Leveraging Big Data in disasters: Working around the clock in Philippines

[Cross posted at the Money, Data, and Privacy blog]

Big data from social media is increasingly used in disaster management procedures. The speed at which big social data feeds travel across the networks has already been leveraged at the early warning stage by agencies such as the United States Geological Survey, which is currently developing a system to detect earthquakes by monitoring Twitter real-time information from local users.  In Australia, the CSIRO is also testing emergency situation awareness (ESA) software to sense unusual events in the Twitter stream and alert users in the emergency services.

The potential of processing social media data in the phases of early warning and immediate response is huge. Big data can contribute to provide the big picture, while offering at the same time granular, real-time information at the local level. However, processing such an amount of information can largely exceed the capacities of most agencies and response organizations, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. The Typhoon Haiyan that is currently hitting the Philippines is the most updated example of how relief organizations can leverage the resources of the crowds to scan social media, tag tweets and images, geolocate events, translate keywords for monitoring, etc. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has requested the activation of the Digital Humanitarian Network, which coordinates volunteer organizations around the world  (SBTFOpenStreetMapGISCorpsHumanity Road,  Info4DisastersTranslators without BordersStatistics Without BordersDisaster Tech Lab, etc.) to participate in the effort.

Mapping Tacloban with OpenStreetMap (before and after Haiyan)
Mapping Tacloban with OpenStreetMap (before and after Haiyan)

At this present moment digital volunteers from these organizations are working around the clock in a number of different tasks (see this post to learn who is doing what) and using new applications specifically developed for disaster response purposes. Two of these apps, the TweetClicker and the ImageClicker (recently developed by Patrick Meier’s team at the Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute) allow any member of the crowd to tag tweets and images with just a click. While still in a testing phase, these technologies are opening up a new frontier in the use of big data for disaster response.

Marta Poblet

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Crowdfunding Culture in Catalonia: The Revival of Civil Society?

[Updated version appeared in the Journal of Catalan Intellectual History, vol. 7, 2014]

When Antoni Gaudi took over the Sagrada Familia project in 1883,  the initially planned neo-Gothic church—which had come into existence by a private initiative in 1860—steadily transformed into one of the most sophisticated architectural endeavors of the 20th century. The project relied entirely on charitable donations, so rapid completion of the temple had never been envisaged. As Gaudi once declared, “the expiatory church of la Sagrada Familia is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people”.[1] For more than a century now, Barcelona’s most iconic temple has been raised with small donations from people, and final completion is just an estimate: sometime between the years 2026 and 2028.

Sagrada Familia from Park Güell

Sagrada Familia from Park Güell

Donations, subscriptions, fundraising campaigns, etc. are all based on the idea to collect money from large groups of people to support projects and initiatives. In the last few years, though, the term “crowdfunding” has gained popularity when referring to the effort of channeling a myriad of droplets into the bucket. Crowdfunding also taps into the collective resources of the crowd to raise money for innumerous causes: produce a film or an album, organize a concert, publish a book, launch a satellite, test seaweeds as a potentially sustainable food, or build a submarine to explore the ocean depths, to mention just a few of them. Crowdfunding is about engaging people to contribute to projects, usually by donating small amounts of money. What then distinguishes crowdfunding from other traditional fundraising campaigns?

A distinctive component of the new generation of crowdfunding models is its symbiotic relation with the Web 2.0, also known as the “social Web”. Crowdfunding thrives into the conversational streams of the social web and contributes to generate new ones.  Unlike precedent fundraising campaigns, crowdfunding fully embraces seamless connectivity and interaction: donors are certainly expected to contribute, but they are also encouraged to comment, ask, share, and participate. And, by actively engaging people, crowdfunding open calls are able to build new online communities, which in turn contribute to expand the social graph.  In the end, a successfully achieved crowdfunding goal is more than the sum of its donations: it is a shared co-production.

