One month supporting humanitarian agencies in Vanuatu

Well over 100 volunteers from across the globe dedicated their time and skills online over the past month to support the humanitarian response in Vanuatu.

One month ago a category 5 storm swept across many of the islands that make up Vanuatu affecting 166,600 people.

Activation one

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs requested help through the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). Standby Task Force undertook two of the three tasks requested of the DHN.

Standby Task Force volunteers created a database of information needed by humanitarian aid workers based in or arriving in Vanuatu. The database contained contact details for international staff actually in Vanuatu, assessments undertaken by humanitarian agencies, relevant maps, details of which agencies across the globe said they were responding and what they were doing. Within five days the database contained over 5,000 separate pieces of information. Simon Johnson from British Red Cross created this tool which is based on some of the data in the Stadby Task Force database.

Graph to the left and a map to the right








Standby Task Force volunteers also searched for tweets about the storm. They identified pictures and videos of damage and flooding. Then they verified, categorised and mapped the images.

The resulting maps can be seen online here: and here:

Map of damage photos









The Standby Task Force stood down at 2200 UTC on Mar 22 2015.

Activation Two

We were then activated again on April 5 2015 by the Government of Vanuatu and the World Bank via the DHN. Our task on this occasion was to examine photographs taken from Unmanned Aerial Vehicles that had flown over many of Vanuatu’s affected islands. Volunteers traced the outlines of damaged properties and logged the degree of damage. We used the MicroMappers platform which ensures that each picture was assessed by at least three different volunteers. Micromappers is developed by QCRI

Over 2,500 different images were assessed in this way. Volunteers identified and traced 1,696 destroyed houses, 1,298 partially damaged houses and 3,967 houses with little-to-no damage (note: these figures do not correspond to unique houses). The platform ensures that each picture is seen by at least three people so volunteers actually traced 7,500 images. This was the first time UAV tech was used for crowdsourced assessment and verification. Patrick Meier has written more about this on his blog.

The resulting maps can be seen here:

The Standby Task Force stood down at 0900 UTC on April 14 2015.

Vanuatu still needs help

The people of Vanuatu still need support from the global community. Standby Task Force volunteers have helped to strengthen and improve the humanitarian response.

The UN estimates that US$29.9m is required immediately and has launched a flash appeal.

We are a global network of digital humanitarians ready to respond at short notice to support humanitarian agencies on the ground in disaster zones to process open source data and create crisis maps and databases.

Standby Task Force Activation announced for Vanuatu / Pam

Activation for Vanuatu starts immediately

We have received an activation request from UN-OCHA via the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN). The Core Team believes this meets our activation criteria so we are activating the Standby Task Force immediately.

We really need your help now.

Please sign up for this deployment now (only Task Force members can apply but if you’d like to join the Standby Task Force please apply)

Our deployment

We have been asked to undertake two tasks:

Task 1:

Collect operational information into a Google Doc that captures information such as Assessments, relevant documents, relevant maps, response activities, funding info, etc which is similar to the work we undertook when Hurricane Yolanda hit the Philippines.

Task 2:

Search for tweets about the storm, identify pictures and videos of damage and flooding locate, verify and categorise the content.

We’ll be using AIDR, Micromappers and Verily for this.

We will need the full range of skills from across the network.

What you should do now.

1: Join the activation by signing up here. (Don’t worry if you haven’t got much time, every minute you can give will help in this situation).

2: Join the Skype Skype chat for this activation, someone will add you as soon as they can. Once there you will be able to see the links to the working documents for this activation.

3: Start helping the people of Vanuatu by monitoring and logging information to help responders on the ground.

This is what we are for

  • What we do is unique.
  • No-one else can or will do this work for Vanuatu.
  • This is the reason the Standby Task Force was created and it is why we volunteer.
  • But it will only happen if you, I and our fellow volunteers signup and join the deployment.

Good luck.

Just in case you missed it. This is the link to sign up for this deployment.


How long will this deployment last?

At this point we think the deployment will run from 22:00 UTC, Sunday, March 15 until 23:59 UTC, Friday, March 20

This is subject to change or extension as the situation develops

What technology will we use?

This deployment will use Google documents, Skype and the Micromappers platform.

You will need to be able to access skype text chats.

Which teams or volunteers is this deployment open to?

