Friday, July 27, 2012

NEWS: How the Search for Genghis Khan Helped the United Nations Map Refugees in Somalia

Originally posted on National Geographic July 23, 2012
by Patrick Meier

National Geographic has been exploring new worlds for well over a hundred years. In the present century, these new worlds include digital worlds—the next frontier of exploration. Take National Geographic’s recent digital expedition in Mongolia. The “Valley of the Khans Project” represents a new approach to archeology that gives us each the opportunity to be a digital Indiana Jones by searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan using the World Wide Web. The very same technologies can also turn us into digital humanitarians in support of the United Nations (UN). Here’s a story about how National Geographic’s digital expedition in Mongolia inspired the UN during their humanitarian response operations in Somalia.

National Geographic digital exploration of Mongolia.Credit: National Geographic.
More than 3 million square kilometers of satellite imagery is produced every single day. The total surface area of the moon is about 35 million square kilometers. So every week, there is a new moon’s worth of exploration to be done in the digital world of satellite imagery. Question is, how can we possibly explore an entire new moon every week? Do we need to build the digital equivalent of the Millenium Falcon? Do we even have a pilot good enough for this mission? The software to automatically and accurately analyze this vast amount of satellite imagery is still not good enough. So what to do? Turns out National Geographic had the answer all along: crowdsource the expedition.

In their phenomenal project, Valley of the Kahns, National Geographic crowdsourced the analysis of high resolution satellite imagery in the search for clues to an 800 year old mystery, the location of Genghis Khan’s tomb. Welcome to my world, the world of intrepid digital exploration. The answer to the 3 million kilometer question wasn’t one pilot and one Millennium Falcon. No! The answer was hundreds of thousands of pilots from all around the world flying their own X-wings over the vast virtual landscape of Mongolia in search of Genghis Khan.

I blogged about this awesome project when it was launched and described how we could take this same approach in humanitarian crises. A few months later, the crisis in the Horn of Africa began to escalate, displacing a massive number of peoples West of Mogadishu. So the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) asked me if we could use the same approach as National Geographic’s to estimate the displaced refugee population in Somalia. Why? Because due to Al Shabbab’s terrorist activities, humanitarians could not do this kind of survey on the ground, they too were being targeted and kidnapped. So we needed to take it to the skies and the UN was in dire need of pilots.

Tomnod was customized to support
the United Nations in Somalia.
Credit: Tomnod.
So we used the same technology that was used for the Mongolia expedition. Called Tomnod, the platform is designed to crowdsource and crowdtag satellite imagery. We obtained free imagery from DigitalGlobe, which was then “sliced up” into thousands of smaller pictures. Each of these, like the one below was then analyzed by digital explorers looking for signs of permanent and temporary shelters.

The satellite imagery was sliced up
into small pictures.
Credit: Tomnod.com.
Whey found such shelters, they would simply tag the feature with the appropriate icon, just like in the Valley of the Khans. Only when a shelter was tagged by at least three individual volunteers would that data point be shared with the United Nations. This was a great way to ensure some quality control in the process.

The result? Within 120 hours, volunteers created over a quarter million tags after analyzing close to 4,000 individual images, thus yielding a triangulated count of some 47,000 shelters in the Afgooye corridor of Somalia, which the UN could use to estimate the population in the area. To provide context, it took two UNHCR staff over an entire month to do this back in 2010. We did the equivalent in 120 hours.

Tomnod uses a consensus based algorithm
to triangulate the tagging. Credit: Tomnod
But who do I mean when I say “we did this”? I mean the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a global network of some 800+ volunteers in 80+ countries who support humanitarian and human rights organizations in times of need. They were the pilots who flew the Somalia Mission for the United Nations after being inspired by National Geographic’s search for Genghis Khan in Mongolia.

Digital expeditions like these can democratize the next frontier of exploration. So I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues at National Geographic to support future explorations into the digital unknown. Onwards!

Word List:
  • humanitarian: someone who helps people who live in very bad conditions or receive unfair treatment
  • to inspire: to give someone the enthusiasm to do or create something
  • imagery: pictures, photographs, or objects that represent an idea
  • intrepid: not afraid to do dangerous things
  • to escalate: to become much worse or more serious, or to make something do this
  • "dire need": very severe or serious need
  • to triangulate: determine the measurements of something or somebody, take measurements of using a minimum of 3 data points
  • democratize: to change the way of running a government or organization so that the people in it are more equal and can share in making decisions
  • to collaborate: to work with someone in order to produce something