A post on terminology: get it right or shut up!

I know I am not the best and most diplomatic person ever ever when it comes to arguing about things that I know about. On the other side I am also a big fan of the theory that if you don’t know what you are talking about, then you better just not talk about it.

In the past year I have eyewitness a lot of conversations, blog posts, papers and so on, on Crisis Mapping, Crowdsourcing and related issues that were completely misleading, not because the statements or the ideas in it were wrong, but because the underlying definition that the authors had about the subject that they were addressing was fundamentally wrong.

For this reason I want this blog post to be a sort of Glossary, a kind of “check list” for people talking about specifically Crisis Mapping, Crisis Mappers, crowdsourcing and Ushahidi related issues, to be used when they want to write about it. This is not because I think I have the Truth, actually I am far from being an expert in this subject, but because if we want to continue having constructive conversations about sensitive topics like security, privacy, verification of information crowdsourcing projects and so on, we need to make sure that we are indeed clear on what we are talking about.

TOOLS, METHODOLOGIES AND PEOPLE

One of the most comment mistake done by several people is the one were methodologies, tools and groups of people/organizations are mixed together as if they indicate the same thing.

Let’s start from the very first definition according to the dictionary:

  1. Tool: a device used to implement, esp. one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.
  2. Methodology: a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity
  3. People: human beings in general or considered collectively

An example of misleading discussions about this very issue is this new piece from the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP) where Crisis Mappers (a group of people) seem to be necessarily associated with doing Crowdsourcing (a methodology) and indeed only using the Ushahidi platform (a tool). This association of thoughts crowdsourcing-crisismapping-ushahidi platform is very common, and the mistake done by the authors of this piece is not new – or a single case.

So let’s look closely at this problem.

When people talk about Ushahidi, they are indeed talking about a tool most of the time, but they get confused because the same Ushahidi word is also the name of an organization. What this means is that the specific tool in question can be used by different group of people, applied to different topics and used with different methodologies. Example: this Ushahidi platform used to collect data bout the best burger/fries in the US makes use of the crowdsourcing methodology, using a specific tool. The fact that they are using Ushahidi does not make this project a Crisis Mapping project, for example.

You can also use the Ushahidi platform but not do crowdsourcing and still do crisis mappig if your platform is used in the context of collecting, analyzing and displaying information in a crisis context.

On the other side they may be talking about Ushahidi Inc. the organization, and in this case they are talking about a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software. Ushahidi Inc. is indeed NOT responsible for all Ushahidi deployment around the world, as Bill Gates is not responsible for all the documents written using Microsoft Office Word.

So here there is the little “glossary” I promised you:

CRISISMAPPING (field):  Crisis Mapping is by definition a cross-disciplinary field. Crises can be financial, ecological, humanitarian, etc., but these crises all happen in time and space, and necessarily interact with social networks. We may thus want to learn how different fields such as health, environment, biology, etc., visualize and analyze large complex sets of data to detect and amplify or dampen specific patterns.

Crisis Mapping can be then described as the combination of the following 3 components: information collection, visualization and analysis. Of course, all these elements are within the context of a dynamic, interactive map. So it is possible to use the following taxonomy:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Crisis Map Visualization
  3. Crisis Map Analysis
What it is extremely important to notice here is that crisis mapping is NOT necessarily related to the use of technology – meaning you can do crisis mapping without necessarily using social media sources for example – and also crisis mapping is NOT necessarily related to the use of the crowdsourcing methodology – you can map data is collected through representative sampling for example. All in all crisis mapping is a way to visualized information in an interactive map providing in this way an analytical temporal and spacial dimension to the information itself.

CROWDSOURCING (methodology): Crowdsourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model. In the classic use of the term, problems are broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions. Users—also known as the crowd—submit solutions. Solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer. The contributor of the solution is, in some cases, compensated either monetarily, with prizes, or with recognition.

The term is nowadays also used to indicate collaborative problem solving or collaborative and distributive activities, which do not necessarily comes from a direct open call to solve a problem. Media monitoring for example, collecting information form social media like twitter and facebook, can be called passive crowdsourcing – meaning that the crowd is not necessarily answering to a call, but the crowdsourcerer still is collecting and aggregating all the information to crete a collective picture of an event.

