Convening Innovation Allies

How can we use advanced computing, human computing and social innovation to have impact in Qatar? Healthy lives, taking care of the environmental, youth engagement, resilient cities, social entrepreneurship and humanitarian response are some of the core Social Computing research activities at Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI)?

On Wednesday, April 15, 2015, QCRI hosted a small forum to discuss social innovation in Qatar. The session consisted of speakers from QCRI and partners as well as some informal discussion groups. Thank you for our guests and participants for this informative conversation.

The Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp was held in Doha, Qatar from March 31 – April 9, 2015. These are some early observations that I had on the use of technology and the opportunities for future research and collaboration:

We plan on expanding this dialogue in the future. Until then, your insights will inform both our strategic planning, research agenda and future activity collaborations.

Social Innovation Workshop Discussion groups 2015

QCRI’s Social Innovation Programme in Qatar is focused on four streams of research and activities:
  • Smart and Resilient Cities
  • Remote Sensing for Social Good
  • Digital Humanitarians
  • Social Media for Disaster

In the Resilient city discussion group we saw some opportunities with ICTQatar leading open data initiatives, QMIC working with traffic sensor data and the potential of sports data to provide insights into society. Collectively we agreed that we need to know more about resilience city and society ecosystems in Qatar. Some of the barriers included lack of policy and regulation in Qatar, community services need access to the data and
cellular data is hard to share.

The Remote Sensing group spent time thinking about blue sky uses for these tools and techniques. Some of the concepts tie directly into the Resilient City Group with opportunities to use phone traffic sensors, computer vision and drones and uavs for parking. Some of the potential imagery sources include landsat imagery, Planet Labs and Skybox (Google).

The Social Media for Disaster and Digital Humanitarian teams joined forces to delve into opportunities, barriers and new research items. Opportunities included a very diverse community (languages, cultures), engaged youth, access to technology/mobile devices and the sense of belonging in a geographically small but strategic area. The barriers include lack of civil society, language barriers, education levels and the fluidity of communities. Also, there is a need to reframe the concept of volunteering into opportunities for educational and society advancement. Research opportunities included understanding the needs/motivations of people, peer-to-peer transfer of knowledge, community development in Qatar and understanding social responsibility programs in Qatar.

Thanks again to the speakers, guests and my colleagues for a great morning.


Communicating at Disaster Management Camp

The 6th Annual Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp (QRC DMC) successfully united over 300 participants for 10 days of intense practical training. My compliments to the Qatar Red Crescent staff, International Federation of Red Crescent and Red Cross, other trainers/guest speakers and participants for a very professional and often all too realistic training camp. On behalf of Dr. Sofiane Abbar, Dr. Sarah Vieweg and our team, thank you for including Qatar Computing Research Institute in your event.

Said Tijani at the QRCDMC April 3, 2015 scenario

Participants at the DMC included Qatar Red Crescent Staff, staff of other Red Crescent societies, the Qatar EMS, Qatar Civic Defense, other official entities and volunteers. A portion of the participants were divided into training teams designated by colour code. These groups received training across various humanitarian and emergency scenarios including water and sanitation, shelter, food and nutrition, search and rescue, medical response and communications.Participants were responsible for the activity from their training track for the remainder of the day. The Social Media and New Technology class taught by my co-host, Ali El-Sebai El-Gamal (Qatar Red Crescent), and I held a one hour training for 6 days with 6 different teams. Before and after class, I created online communications, attended scenarios, joined classes and other camp activities. Every day people talked with me about the potential of Digital Humanitarian skills, Qatar Computing Research Institute’s work and best practices of social media during emergencies. So, if students attended the Media and Communications track, they were then responsible for all camp communications for the day (as with all the other tracks.) The Media and Communications track included media handling, communications methods, GPS, Satellite phones, radios and social media. We observed social media and communications training translate practical communications activities during the scenarios. The methodology of learn by doing provided students with a richer experience. The communications teams used their social savvy to practice online verification and human computing (harnessing ‘your network’), they live-tweeted events, crushed rumours and held press conferences with Twitter. They used WhatsApp to relay critical information during scenarios between two emergency sites, thus having the medical center receive updates via radio, phone and a WhatsApp messaging group. Pictures were also sent via WhatsApp by the response team to medical team to help them prepare.

