Data Week: Hurricane Matthew, Small Data, 5 minutes to learn

Co-creating spaces and networks to get people involved with technology has always been my passion. At the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent, I am contributing to a movement-wide initiative to build a data-driven organization making evidence-based decisions. The role is leading Data Literacy Programs. For years, I’ve been building data learning and use into communities, software projects, NGOS and research institutes. Now, I have an opportunity to support a vibrant network. Join me on this journey as I write as we go. This is a prototype newsletter to serve the community. Feedback welcome.

Mapping with the American Red Cross

Around the world, mappers continue to add details to support efforts in Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. You can see real time edits by clicking this. Also see the overall edit statistics here is a link of global changesets. Some of the projects are being lead by the team at American Red Cross (you can see the progress on the HOTOSM Task Manager (Task Manager – a way for people to divide up the work.)

Number of OSM Contributors: 2,145
Number of Map Changes: 2,734,621
Total number of Changesets: 31,722

Mapping Haiti

More or Less 5 minutes to learn

1. How to build multi-line data viz from (3 minute video)

2. What is Data Science?
Everyone keeps changing the definition. Over at Data Science Central, they’ve aggregated a list of articles to help you wrap your head around it.

15 hours, more or less, to learn

Free: ESRI is hosting a MOOC “Going Places with GeoSpatial Analysis

Free: Data Visualization: Principles and Practices


Pie Charts Explained by XKCD
(Source: XKCD)

Big Ideas

How do we become data literate organizations? Well, over in the social media marketing world, Ryan Holmes is sharing tactics to help organizations become more digital literate. How can we build small interventions and big impacts within our organizations.
“The problem — this digital skills gap — was deeper and more pervasive than I realized.” – Ryan Holmes, Hootsuite.

What about small data?

With all this talk about big data, I have been waiting for more praise for small data. There is data nutrition (re:insights) in all types of data. Hamad Haddadi, former colleague, shared a book from some of the Small Data Lab folks: Small Data: tiny clues that uncover huge trends. (Added it to my reading list.)


“How to measure” and “what to measure” seems to be constant debate. The Social Progress Imperative launched their SDG( Sustainable Development Goals) measurement report card. Can we or should we use this methodology or a hybrid for NGO programs? And, should we even be measuring unlike things? A recent ICTWorks article shares some thoughts on the value of ranking systems:

“I have a proposal – it’s modest and unsolicited: stop funding rankings. Start, instead, funding internal capacity building workshops – invite experts, practitioners, and providers (whose time you pay for) to start from the issues and your context, and build practical, ethical, user-centered approaches from the ground up.” – Sean Martin MacDonald

Audio Book

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality – Cathy O’Neil

I’ve been listening to this audio book for a few weeks. When we think about barriers for using data in humanitarian response, it is always good to know what the machines are up to and some of the ethical questions to consider.

Help wanted

What kind of content would you like to see in my Data reports? Do you have links to share? Send it all my way – heatherleson at gmail dot com.


Innovation Matters…in the Hallways

The World Humanitarian Summit was a few weeks ago. People keep asking me for observations. My answer continues to be: Innovation matters in the hallways. There were side events, main delegate events and so many announcements. To me, the success of the event is more abstract. Yes, I agree with some of the observations and critiques that the Summit could have done more. But, really, some of this is up to us. One of the wins of the event was all the conversations between people who make things. It is the exposure to new ideas or new (old) ideas across so many disciplines.

innovation matters at WHS
(Photo: a snapshot of some of the Innovation Marketplace leaders.)

Consider this, what if we took all the vendors, researchers, innovators, creators and businesses in the Innovation Marketplace and Exhibition Marketplace and put them in the same room for 2 days or 4 months to make things? How many businesses would flourish? What would be the next steps? What if we could build things together irrespective of branding and funders? There are many partnerships, alliances and hubs being announced. This is the dream that some groups aim to build. Truly, I am excited about Humanity X, the Global Humanitarian Lab, the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, especially if they work closely with the Near Network.

Here are some other articles that perked my interest about the outcomes of the World Summit:

What matters most is that those who build and make things continue to go forward. Our pace must now be full speed in complimentary streams with the organizations and in consultation with communities. The success measurement comes from how we use what we observed and learned to build better. As much as success is qualitative and abstract, I think if we did an 1 year or 5 years later informal assessment of all the organizations and individuals who make things, we might get the math people seek. Until then, keep doing is our motto.


