Data @ IFRC #1: Hurricane Matthew, Small Data, 5 minutes to learn

[ed. note: Data @ IFRC is a blog series to share highlights from data-driven Red Cross Red Crescent national societies, learning opportunities and thought pieces on all things data from ethics to evidence.]

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 Infogr.am (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.


Expats Watch The Hip

On Saturday night, the Tragically Hip will play its last show of the Man Machine Poem Tour. Gord Downie, the lead singer, is ill so it is expected to be the last show. All around Canada people are planning Tragically Hip listening parties. My social stream is full of memories, videos and plans. The Hip, as one dear friend pointed out, is the soundtrack of some of our lives. Canadian. It strikes the core of our quiet nationalism, understated but passionate. A Slate article helps explains it some. But over 30 years of life and music memories including of one of my favourites of Gord “swimming” on the Ontario Place rotating stage to “New Orleans is Sinking” (August 1991!). It is hard to explain or enumerate how the music just layered and supported our own stories. Thank you.

Click here to get listening options.

CLOSED For Hockey

Watching from afar

The CBC is broadcasting the show across radio, tv and youtube. I emailed them hoping that the livestream would not be blocked. They assured me that there is no geofencing, that stream is open for the world. You see, as an expat, we are already far away. Shared experiences become even more precious. The concert starts at 03:30am AST in Qatar. For a friend in Hong Kong, it is 5 hours ahead. Each of us plans to find a stream and watch. Our ‘Canadian’ family and friends are timezones away. Yet, we can participate thanks to the CBC, the band and, surely, the lawyers making it possible.

Saturday nights, in season, is always Hockey Night in Canada. This time the main show will be music. In 2010, Canada had a huge hockey game in the Winter Olympics. Literally, there were signs all over my Toronto neighbourhood. I took a picture and posted to Twitter that Neighbourhood, City and Country was Closed for Hockey. Across Canada people will have a large shared and in person time to watch the Hip. It will be well-known that this is happening. For those of us abroad, we’ll be online. Thank goodness for the internet to help connect us. If you see a sad expat Canadian on August 20/21, ask us about the show.

My thoughts are with the band, their friends and their families.

Time for some Courage. #homesick

(Images in the sign are from Noun Project. CCBY. The “x” is by Doejo and the “sign” is by Kate T. The sign was made with Canva.)


Co-creating and Celebrating Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

Maps connect us and tell stories. On Thursday, September 22, 2016, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team will convene for our 2nd annual HOT Summit in Brussels on the eve of the State of the Map conference. Both events celebrate OpenStreetMap and the community.

HOT Summit Logo

Top 5 Reasons to be at the HOT Summit

1. Leaders will share their map stories from around the globe

Check out the amazing programme of speakers from Indonesia, Canada, US, Tanzania and more.
HOT activation traininng in Jakarta

(Photo by Mhairi O’hara at the HOT Activation Workshop, Jakarta 2015)

2. Meet and build HOT and OSM together

The map is bigger than one individual. It is a community, a network of networks.

Bill Gates on OSM in Nepal Response May 5, 2015

3. Provide input into HOT’s future strategic planning

We are 6 year’s young and so much to do. Give us advice, take a task, share your experience, express your opinion. We will have many conversations and coffee conversations about the future of HOT. Help us co-create this strategy.

Road by BraveBros. from the Noun Project noun_106568_cc

(Image credit- Road by BraveBros. from the Noun Project)

4. Learn new skills from peers

The talent in this community to teach each other is amazing. Having an in person space to learn, ask questions, grab a side table to map makes the HOT Summit a space for everyone. Just ask. I am sure that we will find someone who can answer your questions or even learn a thing or two from you!

Mapping Nepal (photo by Gopinath Parayil))

(Photo for the Nepal Earthquake response by Gopinath Parayil)

5. Have fun mapping for change with your new friends

A few of the HOT community attended the World Humanitarian Summit. Many of us had not met before in person. Times of laughter and solidarity make all the difference.
HOT at WHS 2016

(photo for WHS 2016 using Heather’s phone)

Why join us?

How can we get to the next million participants creating the largest open map? How can improve everyone’s experience from novice to advanced? What are some of the project highlights from around the world?

Achieving our mission to help humanitarians and economic development with OpenStreetMap means widening the circle. Sure, we will talk fine details about mapping, but there is space for everyone to explore and contribute. Even if you are not a ‘mapper’, but are curious about open source and open mapping, then join us. We aim to improve the map and grow the global community. Over the past months, our team has been demonstrating how HOT can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and help humanitarians with Missing Maps. This action packed day has tickets available for 66.24Euro. (Register today!)


You can MapSwipe!

Every day we use our phones. We tap, we read, we photograph, we chat, we view, and we connect. But wait! What if your ‘tapping’ time could help a humanitarian? Queue MapSwipe.

mapswipe_lockup_whiteblue larger

Your quick tapping decisions about images could save mappers time and help the most vulnerable. Satellite imagery for project regions are added to MapSwipe. Then, we give you project tasks focused on looking for key items. For example some projects will look for houses, if you see a house in a tile, you tap once for yes (tile turns green), if you are unsure you tap twice (tile turns yellow) or if the tile is flawed (blurry), then you tap three times (tile turns red). Multiple people look at the tiles so that we can crowdsource to higher accuracy. Once the project is completed, we share the curated data with mappers who will review and map the data on OpenStreetMap. All of this is to help humanitarians have the best map possible.