See our updated Storify (aggregation of social media)
of the Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp. While the photos include smiling faces, note that we often delayed or obscured social content during some difficult scenarios. After all, the purpose of the camp is not only about communications and storytelling. Some of the participants have previously participated in humanitarian response. Some of the new trainees will be trained more and deployed. On the last day of the QRC DMC, I watched faces of participants and staff knowing full well that they may experience the best and worst of humanity. The teaching moments abound as I consider how to apply this experience to our work at Qatar Computing Research Institute. I have some ideas based on the feedback from staff and participants. Stay tuned on the implementation after I do some reflection and consultation.

Often the scenarios and conversations resulted in participants and staff highlighting ethical issues around these communications tactics. It was fantastic to hear people question issues around social media from privacy, security, access, trusted sources and the best practices. As humanitarians, they will face a wide range of issues so training instincts and debating tools/tactics is so important. The reality is that within a camp such as this it is possible to see just how pervasive new media may be during some emergencies. It is true though that this adds a complexity to their already difficult work. But the point of highlighting these tools and techniques is really training for “IF” social media and messaging becomes a factor in their real field work.

DATA: Disaster Management Camp Participant Use of Social Media and New Technology

Every day I collected a straw poll (informal survey) in my class. I asked people about their use of social media and new technology. Sometimes there were people missing from the groups due to meetings, so the numbers are not exact. However, this gives you a window into the DMC’s community technology use. Thanks to Infogram for the tools to tell this data story. How to use: click on the radio buttons to see the data by group and by type of social media/technology tool.

(Photo 1: Said Tijani, Qatar Red Crescent, at the QRCDMC April 3, 2015 scenario, credit: Heather Leson CCBY; Photo 2: Suma (QRC) at the QRCDMC April 7, 2015 scenario).


Seeking Arabic Resources for Digital Humanitarians

We are only global if we learn and share. Imagine yourself standing in a classroom. The students are earnest, you have some translation help, and the host humanitarian organization is very supportive. You are there sharing big new concepts inviting participation. At Qatar Red Crescent 6th Annual Disaster Management Camp there are people from all the Middle East/North Africa region, they have varied skills with a range of some to no field experience. Often I ask how can we get the next 1 Million people involved in their world using digital skills. How will their digital training curriculum function? How do we share the skills and ideas in ways that are easy to learn and remix? And, how can we do this in a way that is inclusive and respectful of local language, local knowledge and local cultures?

There is an opportunity to create a community of Digital Qataris or inspire more Digital Humanitarians in the MENA region, including within the humanitarian organizations. As the World Humanitarian Summit approaches, there are many regional consultation meetings and reports. In reading the World Humanitarian Summit MENA reports, I was struck with how much opportunity there is to encourage youth engagement and to consider technology. This can only happen if there are sponsoring humanitarian organizations, long term training strategies and shared resources. The Qatar Red Crescent is incredibly focused on how they can make a difference. This event includes people training from all over the MENA region. In between trainings and scenarios, we talk about the future and learn about each other’s common goals.

QRC DMC training April 5, 2015 (photo by Haneen Suliman)

In my conversations with participants and staff at the Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp (DMC), we determined a gap in the knowledge transfer to support Digital Humanitarian work in the MENA region. Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) has a mission to use our tools and innovation techniques in Qatar. Experience at the DMC identified a deep willingness of both staff and participants to learn and incorporate these tools and techniques into their work and volunteer workflows. However, there are knowledge gaps and language barriers. Successful programs for QCRI and our Digital Humanitarian partners will be greatly aided if we can get some core documents into Arabic. This means a prioritization and translation effort.

Over the coming weeks, I will work with my Qatar Red Crescent colleague to make a list of the resources and tools that need to be in Arabic. Then, we will work on plan for how to support

Curate a list of Digital Humanitarian Resources to be translated

There are a few core documents that need translation into Arabic. I’ve identified these based on my conversations with the staff and participants at the Qatar Red Crescent. After the Disaster Management Camp, we will coordinate with the authors, organizations and communities. I’ll be working with my team at QCRI to get our tools and resources translated soon. (It seems to me that if we have a strong list, it would be great to have these translated into many languages.)

