When I talk to people about Ushahidi, one question always comes up: what about verification of information? How can you know that you are reporting something true not knowing at all who is submitting the information? How can you be sure that someone is not just using your platform to spread rumors or to send false alarms that could actually do more arms than help?
The problem here is serious especially if you are working on an instance related to emergency situation or to potentially dangerous environments, like in non-democratic countries or during sensitive elections or humanitarian crisis.
I have two answers to this question.
The first one is that using Ushahidi doesn’t mean necessarily that you have to do crowd sourcing. You can use Ushahidi in a restrict group, and have only certain people reporting on your platform. Ushahidi is a mapping system but the sources of information are always up to you. Crowd sourcing is not an easy task and if you don’t have the resources to handle it, than you just shouldn’t do it.
If you don’t do crowd sourcing then you don’t have the verification problem: the people reporting to you are the people you trust, and as a consequence the information you put on the platform is automatically verified. Of course, you need to be careful in deciding who “your people” are. Paying them is a good incentive for them to do their job properly, but again, this is up to you.
The second answer to the verification issue is that, if you do crowd sourcing, there is no way you can verify the information you put in your platform. This is it. There is no way to verify with 100% accuracy what people are reporting to you, unless you have the same amount of people available to verify each report every time. But in this case we go back to the situation described in my first answer.
Having said that, and having very clear in mind that if you do crowd sourcing you will never have the possibility to verify information 100%, there are several ways you can try to partially verify some of the information you put in your platform. One of those is to crowd source the verification of information.
To explain what I mean with this I will use an example from Ushahidi-Chile, in a story that according to me is one of the most interesting one about the use of Twitter and social networks to spread false information and on how this can actually seriously harm people’s credibility and in this case not only that.
This story started on the 27th February at 13:24, when we received this report “Please send help, i am buried under rubble in my home at Lautaro 1712 Estación Central, Santiago, Chile. My phone doesnt work.” I will call this the First Report.
At 23:28 the same day a second report was upload into the Ushahidi-Chile platform “RT @biodome10: plz send help to 1712 estacion central, santiago chile. im stuck under a building with my child. #hitsunami #chile we have no supplies.”. I will call this the Second Report.
On the same day someone from the Fletcher Team posted a comment to the First Report saying that “The person trapped is reporting he has been rescued.” At the time the Fletcher Team was running the platform while in the same time managing Ushahidi-Haiti, and while at SIPA we were waiting to be trained by Digital Democracy to take over the platform.
The day after Michael Caudy, the person that inserted the Second Report from Twitter, added an additional comment to the First Report noticing that the two reports were slightly different and so that it was possible that there were actually two separate incidents in the same general region. Micheal suggested to us to check carefully on this issue, to make sure that a different adult, and their child, were not left unaided.
The same day the Second Report was flagged as Action Taken, which means that someone reported that the person and the child were rescued.
It was only a couple of days after, on the 4th of March, when the SIPA Team was managing the platform, that we decided to look into this information and to see what was going on, to be able to understand if those people were being rescued as a result of the Ushahidi Platform reports and also to be sure that actually all of them were safe.
I decided to write to Michael Caudy, which I didn’t know at all, and ask him more information about the report he submitted to see if he knew the person rescued or could put me in contact with him/her. Micheal replayed to me saying that he didn’t know the person but that he could do a Twitter search for us.
Micheal then posted on Twitter the following question:
Do you know whether this person, “biodome10″ has been making false tweets following the Chile earthquake?
30 minutes after, Michael sent to me a list of replies he received from Twitter. Here I report only some of them.
1. allysonkukez2 @GreginPGBC @biodome10 is a fake. Please pay no attention to him.
2. Hoey1 @earcos Not sure if anyone answered your question about @gfraley – there are 3 accounts all ran by biodome10 and that is one of them. Fake.
3. Hoey1 @olivosartstudio Biodome10 was lying. Please do a twitter search on his name and you will find out it was a hoax.
