Sample Policy Brief

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The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs is preparing for a meeting with representatives from the World Food Program, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to discuss technologies to monitor and coordinate responses to crises such as water scarcity, famine, flood,  political upheaval, terrorism, or genocide.

Background facts

The U.S. State Department currently uses several disparate, non-integrated technological monitoring tools, designed to create visually accessible information. Among the available tools are GIS (Geospatial Information Systems) which integrate satellite imagery, GPS (Global Positioning System) information and other data, the Famine Early Warning System, FEWS NET, and the Global Situational Awareness Tool focused on environmental safety and occupational health.

Another tool, Ushahidi, built by a group in Kenya, is available for crisis mapping. “Ushahidi,” which means “testimony” in Swahili, is designed to work with cell phones and text messages, a lowest common denominator.  The Ushahidi platform is free and built on open source software. It is for information collecting, visualization and interactive mapping. It uses SMS (Short Message Service) and Google Maps.  Creating a system for a given situation takes about two hours. Crisis monitoring teams used it to map issues in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, in Washington D.C. to map road closures after the February 2010 “Snowmageddon,” and in Japan after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Possible Problems

Problems with the Ushahidi platform include accuracy, risk of retribution, and aging data.  Problems with accuracy arise from the nature of the input, reports from anyone with a cell phone, Twitter account or web access. Accuracy problems are mitigated by aggregating multiple reports and focusing on trends.  In situations of political upheaval, posting a report of violence with geographic information could present the risk of retribution.  Aging data presents a serious problem when issues are resolved without a corresponding report of situation resolution, leading to a false appearance of crisis continuation.

Political and Diplomatic Aspect

Augmenting GIS with timely data from community participants is useful for real-time monitoring and tracking foreign assistance activity as well as assessing outcomes of such interventions. Engaging the local population can enhance the scientific data available and improve both outcomes and relations.

Options for U.S. Policy Action

One option is to integrate currently available systems with Ushahidi systems, in particular, FEWS NET, providing both a long-term estimate of potential famine areas and real-time visibility into problem hot spots.

Personal Recommendation for Action

As a platform, Ushahidi has reached a critical mass stage, a point at which various groups will begin to build other applications ‘on top’ of the platform.  As applications proliferate, expertise and the technology ecosystem grow.  I recommend that the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs adopt this platform for future crisis mapping and integrate it with existing systems to create more robust situational awareness.