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Crowdmap Makes Disaster Response More Accessible, We Go Hands On

screenshot of crowdmap

Since it launched three years ago, Ushahidi has played an increasingly crucial role in natural disaster and crisis relief efforts by allowing citizens to report violent incidents as they happen. Whenever the open-source software receives a notification from a user, it uses data collected from text messages, news reports or the Internet to geographically map the incident in real-time. In recent months, the system has been used to provide instantaneous maps of the Gulf oil spill, and, most notably, to help locate victims trapped under the rubble of the earthquake in Haiti.

The only problem, though, is that Ushahidi, in its original form, wasn't exactly the most user-friendly of platforms. "It's not that an average computer user couldn't do it, but it's intimidating," developer Brian Herbert told the New York Times. "It's not just, 'double-click this icon to install.'" Now, however, Ushahidi has been redesigned for less technologically inclined users, and is available through a Web-based application called Crowdmap. We spent some time on the revamped site, and here are our initial impressions.

Crowdmap's core idea is the 'deployment.' Though basic signup isn't noticeably more complicated than setting up a Facebook profile, you'll want to have a clear idea of what you want to do with your deployment before you start crowdsourcing. So, for example, if you want to have a place for people to document instances of littering in your hometown, your deployment will need to be organized around sightings of roadside garbage. Once you've created your deployment, your homepage will sprout a Google-powered map, which you can use to see, in real time, where other users are reporting crises. Perhaps the coolest feature about the map is its time-series simulation. Users can select any time period, and, after hitting 'play,' see where reports have been filed over the span of the selected months.

Toward the bottom of the home page are live feeds displaying the latest items to run across the wire, along with reports submitted by other users. It's also relatively easy to set up customized alerts, which can be managed under Crowdmap's 'Get Alerts' tab. There, you can select which cities or metropolitan areas most interest you, and decide whether you want to receive emergency updates on your phone, via e-mail, or both.

In the event that you find yourself in the midst of a natural disaster or violent protest, you can post it to a deployment by selecting the 'Submit a Report' tab at the top of the page. There, you'll have to provide a brief description of the incident, as well as its general or specific location. If you manage to capture any video, photos or corroboratory news reports, you can tack them onto your post, too.

As you'd expect from any network in its nascent stages, Crowdmap still has some kinks to work out. For example, enabling SMS data gathering requires several steps more than a basic deployment installation. Since many of the situations in which deployments would be needed are inherently time sensitive and geographically limited (e.g. oil spills or earthquakes), data gathering would be different from a simple live search of Facebook or Twitter. Major disasters these days are often accompanied by a global flood of tweets, which makes finding relevant, on-the-ground information difficult. That being the case, Crowdmap could do a lot to quiet the extraneous noise. On the flip side of that coin, though, the tool's biggest barrier is that users need to know the address of a specific deployment to submit reports, thus restricting the reach and rapidity of widespread deployment. If, however, you're coming into a disaster area as part of an aid team, you'd be well served by Crowdmap. At its most basic, it offers an easy-to-deploy, free tool for gathering quality data from people in the field.

Tags: crowdmap, disaster, disasters, GulfCoast, GulfOfMexicoOilSpill, GulfOilSpill, haiti, HaitiEarthquake, HaitiRelief, hands on, HandsOn, Incident, report, reports, top, ushahidi, violence