Linked Data for Humanitarian Assistance: Milcord presents at HumTech 2014

Recently, I attended the Humanitarian Technology: Science, Systems and Global Impact 2014 conference in Cambridge, MA, where I presented our work in the semantic knowledge management and Linked Data space. The conference was well attended by representatives from US government agencies, NGOs, International Organizations, and commercial entities, all with the goal of contributing to the emerging ecosystem of humanitarian technology providers and implementers. It was great to see so many examples of technologies that have been successful in the commercial world being applied to a domain that impacts so many people around the world.

I have long been an evangelist for the power of semantic knowledge management and a web-of-data approach. Our previous work in the US Civil-Military Operations domain has provided us a view into the complex nature of information and knowledge management in dynamic environments such as humanitarian events, either sudden-onset (the Haiti earthquake of 2010), or long-lead (food crises in the Horn of Africa). The variable geographic scale, duration, and availability of international, national, and local responders leads to situations that are not very conducive to obtaining optimally-sampled, timely, and structured data. Instead, best available information is used to make very important decisions with critical consequences. Getting knowledge to those in the field and their support systems is key, and humanitarian actors are doing an admirable job carrying out their work in the face of such conditions. That said, this conference highlighted that there is much room for improvement in the way that data, information, and knowledge are obtained and shared, and how well that scales.

In my talk, I highlighted our work towards developing and fielding semLayer,  a geospatially-enabled Semantic MediaWiki instance, with added capability for field data collection using a mobile phone app. I demonstrated our enhancements to this platform, including the integration of a PostGIS backend with dynamic geospatial property calculation, a Query Builder GUI for constructing geospatial-semantic queries, and our Open Data Kit collection app that has been hardened to US Department of Defense Information Assurance specifications. Beyond this, I discussed where we are going with the next iterations of semLayer, including support for reasoners based on RDF triples and publishing URIs compliant with a Linked Data approach. I believe this kind of flexible, scalable, and traceable system for managing knowledge would contribute significantly to the humanitarian information ecosystem.

There were several innovative efforts addressing pain points experienced in this domain. In particular, I was impressed to see so many talks focused on deploying low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones for impact evaluations, especially after a sudden-onset disaster. Patrick Meier of QCRI and Emanuele Lubrano of Drone Adventures gave great presentations on an emerging grassroots movement for building a network of local responders who can deploy UAVs in the immediate aftermath of an event - in many cases, 72 hours before any help from abroad arrives. There is much to be explored in this space, including efficiently routing a network of UAVs to provide the most coverage, to deploying autonomous teams of UAVs that can adapt to new information as it is discovered, and dynamically replan based on reasoning of information collection priorities. MIT CSAIL’s Julie Shah gave a wonderful talk about adaptive robots that learn from the actions of humans with whom they are working, and dynamically replan their tasks based on this new information. This has tremendous potential for aiding UAVs in collection plans based on evaluations of human patterns observed, such as IDP camp evolution and spontaneous congregations of people.

Another very notable talk was given by David Megginson, who is leading the UN OCHA effort towards standardization of data elements through the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX). The Humanitarian Exchange Language (HXL) augmentation effort is now funded through the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, which presents an exciting possibility for a measure of standardization that has limited information sharing at scale in this (and other) communities. David’s discussion was honest, in that he didn’t claim that such standards will solve all problems - in fact, imposing rigid collection requirements based on all the possible information elements one might want in these situations can introduce as many problems as it attempts to solve. Instead, I took away two main points: 1) data provenance is sorely missing and must propagate for collection efforts are to be trustworthy, and 2) humanitarian operators use spreadsheets, so any technology we develop needs to work with these “low-tech” capabilities (e.g. Excel). It was a very practical discussion, and one I feel is necessary to get to the eventual web of data I and others envision.

Overall, this conference brought together some great minds and passionate people who want to contribute their time and efforts to helping those in need. It was a pleasure to see what has been done to date, and I very much look forward to being part of this community moving forward.