While both the goals and the expected outcomes of crowdfunding campaigns are usually anchored to the physical world, none of them would happen without harnessing the vast resources of the Web 2.0. From a technology standpoint, the tools of the Web 2.0 have lowered the barriers to online fundraising: in its simplest form, it may take to set a web page and a payment gateway to channel contributions, even if this will need to be supported with a sustained effort of planning, sharing, and engaging through social networks. In a few years, though, a number of online platforms especially dedicated to support collective fundraising have fueled the emergence of new crowdfunding models. Kickstarter, the world’s largest and most popular crowdfunding platform, was founded in New York in 2009.  At present, there are approximately 450 active platforms worldwide, and by the end of 2013 they will globally raise an annual estimate of 5.1 billion US$ for social causes (30%), business and entrepreneurship (16.9%), films and performing arts (11.9%), music and recording arts (7.5%), energy and environment (5.9%) and other initiatives (28%).[2] The dominant players are the North American and European platforms, with 59% and 35% of the market share respectively.[3]

A most striking fact is that, as of July 2013, 33 of these 450 crowdfunding platforms were  based in Catalonia or had set a foot there (I take stock here from comprehensive previous research by Hector Muñoz, founder of Crowdacy). With a population of 7.5 million, this ratio makes Catalonia a special case in point calling for further examination. Why such a rich crowdfunding ecosystem has emerged in Catalonia over the past three years? Although there is little data on the detailed number of crowdfunding campaigns, percentage of successful outcomes, volume of funds raised per platform, etc. one of the pioneering platforms, Verkami, provides some hints on the phenomenon.

Crowdfunding platforms in Catalonia (as of July 2013)

Crowdfunding platforms in Catalonia (as of July 2013)

Verkami was launched in December 2010 in Mataró (Barcelona) by the initiative of “a father and his two sons: Joan, Adrià and Jonàs Sala, a biologist, an art historian and a physicist”.[4] None of them had previous experience in crowdfunding, but they realized that their initiative—inspired by the success of Kickstarter and the like in North America—could fill a gap in Catalonia.  Two years later, with more than 1,200 projects and 5.49 € million raised from more than 141.000 patrons—as contributors are known in the platform—Verkami has become the largest crowdfunding platform in South Europe.[5] According to its founders, “Verkami campaigns represent a 75 percent of the total successful campaigns in Spain (from which 30-40 are Catalan projects, and nearly three out of four projects pledging funds in Verkami end up being funded”).[6] No surprise, then, if the expression “let’s make a verkami” has become trendy among the cultural and creative milieux.

Verkami was the platform that film producer Isona Passola chose to raise funds for L’endemà [The day after], a documentary on the scenario that an eventual independence of Catalonia would open.  After a 40-day campaign, the project collected 348,830 € from 8,101 backers, largely exceeding the initially pledged 150,000 €, and became the largest crowdfunded project in Europe. L’endemà illustrates how crowdfunding campaigns, by tapping profusely into social media, are able to strike a chord in audiences who share the values and goals that projects bear. In some cases, crowdfunding campaigns target inner circles of supporters and/or larger crowds of potential promoters of cultural and artistic initiatives (books, music, cinema, drama, dance, etc.); in some others, they rely on social media word of mouth to create new communities of support world-wide (as a personal aside, in a recent presentation of this work in Melbourne I used Liz Castro’s What’s up with Catalonia as an example of the latter. At the end of the event someone approached me with a big smile… holding a copy of the book under the arm).

The second largest project crowdfunded via Verkami was Ictineu III, a cutting-edge research submersible aimed at oceanographic exploration. Scientific research has only timidly started to venture into crowdfunding (but see this post to know more about Deakin University crowdfunded projects), so the success of Ictineu III is nonetheless impressive (more than 60,000 € raised). Actually, the tiny yellow submarine is presented in the web page project as the heir of a pride-awakening Catalan saga: “the first manned submersible built in Catalonia since Mr. Monturiol built the first Ictineos in 1859 and 1864”. Who could resist?

In Catalonia, crowdfunding platforms have blossomed under severe economic crisis, so dramatic cuts in public expenditure and R&D funding, together with the draining of credit by the banking sector may certainly have inclined creative, artistic, scientific, and entrepreneurial talent to consider crowdfunding as an alternative source. However, the recent economic downturn cannot be the only explanation of the phenomenon, since other European regions undergoing similar stresses have fell short of breeding such an ecosystem. Other variables should therefore be considered, such as the role played by the particularly dense network of groups, movements, organizations, associations, etc. that have traditionally articulated Catalan civil society. Perhaps paradoxically, the withdrawal of public entities as culture promoters, festival organizers, or event sponsors—especially at the municipal level, where the tendency to phagocytize the cultural sector has been predominant—has given Catalan civil society organizations a second wind. In this new context of forced devolution, crowdfunding platforms have timely lowered the technological barriers for these groups to take the lead, providing them with new tools to coordinate efforts, communicate, and disseminate. Nevertheless, and very much like the Sagrada Familia could not be fully understood without Gaudi’s reference to “the will of the people”, the analysis of the crowdfunding phenomenon in Catalonia requires a wider look to include the socio-political dimension of this new period into the picture.

