gCensus… census data for all!

For those of us working in development and humanitarian work is virtually impossible to get sufficient high quality information and data to help us do our job better. Often the best sources of data are hidden away behind officials and applications that rarely reveal all. Of course such professionals have good reason to avoid scattering data far and wide, anyone seeking the perfect presentations of high level data should check out The Gap Minder by Hans Rosling to be covered in future blogs.

Census data is often one of the richest sources, collected by national statistical institutions it is often available in unadulterated form… that is unadulterated by politicians. Thankfully statisticians being rather geeky are obsessed with the purity of the information they collect and share, in a handful of countries the politicians don’t even get involved in publishing the data so have no influence over it whatsoever… top marks to Norway.gcensus

Well opensource colleagues have come to our rescue again see this article by the developer, more can be found at gCensus a mashup of Google Earth and Census data (at this moment only US data). Informaiton Aesthetics brings this to us in full technicolour,

… a powerful web-based mapping & visualization tool based on Google Maps, capable of displaying all sorts of geographic data. gCensus is an effort to make geographic data freely and easily accessible to the public, without the need for expensive GIS software packages. users can freely pan, rotate, & zoom into & out of maps, change the ground angle or alter the transparency of different areas to satellite imagery.

gcensus2Of course we should not be unfair national statistical offices do make data readily available and often widely publish it, sadly government bodies are rarely up on the latest web technology and for many reasons they may not wish to freely distribute the digital data. But wouldn’t it be marvellous if all census data was published in this manner, I am of course hoping the opensource community worldwide will come to our rescue and provide modules that national statistics offices can adopt, publish their data on the web in readily manipulative form, yet retain appropriate control of the source data also. Experience in the field suggest that this is not such a fantastic idea.

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Mapping connectivity & the digital divide!

The old maxim “if you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it” is as true today as ever… however increasingly as many people reach information overload one could argue it should read “if you can’t present information you can’t get others to act on it”.

A classic challenge is presented by internet connectivity. We are all aware that many of the Southern countries where we have worked have terrible connectivity how is this linked to the economy, production, trade, education levels, health services?

i-isp-ss.gifThis map from the Internet Mapping Project Map Gallery shows the major ISPs indicating volume of traffic (colour density) and extent (distance). A variety of maps indicate other internet measures including distance from host, network address, top level domains or ISPs/ cities and many more. Including more detailed maps and raw data!

Other internet map sources include: Rocketfuel, The Opte Project, Cybergeography who publish a fascinating Cyberatlas and Caida.

Internet Map USA

This second image from Infosthetics March ’06

“is an extremely detailed map of the North American Internet backbone including 134,855 routers. the colors represent who each router is registered to: red is Verizon, blue AT&T, yellow Qwest, green is major backbone players like Level 3 & Sprint Nextel, black is the entire cable industry put together, & gray is everyone else, from small telecommunications companies to large international players who only have a small presence in the U.S. This map demonstrates that although AT&T & Verizon own a lot of Internet pipes, they currently do not dominate the Internet infrastructure (yet).”

IP map2

I love this third image again lifted from Infosthetics Dec. ’06, whilst it presents IP address space as a map it provides a clear impression of ‘internet face’ dedicated to continents, clearly if this were broken out in more detail, particularly with breakdown for “Asia” it would become ever more useful. See original source xkcd and comments from the artist.

a chart of the IP address space “on a plane”, using fractal mapping which preserves grouping (any string of IPs will translate to a single compact region on the map). each of the 256 numbered blocks represents one 8th subnet (containing all IPs that start with that number).

When preparing my dissertation on the privatisation of telecoms in Brazil in 1999 a communications star “map” clearly illustrated how minimal traffic was making the hops to and from Africa or Latin America. Different presentation tools using different internet usage “measures” consistently confirm this picture. Though we may not be able to lift detailed quantified facts from such maps they clearly provide tools to reflect trends and bias.

Second Life, the UN and living like a refugee

Second Life enters the humanitarian and development workers sphere of interest!


“The Stand Up Awareness Campaign” is being supported by the UN on Second Life. The Stand Up For Awareness Campaign is part of the larger Millenium Campaign to remind governments of their commitment to the eight Millenium Development Goals (MDG) that they agreed to in 2000, each of the eight 2015 targets are critical to reduce global poverty. This is a far from Bureaucratic excercise, if we can’t measure we can’t manage… by catalysing development organisations, donor governments and recipient governments the MDG indicators and targets, truly provide measures of success or failure that will have to be explained away if they are not met… keeping up the pressure world-wide is important.