Some key resources:

Verification was a big topic of discussion in our sessions. It was great to see that Meedan has translated the Verification Handbook into Arabic.

This is where your help is needed. Which digital resources do you recommend for Humanitarian work? Simply add your items into this document in the 2nd section of the document below.

HELP WANTED: Curated list of Digital Humanitarian Resources to be translated into Arabic

Thanks so much for your help! More on this project as we keep learning.

(Photo by Hannen Suliman, April 5, 2015)


Dispatch: Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp

On behalf of Qatar Computing Research Institute, I have the honour to be a guest trainer at the 6th Annual Qatar Red Crescent Disaster Management Camp. This 10-day event (March 31 – April 9, 2015) includes training, scenarios and humanitarian keynotes. Participants are from all over the MENA region including students, staff of the QRCS, partner Red Crescent members, UNHCR, IFRC, ICRC, civil defense (various) and special guests.

Ali and Heather training close up (April 2, 2015) copy

Over 6 days, I will train small groups on social media, new technology, digital humanitarians and how QCRI is working to make a difference. These slides contain my talking points and extensive notes. As the camp is in Arabic, Ali Moustafa El-Sebai El Gamal of QRCS provided translation. Together we are providing an interactive session. Yesterday due to the sandstorm, there was a power outage. This is a perfect example of always be prepared. I delivered the training without slides. Truly it is always fun to train folks, but it is especially powerful to collaborate with humanitarians. This is my first full Disaster Management Camp. I’ve participated in many digital simulations but this is a great way to learn and share.

Learning by doing

The second reason that I am at Disaster Management Camp is to analyze how participants and staff use software and social media. At QCRI, we are very interested in taking the lessons we learn internationally and supporting Qatar. The Qatar Red Crescent team has been very welcoming. Over the coming months, I will be sharing my embedded research outputs.

Meta Level action

I’m a digital storyteller. Every event, I curate photos, quick vignettes and try to capture the mission and spirit. Together with my colleagues we are using Storify:

Thanks again to Qatar Red Crescent Society for the kind support of Qatar Computing Research Institute.

(photo credit: Amara-photos.com)


In Doha: Internet of Things and Smart Cities

Doha Skyline from the water (November 2015)

Construction, traffic and weather – these are the main topics that people talk about in Doha. All around there is this a massive pulse of change accompanied by many threads of activity. Resilience and knowledge economy are fed by this energy of bright minds congregating on this big shift plain.
Cities around the world are preparing their smart city or Internet of Things (#IoT) policies and practices. Doha is on this same journey. Cities that create together breathe.

ictQatar hosts #IoT and Smart Cities event

Humans connected to machines, machines connected to humans. It often seems like such a far off concept. But the convergence of the Internet of Things (Web of Things) and Smart Cities is creating a space where the data bits and the human bits become parts of the big data analytical questions. Layering citizen data (citizen sensing) with open data or sensor data is really the next level of social innovation. We want to interact and make sense of our environment and make decisions about how the space can or should be used.

ictQatar hosted an event last night: Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Cities.

ictQatar connects people to the technologies that enrich their lives, drive economic development & inspire confidence in the future.

Dr. Elyes Ben Hamida from Qatar Mobility Innovation Center (QMIC) spoke with the community on the topic of Internet of Things (IoT). How can we which is build a future where every day physical objects will be connected to the Internet and be able to identify themselves to other devices. At QMIC, they have created a product, Labeeb – an intelligent sensing and M2M services platform. During the Q&A period, there were some great questions about how can this research and the tools or datasets be activated to spur new entrepreneurship. Music to my eyes. While IOT may not be the first concept that comes to your mind when you think about Doha, what this talk demonstrated for me is that same undercurrent I encounter all around town. People want to dig into the data and activate it. They want to start businesses and gain a sense of play. While Labeeb is a closed system, there are many opportunities with IoT (Web of Things) can become part of Doha’s entrepreneurship story.

