The Swine Flu news started while I was traveling. So, while I wasn’t able to do anything about it with Ushahidi, I did give it some thought. It seems to me that there are a couple patterns emerging, which should be discussed.

  • First, we see an inordinate amount of traffic on the social networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc).
  • Second, the aggregators step in to gather the data into one place.
  • Third, we see visualizations (maps and graphs).

Social Network Chatter

When there is a “hot flash” emergency, the social media networks start to buzz – Twitter is the biggest and most open example of this. It’s also the place where a lot of misinformation starts to get amplified. It’s not just a place to air your own thoughts, but a place to get a bead on information as it is happening. You can get the information here faster than anywhere else, period.

Ever since the Mumbai terror attacks last year, the community behind Ushahidi has been interested in this. We think this should be done, understanding the probability of information being true by gathering streams of data and using both machine-based and human filtering to make sense of it. The Swift River project was born from this. It is currently being prototyped and iterated on within project. Another interesting project in the same line is InSTEDD’s Evolve, which has a great amount of potential in just this scenario.

InSTEDD's Evolve project

There is another issue at hand here though; the fact that many individuals who have information are not on Twitter, Facebook, or any other big social network. So, while there is a great deal that can be done with the open channels available in the developed world, most of the world is not on those channels when it matters most.

This is where tools like Ushahidi come in. It’s why it was developed, a way to get information from people who aren’t connected online and who might never be. A way for them to share information and receive alerts around emergency incidents.

Aggregating the News

As soon as a new emergency hits, the first thing we see is aggregation of news and data around it. This is good. In the Swine Flu case, I think the example set by Delicious creator Joshua Schachter is one of the best.

“my weekend evening project: RSS + Twitterfeed + + Delicious + Google News = @threatwatch

Threatwatch on Twitter

People try to find the best places to get new news. People like Jimmy Wales will use his platform to create real-time wiki collaboration. Once in a while you’re fortunate to have institutions like the CDC give out good up-to-date information.

I’m intrigued by the aggregation of information, and it makes sense if you can actually get a handle on the different channels, not just mainstream news, wire services, images and video. It really has to be done on a large scale and it’s not an easy thing to manage in terms of both volume and veracity of information.

Visualizations and Maps

The last, and usually the most helpful to general news seekers, is the maps that have started to crop up. Google Maps Mania has an extensive list. Below is Google’s own aggregation and mapping of Swine Flu:

View H1N1 Swine Flu in a larger map

Timothy O’Brien has some interesting graphs on the data as well, especially the information coming through from Twitter. As time goes on, if this follows the patterns we’ve seen before, we’ll see even better and more professionally designed informatics done by the NT Times and others.

In Summary

What we have is the beginnings of an ecosystem for emergency and disaster information. The projects are disjointed and unconnected, and there’s little hope of making them one cohesive unit (nor should the necessarily be).

What I do hope to see in the future is that the protocols, tools and processes for gathering, making sense of, and then disseminating crisis information becomes more open and standardized. There’s no reason that Ushahidi shouldn’t plug and play well with Evolve, which then feeds into Threatwatch on Twitter and is all part of a mapping and visualization scheme by larger publishers.

It would be very interesting to get some of the minds behind Twitter, Ushahidi, InSTEDD, Facebook, Wikia, Google and others together to better figure out how we can each continue to build independently, yet at the same time work towards a better ecosystem for emergency information.