DarfurThere is also a simulated Darfur refugee camp on Second Life, “Living Like a Refugee” was built to inform and educate … “An awareness and action camp spotlighting today’s genocide” and even patrolled by hooded avatars. Behind this seemlingly ‘geeky’ awareness approach, after all how many people really use Second Life, is a larger possibility of bringing the complexity, intricacies and daily catastrophe of humanitarian disasters to a increasinly well networked and socially aware next generation.

second lifeTeens Second Life is an interesting development by Linden Labs, visited by BBC’s Digital Planet, yes you guessed it Second Life for teens, governed by community rules, no parents or adults allowed, only screened adults from Linden Labs. Special institutions such as schools can feature on the game but are restricted to the island they create where the teens can choose to visit.

Clearly only the privileged (bandwidth, computers, high quality of life) are using Second Life, currently it acts as an interesting advocacy medium for the humanitarian and development world. But perhaps we should be more creative… why not a self concious training medium for students around the world, an advocacy platform. At the very least it offers an interesting way to capture the interest of youth and techie’s to increasingly support real life humanitarian needs, if only by applying their technology interests and genius to global advocacy and bridging communication gaps with the elite in southern countries.

Rocketboom, UNHCR and refugees

Rocketboom … one of the most popular trivia and news podcasts available on the web published footage from floods and refugee camps in Kenya with UNHCR (21st Nov 2006). A refugee recounts his image of the impact of islamists from Somalia.

As reported in “Online Video Sharing…” and “Alive in Baghdad” … this highly accessible medium is making it ever easier for the young in the west to find out what they want when they want… as new generations increasingly shun TV for the Internet, or formal media for community and peer approaches. potential important tools for advocacy indeed!

Rocketboom can be accessed at their website or downloaded from i-Tunes, it presents 3 to 5 minute news clips for free, daily. Produced at very low costs, only distributed online (available world-wide), its ‘status’ has been achieved purely by word of mouth, and it seeks to engage its audience in an online dialogue, see WikiBoom.

New ‘participatory’ media is truly beginning to change the manner in which news and information is obtained, limitations to web access may not ensure video becomes common in developing countries, but there is no doubt that it will become an ever more important medium for communiction, information sharing and advocacy. Its great to see Rocketboom democtatising news broadcasting.

MSF & Christian Aid blaze podcast trail!

Is it our role to advocate for change, communicate needs on the ground, promote intellectual debate and ensure education and awareness of different communites of the challenges faced by others?

Fortunately there are trail blazers out there testing new media to and its effectiveness for the rest of us. Podcasts that can be accessed on i-tunes, or downloaded from websites, dramatically further communication and information sharing. MSF

MSF has demonstrated three prominent approaches. MSF Voice podcasts in the build up to the XVI Aids Conference in August 2006 along with daily discussions on key topics and demonstration of how MSF drives advocacy at such conferences. Regular advocacy and discussion of field activities and focus of programmes in different countries. Finally, MSF Frontline is a monthly podcast enabling individuals to catch up with MSF operations. programmes, facts, figures and personal testaments. MSF Voice and MSF Frontline are seamlessly integrated into the web site for ease of access.

CAChristian Aid after using podcasts for internal reporting opened their podcasts up to the public, as reported by humanitarian.info and Full Circle. Some examples include fascinating mini series on different campaigns, such as the Beat goes on a march against the policies of IMF, WB and the North in controlling the South and a demand for friendly and inclusive policies. Daily podcasts for a field visit to Haiti truly set a standard for everyone to match! It reflects the naevity of foreigners, gives a detailed awareness of challenges faced in the country and yet the character of people and their cultural legacy comes through. Finally like MSF, Christian Aid uses this medium to present interviews, debate and discussion on critical issues.

In a former piece I argued that podcasts should be taken into the office, Christian Aid and MSF have illustrated that staff with basic training can use podcasting instead of paper reports, perfect for disseminating information in an accessible form to staff, they also provide the perfect advocacy platform. Advocacy organisations take note!

Internal communication, information sharing and advocacy are critical elements of management in all humanitarian and development work. MSF and Christian Aid provide different exceptional examples of how podcasts can be applied in both settings… the race is on!

03/12/06 Editors note:

Apologies to UNICEF who have been operating podcasts since February 2006 with a mixture of UNICEF news and programme reports now in video and audio!

The UN also started a twice daily news podcast in November (sorry can’t find any show link), and but worry yee not this phenomena is catching on, UNESCO has put out bids for video podcast proposals!

Photosynth, amazing 3D imagery from your snaps!

Typically those of us who travel a lot, whether it be for work or pleasure enjoy photography. How often have you looked over your photo’s from a trip and wished you could stitch them together digitally?Photosynth Vatican

In an urban setting this could mean stitching together all the images of the Taj Mahal or of the Vatican, giving spatial clarity to urban area or gardens, laying out the 3-D space and size and enable one to zoom in on detail. Indoors this might this might enable one to visually walk around a space choosing to zoom in on detail or pull back to the broader perspective. A series of photographs taken over time could show different stages of development of an art project. Take the interior concept further and it could become a virtual guide to a museum, enabling a viewer to zoom in on the detail of artifacts as they choose.