The deployment is open to all available SBTF members.

Media Monitoring team members are strongly encouraged to participate but we will need all skillsets.

Who are the leads for this deployment?

This deployment will be led by:

This is my first deployment, should I volunteer?

Please volunteer. We need as many people as possible.

If you have any questions please ask, by sending me, the deployment leads or anyone in the core team an email or asking in the Skype chat.

We’ve put some instructions on the google documents but we’re sure they could be improved. The only way we can improve them is if people ask us when things are not clear.

I’m not sure how much time I can commit, should I volunteer?

Please volunteer. We need as many people as possible. Even if you only add one piece of data you’ll be making a difference.

The Standby Task Force relies on hundreds of volunteers working together. Some of us will have more time than others. But if you have *any* time, please help.

Keep in touch

If you’ve got any questions, comments, suggestions then drop me or anyone in the core team an email or ask in the SBTF general chat room on Skype. or

Thanks, and I’m sure all our thoughts and hopes remain with the people of Vanuatu

Ben for the Core Team


New SBTF Deployment for Typhoon Yolanda

Disaster responders in the Philippines need your help!


The Standby Task Force is officially deploying in response to a Digital Humanitarian Network (DHN) request from UN OCHA to assist with media monitoring and mapping for Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), a super typhoon due to make landfall in the Philippines at 01:00 UTC on Friday, November 8th.

Please consider contributing your time to this new deployment! You do not need to be a member of the SBTF, you simply need to follow the steps below and log into Skype.

Thank you very much for your time and we look forward to working with you!

Activator: UN OCHA via DHN

Deployment timeframe: 21:00 UTC, Thursday, November 7 – 22:00 UTC, Sunday, November 10.

Platform: The deployment will use the MicroMappers platform that the SBTF are testing and the Ushahidi map platform. Regarding MicroMappers, this deployment is open to anyone with an internet connection; no previous training or SBTF membership is required. Regarding the Ushahidi map, we will need SBTF volunteers with experience in using Ushahidi.

STEP 1: Please sign up for the deployment and indicate your availability here:

STEP 2: We will add you to the Skype chat window for the deployment called Typhoon Yolanda – Palau General Chat. Please check this Skype window for further instructions and link to the platform for the deployment.

Deployment Leads:

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.



Super Typhoon Haiyan, known locally in the Philippines as Yolanda, is equivalent to a Category 5 hurricane, posing a major threat to people and property across the island nation.

Earlier on Thursday, local time, the winds with this exceptionally dangerous storm increased to 280 kph (nearly 175 mph), tying it with Super Typhoon Lekima for the strongest tropical system in the world for the 2013 season based on wind speed and central pressure. The strength of Haiyan (Yolanda) is equal to that of an extremely powerful Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic.

The typhoon is expected to make landfall at around 09:00 local time (01:00 UTC) on Friday between Samar and Leyte, two of the Visayan Islands in central Philippines. It is then forecast to move over to the South China Sea north of Palawan Island on Saturday, meteorologists say. Its anticipated path will take it directly over the Filipino region struck hardest by a 7.1-magnitude earthquake in October. Around 12 million people live in the Manila metro area, where the storm is expected to hit Saturday, with another 10 million in the central Philippines, where the storm will likely hit hardest.

Accuweather warns rainfall along the storm’s path could measure over 8 inches (200 mm), with mudslides becoming an increasing concern at higher elevations. Making matters worse, a tropical cyclone has already drenched parts of the central Philippines, meaning the storm’s rainfall will likely lead to worse flooding and mudslides.

The typhoon can have a high humanitarian impact based on the maximum sustained wind speed and the affected population and their vulnerability. Schools and offices have already been closed in the region and thousands of people are being evacuated. The estimated population to be affected by Category 1 (120 km/h) wind speeds or higher is 14.2 million

Useful links:

SBTF/USAID – A Partnership – The Future of Digital Volunteers?