Marta Poblet

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On algorithms and croquettes: hashtag battles in Twitter politics

On 11 September 2013, Catalonia’s national day, approximately 1,600,000 Catalans joined hands along Catalonia’s coastline to form “The Catalan Way towards Independence” a 400-kilometre (250-mile) human chain. The Catalan Way was inspired in the 1989 Baltic Way chain that called for the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Likewise, the Catalan Way aimed at being a massive tour de force to push for a referendum on secession from Spain, something that the government in Madrid fiercely opposes.


The Catalan Way in Barcelona (by Maria Poblet)

Everyone in Catalonia knew that, much like contemporary revolutions, the 400 kilometre human chain would be tweeted. Hashtags such as #CatalanWay or #ViaCatalana had already been popular during the previous days and were profusely used as hundreds of thousands were starting to gather along the pre-assigned line stretches to join hands. And yet, no trace of these topics could be found in Barcelona’s trending list.


Real-time visualization of topics and hashtags (11 September 2013, 17.14pm)

This kept some twitter users wondering whether the hashtags had been blocked or even censored, given that they were massively used and clearly popped up in trend maps and social media monitoring platforms:

In parallel, pro-unionist TV channels in Madrid were boosting their own ranks by proudly showing how the hashtag #somespanya (“wearespain”) reigned supreme in Barcelona as the Catalan Way unfolded.

Trending map of Twitter hashtags in Channel 13

Trending map of Twitter hashtags in Channel 13

Accusations of Twitter having censored trends or content have been made in the past, but Twitter Rules clearly establish that the service “will not censor user content, except in limited circumstances”. These circumstances are essentially abuse (i.e. serial or bulk accounts, targeted abuse, username squatting, etc.) and spam conducts, and Twitter reserves the right to suspend or terminate accounts without further notice if such practices are detected.

So why are trends not trending? Blame the algorithm instead of the policy. As Twitter puts it, “this algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis”. When it comes to real-time information, Twitter is sometimes as fast as wind and can sense an earthquake even before people can feel it, so its algorithm is more sensitive to sudden “text events” than to ongoing updates. As Ross Wilson writes, “it only really has time to process the raw data – tweet content, time posted, and topic hashtag. This means a lot less customization of search results is possible, and with no human curation to aid the trended topics list, the topics that make it to the list might not always be the topics readers are genuinely interested in.” A good seismograph, but not necessarily a reliable responder (and this should be taken into account when monitoring Twitter hashtags for disaster management).

What else can people do? They can think ahead and consider using alternative hashtags that have not yet received Twitter baptism. But carefully designed hashtags can go terribly wrong, in politics as in marketing, as the Spanish Popular Party or the McDonald’s  Twitter campaigns have proved.

Another possibility is spontaneous creativity. In Catalonia, as the human chain started to dissolve in the evening and people hang out for some light dinner, a local radio presenter humorously suggested to test the algorithm by using #croquetes (croquettes) instead of #ViaCatalana when posting updates on the event. The idea went immediately viral and #croquetes became a global trending topic.

So perhaps the lesson for political activists would be: Unless Twitter decides to tweak its algorithm, don’t cook your croquettes too early or you will have to swallow a much less yummy appetizer later on.

Visualization of hashtags and topics at 1.15 a.m, 12 September 2013


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Spread the word: the value of local information in disaster response

By Marta Poblet and Keera Pullman

As dozens of bushfires continue to burn across the country (not least in New South Wales) many Australians find themselves unable to return home while many others have no home to return to.

While we all rely on the media for information about imminent threats, it’s at the local level that some of the most valuable information-gathering is being done.

Local communities, and especially those who are at “the first mile”, are the first responders in the case of a bushfire: the people that take immediate action when danger is imminent and that provide crucial information as the event unfolds.

Accessing, managing, and sharing this ground level information is indispensable in all phases of the emergency management cycle.

Disaster management technology

Increasingly, emergency authorities everywhere are providing warnings and updates about incidents via official web sites, social media accounts, and text messages.

A recent warning message on Facebook from the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service. QFRS

But in emergency situations, heavy usage of communication networks may cause traffic disruptions, severely compromising the delivery of updated information.

