Navigating Disaster

Thanks to Patrick Meier, F12, and his colleagues, the online community can help generate maps in a flash, improving responses to emergencies worldwide
Patrick Meier
“Technology lets us extend our humanity, not dehumanize us,” says Patrick Meier, seen here at the Pop Tech conference in 2011. Photo: Kris Krüg
June 25, 2015

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Patrick Meier was in his Boston apartment when the earth shifted 1,600 miles away. It was the afternoon of January 12, 2010, and a devastating 7.0 earthquake had struck Haiti. Meier’s fiancée and several friends were in the capital, Port-au-Prince, but it would be hours before he was able to get in touch with them.

So Meier, F12, did what a 21st-century person does—he turned to the Internet. He began scouring social media and news reports to find out what was happening. Using an open-source software program, he and some Fletcher classmates began electronically mapping the damage in Haiti.

They continued well after they learned Meier’s fiancée and friends were safe. Eventually, an international network of volunteers—including Tufts undergraduates and dozens of members of the Haitian diaspora—produced a map that was acknowledged by emergency responders as the most comprehensive picture of conditions on the ground in Haiti.

That effort since has been replicated by others during disasters throughout the world, including the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This year, after the April 25 earthquake in Nepal, Facebook users may have come across postings like this one: “One Way You Can Help Nepal Right Now: All You Need Is a Computer and a Little Time.” It directed people to an online project to analyze aerial photos and update digital maps.

Within days, tens of thousands of such updates had been logged. The value of the information they provided was not abstract—producing accurate depictions of conditions immediately after a disaster tells rescue workers exactly where to find trapped or injured people, especially in areas that might not have been well-mapped previously. For instance, the U.S. Marine Corps used the Haiti map to plan helicopter search-and-rescue operations around Port-au-Prince.

“Most people want to help when they see bad news on TV,” Meier says. “They feel hopeless or powerless; maybe they will send money. But now, when they ask what they can do, they can actually act on that initial emotional reaction and support the efforts on the ground. You can support the efforts from your own bedroom.”  

Since his experience with the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Meier has founded or co-founded several crisis response organizations, including the Digital Humanitarian Network, which was formed in cooperation with the United Nations, and the Standby Volunteer Task Force for Live Mapping.

Earlier this year, he published Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data Is Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response (CRC Press). The book examines what Meier calls “the democratization of digital response,” and how that’s adding new dimensions to humanitarian work—more tools for saving lives and a more tangible sense of worldwide engagement when disasters strike.

A Life of Its Own

The idea of crisis mapping was not entirely new to Meier that January afternoon five years ago. While teaching a course for undergraduates about disaster and conflict at Tufts’ Experimental College in 2006, he came across a TED talk that discussed the use of digital mapping in public health, and he quickly realized the technology held promise for humanitarian response as well.

The next year, he co-founded the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program on crisis mapping and early warning. The free, open-source software he used to create his Haiti map was developed by Ushahidi, a nonprofit he was working for at the time.

“When the Haiti earthquake happened, the crisis mappers’ community was still in its very early days,” he says. “All of a sudden, it went from conceptual potential to something very real and concrete.”

The field has advanced by leaps and bounds. “In many ways, the crisis mapping community was triggered by what we did at Fletcher,” he says. “In the five years since then, the community has really taken on a life of its own, responding to dozens and dozens of disasters, with a lot of learning coming from every disaster.”

So when the 7.8 earthquake struck near Kathmandu in April, “within hours the whole community went into standard operating procedure,” Meier says. “It was all hands on deck in a calculated, rehearsed way. In Haiti, we were just scrambling to make it up as we went along.” 

For instance, in the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the cadre of volunteers was manually sorting through the wave of resulting tweets; in 2015, volunteers and aid workers could draw on platforms that filter and classify social media messages. They were able to employ new crowdsourcing platforms to identify photos of damage quickly.

Another difference was the presence of UAVs—unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones—that were able to survey and record damage from the air. (Meier is the founder and director of the Humanitarian UAV Network, a group devoted to promoting the safe and responsible use of UAVs in support of humanitarian efforts.)

“It was a real night-and-day comparison,” Meier says. “I don’t mean that everything worked—that’s never the case.” But, he says, the lessons from Nepal will be used to respond to future crises.

A Big Data Approach

Meier was born in West Africa to European parents, and lived in Kenya until he was 15. He arrived at Fletcher with an interest in conflicts that are driven by climate change and environmental factors, and in developing early-warning systems for regional conflicts. But the potential of technology to transform humanitarian work, or to assist pro-democracy movements, increasingly captured his attention.

He switched his focus to the idea of digital activism, specifically the intersection of technology and civil resistance. When the Arab Spring began to unfold in late 2010, “I no longer had to think about it in the abstract,” he recalls, as dissidents used social media platforms such as Twitter to organize protests and bring down governments. “I watched it play out as I was working on my dissertation.”

Now Meier is the Washington-based director of social and humanitarian innovation for the Qatar Computing Research Institute. He uses advanced computing to make sense of “big data”—giant pools of information that may yield patterns or other useful tools—during disasters, and consults with organizations like the U.N. and the International Red Cross to find ways they can do their work faster and better in times of crisis.

Just as the ability to analyze tweets and text messages emerging from a disaster-stricken area in real time has bolstered relief efforts, the next step, Meier says, would be the capacity to pinpoint the location of photos and videos automatically. Much of the progress on this front draws on work being done in the private sector for commercial use, Meier says—the technology of Silicon Valley being “fast-tracked into humanitarian space.”

“One of the main reasons I wrote Digital Humanitarians is to make sure we don’t lose the human thread,” he says. “Technology lets us extend our humanity, not dehumanize us.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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