Baking soda for your Social Entrepreneurship

[Ed. note: this blog post includes content for my talk at Reach out to Asia Empower 2016 panel with UNDP "Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship for the Sustainable Development Goals”, March 18, 2016]

When I started my career in internet technologies, I was confronted with a frequent bit of advice: “If you want to be successful, you need to move to Silicon Valley.” And, while I have visited San Francisco and the various amazing organizations this concept always struck me as confusing. Sure, there is much talent and opportunity, but isn’t there a world beyond? My journey for social impact has included working with and meeting many social entrepreneurs from around the world. They are my teachers. My role is really like “baking soda” for recipes. Successful programs require mentorship, well-defined problems and plans for long-term growth. Just think how much potential is around the world and why youth matters:

Take a moment to consider this: the majority of the world’s population is your age group (16 – 26) and there is also a high concentration of mobile internet use (see the GSMA 2015 report).

Fishless at ROTA March 2016
(Fishless is at Research to Asia Empower 2016)

Do hard things

Brck is a social entrepreneurship based in Nairobi, Kenya. One of their projects is to bring tablets to classrooms for learning. Their motto is “We do hard things”. Here in Doha at Reach out to Asia Empower 2016, I encourage the audience to also consider how we can have social impact aimed at the Sustainable Development Goals. This means focusing on an issue or topic that inspires you.

Be curious and meet allies

Your power is your curiousity. All around the world there are people creating social innovations and social entrepreneurship projects/businesses. This is your learning space – wide and full of potential. Who is doing a similar topic in a region that you could remix in your area? What tools and tactics are they using? What are some of the gaps and opportunities in your area? In the social entrepreneur space, if you do your homework there are many people who will answer questions and support you. We all have a common mission to do some good. Once you have an idea, then consider implementation in small, medium and large ways.

Pardon me, if this already exists, but one regular activity that think could be an outcome from Empower 2016 is to consider how to keep in touch with each other. Your power is with each other. Have you set up a WhatsApp group for the the topic that inspires you? Can you host a regular meetup (majlis) for coffee (karak) to brainstorm and co-create?

Empower main stage

Research and Technology communities can help

Many of you mind wonder what is Qatar Computing Research Institute doing for social entrepreneurship. We are a resource for this region. Staff have widespread experience in social computing research and technologies plus we are part of the local entrepreneur ecosystem.

Some recent research examples include: climate change (sentiment in Qatar), what your apps say about you, and aerial imagery for disasters/environmental action.

What does this mean for social entrepreneurs? Well, my former colleague Patrick Meier has set up a business with other experts called We Robotics. This group aims to use new technology for good with field training and big data analysis. One of the first projects they explored was with a university in Nepal. They will collaborate with FlyLabs around the world. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team together with partners like Ramani Huria combining maps, urban planning and student power to make a difference in Dar es Salaam. Students and youth are instrumental in these projects. Combining digital and in person programmes, research can be a guiding force to help you review ideas, prototype and consider critical lessons for success.

It is true, I am often bias to technology solutions since this is my passion and field of expertise. However, I encourage you to create first without technology – nothing replaces the power of in person conversations, pen and paper. In today’s workshop, we will consider digital skills for good and how it can apply to your social entrepreneur efforts.

Your Data Journey for the SDGs

Qatar Dugong Club
(Grade 10 students from Albayan Secondary School, Doha Qatar. Photo with permission to publish)

Data is core to excellent storytelling and convincing programmes or businesses. Let’s take Fishless, for example, they are using art and design to convey a message: We are creating a world that will soon be fishless. What is the data behind that? In Canada, there is a ban on fishing cod in the Atlantic. This government policy was instituted after scientists and activists did the math. The fishery industry and many communities changed for this new reality. It is hard to consider a world with out fish. What are the data sources available in Qatar, for example, on fish resources. Another group here at Reach out to Asia is #QatarDugongs. This club aims to protect the dugongs. Their campaign to raise awareness is important. The partnership is fantastic. Students from Albayan Secondary School have a club #QatarDugongs. The partnership of Qatar University, Texas A & M and Exxon Mobil are working on a youth outreach program while conducting a dugong census project. This research data and community support will be invaluable for Qatar to meet goal 14 – Life below Water.

I created this list of resources and ways to get started on your data driven exploration. Consider using some of these tools and techniques to take aim the SDG that is your focus:


Empower Digital Skills & Literacy via Social Entrepreneurship

Hamad Bin Khalifa University is buzzing with creative ideas from young energetic social entrepreneurs. Reach out to Asia’s 8th Annual Empower event includes over 450 participants from around the region for workshops, talks aimed at fostering leadership and youth social entrepreneurship. Together with my colleagues from Qatar Computing Research Institute, Social Computing and Arabic Language Technology teams, we are here to share about research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Empower logo

Empower 2016 Workshops

Global Goals

Workshop 1: Digital Skills for Good

How can you learn digital skills for social good and humanitarian response? This skill-based workshop bridges three themes: social communications, social innovation and crowdsourcing. We partnered with the United Nations Development Programme to focus on Global Goals as guidance for social entrepreneurship activities.