The important thing to know here is that crowdsourcing is NOT necessarily related to the use of new technologies: you can crowdsource information using a letter box, a normal phone, a black board, or any other tool you want. This means that using social media is not necessarily crowdsourcing. Also crowdsourcing can be applied to crisis mapping but also not: I can crowdsource information and then displayed them on an interactive map (crowdsourcing information for a crisis mapping project), or I can crowdsourced information and compile a nice spreadsheet with all the information collected (crowdsourcing for something for information collection – not crisis mapping).

CRISIS MAPPERS (group of people): The International Network of Crisis Mappers is the largest and most active international community of experts, practitioners, policymakers, technologists, researchers, journalists, scholars, hackers and skilled volunteers engaged at the intersection between humanitarian crises, technology and crisis mapping. The Crisis Mappers Network was launched by 100 Crisis Mappers at the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping in 2009. The website used by the community has since been accessed from 191 different countries. As the world’s premier crisis mapping forum, the Network catalyzes communication and collaboration between and among crisis mappers with the purpose of advancing the study and application of crisis mapping worldwide.

On the other side, people doing crisis mapping projects are by definition crisis mappers, even if they are not part of the International Network of Crisis Mappers. The Crisis Mappers network is NOT an organization in the legal term, and does not “deploy” projects; it does not have funders  and does not act as a unique homogenous hierarchal group. All crisis mappers around the world may not even know they are doing crisis mapping and that they are indeed crisis mappers.

USHAHIDI (an organization and a tool): Ushahidi, Inc. is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software (LGPL) for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers/selected monitors to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events. Some of those productos are: the Ushahidi platform, Crowdmap, Swiftriver and SMSsync. Ushahidi – the platform – can be use in crowdsourcing (methology) projects and in crisis mapping (field) projects, but those are just two examples of a very vast and diversified typology of applications.

Important to notice here is the fact that the Ushahidi platform is not (and repeat to make sure IS NOT) the only platform exiting on earth that can be used to do crisis mapping projects or for crowdsourcing. Examples of other platforms that can be used to do crisis mapping are for example, the Sudan Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), Citivox, Development Seeds (organization that creates customized maps), and so on. Also Ushahidi is NOT a crowdsorcing platform, but a platform that can – or not- be used to do crowdsourcing.

To conclude: there are a lot of discussions going on about crisis mapping and security issues, as well as about crowdsourcing and the use of the Ushahidi platform, or crowdsourcing and data protection. I think that the more we talk about it, the better is it; but it is necessary that we start understanding what we talk about, otherwise arguments and positions that have a value, immediately loose it, because they are based on wrong assumptions. All in all the lesson learned is: do your homework!

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7 Responses to A post on terminology: get it right or shut up!

  1. Seth W says:

    Great post! I’m a fan of terminology, specificity, and semantics; when there is a need to be precise, agreed-upon definitions are of utmost importance.

    I noticed, however, that your definition of crowdsourcing doesn’t necessarily include platforms where many people contribute to a collaborative effort. Wikipedia, for example, or ReCaptcha, only succeed if many people put in small amount of effort. Your definition only seems to allow for a group to produce a single, non-collaborative solution.

    Was this definitive gap on purpose? Do you consider things like Wikipedia to not be crowdsourced? Is there a different term you use for projects like this? Or was it merely an oversight?

  2. Hey Seth,
    I am confused by your statement. Why the definition I give of crowdsourcing does not include things like Wikipedia? What is wikipedia if not “a distributed problem-solving where a problem – create the biggest encyclopedia in the world – is broadcast to an unknown group of solvers in the form of an open call for solutions and where users submit solutions – in this case definitions. Solutions are then owned by the entity that broadcast the problem in the first place—the crowdsourcer” – which in this case is Wikipedia, and why the definition I use does not include “collaborative solutions” according to you?

  3. Seth W says:

    Upon a second reading, you’re absolutely right. Your definition is much broader than I thought at first glance! It definitely allows for the collaborative aspects I mentioned.

  4. Luis Capelo says:

    I think you are right to distinguish clearly that Ushahidi (the company) provides different products, among them Ushahidi (the platform). However, I think it is important to highlight that both the company and the platform were born to map the crisis generated after the Kenyan elections of 2007-2008. Yes, the Ushahidi platform can be used for many other things than just crisis mapping — like the hamburger-related initiative you mentioned in your post –, but it was born from crisis mapping and, if I am not wrong, its most successful and popular deployments are used precisely to map a crisis event (Haiti, Pakistan, Libya, etc.). Moreover, Patrick Meier one of the most well known crisis mappers works as Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping.

