How Harry Potter Explains Humanitarian Crowd-Sourcing

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Humanitarian aid worker and Tufts doctoral fellow Patrick Meier recently tried to explain the success of crowd-sourced aid work in Haiti. But it was complicated. Just to start, what does crowd-sourced humanitarian work even mean? And how do you measure it? Then Meier had a breakthrough: Explain it with an extended metaphor about Harry Potter.

Haiti was a complete first as far as live crisis mapping and mobile crowdsourcing goes. Yet Muggles blame Crowd-Sorcerers for not getting everything right on their first try. The importance of standards is repeatedly voiced by Muggles, as noted above. Well I call this a double-standard.

The muggles are the old-style aid workers who don't believe in crowd-sourcing. The Crowd-Sorcerers are the people like Meier who think that, in the wake of an emergency like the earthquake in Haiti, aid workers can be most efficient and effective by crowd-sourcing one of their most difficult tasks: information management. Getting information out during an emergency can be difficult and time-consuming. You have to relay where the aid stations are, who needs immediate medical attention, and when services like water and electricity might come back online.

The Muggles, as Meier calls them, emphasize "ground truth" and argue aid workers should carefully oversee all information coming and going. The Crowd-Sorcerers use tools like Twitter. In Haiti, for example, people on the ground could tweet if a building was about to collapse or if there was a need to medical supplies. The aid workers would scan for such tweets and respond accordingly. Did it work? Meier thinks so:

Crisis information that was crowdsourced using the distributed short code 4636 in Haiti helped save hundreds of lives according to the Marine Corps. The vast majority of this information could not be verified and yet both the Marine Corps and Coast Guard used this as one of their feeds while FEMA encouraged the crowd-sorcerers to continue mapping, calling the crisis map of Haiti the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of information available to Muggles.

Meier continues the Harry Potter metaphors from there, variously comparing NGOs to Gryffndor and the aid community to Hogwarts. It's a bit confusing but click through to see his whole story. It's still shorter than the original Harry Potter series, if not by much.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.