We will conduct some exercises to explore data collection (keywords), online strategies, verification and visualization. Participants will be given resources to keep on learning after the workshop. We will focus on the global goals for climate action (#goal13), good health & well-being (#goal3) and affordable and clean energy (#goal7)

This workshop will be presented jointly by Heather Leson, Ji Kim Lucas, Irina Temnikova (QCRI) and Jennifer Colville (UNDP)

Workshop 2: Social Entrepreneurship: Improving Literacy in the Arab World through Ebooks for Children

In the workshop, participants will be introduced to the problem of improving literacy in the Arab world by bringing more interesting books into the hands of children. Using the newly developed Jalees Ebooks reader it will be demonstrated how technology opens the doors to new types of multimedia and interactive books. The participants will then enter a discussion on how social entrepreneurship could be applied to develop a library of interesting Arabic children books.

This workshop will be presented jointly by Wajdi Zaghouani, CMU-Q, and Stephan Vogel, QCRI. This topic falls under a number of Sustainable Development Goals, but Reduced Inequalities appears to be a good match. (#goal10)

Connecting youth to Social Impact, Entrepreneurship and Research

It is a true passion to help youth make a difference in their world on topics that matter. All around the Empower event there are great ideas from accessible parking spots with bar code alarms to Fishless (an intervention for Goal 14: Life Below Water), to Top Shabab (iread, Greenuse), to Education initiatives. Many of these programmes are youth driven. Our team at QCRI has been directly involved in capacity building and education for many years. We are here to share our knowledge and offer support to the flourishing community trying to make a difference in the world. And, who knows, maybe someday they will join the path of research for social impact. Thanks to the whole Reach out to Asia team for including us in this great event.

Empower Digital Skills for the SDGs and Social Entrepreneurship

We’ve tailored our workshop, which will be held on Friday, March 18th to inspire children from ages 16-26 to create programmes and social entrepreneurship aimed at solving big global issues one step at a time. See our slides with extensive notes.


What happens at a Research Institute?

Research institutes are vibrant and not always full dusty or abstract thoughts/activities. Every day can be a meander through brilliant ideas, prototypes and new science. March 2016 is gearing up to be research event month in Doha and for Qatar Computing Research Institute. We will be hosting and participating in a number of events. A few new papers are published which might perk interest. Plus, we have an open call for Summer Interns and Post-Docs to come learn with us. Consider this your window into the diversity of activities.

Book Plugged in Alex Tai noun_114556_cc

Upcoming Research Events

Most of these events are free. You just need to register in advance.

Annual Machine Learning and Data Analytics workshop (March 14 -15, 2016)

Empower: Reach out to Asia (March 17 – 19, 2016) Theme: Innovation and Youth Social Entrepreneurship (applications to attend are closed)
QCRI will host 3 workshops, have an exhibition booth and I am speaking.

MIT CSAIL QCRI workshop (March 20, 2016). Full day on research and a public lecture on Self-Driving Cars.

Qatar Foundation Annual Research Conference (March 22 – 23, 2016)


Seeking Post-Docs – Come work with us

QCRI has a number of post-doc opportunities in the Social Computing Team. From health + mobile computing/social media to News Analytics to Online Gaming You can apply here.


Be a Summer Intern

Are you a local student studying computer science? Every year QCRI hosts students on all kinds of projects. An example from Social Computing is exploring instagram food photos. Applications are due between March 13 – 20, 2016. To learn more, we are hosting an info session:

summer internship mentor QCRI 2016


Explore some research

I work on the Social Computing team. This is a sample of some of the research from 2015.
Exploring Cyberbullying and Other Toxic Behavior in Team Competition Online Games

  • (paper)
  • (slide)

Twitter: A Digital Socioscope (book)


You Tweet What You Eat: Studying Food Consumption Through Twitter


The Mesh of Civilizations in the Global Network of Digital Communication


Processing Social Media Messages in Mass Emergency: A Survey


Surveillance & Modesty on Social Media: How Qataris Navigate Modernity and Maintain Tradition

(coming soon)


We’ll try and sleep in April, but until then, time to keep exploring and learning.