One such disruption occurred on Friday January 4 when Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) website and mobile app crashed under heavy strain. (Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley told Fairfax that the CFA site received more than 12 million hits in 12 hours.)

Such disruptions highlight technical glitches under huge volumes of traffic. They also highlight the fact that we often wrongly assume credible information only travels in one direction: from authorities to citizenry.

In the era of ubiquitous social media, linked open data, and kaleidoscopic conversations, where is the Plan B?

If, as Ross Bradstock suggested on The Conversation, fire events “could also increase in environments where human exposure is greatest and most vulnerable,” locals will need to rely on locals as well.

The question then becomes: “Which tools are most appropriate to reinforce local networks (or to help build new ones) so local residents can improve their own preparedness and recovery?”

A screenshot from the NSW Rural Fire Service “Current Fires and Incidents” page. RFS

A team effort

First responders can make a granular assessment of needs, resources to be pooled, and provide assistance to the most vulnerable or isolated people in the area.

Current approaches, therefore, often involve a mix of technologies (such as SMS, mobile apps and so on) and collaboration between humanitarian actors, emergency response agencies, corporations, and citizens.

When the end game is to save lives, collaboration is key to an effective and efficient response and can forge relationships that can continue post-response.

A good example is the 2010–11 Queensland floods. This emergency response saw a collaboration between Esri Australia, the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service (QFRS), and citizen volunteers to develop technology that visualised, in real-time, vital information such as flood peaks, damaged property, and road closures.

In addition, information from social media feeds – crowdsourced tweets, Flickr photos and YouTube videos – were geolocated on the map, providing responders with another level of insight to what was happening on the ground.

Brisbane was under water for four days at the height of the floods. During this time the flood map received more than 3 million hits.

A map of Brisbane with flood-affected areas overlaid. Click for larger view. Brisbane City Council

The technology used for the Brisbane floods (which was developed into the Total Operational Mapping (TOM) system – the solution operated with QFRS to visualise emergency data across the state), has also been used to help South Australia’s Country Fire Service (CFS) volunteers and to develop bushfire prediction technology used by Western Australian emergency responders.

The fire prediction tool, developed by the University of Western Australia, predicts the path of a fire based on data such as vegetation type and condition, weather forecasts, and topography. The results are then used by emergency services to help inform preparedness activities. The data are also accessible to the public via an early-warning website.

Click for larger view. Brisbane City Council

Lessons from Sandy

In New York, Hurricane Sandy also fuelled a crowdsourced, people-centered approach to emergency management and recovery.

The #OccupySandy movement, relying on the experience gathered in the days of Occupy Wall Street, established distribution hubs, transportation, first aid and medical supplies.

Participants in #OccupySandy also partnered with other organisations and platforms such as Sahana (to manage requests and the dispatch of items, meals, volunteers and so on) and Recovers (a site allowing people to offer/request assistance).

It might well be too early to assess the long-term impact and effectiveness of these crowdsourced, “horizontally distributed” initiatives. But such technologies will continue to empower citizens and local communities in building peer-to-peer disaster management networks that can come to the rescue when public agencies and large organisations are overwhelmed.

This article was co-authored with Keera Pullman, Consultant – Professional Services at Esri Australia.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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Spanish politics: the anything goes culture

My most admired José Juan Toharia—the renowned sociologist who co-founded Cuadernos para el Dialogo back in 1962 and now presides public opinion research firm Metroscopia—has been providing a series of data-driven analysis on perceptions of Catalonia and Spain since the massive independence rally of September 11, 2012.

José Juan Toharia in Entrevistas Digitales (El Pais)

Toharia, who has conducted regular check-ups of the Spanish society for decades, assesses the endurance of the relations between Spain and Catalonia and concludes that “Catalans’ disaffection or distrust towards Spain is not majoritarian, and neither is Spaniards’ disaffection or distrust towards Catalonia”. This “silent reality of personal feelings” contrasts with the noise out there and, as he puts elsewhere, “one wonders for how long will our democracy endure the vulgarity (if not inanity) of our political class dialectics”.

Too frequently, Spanish politicians indulge in a persistent and tacky denigration of their opponents. Far too often, they dangerously cajole the lowest forms of populism. And if these trends were not worrying enough, some of our political representatives tar the political debate with grossly offensive references to Nazism.

