Social Media, Crowdsourcing & Crisis Management

This blog post was originally a guest post over at the Cubeworks blog –

Nothing like starting with a bang! Here are 3 bleeding edge buzzwords of the modern age that have their own heady mix of excitement, confusion, science fiction & reality.

I’m a Generation X’er and therefore grew up with the evolution of the technology that surrounds our everyday lives. I am also fortunate enough to have lived through the first Social Media revolution –  where the barriers to entry for sharing information were broken down by the proliferation of cheap technology and accessible internet for all. On both sides of ‘the pond’ figureheads such as Antony Mayfield[1], Neville Hobson[2], David Cushman[3], etc in the UK, and Clay Shirky[4], Stowe Boyd[5], Robert Scoble[6], etc in the US, stood up and heralded the dawn of a new way of communication, of publication, and of interaction, that would literally rewrite the history books.

With these digital revelations come some bold statements which act as milestones in the landscape

John Batelle (The Search):

“Link by link, click by click, search is building possibly the most lasting, ponderous, and significant cultural artifact in the history of humankind: the Database of Intentions.  The Database of Intentions is simply this: the aggregate results of every search ever entered, every result list ever tendered, and every path taken as a result.”

Chris Anderson (Wired Magazine):

“Google isn’t a search engine. Google is a reputation-management system”

Rupert Murdoch:

“It is difficult, indeed dangerous, to underestimate the huge changes this revolution will begin… or the power of developing technologies to build and destroy not just companies but whole countries.”

But to my mind none of these revelations have been as important as the way that we are now able to filter vast quantities of ‘crowd sourced’ information.

Crowd sourcing (see Wikinomics, Here Comes Everybody, The Wisdom of Crowds, and Forrester’s Groundswell) is the ability to tap into the collective ‘hivemind’ via social media and use this to generate a response in near-real time. As with the advent of social media, marketing agencies were quick to jump on the band wagon and try and use the latest buzz word to the advantage of brands. There are some great examples here of brands doing this very well – Dell’s Ideastorm is probably the best example. Here, us, the crowd, can add our own ideas for improving Dell’s products and services, but more importantly we can give our opinion on everyone else’s ideas by voting them up or down. This simple bit of functionality facilitates both customer service and product development needs at a huge cost saving to Dell, and pretty much guarantees that they don’t launch a dud.

But it has not been until the last few months that we have finally found a real use for social media and crowd sourcing in the real world that has real benefits.


Meaning “testimony” in Swahili Ushahidi was set up to monitor reports of violence after the Kenyan election in 2008. The platform allowed anyone to send in information by any means – text message, email, via the web which was then cross-referenced and plotted on a map allowing tactical and emergency response to deploy people on the ground to save lives. With its’ roots in the citizen journalism movement in Kenya it attracted 45,000 users. Since then it has grown in an ad hoc way around the world, powered by fans and developers keen to help the world become a better place. The two most notable executions being the Haiti earthquake and the conflict in the Congo.

Swift River

This is the platform that Ushahidi was launched from. It is built as a solution for the modern day complexities of managing a lot of data in real time. Originated in crisis management it is now deployable as use for other industries, such as news rooms and brand monitoring groups. As with Ushahidi it filters and verifies real-time data from channels such as Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds. This free tool is especially useful for organizations who need to sort their data by authority and accuracy, as opposed to popularity. These organizations include the media, emergency response groups, election monitors and more. This might include journalists and other media institutions, emergency response groups, election monitors and more.


Ordinary people have a voice, and interesting things happen when you aggregate those voices and visualize the results. Surprising information and insights can be found. Crowdmap is a tool that allows you to crowdsource information and see it on a map and timeline. It is the Ushahidi platform, built by the team who created Ushahidi as a way for anyone to run their own crowdsourcing site without having to know the intricacies of running their own server. It’s free and it’s yours to use.

Behind these fantastically clever new social tools there is of course vast complexity, none of which is more important than that of voracity. Voracity is the term used to describe sense checking of sources of data. It’s the corroboration of single sources against others and of mediums against other mediums i.e. a text message against a twitpic, etc. Nothing explains this better than the video below.

Below is a highly informative interview internet legend Robert Scoble filmed of  the lead developer behind most of these platforms Patrick Meier:

Of course none of any of this is possible without people, and generally the more the better. As a result of the Ushahidi deployment in Haiti specifically a new wave of people (developers and beyond – to internet geeks, and you and me) have stepped up to offer their support to help. is such an organisation, only recently founded, where you too can join up and help with efforts and initiatives in the future. Their global annual conference is happening right now (ICCM 2010: Haiti and Beyond). This is big global business – attendees include UN Secretary General’s Office, UNICEF, International Criminal Court, World Bank, EU’s Joint Research Center, NATO, Human Rights Watch, US Department of State and many more.

So what is the commonality? What’s my interest in it as strategy director at Cubeworks? Well the first point is that nobody knows where the technological capabilities are taking us. At last we have some tangible benefits beyond branding and marketing – benefits that save lives. But the key thing for me and for Cubeworks is that it’s the technology behind social media and the wider web – the platform and the code – that is the commonality. This is where our passion lies. It’s in the beauty of Model-View-Controller code and nHibernate mapping. It’s in the knowledge that anything is and will be possible. And it means that the more worthy the project the more it deserves and commands our passion. Long may technology continue to help solve the world’s problems and keep making the most complex things simple.

  1. Antony Mayfield – VP Global Head of Social Media, iCrossing. See Me and My Web Shadow. Twitter/Web;
  2. Neville Hobson – Head of Social Media Europe at WCG. See For Immediate Release. Twitter/Web;
  3. David Cushman – MD See Faster Future. Twitter;
  4. Clay Shirky – writer, consultant and teacher (Amazon link, Wikipedia link). Twitter/Web;
  5. Stowe Boyd – “coolhunter, writer, gadfly”. Twitter/Web;
  6. Robert Scoble – Blogger, technical evangelist, and author. Twitter/Web;
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Not in the least bit copyrighted by Tim Aldiss 2012