    Further along those lines, it is also very important to clarify that Ushahidi is not solely based on the crowdsourced methodology to solve problems. For example, you can input data on the Ushahidi platform manually by yourself, without the necessity of a “crowd”. However, I would argue that Ushahidi is only useful because it makes it very easy to combine continuous and dynamic data-streams from different sources into a live map. Further, I would argue that Ushahidi (the platform) is only innovative because it is designed to use crowdsourcing.

    About those misconceptions between the Ushahidi platform and the company, Patrick Meier (Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi) wrote a blog post by the end of 2009 that addresses exactly your points. As far as I can understand, he mentions quite clearly in that post that Ushahidi is pretty much based on the crowdsourcing methodology: http://irevolution.net/2009/12/16/three-common-misconceptions-about-ushahidi/ Additionally, his blog is filled with similar examples, and even his thesis draws that conclusion: irevolution.net Thus, affirming that Ushahidi is not base on crowdsourcing doesn’t seem to be credible based on this article.

    Also, you mentioned that the article “Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass”(http://globalbrief.ca/blog/features/crisis-mapping-needs-an-ethical-compass/4744) confuses the concepts that you try to ‘clarify': “[in the article] Crisis Mappers (a group of people) seem to be necessarily associated with doing Crowdsourcing (a methodology) and indeed only using the Ushahidi platform (a tool).” However, I just finished the article and it made me wonder where you found that relationship. Specifically, the following part left me puzzled because it seems to contradict your statement:

    “And crisis mappers, who already commonly use a set of digital platforms and tools, now urgently need a shared set of ethical and technical standards for how to use these safely and strategically.”

    What it seems tome is that the authors state that crisis mappers (the group of people) use a set of “digital platforms and tools” to do their work. Also, they mention Ushahidi twice in the article and in none of those it is clear the relationship you stated. What seems clear, however, is that the article is trying to talk about ethics and standards in the field of crisis mapping. I am not particularly convinced by their approach, but it seems great to me that they are talking about this subject. For me it seems that crisis mappers do need ethics and standards and people should be talking about it until (at least) all the major actors agree upon something. Otherwise, the risks of doing harm instead of bringing relief seems too great to ignore.

    • Dear Luis,
      Thank you so much for your comment, you are definitely proving my point that this blog post was really needed!

      See my comments below:

      “I think you are right to distinguish clearly that Ushahidi (the company) provides different products, among them Ushahidi (the platform). However, I think it is important to highlight that both the company and the platform were born to map the crisis generated after the Kenyan elections of 2007-2008. Yes, the Ushahidi platform can be used for many other things than just crisis mapping — like the hamburger-related initiative you mentioned in your post –, but it was born from crisis mapping and, if I am not wrong, its most successful and popular deployments are used precisely to map a crisis event (Haiti, Pakistan, Libya, etc.). Moreover, Patrick Meier one of the most well known crisis mappers works as Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping.”

      I guess you are stating here that we both agree on my point that crisis mapping is not Ushahidi. Definitely Ushahidi was born from the application of Crisis mapping, but this doesn’t really change the issue: I was born from my mother too, this does not make me = my mother, does it?

      “Further along those lines, it is also very important to clarify that Ushahidi is not solely based on the crowdsourced methodology to solve problems. For example, you can input data on the Ushahidi platform manually by yourself, without the necessity of a “crowd”. However, I would argue that Ushahidi is only useful because it makes it very easy to combine continuous and dynamic data-streams from different sources into a live map. Further, I would argue that Ushahidi (the platform) is only innovative because it is designed to use crowdsourcing.”

      I understand your point here, but still, your opinion on why Ushahidi is innovative or useful still remain irrelevant to what the platform is and what you can do with it.

      “About those misconceptions between the Ushahidi platform and the company, Patrick Meier (Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi) wrote a blog post by the end of 2009 that addresses exactly your points. As far as I can understand, he mentions quite clearly in that post that Ushahidi is pretty much based on the crowdsourcing methodology: http://irevolution.net/2009/12/16/three-common-misconceptions-about-ushahidi/ Additionally, his blog is filled with similar examples, and even his thesis draws that conclusion: irevolution.net Thus, affirming that Ushahidi is not base on crowdsourcing doesn’t seem to be credible based on this article.”