On October 11, Spanish Foreign Minister García-Margallo compared Catalan nationalism to Marxism and Nazism in a parliamentary debate. A few days ago, MP Rosa Díez compared the votes for Basque nationalist coalition Bildu to those obtained by the Nazis in 1933. In Catalonia, Coulcilman Jonatan Cobo from Rubi posted on Twitter a picture of Catalan President Artur Mas caricaturized as a Nazi officer with the Sig rune on his name. He was swift to delete the tweet and begrudge an apology, but the issue went wild in the social media.

Shock jocks and some journalists have also taken the easy road. Pedro J. Ramírez, the editor of the second largest national newspaper, tweeted “Sieg heil!! A Catalan mosaic” referring to the Catalan flag wrapping the Camp Nou in Barcelona on the occasion of the annual home match with Real Madrid.  The German criminal code outlaws the use of the “sieg heil” greeting, runic insignias and other Nazi symbols under section 86a, but not the Spanish one.

Echoing the same event, historian Antonio Elorza stated that “in the collective flag at the Camp Nou, as once at Nuremberg, there is no room for opponents or dissidents”. To him, Barça fans holding the flag are a renewed version of authoritarian nationalisms of the early 20thcentury, theoretically inspired by Carl Schmitt.

Carl Schmitt

The influence of Carl Schmitt in Spain is undeniable, but the target is slightly missed. The political theorist and Third Reich’s Kronjurist has exerted a long fascination among different generations of Spanish legal scholars and politicians, notably Manuel Fraga Iribarne (Minister for Information and Tourism under Gen. Franco’s dictatorship and founder of the present Popular Party), Enrique Tierno Galván, one of the Socialist leaders during the Spanish transition and the first democratic Mayor of Madrid, or Francisco Sosa Wagner, Member of the European Parliament and fellow of Rosa Díez at Union, Progress and Democracy. To many of these scholars, the involvement of Schmitt with the Nazi regime was a mere faux pas that does not undermine his contribution to the critics of liberalism and parliamentary democracy.

Unfortunately, these comments tap into a deep vein: the one that shackles Spanish political discourse by reviling opponents with the most abusive language. It may get bigger audiences, but it also opens the floodgates to slander, sinking everyone into the quagmire. A civilized society should not accept such slide towards prejudice and hate. Verbal violence is always the first step, the one that sets the ground and justifies further escalation. The pattern is well-known by anyone dealing with conflict. Neither Spaniards nor Catalans deserve it. The loser, once again, is democracy.


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Catalonia: independent but united with Europe?

Marta Poblet and Pompeu Casanovas


Catalans march though the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Maria Poblet

In the biggest rally for Catalan independence ever, an estimated crowd of 1.5 million people flooded the city of Barcelona with red-and-yellow striped flags on Catalonia’s national day, the Diada.

Tax laws and lack of financial autonomy have brought Catalan’s disaffection towards the Spanish government to its fullest. And yet, the slogan of the march echoed a unionist aspiration “Catalonia, a new European state”. With the prospect of an economic collapse looming large, the debate over a new hypothetical membership is quickly trespassing national borders.

This article was originally published at
Read the original article at The Conversation.

The Conversation

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Minimal toys, bikes, and appropriate technologies


Children at play are fascinating to observe. It’s not only that “their games should be deemed as their most serious actions”, as Montaigne famously wrote, but they are the finest examples of serendipity at work. All of a sudden, sticky tape rolls can be turned into racing car wheels and a broken bow may well be given a second life as a makeshift sailing boat.

Saling boat

The creative rearrangement of objects and uses has no limits. When it comes to bikes, recycled cardboard can come to the rescue, as Izhar Gafni explains in this video. And in the city of Reykjavik, they may enjoy a second green life as anti-car barriers, in a perfect fusion of the medium and the message.

Car barrier, by Lloyd Alter

Disruptive innovations and the use of appropriate technologies—in Schumacher’s sense—are also a growing trend in medicine. In 2009, researchers at the University of California turned the camera of a standard cell phone into a microscope that captures and transmits clinical samples for analysis and disease diagnosis, the CellScope. Currently in private beta, CellScope Inc. develops optical attachments to turn smartphones into a diagnostic-quality imaging systems for telemedicine, consumer skincare, and education.

Cellscope (Breslauer et al.)

Another interesting example is the Cryopop, the low-cost device by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University who have recently been awarded the first place in the 2012  BMEidea competition. Cryopop uses dry ice for the treatment of cervical pre-cancerous lesions in low-resource settings. As the researchers put it “CryoPop relies only on carbon dioxide tanks already available in developing countries (as a result of the presence of soda companies) and is ten times cheaper, thirty times more efficient, and more effective and reliable than the currently utilized technology”.


