BBC News

Remote control crisis management

By Jamillah Knowles
Online reporter


There's no doubt that people living in the flood stricken areas of Pakistan need international aid and traditional crisis management skills to save them and re-build their lives and homes.

Now those traditional life saving skills deployed in a disaster area are being aided by remote groups of technically minded people, who are using their hi-tech skills to do good.

image captionCrisis Camp DC for Haiti last year

One such organisation is Crisis Commons which, among other things, works to provide manpower for the technologies that can prove invaluable in emergency situations. For instance, it has helped beef up the search capacity of the Open Street Map project.

As its name implies, Open Street Map aims to become a map of the world compiled and edited by anyone and everyone.

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in early 2010, Open Street Map was used to build a basic map of capital city Port Au Prince. It was so comprehensive that urban search and rescue teams on the ground started to download it as it suited their needs so well.

"Volunteers looked at high resolution images identifying say, a hospital or a road or a damaged building. That's valuable information that first responders need on the ground," Heather Blanchard, one of the founders of Crisis Commons, told the Outriders program on BBC Radio 5Live.

Language requirements

Crisis Commons also taps into language skills, whether they be geographically based or related to software.

"With Haiti we needed people who could speak Creole," Said Ms Blanchard. "There's a diaspora from Haiti that still has local knowledge. We helped out the 4363 project and found a whole global network that spoke Creole."

Mission 4636 was a simple way for people on the ground to send a text to number 4636 to submit requests for emergency aid and report their location. The remote team translated the requests so aid workers could get the right help to survivors.

The Mission 4636 system was run by mobile tech firm Ushahidi which was created in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election. It collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by e-mail and text-message and placed them on a Google map.

image captionCrisis Camp in Mountain View CA in aid of the Pakistan floods

Unsurprisingly the scale of the disaster in Pakistan has generated requests via Crisis Commons and Open Street Map for people to translate for Pakistan. Said Ms Blanchard: "Combining language and machine translation there is a great opportunity to take data and make it more useful."

Crisis Commons has also run short term events, known as Crisis Camps, to quickly provide aid and expertise soon after disasters have struck.

The Crisis Camp run to help in Pakistan has provided developers for the Sahana disaster management system, Drupal development for the Disaster Accountability Project and have been locating information and translating SMS messages for which is the Ushahidi project collecting information in-country.

Origins of the Commons

image captionCrisis Camp London for Pakistan

Heather Blanchard said that for her, the idea behind Crisis Commons grew from a simple seed.

"When I was 12 I saw Live Aid," she said. "In 1985 we could support Bob Geldof and send money. 25 years later, you can do something, get people together and make something happen. "

Currently the Pakistan Crisis Camp is working with the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and the Sloan Foundation but the tools used and time provided by the volunteers is unpaid for.

Said Ms Blanchard: "You can start your own Camp if there is not one near you and just let us know. We hope to be a catalyst to give substantial resources to all volunteer communities in the future, not just Crisis Camp."