 400 universities.