Doha was listed #41 on the Sustainable Cities Index.
This is a call to action for the citizens and creatives of Doha. While government bodies like ictQatar work on the policies and negotiate the murky waters of trying to implement projects with few local context examples, there is this burgeoning undercurrent of people who want to capitalize and innovate using the doors that open with the dialogue of Smart Cities. Mr. Ahmed Hefnawi from the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology presented the basics of smart cities including how “information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents.” There are a number of business and governmental initiatives around Smart Cities in Doha. The biggest take away I took form this was how small businesses and entrepreneurs could also be part of the solution. A few of the attendees inquired about how they could get more involved or how they could access the Open Data of Qatar to build apps or programmes. Step by step.

All of this brings me to the key point: Every day Doha surprises me with the collective drive to the future. There are big ideas activating Doha. While my new home may only be #41 on the Sustainable Cities Index, but I expect that the progression is changing. The Social Innovation programme at QCRI is keen to use research social computing for Resilient Cities. We are keen to see how we can focus on Doha. Already, colleagues are digging into Traffic data.

Thanks to Julia Astashkina of ictQatar for an engaging night.

(Photo: Doha Skyline from Katara on a Dhow (November 2014))


Computers that Think and our Role

What is our role as software developers, research scientists or startup leaders? The very computer software and hardware that we create are changing lives. It is truly inspiring to learn of this advanced computing science of teaching computers. But, what is our role in this? What is the impact of our work on the lives of others? Prasenjit Mitra asked us these very questions during his TedxEducationCity (Doha) talk this past Saturday. Dr. Mitra is a Principal Scientist, Data Analytics at Qatar Computing Research Institute.

 Prasenjit Mitra @ TEDxEducationCity

As innovators, it is important to consider these factors. Often I write about the positive work and changes that these software innovations deliver. But, this comes with responsibility to create wisely and take care of our neighbours. To that end, last year I hosted a workshop on Data Ethics at Stanford University. As an data advocate and someone who works with human computing/machine language processing, I continue to be contemplate the digital cowboy behaviour which may have negative connotations on the very people we may be intended to support and/or research. As a new staff member at QCRI, it matters that my colleagues really consider our role and try to create within a socially and ethically responsible framework. There is no TedX video yet, so take my word that he was an engaging presenter in a conversation way. Please do review the slides with this in mind. Congratulations, Dr. Mitra.

Mindless: How Smart Computers are making Dumber Humans

I literally just finished reading the book, Mindless; How Smart Computers are making Dumber Humans, before attending TedxEducationCity. It provides a wide angle lens into management software (metrics over human conversations) and computational decision-making in various industries. While it is focused on primarily the US economy, the final chapter about China was frightening. While I am a strong advocate of computers and technology for social good, I think that we need to have more conversations about the impact and consequences.

About the book:
“In Mindless, Simon Head argues that these systems have come to trump human expertise, dictating the goals and strategies of a wide array of businesses, and de-skilling the jobs of middle class workers in the process. CBSs are especially dysfunctional, Head argues, when they apply their disembodied expertise to transactions between humans, as in health care, education, customer relations, and human resources management.”

Happy reading!


Break into Conversation with MIT and Michael Stonebraker

The Doha knowledge economy mandate means free and frequent access to global technical and entrepreneur leaders. A few weeks ago I attended an event Your Middle East Start-up and heard a compelling talk from Swedish Ambassador, Ewa Polano on how entrepreneurship means fostering innovation. Well, this week, serial entrepreneur Michael Stonebraker will be at the Qatar National Convention Centre to talk about “How to Start a Company in Five (maybe not so) Easy Steps by Michael Stonebraker”.

Michael Stonebraker at QCRI
If you are a local Entrepreneur or curious, the team at Qatar Computing Research Institute would like to invite you to hear Mr. Stonebraker’s talk on Sunday, March 22, 2015. Register here for free.

About Michael Stonebraker: A pioneer of database research and technology for more than 40 years, Mike Stonebraker has founded nine start-ups to commercialize database technologies. In this talk, he discusses his experiences and the steps one needs to take to get a new venture off the ground. He will touch on topics such as intellectual property, incorporation, distribution of ownership, and will also highlight pitfalls to avoid.

Mike is an adjunct professor at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and co-founder and co-director of the Intel Science and Technology Center for Big Data.