meier usaid logo
Kirk Morris, Melissa Elliott, Jeannine Lemaire – SBTF

“On Friday, June 1st, USAID’s GeoCenter and Development Credit Authority (DCA) launched the Agency’s first-ever crowdsourcing initiative to pinpoint the location of USAID DCA loan data. Forty people came to USAID’s Innovation Lab throughout the day to crowdsource live. Online volunteers, working from Canada to the United Kingdom to Uganda, worked nonstop until the project was complete. The event, which was planned for the entire weekend, concluded after only 16 hours as the first 150 people completed 2,300 records. Each of these records is associated with multiple entries in the original database so the final output from the volunteers will result in approximately 10,000 unique records. The event relied heavily on partnerships from online volunteer communities – the Standby Task Force and GIS Corps who both brought many volunteers and leaders to the table. These records are part of a larger dataset containing over 100,000 records, 70,000 of which were automatically geocoded in collaboration with the Department of Defense. The initiative took place using the platform, manipulated for the first time as a crowdsourcing tool.” – Shadrock Roberts, USAID.

We have immense respect for the heavy lifting done by Shadrock Roberts and Stephanie Grosser of USAID. Walking through the Government bureaucracy and legal hurdles required tenacity and patience to bring the effort to fruition. Appreciation must also be shown to the many unknown Government workers who contributed in making the collaboration possible.

It started here:
usaid event page

and here:

This partnership between USAID and the Standby Task Force was unique for a number of reasons. One, we, the SBTF, had the luxury of weeks in which to prepare, inform and galvanize our membership. Two, it was the first effort by the SBTF to map and clean data not related to crisis. There was an initial concern that membership might be put off by the thought of data mining knowing it wasn’t for a critical crisis response and that manipulating pure data might be, well, boring. But, membership showed great enthusiasm and excitement for the detective work required to identify the individual reports. We dare say many members had fun meeting the challenges presented by non-standard location data. As Shadrock Roberts of USAID pointed out, “The records that were given to volunteers were records that we could not automate. This means that they contained some of the most difficult, confusing, and partial geocoded data of the whole set.”

This effort represents a significant view of the future for digital volunteers. As open data becomes more readily accessible, a wealth of information becomes available to be used for good. We were also impressed with the response to the call for volunteers from the global (“crowd”) public. They proved to be wholly reliable, competent and committed to the event as much as the seasoned volunteers. A major lesson learned is with proper work flows, instruction and experienced guidance the “crowd” is an extraordinary asset we all have to learn to trust.

Trust is an element that can’t be passed by casually. Establishing it has required effort, diligence and dedicated volunteers who take pride in the veracity of their efforts. This long road began with UN OCHA, Andrej Verity and the Colombia team (@ochacolombia). Along the way we made incremental advances with UNHCR, WFP, WHO, Amnesty International USA and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. And now a working partnership with USAID made possible by an effort of two-and-a-half years of dedicated membership. The future is bright for mapsters and open data.

Think the Volunteer Technical Community and SBTF have not made a difference? Then ponder this:

Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator of USAID, is quoted this week:

“All of these developments have made me think about how crucial it is to expand the community of individuals and organizations that we listen to and work with. This past week, our GeoCenter and the Development Credit Authority hosted our Agency’s first-ever crowdsourcing event, enlisting 150 volunteers to clean up and geotag thousands of loan data records. That event not only increased our Agency’s transparency, it created a model for the entire government—our event was the first time was opened to crowdsourcing. It won’t be the last.”


“The crowdsourcing event was implemented at no cost to the Agency and is paving the way for the USG [US Government] to allow an interested public to play a role in our efforts to open more data. The substantive effects of the released data and maps will change the way our partners work with DCA in the future. After reviewing the data for quality control, the complete dataset, case study, and the associated map will be released and presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on June 28th.” – Shadrock Roberts, USAID.

Results (thus far) of the USAID CrowdSourcing Event:

Volunteers processed more than 2,300 records in approximately 16 hours. Many of these records have been used to populate multiple entries in the original dataset (where there were multiple entries only one “parent record” was given to the volunteers). At present, USAID has been able to complete 8,615 records from the work of the volunteers! They are fairly confident that the final number will be around 10,000. Only 2,393 records were labeled as “bad data,” which can still be mapped at the national level. Of the ones that were “completed” over 4,000 of them returned a good enough placename match to be assigned a latitude and longitude point.

