Crisis Mapping has been an inspiring example of community-led open innovation applied to big problems.  Leveraging both technology and crowd sourcing, passionate participants have been able to provide detailed real time information in places of crisis, where insights about people and conditions are in short supply.

It’s a good story and the most recent Crisis mapping workshop in New York City made it clear that this community is still vibrant and moving forward.  Hosted at the New School with active support from a variety of organizations, including private sector players like Google Crisis Response, the long weekend was an active engagement of hands-on practitioners.  Much of the time was spent out in the community visiting sites of real life challenge and in collaborative workshops.

However, that very vigor raises interesting questions.  As these innovators tackle problems with greater complexity, will open innovation’s organic collaboration and loose organizational models be sufficient?  Can they retain the same kind of community and continue to scale not just the size of their efforts, but the types of challenges they undertake?

Inventing a Whole Value Chain

Crisis Mapping has grown to support an entire value chain of information collection and delivery.  Sophisticated mapping platforms with commercial ties, such as Google Earth, sit alongside independent crowd sourced projects like Humanitarian Open Street Map.

The depth and breadth of the world’s maps are being stretched.  Kate Chapman from Open Street Map talked about the newly launched Missing Maps program, which seeks to fill stubborn gaps in our knowledge about the most vulnerable areas.  At the same time, programs like the OpenDroneMap allow a potential crowd of do-it-yourself level drones to capture and integrate fine-grained images (think resolutions of less than a centimeter) adding ever finer detail to existing map views.

Greater attention is also being given to assessing and enhancing an area’s base geographic information.  Once foundational maps are in place, substantial value can be gained from defining the current condition of buildings and laying out community reference points like neighborhood boundaries.   Work like this improves the effectiveness of damage assessments and allows teams processing a Twitter feed during a crisis to map information using the resident’s own view of their world.

Working further up the value chain, Hongyi Hu and other researchers at MIT are engineering portable communication platforms that can be rapidly deployed to restore connectivity in disaster areas.

The sharing and use of crisis maps is expanding too.  Local communities are increasingly engaged. Renee Black talked about work done by Peace Geeks to deliver information to non-expert users in refugee settings and in the Czech Republic, Jirka Panek, outlined public efforts to encourage local populations to become crisis reporters during floods.

An Evolving Creative Ecosystem

The importance of this work seems unquestioned.   The conference featured a number of high-profile voices including,  Atefah Riazi, the Chief Information Technology Officer for the UN, Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, the UN Chief of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, and David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

In many ways, the original crisis mapping challenge was ideally suited to this loose community approach to creative action.   Events were inherently high profile and demanded an urgent response, enabling one of the brilliant early innovations, finding ways to subdivide big-time critical tasks among many volunteers.   This open collaboration was enabled by the shared language of longitude and latitude, which provided a natural lingua franca among different participants.

But can this very loosely structured open innovation model continue to scale as the challenges become more complex?

In this regard, there are signs of stress already.  The people who volunteer during a crisis appear to be the same from one event to another.  There’s a danger of fatigue on the part of the supporting network.  This type of scaling problem is linked to replication, the ability to do the same type of response over and over.

A different type of scaling challenge emerges when the problems the group must solve shift and grow more complex. Can this inspiring open innovation model for organic collaboration take on the next generation of messy problems in a maturing field?

Here are three areas of opportunity that will be challenges in the year ahead.

Shifting Focus – From Mapping to Meaning:  Maps are nice but data is wonderful. It is increasingly clear that the key asset of this sector is not tied to the geographic visualization of the map, but rather to the data that lies underneath.

As more data is piled onto the common framework of shared maps, insights won’t simply be geographic.  Value will be drawn from the other human, social, and environmental information that now have a unifying link.  While efforts in the past focused on reporting what is happening, the advent of rich data insights and a deep historical record of past responses makes it possible to recommend what should happen.

Post crisis research on the data sets will extend the sophistication of assessments and forward-looking recommendations. For example, Harvard’s Andrew Mao, with support from Microsoft, are studying how teams actually collaborate and problem- solve during a crisis.