      Mmmmhm..interesting enough, I think you are clearly being a bit selective in the way U are using Patrick’s blog. Anyhow, Patrick has talked several times about this, and I would suggest you ask him directly about this. Also, using the fact that people do use the Ushahidi platform for crowd sourcing to state that this is the only way it can be used, is a strange way to base your reasoning on. You keep saying that Ushahidi is “based” on crowdsourcing, which again is a pretty weird statement, basically saying that a tool that was created to be used with a methodology is only meant to be used for that methodology? I am not sure what is the point that you want to make, but clearly, even if We agree on this statement, still: the fact that a toll was created to be used with a certain purpose does not mean that that tool = the methodology. Facebook was created to be used by universities to share their facebooks, yet today is used in a very different way. My point here is, I am not arguing what Ushahidi was originally created for, I am arguing that the tool can be used with different methodologies.

      “Also, you mentioned that the article “Crisis Mapping Needs an Ethical Compass”(http://globalbrief.ca/blog/features/crisis-mapping-needs-an-ethical-compass/4744) confuses the concepts that you try to ‘clarify': “[in the article] Crisis Mappers (a group of people) seem to be necessarily associated with doing Crowdsourcing (a methodology) and indeed only using the Ushahidi platform (a tool).” However, I just finished the article and it made me wonder where you found that relationship. Specifically, the following part left me puzzled because it seems to contradict your statement:

      “And crisis mappers, who already commonly use a set of digital platforms and tools, now urgently need a shared set of ethical and technical standards for how to use these safely and strategically.”

      Again, you seem to have a pretty selective way to read man! The article also mention several times that crisis mappers collect information from the crowd, which is in fact crowdsourcing, and it also uses mentioned several times that crisis mappers needs to protect the people submitting information, again referring to the use of the crowdsourcing mythology which is not necessarily the only way you do crisis mapping.

      What it seems tome is that the authors state that crisis mappers (the group of people) use a set of “digital platforms and tools” to do their work. Also, they mention Ushahidi twice in the article and in none of those it is clear the relationship you stated. What seems clear, however, is that the article is trying to talk about ethics and standards in the field of crisis mapping. I am not particularly convinced by their approach, but it seems great to me that they are talking about this subject. For me it seems that crisis mappers do need ethics and standards and people should be talking about it until (at least) all the major actors agree upon something. Otherwise, the risks of doing harm instead of bringing relief seems too great to ignore.

      Absolutely agree. What you, and the authors of the article, clearly ignore, is that crisis mapping has been going on for now several years, and this discussion has been happening for at least the past 2 years. Practitioners on the ground have been, and are, discussing those issues for some time, and on the contrary of the author of this piece, they are not just asking questions, but they are, because they have to, trying to provide the answers to those questions. Another issue, which highlight that when you, and the author of that article, mentioned crisis mappers, you do not really know what you are talking about, is that there are no “major players”: everyone is a crisis mappers in the moment they set up their crisis mapping project. So stating that we need to have ethics and standards for the all humanity, is a pretty banal and also pretty naive statement. The existence of standards is not an answer to the problem, it is actually normally the framework that support the design of the solution. In fact, international human rights standards and humanitarian standards created more than 50 years ago are still not preventing states and people to violate them and still go unpunished. My point is, yes, great to talk about this, but let’s concentrate on practical measures to address the real problems on the ground and let’s use ethical and security standards that are already existing to update them in order to include the new methodologies out there, instead of wasting time in pretty much academic rambling that seems to have more the intent to stop any real action to be taken than actually help practitioners on the ground to address real issues.

      All in all, I think we agree here on the fact there is much confusion, definitely due to the fact that the Ushahidi platform was born to respond to a specific need and applied In a specific situation. 4 years later, the tool has changed, and the situation too, and this is probably the reason why there is a need to understand what the current situation is for everyone to be able to speak with credibility and clarity when addressing such important issues like the once addressed in this article.

      My best,
      Anahi

  5. Pingback: On crisis mapping, crowdsourcing and online volunteering for development « Voices from Eurasia

  6. Pingback: Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information during the Libyan Civil War | Diary of a Crisis Mapper

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