UN and Ushahidi collaboration suggests an interwoven future is inevitable

Guest post by David Foster: Lieutenant Colonel Foster has served over 24 years in the US Army.  He is currently assigned to the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) as a Plans and Operations Officer.  He recently led the development and implementation of a Joint Elections Security Plan for Liberia’s 2011 General Election.  He developed and served as the Officer-in-Charge of the Joint Elections Operations Center (JEOC) that leveraged geospatial technologies and social media to achieve and maintain situational awareness for mission leadership in support of the Government of Liberia, and its people. The following post is based on a presentation LTC Foster gave at the UN-SPIDER meeting in Geneva this November.
During the 2011 Liberian Election process, Ushahidi Liberia proved to be an invaluable team member for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).  Their crowdseeding efforts provided the people of Liberia, UNMIL and others, with timely access to objective reports from around the country.  Lighter and more agile than the UN structure, the Ushahidi Liberia team was able to collate nearly 5,000 reports from perspectives previously not readily accessible to most observers.  Additionally, the constant communication by phone, email and in person between Ushahidi Liberia and the UNMIL Joint Elections Operations Center (JEOC) personnel allowed for cross fertilization and information vetting, improving the fidelity of reporting for all consumers.

Situational Awareness Tools

The best sensors are the human senses. Broadly leveraging what these sensors acquire is impossible without standards, tools, training and leadership, structure that is both formal and informal.  The affected, on-the-ground responders, and providers with reachback capabilities create a circle of dependency that is often broken because of the lack of structure. On the flipside the ability to achieve and maintain situational awareness was and remains bound by the lowest common denominators of an organization and its personnel. The Ushahidi platform allowed UNMIL to break through some of the challenges of:

  • Knowing what information is important, available and where to find and leverage it
  • The End user’s
    • Education level
    • Language skills
    • Computer skills
    • Motivation level
    • Access to tools (power, computer, internet, phone)
    • Training on the tools

Information flows during Liberia's 2011 election

In the end, success was based on preparation and relationships.  The Ushahidi Liberia team provided access to resources and information that UNMIL simply could not have leveraged in their absence.  Constant communication by phone, email and in person between Ushahidi and the UNMIL JEOC allowed for cross-fertilization and information vetting.

About Ushahidi Liberia
1. Ushahidi Liberia has direct partnerships with 16 different NGOs (international and local), civil society coalitions and the government. Among these partnerships there are many other indirect partners (example:  Elections Coordinating Committee is a partner, but they are composed of 30 organizations; IFES has 20 CSOs that Ushahidi has trained who are out in the field reporting to them, etc). Ushahidi has also provided a map for UN OCHA made at their request.
2. Ushahidi had about 7 volunteers during the first run-off.
3. Total reports on elections instance since January = 4,954 (that are public)
4. Androids – Ushahidi had 4 of them running the free election shortcode and also the free long number for a national early warning map (LERN).
5. Ushahidi Liberia’s VSAT connection during the election was 1054/512 kbps (the fastest public internet connection in Liberia), now reduced (due to high costs) to 768/256 kbps – it is a dedicated C-band connection available to Ushahidi Liberia users in their facility. They have 16 computers running open source software. Their Dir. of IT, Dir. of Training, and Program Director are based in-country, with a Tech Lead based in the US.

Data from USAVE to end users

The geography of crisis and response
Geographic location, type of crisis, responder specialty and organization greatly impact the way in which the individual will operate.  However, each shares common, basic geographic (map) data requirements.  Imagery, terrain, political boundaries, infrastructure and hydrography are the minimal data sets required for any type of fieldwork.  Depending on the event, political, social, demographic, medical, refugee, reported violence and other kinds of information may become most critical to obtain.  For the purpose of this thought process we will focus on the base geographic data requirements.
LOCATE: Where am I?  Where is the disaster?  Where are those in need?  Where are response resources?  How do I get to the resources?  How do I get the resources to the affected?
- Country, city, town, base camp and devastated area
- Affected, other responders, and external partners
- Infrastructure (water, power, communications, sewer, medical, transportation, and security)
- Resources (water, food, shelter, medical, transportation, communication, security)
COMMUNICATE: Information, requirements, coordinates, coordination, challenges and successes.
- Affected, other responders, higher headquarters and external partners
- Collected field data, open source
- Data, space and ground based sensor data
- Needs, challenges and successes
FACILITATE: Response, assessments, support, capacity building, documentation & retrograde.
- Information collection and sharing
- Resource acquisition, delivery and employment
- Initial and sustainment training
- Documentation, configuration control
- Responsible turn-over to and departure from Host Nation

Just on the tip of what is possible

Looking to the future
If space-based providers can push data down to the lowest common denominator in a timely manner, in a format they may leverage, the future is bright.  If not, expensive space-based products will remain tools employed by the elite and an educated few “in the know”, remaining invisible to those it would best serve.  Using geographic information systems is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity across the spectrum of United Nations mission sets.  Manual procedures of reporting, filing and analyzing information should be placed behind us.
The success of the next crisis response begins today.  With the right equipment for the mission, end users may even operate disconnected from the grid, know where they are, collect and share information with others on the ground and, when finally connected, receive and transmit vital information to all interested parties. Each scenario requires the end user to pack appropriately based on factors such as financial resources, logistics restrictions, availability of infrastructure within the impact area, on-ground transportation and individual capabilities.
To give the end user access to harnessed capabilities one may consider providing equipment and training so the value may be broadly shared amongst operators instead of unintended hoarding amongst technical specialists.  If the end user connects to the grid, they will be able to receive timely ground and space based data like high resolution post-event imagery from numerous sources, as well as interface with the “cloud.”
The future is already here
A circle of dependency has become apparent between organizations, formal and informal, and the crowd.  They are intertwined, even though some resist.  The bounds have become tighter and the value greater among those parts of the circle working with, rather than against, each other.  During the election season, Ushahidi Liberia provided an environment of professional cooperation necessary for the cultivation of numerous complex relationships.  Together, we have taken a very large step forward into the future. Although, likely never to be the same, the road has now been traveled.  There is no going back.  Know the past, anticipate the future, show the way!