This will drive a change in the community.  At the very least there will be a need to invite new talents into the tribe.   Data scientists and specialists in recommendation systems could contribute hugely to the work.  Looking further out it’s not hard to imagine a growing separation of the data-mapping and the data-use communities, with the latter group assuming an ever more prominent role.

Complex Collaboration – Consolidating and Sharing:  During a Q&A session, a polite but pointed exchange of views occurred on the subject of licensing. Commercially-based Google and not-for-commercial-use Open Street Map have different models for data access.   In short, the way the licenses are written today, the lawyers won’t let them share.

From a scaling perspective it does not matter which approach is “right”.  The pragmatic challenge is that different licensing models make highly valuable information unavailable to key collaborators, derailing the aspiration of synergy from collaboratively building a combined view of the world.

There is currently a great deal of discussion about how commercial organizations can be more directly engaged in the Humanitarian effort.   This small example of licensing conflicts highlights some of the challenges that arise when organizations of significantly different scale, focus, and outlook seek to deeply integrate their work.

The troubling matter of standards was also highlighted with a success story that was built on a lot of effort.  Standards are ugly work.  Not only is it difficult to create a standard, there is a great deal of heavy lifting involved in getting others to use it.

Payal Patel from Google described the extended efforts needed to deploy a globally available alert system.  A standard already existed, the CAP common alerting protocol, but the teams still had to go from agency to agency convincing them to adopt it.

Technical Sophistication – Maturing Data Protection:  As more personal information is collected it becomes critically important to become experts in privacy and data security.  Today, privacy policies and their execution directly impact the actual safety of individuals. David Miliband of the ICT pointed out that 80 percent of the recipients of Humanitarian Aid are actually the victims of conflict driven crises.  These are exactly the circumstances where issues of data responsibility are most critical.

And yet, data security is one of the most difficult and rapidly evolving fields in technology.  Because security strategies need to fend off sophisticated and ill-intentioned attacks, it is not enough to simply follow a standard best practice.  Complex technologies must be deployed across the entire network of data collection, storage, analysis, and use.   A loose confederation of entities with widely varying technical capacity will be a particularly hard environment to secure.

Beyond the technical aspects of the privacy challenge, serious conversations are also underway regarding the rights and powers of individuals to control their own data.  There are complex ethical and practical issues to be reconciled. Even if a secure system of data exchange is established, how will these limits on use be assured as data passes from one player to another?

A Test Bed For Scaling Innovation’s Complexity

None of these problems are insurmountable.   They are just big, complex efforts, difficult to manage under the best of circumstances.  They have long timelines, require specialized skills and demand coordination among varied fields of expertise.

Can the dynamic collaboration of independent players knit together by a shared mapping framework take on this next generation of work?  This is a question that has bigger implications than just the future of the Crisis Mappers network.

Across the Humanitarian effort there are many calls for bottom-up, locally-driven innovation as a substitute for the often justifiably maligned top-down, donor-driven programs of change. Being close to the problem and aligned with the resources and culture of a community helps drive suitable invention.

What happens when we are successful in this effort?  That collection of bottom-up innovators might look very similar to the open innovation style of collaboration that guides the Crisis Mappers community.   Will those bottom-up innovators face the same challenges of scale that now sit directly ahead of the Crisis Mappers?

In the commercial sector, rapid entrepreneurial growth in new business areas is driven by a number of independent insurgents.  It’s a great model for rapid exploration of an opportunity space.  Interestingly, it is typically followed by a period of consolidation.

The reason for this extends beyond the obvious financial power of some firms to buy up others.  The complexity of the business problems grows as the industry matures.  Size seems to help business managers wrangle this kind of problem. Can the Crisis Mappers discover a different path forward, one that sustains the organic community of actors?  I don’t know the answer to that question. This is a group of passionately creative people that has already given the Humanitarian sector some real innovation wins.  It will be interesting to see what they do next.

Photo credit: Bill Myers.



About the Author

Dan McClure has spent 30 years designing and applying innovation practices across a diverse range of enterprises. He specializes in the architecture of sustainable systems of creative innovation. Today, he leads Innovation Design initiatives for ThoughtWorks, where his clients include humanitarian and public good organizations working to advance their ability to drive disruptive change.

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