4. PaoMiamiFL RT @reporteropop: @PaoMiamiFL that @biodome10 was a liar
5. Adam_Schefter biodome10 is at it again using your name to make up rumors.
6. PaoMiamiFL biodome10 was lying. He was never in danger do a search for his name biodome10
7. kelsey_feed RT @ojus98: Report as spam and scam @biodome10 #fail #spam #scam #hackingaccount #stolenaccount
8. mitoyarzun RT @ojus98: Report as spam and scam @biodome10 #fail #spam #scam #hackingaccount #stolenaccount
9. taniamuni RT @ojus98: Report as spam and scam @biodome10 #fail #spam #scam #hackingaccount #stolenaccount
10. reporteropop @PaoMiamiFL that @biodome10 was a liar
In the same time I decided to do a quick Google search on this Twitter account and I discovered that the account was actually involved into a scandal related to the false report of Chris Henry’s death (see “Tweet Cheat: Fake Reporter Sparks Controversy”). The Cincinnati Bengals football player was reported to be dead by Biodome10 from his twitter account, and several newpapers, like the Huffington Post, reported the news taking it from the massive re-tweets that spread the voice in the net. Chris Henry was at the time the news gets in the newspaper in the hospital, but still alive. He died 12 hours later.
Now the story gets very interesting. Biodome10 in fact had an avatar on his page, and the name on the Twitter account was Gerry.
Here is the image of Biodome10
Here is his picture:
A couple of hours after the first tweet that Biodome10 posted (our First Report), another guy named James Gubbins decided to look further into the tweet and did some research on the Biodome10 page, who looked like this:
James at this point found the article about Chris Henry and, convinced that this guy has a precedent in sending out false information, decided to call Gerry Fraley in his office in Dallas to verify if he was actually just doing the same he did with Henry’s story. Of course it turns out that Gerry Fraley was actually ok and was working in his office in Dallas.
Now what remain was the doubt, was he Biodome10? Was he the same responsible for the false twitter messages we posted?
Couple of minutes after the phone call, where James didn’t manage to speak directly with Gerry but had the assurance that he was not under a building in Chile, Biodome10 posted the twitt we also received, saying that he had been rescued.
Now let’s leave the Gerry-Biodome10 question on a side for a while and let’s go back to our original two reports about someone being trapped under a building.
Our First Report, as you recall, had as address Lautaro 1712, Santiago, Chile. The Chilean police on the same evening (27th February) received a phone call from someone telling them there was a foreign citizen (the tweet was in English) trapped under a building in that address, who was asking for help from Twitter. At this point the police decided to send 3 trucks from the fire dept, 30 cops from the rescue department, and the chief of Security in person to the address to save the person in question ( see James’s blog on this, and also reported from @criverap from Twitter).
It was Saturday night in Santiago and even if there had been one of the worst earthquake of the last 25 years, life was still going on. So it was for Dinamarca Pedro and Vargas Elba, a couple that was celebrating that night its 39 wedding anniversary. Of course, there was not much to celebrate, so at 11pm Pedro and Elba were preparing to go to bed. They lived in Lautaro 1712, Santiago, Chile. When the door was open by force by police, carabineros and detectives, with the chief of Security in person leading the operation, the couple almost had a heart attack. No person to rescue, only an old couple which is going to remember its 39 anniversary for the rest of its life!. (reported on Las Ultima Noticias Newspaper on the 1st of March 2010)
But let’s go to our Second Report, posted at 23:28pm on the 27th.
The address of this one in fact wasn’t mentioning Lautaro, but only 1712 Estacion Central in Santiago. The Chilean Police was also monitoring Twitter that night, they learned from Haiti the power of social networks. They also saw the twitt and decided to send immediately someone to the location to rescue the person in question. Rafael from Santiago reported on James blog that he “heard this tweet was actually responded by authorities who quickly left after seeing that that part of the city was intact”.
Both those tweets were false. Now we know that because we know that Biodome10 was posting false information. But the Chilean police didn’t have the time and the resources to verify this information. They had priorities: go and save people as quickly as possible. They wasted time two times following both those twitter messages, while they could have been use this time to save other people in danger. Biodome10 was not only playing with social networks and Twitter, he was playing with people’s life.