In emergency management, where the combined use of SMS texts, social media sources, and digital maps is transforming the way we deal with disasters, the use of appropriate technologies becomes all the more necessary. FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi or Sahana are well known examples of what Robert Kirkpatrick, UN Global Pulse Director, nicely summarized as being appropriate:  “the best technology in a crisis is the one you are already using”.

Marta Poblet

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The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the ethics of responsibility

On May 29, King & Wood Mallesons, the International Law Association (Victoria Chapter) and the Australian Red Cross organized an event on “The Responsibility to Protect: Where to from here?” featuring presentations from leading R2P experts Gareth Evans, Damien Kingsbury and Phoebe Wynn-Pope.

Even if it is often seen as synonymous with humanitarian intervention, R2P has its origins as a principle of international law in the Report  of the International on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICSS) of 2001. As Damien Kingsbury noted, even if a moral principle informs the two concepts, humanitarian intervention and R2P have different scopes. In a nutshell, the R2P principle aims at the protection of the most vulnerable populations from the most heinous international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. To Professor Evans, the principle has the virtue to have introduced the language of protection in the dominant discourse of state sovereignty, usually characterized by its “conspicuous indifference” towards state misbehavior vis-à-vis its own people. He also offered a brilliant walkthrough on the life stages of R2P by distinguishing three phases: (i) birth and early childhood (2001-2005): from its inception in the 2001 Report to its endorsement by heads of state and government at the 2005 UN World Summit; (ii) early lessons learned (2005-2010) in facing the growing conceptual, institutional, and political challenges that the practical implementation of the project would pose (see the UN Secretary’s report on Implementing R2P); (iii) maturity (2011-) with crystallizes in the explicit invocation of the principle in the Libya crisis (which Evans define as a “textbook case”) but also in the renewed concerns and caution out of the implementation of Resolution 1973 in Libya (whether NATO has gone beyond the UN mandate to protect the Libyan people) that help to explain the current paralysis over Syria.  According to Professor Evans, the present situation calls for the “need to regain consensus” on the implementation on the principle. In this perspective he situates the current debate on the related concept of “Responsibility While Protecting” (RwP) as recently brought by Brazil’s Permanent Mission to the UN.

On a different note, Phoebe Wynn-Pope referred to the role of non-state actors and civil society in working with national, regional and international actors to respond to the threat of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In this line, the Australia Red Cross handbook that she presented at the event states that “While these non-state actors are unlikely to have a ‘legal’ responsibility under international law, there is strong argument that a ‘moral’ responsibility exists”. In a similar vein, and expressing its disappointment with the exclusion of the civil society role on the RwP debate, the ICRtoP highlights that:

Civil society is crucial in monitoring the implementation of RtoP by actors at the national, regional, and international levels. NGOs also work to galvanize the political will to prevent and halt the four crimes through improving understanding of RtoP and alerting actors to at-risk situations.

There are many examples in the emergent domain of crisis mapping showing how individuals, networks, and civil society organizations are already playing a significant role (see my previous post). But the uneasiness to accommodate the role of the civil society and other non-state actors within the paradigm of R2P goes far beyond of the debate on how this role can be effectively coordinated with the mandate of the States. Moral and legal responsibilities operate at different levels, and the former tend to creak under the structures of Westphalian states, their interests, and their international relations. R2P may certainly have infused a new language to the institutionalized indifference of Westphalian states. Yet, and despite having stroke a rare chord, the harmony remains Westphalian. It seems to me that perhaps it would be better to distinguish between the “narrow but deep” R2P principle that applies to the individual and collective action of the states under international law, and the ethics of responsibility that all citizens and civil society groups bear as they engage in preventing, denouncing, or documenting human rights violations.  Please note that I’m referring here to an ethics of responsibility in the Emmanuel Levinas sense of responsibility for the Other: “I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair. It is precisely insofar as the relation between the Other and me is not reciprocal that I am subjection to the Other; and I am ’subject’ essentially in this sense” (E. Levinas. 1982 Ethics and Infinity – Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Pittsburgh (Pa): Duquesne University Press (1985 English Edition).

