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The Life-Saving Power of Crowdsourcing

It's hard to imagine a better demonstration of its potential than the worldwide volunteer effort that helped rescue thousands of people after the earthquake in Haiti.

"The future is already here--it's just not very evenly distributed." There's a good deal of truth in science-fiction author William Gibson's observation. One of the most interesting and powerful aspects of our future--a tool that has the potential to take us a long way toward distributing information to where it can do the most good--is the phenomenon known as "crowdsourcing."

The use of crowdsourcing--inviting large numbers of people to help solve a problem or make a decision via the Internet--has exploded as creative problem-solvers have found new ways to exploit its power. Most of us are familiar with Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, which relies on the public to create and edit its content and has fewer than 90 paid employees. Open-source software is another example: Thousands of people with programming skills freely spend their time joining communities that form to develop and improve it.

Government agencies are moving quickly to make the most of social media for crowdsourcing. The Los Angeles fire department, for example, uses Twitter to gather crucial information from residents. People who spot fires tweet the LAFD, sending real-time information that can help save lives and reduce damage.

But one of the most amazing examples of how crowdsourcing can save lives occurred after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Tens of thousands--possibly hundreds of thousands--of people were killed, another 300,000 were injured and a million were left homeless. Relief organizations mobilized to rescue the living and provide for basic needs. Less well known are the efforts of several thousand people spread around the world who were using an open-source, Web-based platform called Ushahidi to find and save thousands of people buried in the rubble.

Ushahidi, Swahili for "bear witness" or "testimony," was created by some techies during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. They were trying to track and map where the violence was occurring by crowdsourcing--mapping the information sent by thousands of people on the ground. Those who managed the Ushahidi site created a map of Kenya and posted the coordinates of each attack. First responders from government and non-governmental organizations found the site invaluable in helping them save lives and care for the injured.

By the time the earthquake hit Haiti, Ushahidi had become a sophisticated tool, integrating Twitter, Facebook, smartphone apps, texts, blogs, YouTube videos and other sources. The Ushahidi-Haiti platform was launched within hours of the earthquake by Boston-area volunteers led by Patrick Meier, one of Ushahidi's creators. Meier trained some friends to help him update the map. They trained others, who trained others, and within the first week 100 people were using Ushahidi to map the locations of people needing help, buildings about to collapse and other information vital to emergency workers. After two weeks, another 100 people, located around the world, were trained and contributing vital information. And Meier knew almost none of them!

A texting short code (4636) was dedicated for incoming messages about the quake. Witnesses texted 4636 to report what they were seeing or experiencing. If the message was specific--"Someone is trapped in a building located on Border and Smith," for example--a trained volunteer would map the GPS coordinates on the Ushahidi site, which rescue teams used to locate victims.

But how could people on the ground in Haiti communicate with the outside world, given the devastation? Few Haitians had land lines, but an estimated 70 percent had access to a cellphone, and many of the cell towers wiped out by the quake were rebuilt in a matter of days. Soon, survivors and relief workers were texting to 4636.

Twenty-five days after the earthquake, Ushahidi-Haiti had mapped about 2,500 reports. The United Nations, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marines were using these maps to focus their relief efforts. In one email, a Marine who worked on the Haiti rescue effort wrote, "I cannot overemphasize to you what the work of the Ushahidi/Haiti has provided. It is saving lives every day. ... You are making the biggest difference of anything I have seen out there in the open source world."

When you think about the implications of crowdsourcing tools like Ushahidi--hundreds or thousands of people who don't know each other volunteering to work on a common challenge, freely sharing information and operating with no formal organizational structure--it's hard to argue with William Gibson's assertion. The future is, indeed, already here. And crowdsourcing is an important and promising part of that future.

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