If the concept is extended to landscapes, it wouldn’t take many photographs to complete a broad 3-D image and might enable the viewer to zoom in on photographs of activity, say canoers advancing down rapids, golfers moving over a course or climbers scaling a cliff. And the more photographs the greater the experience would be, photographs from different angles would all add to the 3D experience improving depth, scale, spatial dimensions and detail.

Thanks to Microsoft labs and Photsnyth this possibility is already a reality, though not commercially available. Scoble has posted a video of a demo by Gary Flake at the O’Reilly Web 2.0 Summit, or go direct to demo’s online. Photosynth software takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities, then displays the photos in a reconstructed three-dimensional space, showing you how each one relates to the next.

There are clearly many interesting practical applications one can imagine from monitoring environmental degradation, to observing flooding across an area relative to normal state or visually recreating the image of the Buddhas at Bamiyan after their destruction from multiple photographs, also see The Bamiyan Project to recreate them using computer graphics. Of course given a few professional tools the ability to use such imagery for measuring distances, or combine it with available remotely sensed data could potentially transform this into a powerful tool for post disaster assessment.

This is truly exciting, the next time you are part of a team that mobilises to assess a disaster, perhaps all those holiday snaps uploaded by tourists will provide detailed baseline data, improving effectiveness of response.

Online video sharing, lessons for development?

Have online tools for uploading video content finally come of age? Rather are they relevant to Humanitarian and Development work as opposed to teens in San Francisco? Or how far do they need to go before they can really start being used to support field work?

Of course bandwidth is as ever a problem, but these days there is content delivery technology that can solve that problem, enabling the uploading of files to be automated to specific times, only upload when prioritised usage (emails, voice) is curtailed, it can even be managed so that the same computer can upload or download digital information over different connections automatically as it is unplugged and replugged, such as moving from office to home or hotel at short notice.

Film from a video camera, normal digital camera or web cam is becoming the media of choice, new generations are reacting to this media the way some of us got excited over digital photo’s and MP3… no lets be honest emails! Google’s purchase of YouTube placed their number of unique visitors at 120 million in September, sure their communities of interest sit largely in the US, but the shift to view all content text, audio, photo, film as interchangeable, shareable content will quickly become standard.

Metacafe has developed an interesting approach where they use it to help talent thrive. Unlike YouTube they reject duplicate films and use 100,000 volunteers to peer review content, then like Wikipedia have them write and vet articles. Finally of course they use algorithms to analyse, sort and rank video’s and over time develop the highly valuable database linking customers to content. Individuals can use this as an effective medium to show their talents in film-making or acting, by licensing video’s to Metacafe indiviuals have successfully used this to become noticed, and make revenue from their work.

The development community has long depended on peer review and participation to ensure that ‘best practice’ rises to the top and can be shared easily, however we have been poor at introducing the use of technology. Of course I am being slightly unfair, IRC (Water and Sanitation Centre) for example is one of many that has been using the internet for many years to share content with specialist research, training and advisory centres around the world for many years, seeking to build capacity through joint projects. To a certain extent its distributed organisational structure depends on the internet and members are investigating possibilities to work with participatory new media approaches. Similarly The Provention Consortium depends on a thiving networked organisational approach, in this case encouraging institutions to support each other in furthering disaster risk reduction.

However we have to recognise that new tools require new approaches, there is increased attention in the western world on humanitarian and development issues. Not least because technology entrepreneurs have turned multi-millionaire Philanthropists.

I for one believe that we should find means to garner the talent, ideas and community experience of these entrepreneurs and the young to engage them in development and humanitarian work beyond merely interest, concern and fund raising.

Whether this means more formal approaches such as linking schools and organising for raw footage from developing countries to be made available for editing as they choose into documentary footage by youngsters in the west. Supporting artists and small businesses getting their skills and wares to western audiences or highly informal approaches that simply enable families to make their own camera footage, and tell their stories so that they may be uploaded to commercial sites in country and shared online.

Alternatively video and audio diaries or weblogs and podcasts could form part of the remit of professional staff as they undergo operations as a monitoring, assessment or evaluation tool humanitarian.info comments on such an approach by Christian Aid in Tajikistan. Heck for the sake of transparency why not put this in the public domain, uploading as possible. Have you ever thrown you heart and sole into a monitoring report, only to discover that the important recommendations were passed over?

There is alot we can learn from the increased openness in sharing information publically, I trust the entrepreneurs and enthusiasts riding this wave, look to broader horizons. Their experience and skills are needed lets see how we can open their eyes to another exciting, challenging and rewarding world in humanitarian and development work.