QCRI MIT CSAIL Annual meeting

MIT and QCRI: Project Overviews

We invite you to join the annual research project review meeting by QCRI and MIT-CSAIL. On Sunday, March 22, 2015, we will dive into the current projects and progress. This special event provides more detailed look at technical innovations from this collaboration. One of the projects includes my Social Computing colleagues: Punya – a easy apps development platform for humanitarians.
Register for free here.

Both events are at the Qatar National Convention Center. See you there!


Play Data: Analyzing Gaming Interactions and Behaviour

A sense of play can teach us about interaction and behaviour for online communities. Where can we find a large dataset for this type of research? Well, Jaideep Srivastava, Social Computing Research Director Qatar Computing Research Institute, recently presented results from hours of not playing the Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMORPGs). Instead, he and colleagues massively played with user data. His analysis of some of the results highlight the need for all communities to really look at the user experience while building mechanisms for mentoring and feedback. For those of us who spend time trying to foster and grow healthy communities, we often turn to metrics. Online communities need to dig into the interaction data. But, that is a topic for another day. Let’s dig in some of the highlights of Jaideep’s work.

Jaideep Srivastava MLDAS Dr. Jaideep Srivastava presented Understanding Social Dynamics Tools & Techniques: Interaction and Behaviour in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (PDF) at the Machine Language and Data Analytics Symposium, an event hosted by the Qatar Computing Research Institute and Boeing (Doha, March 9 – 10 2015). The symposium convened researchers, practitioners, students, and industry experts in the fields of machine learning, data mining, and related areas to present recent advances, to discuss open research questions, and to bridge the gap between data analytics research and industry needs on certain concrete problems.

MMORPGs record every interaction of tens of millions of players. This is a research scientist’s data set dream. How can we understand behaviour and interaction in these games? What can it teach us to build better software? Stronger communities? And, my big takeaway, how can we activate this type of research to better support spaces for other communities like Digital Humanitarians? Why do people stay involved in games and why do they leave?
Churn in online games

Dr. Srivastava and team analyzed the relationship between social engagement, trust and player retention. Turns out that we all want a small town online. We want to have a virtual cup of coffee (or tea) with our neighbours. His analysis of Everquest’s community shows that stability and success can potentially be attained by building socialization and being mindful of opportunities to build trust within the game. Plus, he highlights how this interaction and behaviour data proves that community is a profit center. The gaming community shows this with their costs for add-ons and features. Other communities need to think about these lessons as they build great places to do __(fill in the blank)___ together. And, software creators need to think about community and feedback loops as part of their design from the beginning.

How are you analyzing your community data?

Digital Humanitarian and Open Source communities could learn a lot from other global online communities, especially these successful gaming communities. Over the years, I have spoken with software developers and funders about the power of community. Often, I hear: We don’t fund or prioritize community because there is no profit from it. Well, this continues to be a myopic view. If you want results (re: shiny metrics), you need to nurture and invest. While not all communities have access to data stores like these large MMORPGs or access to top notch researchers, we can still learn.

RESOURCES: Jaideep’s slides for Understanding Social Dynamics Tools & Techniques: Interaction and Behaviour in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (PDF) and his paper on Churn Prediction (PDF download)

This is why I am so excited at QCRI to be given the opportunity to collaborate on research and open source software development with a focus on local community engagement. You see, in the middle east, things get done by building strong relationships. (To be honest, I think that this values exist all over the world, but is just sometimes overlooked.) It is my hope that we can build on Dr. Srivastava’s work for our software in QCRI Social Innovation with a focus on Qatar. There is a burgeoning Qatari online community in many social forums. While the Qatari social data sets are not in the millions of users, it is home and we are neighbours.


You Verify, All the time

We are all human magnifying glasses and zoom features. Every day our task as humans is to discern, detect and distill. In Doha, this means things like self-protection: “Is it safe to cross this street and will the cars stop?” I’ve been super adept at the squint and run carefully looking for fast moving SVUs that appear out of nowhere. Online we are even more critical observers. We’ve been subject to hoaxes, photoshop fantasies and curious statements that are too good to be true.

magnifying glass

Over at Jump2Spot, my colleague, Chung Wong is a member of the Manhattan before 1990 GeoSleuthing Facebook community. I’ve been monitoring their work for a few months and am in awe of their digital detective work in a crowdsourced community effort. They inspire me about the future of online verification. Geosleuthers are the future of online verification. While there is a bit of a hierarchy from journalism to digital humanitarians, what binds us all is our curiousity and our drive to find accuracy.

