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Last week some 40 people from more than 20 different organizations with national and global humanitarian and relief missions attended a Google Partnership Exploration Workshop in Washington, DC, to share information in an interactive setting and explore how the organizations and Google geo & data visualization technologies can further each others’ missions.

Lucky me – I got to go on behalf of Plan.  Much of the meeting centered on how Google’s tools could help in disasters and emergencies, and what non-profits would like to be able to do with those tools, and how Google could help.

The meeting opened up with a representative of FEMA talking about the generally slow and government centered response of FEMA, and how that needed to turn into a quick, user generated information network that could provide real information in real time so that FEMA could offer a real, people centered response.  I loved hearing someone from government saying things like “we need to look at the public as a resource, not a liability.” The conclusion was that in a disaster/emergency you just need enough information to help you make a better decision.  The public is one of the best sources for that information, but government has tended to ignore it  because it’s not “official.”  Consider: a 911 caller is not a certified caller with a background check and training on how to report, but that’s the background of our 911 emergency system. Why can’t it be the same in a disaster?

We also heard about the World Bank’s ECAPRA project for disaster preparedness in Central America.  This project looks at probabilistic risk assessment, using geo-information to predict and assess where damage is likely.  The main points from the WB colleagues were that for SDI (Spatial Data Infrastructure) we need policies, requirements, and mandates, yes, but this is not sufficient – top down is not enough.  We also need software that enables a bottom up approach, aligned incentives that can drive us to open source agenda.  But not just open source code software, we’re talking mass collaboration – and that would change everything.  So then the challenge is how we help civil societies and govts to share and deliver data that enables decision making?  How do we support data collection from the top down and from the bottom up?  The WB is working with developers on some collaborative data collection mobile applications that allow people to easily collect information. In this system, different institutes still own the data but others can update and add to it. WB hopes to embed this within Central American national disaster planning systems, and to train and support the national systems to use these tools.  They will be free to use the elements that most link with the local situations in each country.  Each country is developing these open source applications themselves, and can choose the tools that work best for them.

Google stepped in then to share some Google Visualizations — Google Fusion TablesVisualization API, Chart API and Motion Charts (Gapminder).  With these applications, different sources can share data, or share some data and keep other data private.  You can compare data from different sources.  For example, there is a chart currently residing in Google Fusion Tables that pulls GDP data from the CIA Fact Book, the World Bank and the IMF, and allows you to compare data across countries from different sources.  You can then use that data to create your own data visualizations, including maps, tables, charts, and the fabulous Gap Minder/motion visualization charts (first made popular at TED by Hans Rosling). These can all be easily transferred to your own webpage.  If you have public data that deserves to be treated separately you can become a Google trusted source. (Click on the “information for publishers” link to see how to get your data made public) For a quick tutorial on how to make your own cool Gap Minder chart check out this link.  *Note Gapminder is not owned by Google. Gapminder is a foundation of its own, totally independent from Google. Google bought the software [Trendalyzer] to improve the technology further.

Next up was the American Red Cross who shared some of the challenges that they face and how they use geo-spatial and information mapping to overcome them.  Red Cross has a whole mobile data gathering system set up and works via volunteers during disasters to collect information.  They also have over 30 years of disaster data that they can use to analyze trends.  The ARC wants to do more with mapping and visualizations so that they can see what is happening right away, using maps, charts and analyzing trends.  What does the ARC want to see from Google?  A disaster dashboard – eg using Google Wave?  Inventory tracking and mapping capability.  Data mining and research capabilities such as with Fusion tables.  They want people to be able to go to the ARC and see not what the Red Cross is, but what the Red Cross does.  To use the site for up to date information that will help people manage during disasters and emergencies.

Wow, and this was all before lunch!

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Related posts:
I saw the future of geovisualization… after lunch
Is this map better than that map?
Ushahidi in Haiti:  what’s needed now

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