Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is changing the face of humanitarian response


The overflow of information generated during disasters can be as paralysing to humanitarian response as the lack of information. This flash flood of information is often referred to as Big Data, or Big Crisis Data. Making sense of Big Crisis Data is proving to be an impossible challenge for traditional humanitarian organisations, which is why they’re turning to Digital Humanitarians. Dimitrinka Atanasova finds the most effective and entertaining aspect of the book is the well-thought out link between digital humanitarians and a #DigitalJedis.
Digital Humanitarians: How Big Data is changing the face of humanitarian response. Patrick Meier. Taylor & Francis Press. January 2015.
Patrick Meier’s new book is a versatile, historical account of the birth of digital humanitarians. It takes a closer look at volunteers who mobilise online to support the activities of humanitarian organisations and gives a personal account of how he – as a scholar and practitioner – was drawn into digital humanitarianism. Also included is a best practice guide, which explores a series of useful tools and resources for those who wish to make sense of Big Data and use social media during crises and disasters. It additionally makes an open invitation for readers to become digital humanitarians. The book defines key terms in the field of digital humanitarianism and it does so using accessible language as, for example, demonstrated by the characterisation of OpenStreetMap as the ‘Wikipedia of maps.’
The book makes timely contributions in the key areas of privacy, the veracity of online information and the role of technology in digital humanitarian efforts. On privacy, Meier makes the important point that just because social media messages shared during crises and disasters are public, using them is not automatically ethical — social media users’ safety might be seriously compromised in some situations. He goes on to argue that we need to put social media content in context in order to assess its (in)accuracy, cross-referencing it with journalistic reports and information received via other crowdsourcing mechanisms like 999 in the United Kingdom (UK). The argument here is that misinformation will always exist, especially during in the early uses of a reporting mechanism, but this will likely change as people become better equipped to verify social media content. As for technology, while Meier retains a strong belief in its transformative potential during crises and disasters he acknowledges that technology will achieve little without people and policies to exploit their ‘affordances’. Successful digital humanitarian operations, such as the Haiti and Pablo responses discussed in the book, relied heavily on such resources. For example, he praises the decision of the Philippines government to advertise the different hashtags that people should use when tweeting about Typhoon Pablo.
A noteworthy aspect of the book is Meier’s reflections on the potential emotional and psychological impacts of reading crisis and disaster tweets of digital volunteers, as well as his efforts in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings to ensure that pro-bono counselling was made available to them. When discussing the ethics around using crisis and disaster social media data, there is a tendency to focus on the impacts that such use can have on the producers of social media data. It is less common for researchers and practitioners to consider any ethical issues regarding the people analysing crisis and disaster social media data. In this respect, Meier raises an important issue. This is, however, where a more extensive discussion of the ethical issues that arise from relying on repeat volunteers may have been a worthwhile addition to the book. Another useful addition would have been a more extensive contextualisation of existing court work and debates around criminalising the intentional sharing of fake data via social media. The courts have been grappling with some issues around this idea including whether it is only the author of the tweet who should be punished or everyone who retweeted as well. 
Possibly the most effective and entertaining aspect of the book is the well-thought out link between digital humanitarians and #DigitalJedis – the hashtag for the book which is also another term for digital volunteers. Like the Star Wars Jedis, Meier’s digital volunteers study the Force (presumably the Internet) and use it for good – to organise online and help disaster response and recovery by various means. Star Wars Jedis fight for peace and justice against their mortal enemy Dark Jedi/Sith. The question in the light of this analogy is who is the Dark Jedi/Sith in Meier’s story? There is some indication that this may be Big Data, as suggested by Meier’s consistent use of war metaphors to discuss the relationship between digital volunteers and Big Data – ‘what we had just experienced was our first battle with Big Data’, ‘we lost the Big Data geo-battle’, ‘we actually have a fighting chance to win future battles with Big Data’. The war does not seem to be only waged against Big Data – when mocked as a ‘crowdsourcerer’ Meier says that he wore this title ‘as a badge of honour’.
Yet, this aspect of the book may also have unintended consequences. Conceptualising the relationship between digital volunteers and Big Data in terms of ‘war’ may be unhelpful. Indeed, it is not unusual for war metaphors to be used as a motivator in various circumstances. War metaphors are, for example, widely used in the area of health communication to encourage people to fight cancer, depression, and obesity. War metaphors emphasise taking forceful action against a perceived enemy. Making sense of Big Data involves taking actions like, for example, meticulous verification, ethical use of social media reports, and cooperating to achieve these. In other words, these are actions that do not fit with an enemy metaphor. My concern is that as a result of the war analogy the group of digital humanitarians can bee perceived as being about winning the battle or argument, rather than cooperation and openness. Such a perception would be detrimental to the idea that digital humanitarians are inclusive and open to anyone.
Time will tell if such reservations are founded (hopefully not). Until then, anyone who has even the slightest interest in humanitarian response and/or the use of social media (and the Internet more generally) and of new technologies in crisis and disaster situations should be reading this book.

Dr Dimitrinka Atanasova is currently a Research Associate working on a study of how (social) media is used by first responders during crisis situations which is funded by the European Union’s 7th Framework Programme for Research. Her research interests span across crisis, health and science communication. Her doctoral research examined the framing of obesity in online newspapers and she was recently involved in an Economic and Social Research Council and Open Research Area funded project on climate change. Find her on Twitter @dbatanasova.


Editor's note: This review was originally published in The London School of Economics Review of Books, and has been reposted with permission. It is available under Creative Commons and the original page can be found here

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