We pulled together a few statistics from the crowdsourcing event (reflecting only the active sixteen hours of the event, as the event concluded earlier than the originally planned 60 hours thanks to our amazing volunteers!):

  • Total volunteers who actively participated in the crowdsourcing: 143
  • Total USAID, GISCorps and general public volunteers: 75
  • Total SBTF volunteers: 68
  • Total SBTF volunteers active in Skype channels: 58
  • Total SBTF volunteers who RSVPed for the full 60-hour event: 142

The Next Phases:

The first phase of using crowdsourcing to geocode the data records and perform data cleansing is now complete. Phases 2 and 3 of the project are now being performed by USAID and GISCorps. During Phase 2, “hard-to-geocode” records are being worked on further by GISCorps volunteers who have specialized expertise in geolocation and writing automated scripts to perform these tasks. During Phase 3, quality control and analysis of all geocoded records will be performed, meaning the geocoding of data by both the “crowd” and automated systems will be checked for accuracy. Once these phases are finalized, the complete data set, map and case study will be released to the public, promoting open data and transparency.

Quotes from volunteers:

“The true meaning of crowdsourcing: I’m skyping with my mom to get help with the Sri Lanka-based tasks our volunteers are having some trouble with (she’s from there)”. – Jeannine Lemaire, Standby Task Force Volunteer

“I’m between jobs right now and this is a great opportunity for me to connect with people doing similar work as me in the DC area.” – Dan, GeoDC

“I wasn’t sure what I was going to be doing but I appreciate what USAID does and wanted to help.” – Stephanie, volunteer who works full time at National Defense University

The following Skype chat illustrates the wonder of crowdsourcing volunteers:

[6/2/2012 5:10:57 PM] Rick: I work in the field of Environmental science, with work also in Toxicity, Exposure, Epidemiology and Risk Assessment.

[6/2/2012 5:14:00 PM] Joy: Thank you Richard. Get out of town I worked for a bio montoring lab all through my under grad +5 years aquatic toxicology for NELAP compliance. I tried really hard to selll my boss on creating a GIS for his clients he just didn’t see the value in it so it was time to leave.

[6/2/2012 5:16:01 PM] Rick: I like the work I do from a task standpoint, and from the challenge. What I have not had is the fulfillment of feeling like I have done something good. I think that is why it is so hard for me to leave now:)

[6/2/2012 5:17:23 PM] Joy: Adeiu to everyone that worked vigilantly to finish ahead of schedual. I think ya’ ll broke some records. te he

[6/2/2012 5:18:30 PM] Joy: Richard you did lots of good today and you can feel good about that.

[6/2/2012 5:19:26 PM] Rick: I do. I haven’t felt like this since the soup kitchens and food drives I used to do in college. I love this.


The main offices of USAID hosted volunteer members of the “crowd” in DC:

USAID crowd

data gov

 The Instructions:

The Platform and Tools:
Below are a list of some of the tools we were fortunate to have at our fingertips for this event, including Rabble, a custom-built microtasking application designed specifically for this crowdsourcing event by Socrata, a leader in open data helping to make Kenya a leader in the open data movement. This app enabled volunteers to request records from the US government’s open data site,
rabble signup

The Dashboard:
Here the members were presented with the data records. Using various tools, including search engines and online maps, combined with much investigation and detective work, the volunteers were able to mark the data record as complete or as bad data.

dataUSAID/ESRI Lookup Tool:

ESRI developed a tool just for the USAID crowdsourcing event to aid volunteers in their search for good location data matching the record.

esri hue

Geonames Tool:geonames org detail


NGA Geonames Tool:mil geonames

mil geo names hue

A summation: We’ve come a long way, baby. The White House noticed! But, “with miles to go before WE sleep.”


We also got noticed in the press. Below is a brief list:



A Master’s Thesis on the Motivations Behind the SBTF

[Guest blog post by Evelyn Hichens, an SBTF volunteer who has just completed her Geography Msci course at the University Of Birmingham, UK. For her fourth year dissertation she decided to focus on quantifying the motivations behind the volunteers of Standby Taskforce. A powerpoint presentation of her MA thesis is available here.]

Hey Mapsters,

As you some of you may know, I’ve been carrying out research into the motivations behind the Standby Task Force for the last six months or so. I have had some great chats and have really enjoyed hearing about your experiences and motivations. I have previously done some research on crisis mapping but it mainly focused on the ‘for’ and ‘against’ of using crowdsourcing in a humanitarian setting. However, I have now realised that it is first important to understand the motivations behind the volunteers involved – without this information the movement could be prevented from moving forward. Not paying enough attention to volunteer motivations has been a criticism of previous Volunteer Geographic Information (VGI) studies.

