CrowdSourcing and human rights

There’s been an ongoing discussion this week over at Paul Currion’s blog about the benefit of croudsourcing of information in the human rights sphere, most of it criticising probably crazy ideas.

Disaster first responders will need customised tools, and if they find something that will save them time, then it will get adopted. But that’s always going to be harder than giving them a wiki and they solve everything, or possibly, anything. But for Paul’s work, the solutions for first responders wont be the same as for everyone else – the environment is likely too different, as there needs to be some co-ordination, communication and planning. But I wonder, what is there that first responders do that they don’t have time to look at. I suspect there is a huge difference between natural disasters and civil unrest (of which the G20 demostrations could be considered a very tame example). Either way, Paul’s interest is not about crowdsourcing what human rights groups can already do, it’s about helping them do what they can’t.

Paul’s argument is that crowdsourcing wont help that much in the areas in which he deals, as first responders in an incident are overwhelmed, busy and don’t have time to edit wikis or do much that doesn’t give direct benefit. That’s completely true. By their very nature, first responders are there when few others are, when the infrastructure is questionable (in that you may have no idea yet what’s left) and generally the focus is on saving lives; they’re there when there is no crowd. At that point, the only thing that makes those people’s jobs better is better access to more useful information. And that’s not going to be a normal wiki. What it might be (and this is also unworkable), is say, an iphone app that lets them report things “3 bodies by side of road” click, “house burnt out” click, which gets GPS co-ordinates and timestamped, and uploaded over a text message or later when there’s a connection, depending on what they know. This has the downside of the battery runs out somewhere they probably can’t recharge it easily – these problems are very real, nuanced and hard, but the potential is for some novel solutions that help responders help more people faster. That’s probably not crowdsourced, which is a solution to different problems, but if we step away from the real time, and move to an issue based process, there are wider uses which aren’t limited to first responders, but anyone with a cell phone, such as the G20 police ID matching. That’s where crowdsourcing comes into its own.

I spent a few days last week in London, and was around some of the G20 protests with some friends. Those protests were in central London – one of the biggest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, with the most advanced infrastructure and resources, and everything was heavily covered by cameras from the press, the police and individuals. Mostly individuals, who then uploaded their photos to flickr or elsewhere and tagged them appropriately.

I doubt anyone in the UK hasn’t seen the pictures of Ian Tomlinson being pushed to the ground shortly before he died, with some police in the background, none of whom have id numbers visible in the footage (possibly due to active removal, but probably due to camera angles), or today’s new footage. All we have is their faces, in a variety of shots, in a variety of angles, from different places, at different times.

Someone had the great idea of crowdsourcing the deduction of the identification numbers of those PCs. You know what those present look like from the video; you can then get better photos from before/after from flickr, and therefore have high quality photos. Even if you can’t get the ID numbers from that, you then have a decent photo, and can start to look through the huge number of other photos of police on the day to find them (the dog handlers being particularly easy). A massively manual task, that will take huge amounts of time and people, but time is something that the project has at this point. And the task is massively parallelisable with no communication overhead until you find a match – or as someone said on twitter Tomlinson’s Law: Given enough eyeballs, all thugs are shallow.

posted: 11 Apr 2009