There’s no point spewing stunning statistics like this recent one from The Economist, which states that 80% of adults will have access to smartphones before 2020. The volume, velocity and variety of digital data will continue to skyrocket. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “Big Data is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.”
And so, traditional humanitarian organizations have a choice when it comes to battling Big Data. They can either continue business as usual (and lose) or get with the program and adopt Big Data solutions like everyone else. The same goes for Digital Humanitarians. As noted in my new book of the same title, those Digital Humanitarians who cling to crowdsourcing alone as their pièce de résistance will inevitably become the ivy-laden battlefield monuments of 2020.
Big Data comprises a variety of data types such as text, imagery and video. Examples of text-based data includes mainstream news articles, tweets and WhatsApp messages. Imagery includes Instagram, professional photographs that accompany news articles, satellite imagery and increasingly aerial imagery as well (captured by UAVs). Television channels, Meerkat and YouTube broadcast videos. Finding relevant, credible and actionable pieces of text, imagery and video in the Big Data generated during major disasters is like looking for a needle in a meadow (haystacks are ridiculously small datasets by comparison).
Humanitarian organizations, like many others in different sectors, often find comfort in the notion that their problems are unique. Thankfully, this is rarely true. Not only is the Big Data challenge not unique to the humanitarian space, real solutions to the data deluge have already been developed by groups that humanitarian professionals at worst don’t know exist and at best rarely speak with. These groups are already using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and some form of human input to make sense of Big Data.
How does it work? And why do you still need some human input if AI is already in play? The human input, which can be via crowdsourcing or a few individuals is needed to train the AI engine, which uses a technique from AI called machine learning to learn from the human(s). Take AIDR, for example. This experimental solution, which stands for Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response, uses AI powered by crowdsourcing to automatically identify relevant tweets and text messages in an exploding meadow of digital data. The crowd tags tweets and messages they find relevant and the AI engine learns to recognize the relevance patterns in real-time, allowing AIDR to automatically identify future tweets and messages.
As far as we know, AIDR is the only Big Data solution out there that combines crowdsourcing with real-time machine learning for disaster response. Why do we use crowdsourcing to train the AI engine? Because speed is of the essence in disasters. You need a crowd of Digital Humanitarians to quickly tag as many tweets/messages as possible so that AIDR can learn as fast as possible. Incidentally, once you’ve created an algorithm that accurately detects tweets relaying urgent needs after a Typhoon in the Philippines, you can use that same algorithm again when the next Typhoon hits (no crowd needed).
What about pictures? After all, pictures are worth a thousand words.
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