The Use of Open Data and Grassroots Efforts in Crisis Response

The Use of Open Data and Grassroots Efforts in Crisis Response

A couple of weeks ago, we experienced a tragedy here in Philadelphia; a badly mismanaged building demolition caused the deaths of several people.  Out of this tragedy, however, I observed some surprising and creative uses of open government data that suggest future uses in crisis response.

Open government data serves as a valuable asset to citizens because it allows them to access information that may have been previously unavailable, unobtainable or costly.  The role of open, publicly accessible data is multifaceted.  This liberated data not only improves the transparency of government operations, but also encourages economic and community development by empowering the public to use the data as a resource.  For example, someone planning to move into a new city may use data about school catchments, property values and social service resources to make an informed decision about where to move.  A construction business owner can use licensing violation data to help target his marketing efforts and gain new clients.  Additionally, open data can start a dialog between the government and its community which often results in the opportunity for improved data quality and new analysis.

The release of open data by governments has gained momentum and recognition.  There are now 100s of cities around the world as well as several national governments that operate open data portals.  I think the benefits offered – economic development, transparency, and citizen engagement – are proof of the value of open data initiatives.  But I was intrigued to recently observe another application of this data; it becomes even more valuable to the public during an emergency.  The free and easy access to data such as emergency routes, property records (including ownership), floodplains, licenses, violations and building footprints, among others, is extremely beneficial during crisis response.


Data-driven Crisis Response

The collaborative use of data and mapping software for crisis response is not a new idea.  Ushahidi is a fantastic example of utilization of multi-source record and communication data.  While originally developed to map election violence in the 2008 Kenya election, Ushahidi has since been extended to support crisis response in many crises.  The Ushahidi platform allows for easy crowd sourcing of information like SMS, email and twitter.  The platform helps to make sense of this content, by displaying it on a dynamic timeline or interactive map.  When visualized, it’s much easier for responders to make use of these multi-sourced and disparate data sets.   Ushahidi is open source software, which means anyone can download the source code and create their own implementation.  For those who don’t have the time or skills to set up their own system, Ushahidi offers Crowdmap, a free online service that provides a pre-built version of the software.

Another collaborative software and data project, OpenStreetMap, has also been used to great effect for crisis response, particularly for locations that are poorly mapped.  Following the 2010 earth quake in Haiti, a global team of volunteers used OpenStreetMap and satellite imagery to both rapidly improve the maps of existing infrastructure and record damage from the earthquake. Out of this experience, a global network of volunteers, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), was born.

Video animation of improvement of Haiti Coverage in OpenStreetMap after the Jan 2010 earthquake.

Similarly, Crisis Mappers is a network of over 5,000 technologists that utilize mobile and web apps, crowd sourced data, aerial imagery, data visualization and other methods to prepare and respond to humanitarian emergencies.  GISCorps, a URISA organization, works similarly to deploy volunteer GIS professionals during emergencies and for other humanitarian response.

There are other examples closer to home.  For Post Hurricane Katrina Damage Assessment, the City of New Orleans utilized an open data format in documenting and posting their property assessments conducted by City inspectors. By making this process open to the public, it allowed a level of engagement and oversight by the community that is not possible with traditional closed methods.

Another example of using open data methods for domestic disaster response is the use of grassroots balloon and kite mapping for environmental impact documentation of the 2010 Deep Horizon Oil Spill.  This low cost process uses tethered balloons and kites with cameras attached to take hundreds of aerial images.  These images are stitched together to create high resolution aerial photography.   Activists used these techniques to find the actual extent of the spill when other methods were not possible (due to airspace restrictions, beach inaccessibility and watercraft bans.)  Images and documentation are available about this practice during the spill.  A web map built on the Ushahidi platform also helped to publicize the reports and imagery.

The response to Hurricane Sandy also utilized grassroots and open data resources.  The New Jersey Office of GIS compiled a huge list of data, imagery and map sources for response efforts.  Geographer John Reiser also assembled numerous maps and data sets for use in disaster response.  A grassroots organization called Occupy Sandy Recovery mobilized various technological and volunteer resources in response as well as publishing their resource data in an interactive map.


The Philadelphia Story

The practice of citizens utilizing open data resources and grassroots methods is not limited to large disasters.  While Philadelphia has long been a leader in the public release of its geospatial data, the release of an open data portal, OpenDataPhilly, in 2011, an open data executive order by Mayor Nutter in 2012 and appointment of a Chief Data Officer last September have resulted in a full-court press to unlock more of the City’s data.  Through a new policy, Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards in many areas, including dozens of new applications, such as License2Inspect, Teachercom, Philly Foragr, and  But local crisis response was an application I had not seen before.   On June 5, after a building collapse in the city’s downtown, journalists and researchers turned to 311 (non-emergency) complaint data, building ownership records, zoning data, licensing and inspection permits and violations, tax delinquency data and more to tell the story.  In a matter of hours after the collapse, Reporter Holly Otterbein for NewsWorks was able to identify reports of unsafe conditions filed just days prior. reporter Inga Saffron found connections between the owners of the collapsed building and other neglected buildings in Philadelphia.  Researcher and delinquent property blogger Chris Sawyer was also able to find extensive records regarding the demolition contractors’ history.


Moving Forward

The importance of open and crowd sourced data in crises response is clear, but the building collapse caused me to think about ways it might be improved.  Despite the recent push to make more government data openly available, there is a lot of room for improvement.  In Philadelphia, the Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd maintains a running list of data sets he’s working to have released.  Some of the data sets that were relevant to the building collapse, such as historic deeds in the PhilaDox system, are unfortunately stuck behind a paywall that does not live up to principles of open access.  Successful open data initiatives can improve our cities by contributing to new tools, a more responsive government, improved civic dialogue, and stronger democratic processes.  Recent progress is encouraging, but much work remains.

Moving forward, the continued need for attention to these open data formats and new collaborative technologies is necessary for fast and mobilized response in an emergency.  It is the responsibility of the governments who are collecting and maintaining public infrastructure data sets to ensure that they are stored in open formats and can be accessed easily in a variety of formats internally and by the public.  Ultimately, encouraging continued interest through citizen participation is imperative in creating a collaborative partnership between the public and government.