[Credit: Book icon courtesy of Alex Tai, Noun Project]


Hybrid Skills needed to foster change

Over 10 years ago at Tucows Inc., the communications department included my colleague James Koole, who was a journalist by training. His skills of digital storytelling and technical tinkering fostered the customer experience. Business intelligence, “in house journalists” and data science are now more pervasive in many workplaces. At the data-driven journalism course in Cairo, as part of the Data-Driven Innovation Workshop Week in MENA, I am here to talk about data in research and potential of data-driven innovation. As I prepare my thoughts on how Data-Driven Innovation can affect business growth, I consider why hybrid employees, like Mr. Koole, help. What other hybrid skills are needed and how can we support people’s learning journeys to drive social entrepreneurship?

Data-Driven Innovation in Qatar

In Qatar, there is a growing technical community. The Data-Driven Innovation MENA team asked me to provide an overview of examples of data-driven research and this might apply to business growth. The following are some examples from QCRI’s research and from a few of the local startup community (There are extensive notes):

How can data-driven innovation drive business

In a world that is increasingly focused on entrepreneurship, there is also a parallel stream focused on STEM education. This is a potential mistake to be too focused on silos. If you can tell a better story or design useful data-driven content/information products, this is also core to growth.

Qatar and Doha have a limited number of technical education events. If you are in school, you can join
CMU’s Smartlab and learn data analytics. Qatar Computing Research Institute has a Summer internship program open to local youth considering a career in computer science. If you are an entrepreneur and are able to join a number of the great incubators, accelerators or youth programmes, you might get some data-driven innovation training. Everyone can learn online by, for example, taking Cousera courses, but fostering this ecosystem needs in person engagement and learning opportunities.

In Doha, I hosted a few workshops on Data Analytics, Machine Learning, Social Media Curation and Digital Mapping. The free classes were oversold and included a wide mix of professionals, young startups, students and, even, research colleagues. QCRI will continue to build the knowledge economy sharing skills and technical training. But, I highly recommend a startup focused on training data-driven innovation skills for business. There is indeed a growing market beyond the student body. Change will happen when more senior people are exposed to the techniques and how it can enable their business team to flourish. Organizations also need to continue to provide more technical workshops to augment all the strategy and leadership training. This includes encouraging technical companies to host workshops on how to use the tools and apply to a diverse stream from humanitarian to startups to social entrepreneurship.

What is one quick win for data-driven innovation in Qatar: More technical training and more data journalism skills. What if there was a a Data Driven Startup Handbook and shared curriculum?

Consider this type of future of domain expertise, data-smart employees including Type 2 Data Scientists:

“…require a different kind of data scientist, one that does not have the core technical ability to write code but enough of a general understanding of what can and cannot be achieved using machine learning approaches to effectively evaluate its outputs. This ‘type II’ data scientist does not need an in depth understanding of the code but might lead a team containing data scientists and needs to be able to translate between the business or policy problem and the technical environment. Without some understanding of what these learning systems can and can’t do there is the potential for a lot of poor quality problem solving and the outcomes on society could be very negative. There are examples of courses trying to fill this gap, like the MSc course at Sheffield, targeted at non-data scientists that aims to teach students fundamental data science principles and its application within organisations to support data-driven approaches to problem solving.

(Source: Nesta Report: Machines that Learn in the Wild, 2015.)


MIT in Doha: Public Talk about Self-Driving Cars

Doha is the land of cars and traffic. In the next few years, the Rail (Metro/Subway/Underground) will open. It is expected that traffic and our use of cars will also evolve. Qatar Computing Research Institute is excited to invite you to learn more about “Self-Driving Cars from MIT’s Daniela Rus”. With all the technology and car enthusiasts, we are sure to have a good conversation.

“We spend a lot of time in out cars, yet this is a part of our lives where we have been vulnerable to the world’s leading cause of bodily harm. Now, the digitization of practically everything coupled with advanced robotics promises a future with extensive use of robots in our transportation systems. Self-driving cars have the potential to increase the safety and efficiency of our transportation systems and enhance the driving experience. In this talk I will address recent developments in self-driving cars. I will describe the state of the art in developing autonomous cars and mobility on demand with self-driving cars. I will also address some of the technological challenges and policy challenges ahead. I will then describe a scalable data-driven approach for developing mobility on demand systems with self-driving cars. ”

XKCD on driving

Iyad Rahwan and colleagues from the MIT Media Lab have been writing about the shift with self-driving cars. See the research on the ethical implications of autonomous cars. (This should drive some great questions!)

