When a suicide bomb rocked Lahore, Pakistan, killing scores in a public park during Easter festivities in late March 2016, a well-intentioned Facebook function designed to perform safety checks on those in the area glitched. Frightening people as far away from the terror attack as the USA, the UK and the Middle East, Facebook misdirected messages to many to ask if they were safe following the blast – without saying where it was – prompting a little panic and a lot of backlash. While the social media giant scrambled to set the record straight and apologize, Uber, on the other hand, quickly teamed up with a local NGO to organize free rides to hospital blood banks for those looking to donate and help save the lives of the hundreds injured. Meanwhile, apps that use crowdsourced data for navigation and realtime traffic analysis often see users adopting the technology and data-driven connectivity for more than finding their way around town. While it’d be far-fetched to say that mobility apps are crisis-solving, the information generated and the assumptions and instructions that follow combine to create a unique kind of user-initiated augmented intelligence that can be employed for crisis-containing and relief organization. On the other hand, one could argue that social mediums – while they can often be the birthplace of mobilizing campaigns – are best used for simply crisis-sharing.
Even though car GPS systems began collecting and transmitting data on traffic through the first wave of connectivity technology (FM, Bluetooth, radars, et al.) in the early 00s, the story begins, like most millennial stories do, with Google. Long before they equipped each and every one of their 1.4 billion Android smartphones with GPS systems, constantly sending data back to HQ with the default settings for location services set to ‘on’, and even longer before Google Maps for iPhone did the same thing, their very mapping of the world’s cities, streets and sidewalks had users calculate their travel times and routes intuitively. Fast forward a few years to the late 00s, and 2 billion of the world’s population now has a smartphone, another 2 billion are on social media and countless are still stuck in traffic, praying for an answer. A few bright bulbs quickly realised that the answer lay right there with them, in the cars that congested the streets: the crowds themselves. While Google, along with cell phone towers and now-mandatory mobile GPS capabilities, could tell us how quickly or slowly a car could pass through a certain stretch of road, data-loving app developers added a new, human dimension to the equation. The paradigm of passive, almost privacy-invading data contribution has shifted into a new age of active, social data, and two Middle Eastern apps that sprouted in Egypt and Israel were among the first to bring together the knowledge and insights of the crowd with the efficiency and precision of technology. The former, Egypt’s Bey2ollak, soon won prizes and funding from startup accelerators and Google itself, while securing a long-term sponsorship deal from Vodafone. The latter was once known as Freemap Israel, and is now known as Google’s billion dollar baby; Waze.
While Bey2ollak is completely devoid of mapping, instead textually and colorfully displaying traffic conditions on popular routes, it and Waze provide almost the same function; a visual indication of road congestion or lack thereof and, vitally, authentic information on various other traffic variables. Weather, road works and accidents are all key to traditional traffic reporting systems, but require a number of official sources to be able to present that data, taking away the real-time aspect essential to commuter traffic. Social data, on the other hand, travels at the speed of swipes and so social crowdsourced data is inherently faster. Adding buttons for the reporting of such blockages, alongside other need-to-know factors for drivers, namely the locations of speed cameras, police checkpoints, dangerous areas and broken down vehicles, the likes of Bey2ollak and Waze are increasingly able to give a full picture of traffic conditions, in real time, from a connected and active community. The real litmus test for the authenticity and effectiveness of crowdsourced data, however, has come specifically in times of crisis.
Within a few months of Bey2ollak’s launch, Egypt’s revolution erupted. Largely regarded as the biggest scale demonstration to ever be planned and orchestrated through social media, the internet and cell phone service was cut off around the country as the authorities desperately attempted to quell the uprising. With a few thousand registered users at this point, and with the internet back but with only intermittent access to established social networks Facebook and Twitter, Bey2ollak found itself at the center of self-organized communities reporting on road closures and protest routes, allowing drivers to re-route their travels, journalists and activists to locate (and join) demonstrations and passers-by to avoid clashes. With security services almost non-existent during the volatile weeks that followed the initial uprising, Bey2ollak introduced a ‘Danger’ option so that users could warn others of unsafe areas, as well as a ‘Help Me’ option that redirected users to a database of useful numbers (from an army hotline to the direct lines to human rights lawyers). In 2013, widespread gas shortages saw another temporary feature emerge on Bey2ollak, wherein users would report on which stations were out of gas, which had unbearable queues and which were fully stocked. Another update in 2015, when a spate of random bombings dominated Cairo’s headlines, saw Bey2ollak’s social media team aggregate app-based data to broadcast the locations of detonations and subsequent road closures using a special hashtag.
While none of these urban crises could have been solved through data, the way users add to and interpret the information has been a truly remarkable tale of self-organization for the purposes of safety and security, not just convenience. Egyptians turned to a traffic app to avoid real and immediate threats; threats TV reporters and newspapers just couldn’t keep up with.
Meanwhile, right across the border in Israel, Waze had been making waves for a couple of years, raising nearly $40 million and moving its HQ to Palo Alto in 2010, shortly after releasing the app for US West Coast residents. Having started out as an open, free map of Israel, Waze combines mapping and traffic data to give turn-by-turn, efficient directions to drivers. Critically, and perhaps most engagingly, Waze allows users to edit maps, mark places of interest and number buildings, as an exercise in civic engagement. Users are also able to mark police check-points, potholes and other urban obstacles, all in the name of community service. It was in 2012, however, that the app’s disaster-relief credentials were formally recognized in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. FEMA approached Waze – which already had some 20 million active users, before its Google buy out – to use its data and assistance in figuring out where to send gas trucks in storm-struck New Jersey. Within an hour of first contact, the Waze team had added a simple feature which allowed users to report on conditions at their local gas stations, helping the government dispatch trucks to where it was needed most. In 2013, when a tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma, crowdsourced map editors were able to update the app to reroute drivers after the Interstate 5 bridge collapsed. Since then, Waze has been used in cities all over the world in time of disasters, as communities employ it as an organizational tool in the face of crises. In fact, one study conducted by Waze saw downloads of the app increase by 192% in Atlanta, Georgia, immediately after a plane crash in the city shut down Interstate 285.
It’s no surprise then that Waze has plenty of official partnerships with local governments who seek the wealth of data the app generates to inform decisions and disaster relief operations alike. In fact, Waze was highly praised at the White House’s Innovation for Disaster Response and Recovery Initiative Demo Day in 2014, though President Barack Obama insisted that technologists look to creating apps and services that are specifically catered to crisis mapping and emergency relief. However, if the trends in crowdsourcing and the sharing economy have taught us anything, it’s that integrating relief services and emergency information in software that is already popularly used is the most intuitive way to engage the crowd.
As such, Uber’s Lahore campaign was just the latest in many similar initiatives: during the on-going refugee crisis, Uber in Europe and the Middle East sent fleets out to collect unwanted clothes and blankets as donations; UberHEALTH was deployed across 35 American cities armed with shots to combat flu season, and the company has an on-going agreement with the American Red Cross to donate 20% of surge fares when they occur in a city undergoing a crisis, as well as adding a cap on these fares when charged during a state of emergency. Meanwhile, it was a lone Airbnb user that listed her home for free to those displaced by Hurricane Sandy that promoted some 1,400 more New Yorkers to follow suit and led to the establishment of a permanent Disaster Response program which alerts hosts in crisis-stricken cities and encourages them to upload free listings. While social media might be the place to gauge the sentiment of the crowd, mobility apps are certainly proving to be instigators of the resilience of the crowd.