Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sad News from Bookshare

We had a Bookshare all-hands meeting this week, where our entire team gets together and talks about the latest activities and news about the Bookshare project. One piece of news struck me as being particularly poignant.

Melanie Sorensen, who had recently joined the Bookshare Advisory Board, suddenly passed away last month. She missed what was supposed to be her first in-person board meeting because she had the flu. It turned out to be H1N1, and its impact was devastating, as recounted in the Whittier Daily News article: Whittier College student dies from H1N1 complications.

I was especially surprised at the prominence Bookshare had in Melanie's life, by what her family chose to share with the newspaper.
Her love of reading led to a position on the board of directors of Bookshare, an organization making accessible books and periodicals for readers with vision disabilities.

"Members are allowed to download 100 books a month," Joi Sorensen explained, "but Mel had to call for a dispensation several times because she went over the limit."

On Bookshare's radar, they invited Melanie Sorensen to represent readers on the board.

"She was supposed to go to Palo Alto this year to meet other board members in person," Joi Sorensen said.

Other meetings had been via teleconference.

"Mel never felt different from anyone else," said her mom. "She just used a different way to see."
I know that all of the Bookshare community will join me in extending our condolences to Melanie's family for the loss of this outstanding young woman, role model and lover of reading.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Skoll Awards Reception

I'm talking with Quratul Ain Bakhteari at the Skoll World Forum about the incredibly difficult work she does in Pakistan.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

More on Using Crowdsourced Data to Find Big Picture Patterns (Take 3)

Thanks to commenter Differance bringing up in response to to our last post on this topic that made me want to take a new tack. You're absolutely right that information quality comes from people and that data's fitness for a particular purpose is very contextual. To continue in this direction, let’s look at how people use this information.

The people who are in most need of information about humanitarian disasters are the organized responders. [Commenter Iraqi Bootleg might have some very helpful ideas/examples here.] They are especially in need of big picture information that will help guide their response to do the most good with the resources employed. Civil authorities, humanitarian organizations, military units with a humanitarian mission, all hopefully have well-trained and experienced professionals in positions to make these critically important decisions. Let’s call our example professional Captain Lopez.

Successful approach to crowdsourcing data: Captain Lopez’ team gathers information from every source imaginable. Maps, helicopter overflights, satellite imagery, field reports from first responders, as well as phone calls and SMS messages from the general public. Captain Lopez helps her team assess the quality, quantity and usefulness of these different streams, each of which plays a part of the picture of the situation. SMS messages asking for help are bona fide requests, and help fill in information not otherwise available. Captain Lopez would probably rather have information from 911 calls, with trained operators following a carefully crafted protocol to extract the most crucial information, but the 911 system is swamped. So, SMS messages provide less valuable information, but their value is providing information that may not otherwise be available. And of course, in a less developed country, there unlikely to be a well-functioning 911 system: SMS may be the best way of signaling a specific need. Captain Lopez is a sophisticated user of information, and can direct her team appropriately. Success!

Unsuccessful approach to crowdsourcing data (on a map): Captain Lopez’ political boss turns down her urgent request to use a helicopter to make a survey of the building damage patterns. Why? Because the crisis-map of SMS messages is the “most comprehensive map” of the disaster we have (a quote from a senior agency head used in a recent Ushahidi presentation) and “SMS mapping has been shown to be predictive of building damage” and “it’s so much darn cheaper.” These last two are manufactured quotes, but based on the claims in the original post to which we’re responding. So, Captain Lopez ends up using the crisis-map in real-time to guide her team, and happens to miss the area of worst damage because of any number of real world reasons (inoperative cell towers comes to mind). It takes an extra six hours for the real picture to come through, and that delay has real impact. The helicopter survey is a more expensive, but more effective tool for getting the big picture. Failure!

I hope that this underscores the seriousness of this issue and makes it more tangible. We’re not having a purely academic/technical debate: rapid humanitarian response in a disaster saves lives. Delay costs lives.

As a thought experiment, imagine this approach being used in the Japan tsunami. How plausible would be to put SMS messages on a map and point to it, and say, there’s where the most severe damage is? There would be giant spots without little or no SMS traffic: the towns that were most severely affected. Using SMS for its purported predictive capabilities would likely to have been a second disaster. But, using it for what it is: real specific instances of needs would have been fine as part of a comprehensive assessment using all channels of information.

When claims of the “comprehensive” and “predictive” nature of a new tool is made, it’s na├»ve to expect that some people won’t leap to the conclusion that the tool should be expected to be comprehensive and predictive. And when it’s not, or when it’s less good than today’s standard of practice, people who make decisions believing that it is predictive or comprehensive will be in real danger of failing to meet their obligations to the people they serve. We need people to see SMS crowdsourcing through the successful application scenario above (and others like it), while being cautious to avoid the mistakes that stem from the second scenario.

As technologists working in highly important areas, it’s crucial we get this right.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Skoll World Forum Social Entrepreneur's Song

One of the great memories I have of last week's Skoll World Forum is Willy Foote of Root Capital kicking off the Skoll Convening (the grantee meeting just before the Forum) with this ash-cloud inspired song:

“Floating in this Cloud”

How can I scale the impact of my work?
Should I partner or go it alone?
How many funders do I really need?
And how many miles have I flown?

Yes, and does it make sense, to hire a COO
Given how much this outfit has grown.

The answers, for now, are floating in this cloud
The answers are floating in this cloud

How can I find the kind of hires that I need
Before we all just explode?
How can I build a strong culture for us all
Before we burn out from overload?

Yes and how many times must I change my strategy
Before I get on a steady road

The answers, for now, are floating in this cloud
The answers are floating in this cloud

And when will I know my work has been done
That the impact will forever be
How will I measure my mark on the world
That it not be just part of marketing

Yes and can I admit that my metrics were wrong
And if not, can I distract you with this song

The answers, for now, are floating in this cloud
The answers are floating in this cloud

To the tune of Blowin' in the Wind
Lyrics credit: Willy Foote and Laura Vais

Channeling the real world challenges of social entrepreneurs!

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