How can we know if an image or a comment is true and verified? During times of crisis and emergency, this massive volume of True and Untrue unfolds at a fast pace. Humanitarians, NGOs and citizens want to know asap what is verified and actionable in order to make critical decisions. Veri.lyconnects you via global crowdsourcing challenges for evidence collection and verification. Our goal is to build this open source software and community to unravel these puzzles in real time.

Meet Veri.ly

In this 30 minute conversation, I interview the Veri.ly team with our special guest, Craig Silverman, a co-author of the Verification Handbook.

Thanks to our guests, participants and team for this great conversation. There were some questions as well.

1. Could Veri.ly be used in conflict prevention?
Answer: As with any software, it is about the programme around the tool. The key would be to apply the tool while safeguarding the privacy and security of individuals? We would be happy to continue this discussion. Join our mailing list to ask other Digital Detectives.

2. Where lies the automation in the process? Can we see the platform live? How are users onboarded?
Veri.ly can be found on our website. See our Digital Detective Verification guides and involved in building the programme and tools.

Next Steps

In the coming weeks, we will be planning more online conversations, share our development and programme plans. Stay tuned!

Veri.ly is a collaboration between University of Southampton (Agents, Interaction and Complexity Research Group), Qatar Computing Research Institute (Social Computing), and Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (Social Computing and Artificial Intelligence Lab). Server space is provided by the generous support from ORCHID Project.

(Icon credit: Alexandria Eddings, Noun Project CCBY)


Opportunity Knocks: Maps and Data Jobs

What if your work day involved creating software and programmes that could make a difference? I often refer people to ICT4D Career Network that Wayan Vota and crew curate or Relief Web or Liberation Tech jobs list. [Edit: A friend shared these resources too: ​​Social Enterprise Jobs and ReWork Please share these with your network as they are amazing resources.]

In the past 5 years, there has been a growth in jobs in the technology for change/humanitarian space. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of these organizations. Truly, the number of consultant and full-time jobs is growing, so if you are ready to join the Tech for Change career track, do keep in touch. People often send me jobs as I network frequently. I really defer to Wayan’s list often, but sometimes groups hire less formally or just need a short-term person.

There are two opportunities that I wanted to give a big shout out.

MicroMappers Consultancy

Map icon

At Qatar Computing Research Institute, we sometimes hire technical and research consultants via odesk. These are often very short directed items. My colleagues seek your help. You will work on a mapping interface for the MicroMappers project. While you won’t report to me, I work with this team. (code), (context).

  • Experience in Google Map, Google Map Engine, OSM, OSM plugins, Mapbox, CartoDB, css, html5, jquery, mysql, geotif, geojson
  • Familiar with push notification technology. e.g. pusher, SNS
  • Familiar with web optimization
  • good sense of WEB UI/UX
  • Should be able to install java spring web application for testing. The application is built with java spring mvc, spring integration, spring bus

If you are keen, please contact Senior Software Engineer, Ji Lucas (jikimlucas AT gmail dot com)
(Note: While we are not hiring full-time developers right now. Please do review our work at QCRI Social Innovation and get in touch if you are interested so that I can share with proper channels when the time is right.)

Datakind is your future

Data Scientist icon
What can I say? I am a big fan of Datakind’s team and strategy. Want to work with top notch data scientists and partners making a difference int he world?They work on real data science with non-profits. Their projects are fantastic because they spend substantial time really digging into the problem set. The one role that I think is super plum is the Director of Global Communities. Community Management and Partnership building is a really niche area. I think it is a fantastic opportunity to support data scientists around the world. Please do get in touch directly with Jake and his team.

(Image credits: Map icon is by Mister Pixel and the Data Scientist icon is by Thibault Geoffroy. CCBY via Noun Project)

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