So firstly for those who don’t know what my research is on, here is a quick overview of the methodology. I used the Volunteer Function Inventory to create a survey and to quantify the motivations of volunteers. In total 42 volunteers answered the survey – many thanks for all you who did! I also interviewed 13 volunteers, and four core members of the SBTF as well as four representatives from organisations that had previously activated the SBTF.

Just quick overview of some of my key findings…

Volunteers tend to join the SBTF as they have an interest in the field of crisis mapping/disaster response and they are curious to see what the SBTF does. The SBTF has widened the field for participation in disaster response. For the majority of volunteers I spoke to, their main motivation was their desire to help but a secondary motivation was also noted, the chance to learn new skills.

The volunteers are passionate about the work the SBTF is doing and this can be shown by one of my favourite quotes from my dissertation:

“[The SBTF] is an organisation of compassionate individuals who use a variety of skills, training and experience to provide humanitarian aid in crisis situations through online interactions. Some are professionals and others learn from scratch, but every person has an important role to play.”

Volunteers tend to exhibit similar understandings of the purpose of the SBTF whilst they do not share a clear understanding or necessarily have an awareness of the SBTF’s long term aims. Yet, somewhat controversially, this does not seem to be an issue. It has previously been mentioned that crowdsourcing initiatives require clear long term objectives and that the greater the motive alignment of the crowd, the more likely it is for volunteers to feel like a partner. Instead the key to the SBTF is ‘keeping the conversation alive’. Volunteers are attracted by the openness of the community; as the end goals are not set in stone, the volunteers have the opportunity to be part of its future. Volunteers are driving the initiative, rather than purely being an anonymous cog in a machine.

The profile analysis showed that 46 percent of the volunteers had not joined any teams. When volunteers join the SBTF they fill in a bio section, in which the question ‘What teams would you like to join?’ is filled in. However, just because volunteers have filled this in it does not mean they are a member of these teams. Volunteers who read this post I urge to to check that you have actually joined a team/s that you had filled in, as without this information the SBTF cannot have a clear understanding of its community’s skill-set.

As altruistic motivations prevail in the SBTF community, it is crucial that the volunteers are aware of what the outcome of their efforts will be and how their labours translate into helping people. During the interviews, two volunteers discussed how they required more information on the impact of the deployments to conclude whether they are actually helping people. The SBTF needs to ensure, where possible, to provide the volunteers with detailed information on the impact of their work. As well, before activating deployments, considering whether volunteer motivations will be met through their engagement. This may mean that volunteers will be less not motivated to volunteers for those deployments that are not in a crisis setting.

The SBTF answered the request of the Disaster 2.0 (2011) report for an effective interface between volunteers and traditional organisations in the field and this has been recognised and appreciated by the traditional organisations that have activated it. So far motivations for activating the SBTF have been experimental in nature, yet engagement has been positive and the SBTF are steadily becoming a valued member of the response community.

This study’s understanding of volunteer motivations should allow the SBTF to work towards enhancing volunteer retention, through both ensuring the volunteers know how they are helping people, and continuing volunteer skill development through training, simulations, and support throughout deployments. It hopes to catalyse further studies focusing on volunteer motivations in the field of crisis mapping; this field is rapidly expanding, and it is important volunteer motivations are understood so that the SBTF are aware of these and consider them in the management of the community.

Many thanks to all the volunteers that took part in the survey and to everyone I interviewed. I would be very interested to hear any of your comments so please feel free to get in contact with me:

Harvard Humanitarian Initiative – (HSI) Simulation Exercise – An Appreciation

Our partners (HSI) had the tough work mucking about in the cold and wet weather. Our resulting map…

Thank you

“This past April 27-29 over 100 HSI program participants came together in a state forest just north of Boston, Massachusetts to participate in a simulation exercise designed to replicate a complex humanitarian crisis. For two and half days of unseasonable New England weather, participants worked in the rain and cold to respond to the needs of a (simulated) vulnerable population in need of immediate humanitarian assistance.”


Humanitarian Studies Initiative (HSI) Simulation Exercise