It's been a year and a day since the first of a series of earthquakes hit Canterbury, which peaked in February this year with a 6.3 magnitude quake that took over 180 lives. While I was unaffected by the quakes themselves, I have since thought that I (along with everyone else in Wellington) have "gotten off lightly", due to the simple fact that Wellington straddles a known fault line with an 11% chance of rupture in the next 100 years .
The events following the quakes show that Wellingtonians, and indeed all New Zealanders, take this risk seriously. The eq.org.nz project was a fantastic grass-roots effort that showed the "can-do" attitude in our country. People weren't happy just to donate or leave it to the government - instead they pitched in and did something that helped everyone.
After eq.org.nz was shut down, there were some postmortems. Richard Clark wrote on realtime communication in a crisis, development at crisis speed and a look at how technology could automatically swing into effect in a disaster. InternetNZ facilitated a discussion between the internet community and the Wellington City Council, and a great video was made summarising the project. As I was a part of the tech team for the site, I took one lesson away in particular - the tech was not as ready as it should have been.
Yes, we managed to set up a site in a matter of hours after the quake. Yes, the site got significant use, and yes it was helpful to some. But I feel that we can do much better in the future, particularly with regards to the technology. The two areas we could improve on are being prepared and improving the tools.
From quake to functioning map took us a few hours - a commendable effort, made possible thanks to Ushahidi, their hosted Crowdmap product, and of course the efforts of everyone involved. However, I feel this was much too long.
Firstly, we were working in an emotionally charged, chaotic environment - one in which mistakes would have been easy to make. Second, we were given a lot more luck than we may have otherwise expected, thanks to the Ushahidi team co-operating with us over the migration away from Crowdmap, and the help of CrisisCommons in getting us started . And third, during the first few hours, stuff.co.nz and NZHerald (the two major online news sources in NZ) both set up their own maps, and had it not been for our connections and their willingness to help, three competing maps could easily have sprung up, none of which would have been much help at all.
Spending hours setting up the site manually is the wrong way to do things, and we all know it. However, we can't predict disasters in advance. So it seems to me that we either need the ability to set up a site in minutes, or a "general" site prepared in advance, which can be adapted within minutes for whatever disaster is taking place.
Let's explore both options briefly. The ability to set a site up in minutes requires some prior planning, however it makes no assumptions about the nature of the disaster, and allows us to set up and tear down sites as we see fit. Disaster hits two cities? Just deploy two sites. During down time, as long as a minimal amount of maintenance is done, we can keep the process well oiled. Furthermore, we can develop "template" sites - one for earthquakes, one for tornadoes etc., and deploy the right "type" of site during a disaster, providing great agility.
Setting up a site (or sites) in advance has a different set of complications and benefits. A URL can be published in advance of any disaster, that everyone knows, so when a disaster hits more people know where to go (e.g. wellington.disaster.org.nz ). However, it may take more work to be able to re-configure the site for different disasters, as opposed to simply deploying a fresh site. And naturally, the site will need maintaining during the time between disasters, which could be many years.
The other aspect of being prepared, as alluded to here, is having data prepared. That doesn't just mean having categories prepared - that means having map data for everything of significance ready. Why should it take until a disaster for us to plot Wellington's ATM locations on a map? Why can't we prepare this data beforehand, ready for use the moment it's needed?
Improving the Tools
We made great strides towards improving Ushahidi for the task of disaster mapping on the eq.org.nz project. However, I fear that a lot of our good work hasn't made it as far as it could. The code sits (rots?) in a github repository, many of our changes having not made it anywhere near upstream - despite still being needed.
I've helped out with a couple of disasters since the quakes, and in each case, I found myself doing the same setup work, then fixing the same bugs, as we did previously. Clearly, pushing some fixes upstream would be a good start. However, the issues with using Ushahidi for crisis mapping run deeper than just a few fixes.
We made many changes that improved the usability of the map and homepage, the stability/scalability of the platform, and to streamline the workflows of people approving reports. We didn't push these changes upstream, and I'm reminded of this with every disaster has occurred since then. The eq.org.nz site really did finish as a much better product, but it's a height we haven't attained since.
To be clear, I'm not blaming anyone for this. People burned out, interest waned and we all had our lives to get back to. But I think it would be great if we could "close the loop". After all, you never know when it's you who will be needing the map...
Closing the Loop
I found out about the Standby Task Force after the Christchurch Quake. They're a network of "adhoc groups of tech-savy mapping volunteers that emerge around crises into a flexible, trained and prepared network ready to deploy." In other words, they're the eq.org.nz team, except larger, more organised, and with a global focus. When disaster strikes, if the locals ask for help, the SBTF are ready to respond, providing a map, volunteers and expertise to get things rolling. Now I think of it, they're a little like Internation Rescue (from Thunderbirds), in its infancy. No rocket ships I'm afraid ;), but a group of people willing and able to help in times of emergency.
Somehow, through a combination of my motivation to improve the tech for future disasters, and the prodding of George Chamales and Kirk Morris, I've fallen into the position of SBTF Tech Team Leader. My plan is to, as part of this team, work on both of the technical aspects outlined above. The goal: that anyone will be able to deploy a map ready to handle a disaster within minutes of it occuring.
I've donated some code from Get Your Game On to get started on a system for performing one-command. We're also planning on maintaining a branch of Ushahidi  optimised for crisis mapping, to which I hope we can apply many of our patches from eq.org.nz and other sources over time.
With this, I hope we can truly close the loop - so that when Wellington, or anywhere else, is struck by disaster, our response will be as good as it can be.
Final thoughts: I'm only focusing on the tech. There are clearly other issues we need to work through, not least the political ones. I hope next time to see a much closer relationship between government and such volunteer efforts, although it's not an issue I feel I can influence personally.
|||In researching this I was glad to discover that the 11% figure is a 50% decrease in what was commonly believed before the "It's Our Fault" study. All the same, 11% is not a particularly comforting figure.|
|||In comparison, imagine what it would have been like if the disaster had struck 10 years ago. No CrisisCommons, no Ushahidi, barely any internet to speak of. We are truly lucky.|
|||Naturally, something shorter would be better!|
|||Naturally, we will try and push as much upstream as possible, however there's a simple reality that not all patches may be suitable.|
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