But the story is not even close to an end.
It turns out in fact that Zazzle, a platform for customizable products, is now hosting on its website an initiative by PAOSWORLD and YAGO Brand, which decided to create an emergency page to bring aid to Chile “in a way you can feel it and be able to extend the urgency to those around you.” All the royalties resulting for the purchase of any item in that page, will be directly mail to the Red Cross Chile in Santiago, Chile.
In between their products here is what I found:
So, all in all, the Chilean Red Cross is now receiving money (10% from each t-shirt which costs 21:45$) by the commercialization of t-shirts with a false twitter message on it, that actually made the Chilean authorities loose time by sending two units to rescue someone that was not in danger.
But let’s go back to our Gerry Fraley-Biodome10 issue. It turns out in fact that, as James Gubbins, others get a bit pissed off at Gerry, thinking that he is Biodome10 and that he is posting false information using twitter and by doing so, trying to destroy the credibility of the internet community and of the tool itself. So it happens, Gerry Fraley started receiving tweets, phone calls and other non-pleasant messages from people about him being a liar and spreading false information on Twitter.
But that’s not all. Not only Biodome10 was using an avatar and a name that clearly tried to make a reference to Gerry Fraley, but he seemed to be also behind another twitter account that refers to Gerry Fraley @DMNGerryFraley twitting as if he was actually Gerry Fraley.
At this point we are at then end of the story, and I will let Gerry Fraley speaking about this by himself “Biodome10 is an impostor with a sick mind. I have been dealing with this for several months, with no success in eliminating this person. The attitude at Twitter is one of “it happens all the time.” I find that unconscionable.” Gerry Fraley
Now, what are the lessons we learned from this story?
The first one is that maybe Twitter has to change a bit their policy in terms of fake accounts (see this interesting post on this).
The second one is that there is no way you can verify 100% the information you collect from Twitter. I still don’t know if Gerry Fraley is Biodome10, even if I think that considering the damages to his reputation as a journalist and as person, I doubt this guy is really behind Biodome10 false twitter messages and accounts. If he is, he must have a double personality issue or be a real masochist.
The third lesson is that crowd sourcing verification of information works. I have been able to find all those information just by sitting on my desk in NYC/Boston. Others have done investigations for me. I have been just collecting people’s tweets, read their blogs, and put together all the information. The fact that different people, from different parts of the world have been investigating by themselves this issue, has given me the possibility to find out that Biodome10 was a liar, independently from his identity and to be sure that the two reports we posted on our Ushahidi map were actually false.
Of course, this is not good to know. We posted false information and we could have been the ones responsible for the actions taken by the police that responded to those tweets. But on the other side, we knew it. We never thought we had the guarantee that the information we were posting were true: this is why we always flag Twitter reports as unverified on the Ushahidi Platform.
But this is a good lesson learned: a team working on a Ushahidi platform doing crowd sourcing and dealing with sensitive information needs to have a verification team that can use the same system used to collect information also to verify it: crowd sourcing. If you don’t know who is sending you information or if the information is true or not, you DO know that there is no way that more than 30 different people from different parts of the US, Chile and other countries can possibly decide to set up an operation against a single individual and create blogs, twitters, journal articles and newspaper articles to destroy his credibility. This could be possible, but it is very unlikely and would require an enormous amount of resources to be done.
What is emerging from this story is that falsification of information is easy, but it is easier the verification of the same information, and ones you decide to verify, then there is not way that a single person or a group (we really dunno who there is behind Biodome10 and DMNGerryFraley and how many they are) can lie to the crowd. Crowd sourcing verification of information in this case worked. True, it was too late, especially for the police dept in Santiago, but next time we all will be ready.
And there is a fourth lesson to learn: social networks are incredibly powerful. Twitter as one of them is extremely powerful and helped saving lives in Haiti, for example. But the power of the tool goes beyond the myth of the good digital community claiming an alternative global citizenship. We need to be extremely careful when we deal with digital activism and digital information because the effects are not virtual, they are real, they harm people’s reputation and can harm people’s lives. This is something we should keep in mind, always.