Emmanuel Levinas

In this perspective, it is difficult to imagine how states could be understood as “subjects” in the Levinasian sense. Even if this is a radical assumption, I think it remains useful to clarify the different dimensions of responsibilities and duties that states, organizations, and individuals bear.

Marta Poblet

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Crowdsourced crisis mapping: how it works and why it matters

Marta Poblet and Pompeu Casanovas

Web 2.0 tools and mobile technologies have lowered the barriers not just for people to access the internet but to create and share content. Through open-source, collaborative programs such as wikis, the creation and distribution of information has effectively been crowdsourced.

But can this democratisation of the production of information and the expansion of networked global communities lead to action in solving real-world problems?
As inventor Vinay Gupta of Hexayurt sharply puts it: “Ten years from now there will be 2 billion people with broadband internet access, but no toilet.”

Access to technology is only ever one side of the problem. The other is how people bridge the gap between the creation and sharing of knowledge and action based on that information. Crowdsourced crisis mapping represents a significant step upon this path.

Read the full article at The Conversation.

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Endeavour, Venus, and citizen science

This week, the magnificent Australian-built replica HMB Endeavour could be visited at the Waterfront City Marina in Melbourne. On 26 August 1768, the real HMB Endeavour, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, sailed from Plymouth to the South Pacific Ocean. The aim of the expedition was twofold: to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the disc of the Sun and, as contained in the Secret Instructions given to Cook, to explore, map, and eventually take possession of the hypothesized Terra Australis Incognita.

Cook's chart of New Holland East coast (1770)

By observing the passage of Venus across the Sun astronomers had long expected to resolve what Wayne Orchiston has defined as “the most pressing problem in world astronomy” at that time, which was to determine the length of the astronomical unit, or the mean distance from Earth to the Sun.  As Donald A. Teets referred in his 2003 paper:

Though the idea of using a transit of Venus or Mercury to determine the solar parallax dates back at least to the Scottish mathematician James Gregory in 1663, it was Edmond Halley who became its greatest advocate. Halley observed a transit of Mercury from the southern hemisphere in 1677, and in his report on the observations, he discussed the possibility of using transits of Mercury or Venus to determine the solar parallax. Of the two, he believed that the geometry of Venus transits was far more likely to produce accurate results. Halley proposed the Venus transit idea in papers presented to the Royal Society in 1691, 1694, and most importantly, in 1716.  (…).

Halley’s paper called for observers to be stationed far and wide across the globe, a monumental task in 1761. Despite the obvious difficulties involved in sending observers on distant locations, not to mention the fact that Great Britain and France were in the midst of the Seven Years’ War at the time, the response of his call was overwhelming. In all, when the transit took place, there were at least 122 observers at sixty-two separate stations, from Calcutta on the Siberian city of Tobolsk, from the Cape of Good Hope to St.John’s in Newfoundland, and of course, at a large number of locations throughout Europe. Many had traveled weeks or even months to reach their destinations. (Donald A. Teets. 2003. Transits of Venus and the Astronomical Unit. Mathematics Magazine, Vol. 76, No. 5: 335-348).

Both Halley’s call for global observers to the two scheduled transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 and the response it received are astounding examples of scientific crowdsourcing.  The data gathered after the two observations drew the length of the astronomical unit “ever closer to the values accepted today” (Teets 2003: 347) so that 19th century astronomers using these data “. . . knew the distance to the Sun much better than present-day astronomers know the distance to the centre of the galaxy.” (Wolley 1970: 135; quoted in Orchiston (2004: 62)).

Drawings of the Transit of Venus by Captain James Cook and Charles Green

What is new to present-day scientific endeavours, nevertheless, is that astronomers of the 21st century can benefit from the unprecedented global effort of hundreds of thousands of volunteers who are able to deal with ever-growing datasets. In this line, the Citizen Science Alliance hosts one of the most popular collections of projects where citizens can contribute to classify galaxies (galaxyzoo.org), help to measure our Milky Way (milkywayproject.org), explore the Moon using high-resolution NASA imagery (moonzoo.org), discover new planets around other stars (planethunters.org), and spot explosions on the Sun (solarstormwatch.org), among many others. Citizen science leverages the fact that humans excel in their pattern recognition abilities, being more reliable than machines in most cases, especially when a decision is to be made in a grey area. But, all in all, citizen science relies on the passion and cooperative behavior that is inherent to great discoveries.

As a reminder, the next transit of Venus across the Sun is scheduled on June 6, 2012. Mark your calendars and enjoy it!


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