What is digital humanitarianism and what did it do for Ecuador?

Kimberley Brown looks at how technology could help the South American country’s earthquake victims.

A view of the San José de Chamanga affected zone, near Mache river. An earthquake hit here on 16 April destroying several houses and public buildings. A boy walks over the rubble. UNICEF/ECU/2016/Reinoso under a Creative Commons Licence

After a massive earthquake hit Ecuador’s coast in April, the country was devastated. Entire towns were destroyed, hundreds were killed and thousands more left homeless.

The scene was chaotic, and aid efforts immediately sprung up across the country. But this included more than donation points and people rushing to the coast to try to help. It also included online activists working behind the scenes who began mapping the crisis from their computers – a growing movement known as digital humanitarianism.

‘In the beginning, the feeling of helplessness of people here was intense,’ said Ricardo Arguello, a digital volunteer in Quito some 200 km from the earthquake’s epicenter on the coast. He is one of many minds behind the crisis mapping website AyudaEcuador.ec (Help Ecuador).

‘But many of the people volunteering here told me that they feel they are doing something concrete, something that works effectively… that what they know, technology, is being applied directly to the problem.’

One major reason that crisis mapping has been successful is that it relies entirely on crowdsourcing and open source software, making the technology available to everyone, not just tech junkies. And the fact that it’s all online means anyone around the world can help.

The night of Ecuador’s earthquake on 16 April, software engineers, website designers and mappers from around the world instantly took to chat groups to discuss how technology could help the victims. They quickly compiled maps of the disaster zones, then began to receive messages directly from people on the ground via SMS and social media (mainly Twitter) and reported their needs onto the map.

Within little time, this group of volunteers grew to include regular citizens, who helped filter through, prioritize and map the incoming messages. The result is a more accurate way to locate what aid is needed where, and deliver it faster.

‘It’s a socially interesting phenomenon because this has never happened here before, the idea that we all come together due to software or something technological…’ said Arguello.

The idea that maps are necessary for crisis response is nothing new. It has long been a necessary tool in disaster zones to try to make sense of the chaos on the ground.

The night of Ecuador’s earthquake on 16 April, software engineers, website designers and mappers from around the world instantly took to chat groups to discuss how technology could help the victims

But mappers often ran into problems since existing maps were often out of date or incomplete, especially in rural areas, making it hard to report exactly where aid was needed.

Online crisis mapping has revolutionized this process by arming regular citizens with the tools to create better maps and pinpoint where aid is really needed.

The crux of this initiative is two main platforms, Ushadihi and Open Street Maps.

What is Ushahidi?

Ushahidi, which means ‘witness’ in Swahili, is an open source software that was developed in Kenya in 2007, as a response to the violence unfolding across the country during the national elections.

The platform was created to collect reports of violence from citizens, then categorize and place those reports onto a map to inform others.

Ushahidi has since become a standard tool for crisis response, including natural disasters and ‘complex emergencies’ like armed violence, according to Luis Hernando, Information Officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Colombia.

Aid responders used Ushahidi for the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, in Libya during the Arab Spring uprising in 2011, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, and the Nepal earthquake in 2015, among many others.

‘One metaphor I like to use is that we’re the same as any citizen who goes to donate goods, food or water, except we donate time, knowledge and expertise,’ said Hernando.

Hernando, a trained psychologist and software developer, has long been interested in technology and how it impacts the construction of relationships. He has been working with digital response mechanisms since 1995, using the little social media that existed at the time (mainly Facebook and YouTube) to help humanitarian actors make decisions on the ground.

But digital activism, he said, really didn’t take off until Ushahidi was developed and applied in Haiti in 2010. This response was revolutionary since it allowed regular citizens to take part, not just specialists working with the UN.

According to Hernando, Ecuador’s digital response to the earthquake was unique for several reasons, but mainly that it developed entirely from the ground up. In other disaster responses, crisis maps were created and applied by the UN or other international bodies.

One of the reasons Ecuador’s response came so quickly was that Arguello already had an Ushahidi website up and running. As a member of the Association of Open Source Software of Ecuador (Asociacion de Software Libre de Ecuador), Arguello had long known about the platform and its potential to help.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, Arguello bought the domain name desastre.ec (disaster) and mounted an Ushahidi platform on the server, because, he said, ‘it will be useful if something ever happens.’

‘I buy domains like that. When an idea comes to me, I just buy the domain,’ he said.

The same night as the earthquake, Arguello immediately began an online chat with other programmers about how to best use the website.

The rest of the team of volunteers developed pretty organically, he said. Open knowledge advocates, software developers, website designers and mappers soon joined the chat to work out the specifics. This meant collecting, validating and organizing the incoming reports from the coast, as well as maintaining the website. The team eventually changed the name of the site to the more positive sounding AyudaEcuador.ec.

This chat group also included specialists from around the world, like Spain and Colombia who had previously worked with Ushahidi, as well as its original creators in Kenya, who all shared their expertise and experience with the new volunteers.

According to Arguello, in the initial days following the earthquake, there were always people connected to the chat waiting to help, no matter what the hour.

‘There was a feeling that the technicians from other parts of the world were supporting our initiative, without any kind of ulterior interests,’ said Arguello. ‘If it was a platform that you had to pay for… maybe there would not have been the same level of enthusiasm from the people who are collaborating. Everyone is collaborating because they know this doesn’t belong to anyone.’

The answer lies in the map

While the Ushahidi works directly with collecting and organizing reports, the crux of its success is the map that it uses.

Collaborative mapping projects, such as Open Street Maps, have been revolutionary to the development of digital activism. The project takes satellite images and converts them into online maps by volunteers, who manually trace the detail of the image.

These maps are not just at the street and highway level, like Google Maps, but also include houses and other buildings, making it easier to pinpoint aid requests. They also use the latest satellite images for more up to date information.

‘This cartography with this level of quality, if it wasn’t for volunteers, would cost billions of dollars. But it’s free. It’s open,’ said Hernando, adding that OCHA has long worked with collaborative mapping projects like Open Street Maps.

Following the earthquake, Mapping Ecuador grew out of the same project.

Daniel Orellana, a professor at the University of Cuenca, has long been involved in Humanitarian Open Streets Maps (HOT), an international group of volunteers that work specifically on mapping crisis zones. Because of his experience in HOT, he became a crucial driver for developing a community of mappers for Ecuador.

In the first week immediately following the earthquake, over 2,000 people around the world were mapping parts of Ecuador’s coast.

Less than three weeks after the earthquake, Mapping Ecuador had 2,343 volunteers and had made over three million changes to the map – that’s three million streets and houses added that had previously not been there.

‘There’s an international community that’s been organized around HOT,’ said Andrea Ordonez, a mapping volunteer who works in international development. ‘Daniel helped with the mapping in Nepal, so people in Nepal said “well, we’ll help you guys now.”’

Since then, mapathons – events where people get together to trace maps – for Ecuador have been organized in Cuenca, Loja, Milan, Seattle, Barcelona, and cities across the US.

Digital activists agree that these platforms, and global citizen participation, are fundamentally changing disaster response.

In Ecuador, volunteers also plan on using this recently created digital infrastructure for the long term. Not only will it be valuable for tracking reconstruction efforts and community planning, but it will also be useful if and when another catastrophe hits the country – such as the pending erupting of the Cotopaxi volcano.

But according to Ordonez, the longevity of the project depends entirely on people’s interest in it, since it runs exclusively on volunteer efforts – what she says will be a challenge, but not impossible.