MapSwipe main project screen “In a humanitarian crisis, the location of the most vulnerable people is fundamental information for delivering food, shelter, medical care and other services where they are most needed. And, although it may be hard to believe, millions people around the world are not represented on any accessible map.” (Pete Masters, Missing Maps Coordinator, MSF, July 14, 2016)

MapSwipe is available today on the Google Play and Itunes stores. Download and MapSwipe Today!

MapSwipe is a Missing Maps project aimed to proactively map the places in the world where the most vulnerable people live before a crisis happens. Missing Maps is a partnership between Medecins sans Frontieres, American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Netherlands Red Cross, CartoONG, and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team.

Please share MapSwipe widely with your friends and family. And, do let us know how we can improve. Help bit counts!

About MapSwipe Team and Project

MapSwipe was funded by MSF UK for the Missing Maps Project. Currently, all projects are for Missing Maps partners, but this might change in time. The tool was developed by an amazing team. Congratulations Ivan, Pim, Sadok, Alison, Pete, Astrid and Bennie. You all inspire me. (Note: My contribution of advisor was on my personal time as a proud Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Board Member. )

Imagery is provided by Bing (Thanks Microsoft!).

Thanks for Mapswipebe a mobile volunteer with mapswipe


Data Driven Summer Schools

Summer is here in the northern hemisphere. My office is a ghost town with people on annual leave. Living in the Middle East means that I consider summer a time for major learning endeavors. Fortunately, many universities also see this opportunity.

The 2016 Big Data Peace and Justice Summer School has a great lineup of data leaders. Their aim is to connect researchers and practioners on how the data revolution is infusing peace and justice work. The application deadline is July 15th, 2016. The Peace Informatics Lab invites people to join for the Summer School on August 15 – 9, 2016. (Register here)

In a few weeks, I am off to teach at the ESA Earth Observation Summer School. I am excited about the topics and potential to co-create with students, fellow teachers and ESA leaders. (applications for this are closed)

Earth Observation summer school

What are you learning this summer? Taking any courses? Reading any ground-breaking books in your respective field?


What is in your Travel Go Bag?

There are many frequent travelers in my life. After yesterday’s incident at the Istanbul airport, I asked them what they have in their travel bags. (My thoughts are with the families and travelers affected by this horrible event.) As the night turned to morning, our collective list of items grew. One friend encouraged me to share it more widely so that others are prepared. While there may be many lists online, I am sharing because brilliant travelers in my network may have some new ideas for you. Frankly, I am going shopping this weekend to fill in some of my ‘go bag gaps.’

Traveling is better when you are prepared, especially with all the variables at play. Some of this won’t help in a crisis but maybe having a plan will keep things calmer:


  • Local Currency for destination
  • Currency for the stop-over
  • Back-up currency (eg. USD, Euro, Pounds)
  • Back up credit card, clear card for emergencies

There is no guarantee that the airport will have working ATMs. Plus, people can be targeted for thief at machines. After some fun traveling in Kenya (Bank cards would not work for some dumb reason), I try to carry USD to exchange in case of emergencies.


  • spare medicine, ibuprofen
  • Bandaids
  • tensor bandage
  • paracord
  • metallic pen (glass breaker)
  • Bring a change of basic cloths (undergarments)
  • Have a ‘backup wallet’ with expired cards, pointless cards and small currency. (why – To give up if robbed.)
  • protein bars
  • water purification tablets, http://lifestraw.com/
  • Deck of cards
  • foldable water bottles (e.g. http://hydrapak.com )
  • antiviral face mask
  • nitrile gloves
  • a knifeless multitool
  • handwipes
  • PVC insulation tape
  • selection of cableties
  • pocket mask (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocket_mask)


  • headlight, flashlight
  • spare batteries
  • 1 – 2 Working SIM cards with international roaming where ever you go
  • Backup phone
  • Global Charger
  • 1 – 2 backup power chargers
  • charger(s) for my portable and mobile devices
  • offline map tools like OSMAnd


  • Contact your family/friends at each stopover, destination
  • Use social media at each stop. Some consider this a privacy risk, but then more people could help in case of an emergency so I default to posting just in case
  • Try to not check your bag. Pack light, pack smart.
  • Review the airport map before you go. Look like you ‘know’ where you are going. Chin up, no paper maps or travel guides
  • Have an emergency plan, share with your friends/family. Make sure they know all your flight details
  • Mediate on the plane on the tarmac. Be as calm as possible when you land
  • And keep spare money in your shoe or Bra
  • In some places, I keep a note in my bra with the address, emergency contact numbers.
  • paper copies of all your documents separate from the originals.
  • USB stick with passport and other documents copies
  • I also backup my computer’s data and carry the backup with me.
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Scarf- it is also a towel, a blanket
  • earplugs

Um, nitrile gloves and buttons as flashlights. Friends, you are amazing


Conversation Starter

Feedback loops – we’re all talking about them in the ICT and Humanitarian spaces. What about globally? What about truly implementing these? The World Humanitarian Summit collective network outputs (reports, reviews and critiques) all point to this. The Sustainable Development Goals include goal 17 “Partnerships”. For a few years, I have been saying that we need to go to more coffee shops and community centers to get to the heart of the matter. Listening and conversation have become too abstract in the impact world. The strain on programmes becomes more and more evident. This is pervasive.