Register soon

    Sunday March 20, 2016
    4:00 PM to 5:30 PM (AST)
    Qatar National Convention Centre – Room 215-517 Ar-Rayyan, Al Rayyan QA

Registration (click here)

(comic source: XKCD CCBY (Buy his book and laugh for hours))


Scaling Inclusiveness for HumTech

Four months tasked to a large project often means readjusting all kinds of perspectives, lessons learned and new/old ideas. Add to that: the email backlog and reconnecting with people. Wiping up the dust and catching up on tabled research and social innovation programmes comes with the opportunity of walking around with new eyes.

Aingel presenting
(Demo Day, January 18,2016. Photo by Irina Temnikova)

There are many models for accelerators, labs, social entrepreneurs, lean startups and hubs. The debate about whether an accelerator actually helps a business is kind of moot. Each experience is worth it for the team and, hopefully, for the individuals involved. I blame the hours of reading about business models, how to startup and innovation creation. Models, formulas, templates, schemes, and meetings are simply devices for you get something and take something away. The magic comes from us. Our Accelerator team is in review process and next steps planning. And, I am reflecting: how can I apply these experiences to humanitarian technology innovation (humtech)?

Scaling Humanitarian Technology

It is my life’s goal to help people involved in their world with technology. To make this possible, we need step ladders of engagement: to give opportunities for small tasks and big asks. We need plans to tackle the right types of questions and problems. The Qatar Computing Research Institute’s Crisis Computing team is building machine learning and human computing software to enable microtasking databits. We keep studying and improving the software and engagement. Fortunately, our allies at UN OCHA and the Standby Task Force have been core to teaching us how to we can help during large scale emergencies. We use social media, news and aerial imagery data right now. But the opportunity to consume SMS, Messaging and sensor data is huge. Each layer of data informs. True, this all hinges on access to engagement tools and the ability to speak safely. Some day each part might fit, until then, many people in the humanitarian technology fields are working hard to make small differences.

There is no one way to scale a humanitarian project. This piece by Thoughtworks and the work of Humanitarian Innovation Fund explore the question: How to scale innovation and new technology for humanitarian responses?

For the past years, I have looked from these angles:

  • Hackathons, camps, and mini-projects: Random Hacks of Kindness, Space Apps, Crisis Commons, Mozilla Humanitarian Badges
  • Social Entrepreneurship: Ushahidi
  • Non-Profits/Open Source Communities: Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, Open Knowledge (School of Data), PeaceGeeks, Ushahidi, Standby Task Force, Digital Humanitarian Network
  • Accelerators and hubs: AINGEL/AIDR (QCRI), Ihub Research, Geeks without Bounds
  • Research: QCRI

There are many great ideas that never get traction or support. Today I am asking again: What does implementation look like? I keep reflecting on some of the models and ideas that we had during our Crisis Commons sprints. What if we could collaborate more and make a top ten of things that need to get built then make it happen? What if there is amazing research idea/prototype that needs ‘accelerating’ to scale? How would this happen? I think that the local hubs and accelerators around the world are very much a potential. I also think that the Civic Tech communities are core to results. But how can we include the unusual suspects and the reluctant innovators.

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund is a start, but what are some other ways that techs, researchers and creative people can actually work with practicioners to solve these questions. How can techs and others find these opportunities to contribute? I love the Linked in For Good pages and the work of Code for All, but can we widen the circle?

Share your thoughts? Maybe I will convene an adhoc skype conversation on this topic. Let me know if you would like to join.


Mapmaking for Good in Qatar

Maps are critical for logistics in humanitarian response. We are excited to invite you to the second Digital Humanitarians in Qatar event on Sunday, November 29, 2015. In this session, we will talk about the power of maps and location data using examples from various Humanitarian Emergencies. We will introduce you some basic components of mapping share how you can even add social media data to maps. Qatar Computing Research and Qatar Red Crescent are co-hosts of this event. Our special guest is Sajjad Anwar of Mapbox and the OpenStreetMap community.

To learn more and register, click here Event is Sunday, November 29, 2015.

map of qatar

Event Details

Dates and times: November 29, 2015 16:30 – 18:30pm AST
Location: Qatar Red Crescent Headquarters, 1st floor, Al Salata (Doha)
(Parking is near the old Movenpick Hotel)

Digital Humanitarians and CrisisMapping Agenda
  • How Qatar Red Crescent uses Maps – Qatar Red Crescent
  • Introduction to Map tools and Remote Mapping – Heather Leson, QCRI
  • Overview of Mapbox and OSM – Sajjad Anwar, Mapbox
  • Introduction to MicroMappers and Leaflet – Ji Lucas, QCRI
  • Map exercises (in Arabic and English)

QRC-QCRI Co Branded Logo

© Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved