Sanjana Hattotuwa, Special Advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation, delivered a public lecture on Big Data & social media for crisis management at Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology - ETH, one of the leading international universities for technology and the natural sciences in the world. The Foundation was invited by Prof. Dirk Helbing, Chair of Sociology, in particular of Modelling and Simulation. ICT4Peace is an active partner of Prof. Helbing's FuturICT project.
Sanjana's presentation looked at events on the ground from his home country, Sri Lanka, as well as, at the time of the presentation, content generation on and around the bombings at the Boston marathon, as key examples of how today information is produced at exponentially increasing rates, leading to new ethical, philosophical, scientific, journalistic, scientific, computational and other challenges, as well as opportunities.
The presentation looked at cities around the world, including from the African subcontinent, embracing big data and making decades of hitherto closed or hard to access information available, for free, in the public domain via the web, and relevant APIs and frameworks. The presentation looked at how even the UN, often perceived as extremely conservative and conventional, is today leading the way in flagging the value of big data and leading the development of platforms as well as political leadership to meaningfully use it in key operations. Through information visualisations, Sanjana demonstrated just how much a city's contours and its population movements could be tracked. Examples were also shown from the world of data driven journalism - how big data, from its production to its consumption and open analysis, is changing the way the news is generated, distributed and engaged with.
The presentation focussed on the impact of big data in humanitarian aid and relief operations, including with the UN OCHA and other key humanitarian actors in the UN system. After going into how digital cartography today is no longer the exclusive domain of GIS experts, Sanjana also flagged key drivers from other domains - from algorithms in the online music industry that can sift through millions of tracks in less than a second to the gamification of disaster response - that will drive both the awareness of big data as well as progress in actually leveraging its potential to really make an impact in the efficiency and effectiveness of relief work.
Finally, Sanjana touched more deeply on some of the ethical and rights based concerns over the generation, use and archival of big data, especially around humanitarian disasters in fragile States, and in post-war contexts. Ending on the note that sharing, not hoarding, firewalling and storing, is the new power, Sanjana flagged the report by the ICT4Peace Foundation The potential and challenges of open data for crisis information management and aid efficiency.
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