The global sway this weekend really caught many off guard, myself included. I’ve been devouring articles left, right and center. But have I? Living in the middle east gives me a unique filter for news from Europe and North America. For this I am thankful. There is a constant level of hard news about life in MENA and wartorn regions. Plus, every day I see workers outside in the heat or a train of staff walking behind people with arms full of babies or packages. Migration and the ebb of globalization is very much in the forefront of life in Qatar. Am I really listening? Are you?
coffee cup by Clockwise (noun project) noun_162033_cc

Lately I have been reading Chris Voss’s book on negotiation (Never Split the Difference). He writes clear crisp examples about why listening is key to affecting change for complex situations. The sense of humility and humanity in his words ring in my mind while all the other articles marinate. Including some of the latest articles by Umair Haque:

“We do not even love one another enough anymore to invest in simple things like transport, education, and healthcare. We deny one another the basics of life, and in that lack of compassion, respect, dignity, can only be found a profound chasm of love.” (Umair Haque, Love at the Edge of Time)

Well, I would say that there is a larger theme to address – we fail to actually have conversations anymore. For my age group, some call it the Facebook affect. We are talking past each other. Maybe it is the Pax (Serenity reference). This is part of why we are not getting things done. While this article is about building business networks, it speaks volumes about the state of play.

“If you want funders [Ed.note: insert stakeholder group] to go down the road with you, you need to make them feel: 1) smart, and 2) comfortable. Make that your mantra. Make it easy for them to grasp what you’re up to, and master your own anxiety so you don’t trigger it in them. We are talking about an encounter between good people who want the same things. A pitch turns it into an ordeal; a conversation makes it real. Choose the conversation.”
(Kevin Starr, The Pitch Is Dead. Long Live the Conversation.)

And, here is another spin on the same topic: “The War on Stupid“.

“We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. “

The world shifted just a bit more, but what are the next steps? If anything, this influences how I will work in my respective field. The silos we build are self-referential. Now, it is up to us to convince organizations, funders and other stakeholders that there is value in patience and really listening. Time for a cup of coffee with strangers.

(Image credit: Coffee cup by Clockwise (Noun Project))


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.


Crowdsourcing with Digital Responders

Crowdsourcing Global Week is in full swing in London, UK. Every aspect of Crowdsourcing is up for discussion. London is apparently one of the global leaders in Crowd Economy entrepreneurships. As I consider how we can reshape aid and really make a difference with digital humanitarians/digital responders, the lessons of those who have successful scaled communities and social entrepreneurship really resonate. When I consider their efforts to talk about the “5 Ps of the Crowd Economy”, I see that for our work in humanitarian and ICT we should simply replace “Platform” with “Programs & Partnerships” or “Project & Partnerships”.
4 P of crowd economy cswglobal16

There is so much potential to get people involved in their world using digital skills for good. As we observe those talking about the “crowd economy” and the “sharing economy”, we do need to consider how we can apply the lessons of our friends in the larger Crowdsourcing World. Today I will talk about what I think we need to build to connect global crowdsourcing and digital volunteers to existing programmes and communities. Volunteering is a gift and if we are going to scale Digital Responders then now is the time to link the various worlds. (There are extensive notes and resources in the slide notes.)


Earth Observation Summer School

You can go to space….school! As 1 of 60 students at Earth Observation Summer School in Frascati (Rome), Italy, you will enjoy 2 weeks of learning and sharing.

The European Space Agency (ESA) is inviting young researchers to join leading experts in Earth Observation, Modelling and Data Assimilation for keynote lectures, hands-on computing practical and poster sessions on the occasion of the 8th ESA EO Summer School. I’m delighted to share about crowdsourcing, microtasking and building research programmes.

ESA Summer School

Applications are open until APRIL 6th, 2016.

The two-week course, held in ESA/ESRIN (near Rome, Italy) during August aims to provide students with an integrated end-to-end perspective going from measurement techniques to end-user applications. Courses include lectures covering issues related to Remote Sensing, Earth System Modelling and Data Assimilation as well as hands-on computing exercises on the processing of EO data. Students have the opportunity to present their work during a poster session. The three best posters will receive an award from the European Meteorological Society (EMS). Keynote lectures on global change issues are also given to discuss the current state of the science of global change and its relationship to society in order to help students appreciate how their specific field fits into a broader scientific and political context. For more information, please see previous programme, news or video.

Hope to see you there!

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