The floods in Pakistan are not over. They have moved from the north of the country to the south, impacting the lives of 15 million people, displacing 3.5 million, killing over 1400, and injecting a huge risk of water-borne disease and starvation into an already at risk population in a politically charged part of the world. Here are the most current statistics:
While world leaders are pledging aid and politicians and bureaucrats are issuing dire warnings and trying to cope, the worlds’ relief organizations have already sprung into action, including, of course, those that are already on the ground in the affected districts (which as you can see from this map is now most of the country).
Source: MapAction & OCHA - OneResponse Pakistan
As soon as I hear about a disaster—particularly one that affects millions of people and is being under-reported by the US media—I head to twitter (via TweetDeck) to set up a search filter in order to monitor the pulse and to hone in on the best and most insightful on the ground reporting. (Use hashtags #Pakistan and #pkflood or #pkfloods to set up your own filter.) Twitter filtering quickly landed me at several authoritative sites designed to aggregate information, including the Live Updates section of the SA Relief site – originally set up in 2005 to coordinate relief in South East Asia -- and the Floods 2010 page on the Pakistan Crisis Wiki, and the amazingly informative OneResponse Pakistan humanitarian Web Portal which is the “official” UN-sponsored site for coordinating humanitarian relief efforts by “clusters” of expertise, as well as Google’s Crisis Response page, set up to aggregate information, and Wikipedia’s as usual, excellent and quickly evolving coverage.
In addition to providing background on the monsoon conditions that have caused the higher than normal flooding, and up-to-date weather reports, the Wikipedia article did a good job of framing the controversy over the apparent slow response of the international community to the Pakistani flood crisis:
Criticism of response
The Pakistani government was blamed for sluggish and disorganized response to the floods. The perceived disorganized and insufficient response led to instances of riots, with attacks and looting of aid convoys by hunger-stricken people. The lack of a unified government response allowed Islamic groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-e-Islami to supply aid with minimal resistance. President Asif Ali Zardari was also criticized for going ahead with visits to meet leaders in Britain and France at a time when his nation was facing catastrophe. In Sindh, the ruling Pakistan People's Party ministers were accused of using their influence to direct flood waters off their crops while risking densely populated areas.
The United Nations criticized the international community for responding slowly, despite the ferocity and magnitude of disaster. As of 9 August, only $45 million in aid had been committed, which is far less than usual for a natural disaster of this scale. In an analysis of the response to the disaster, The Guardian said that there was a dire need of relief goods in the immediate aftermath of the floods. It quoted the UN's humanitarian affairs co-ordination office, saying that "[s]ix million [of the 14 million affected] are children and 3 million women of child-bearing age. This is a higher figure than in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami."
China and India were initially criticized for their slow response to Pakistan's calls for aid.. It was described by The Diplomat as "aloof and blind to the tragedy affecting Pakistan." On 13 August, India offered to provide around $5 million in aid, as well as official condolences. Pakistan did not accept the offer. as of August 19.
An analysis by AP's correspondent, Nahal Toosi, suggested that a number of factors account for the inadequate international response, namely the low death toll, the protracted unfolding of the extent of the catastrophe, the lack of celebrity involvement, the impression that the government is not focused on the event, and a certain donor fatigue, perhaps more so as Pakistan has been receiving support before.
Some potential donors doubt that funds will reach victims of the flood, but will rather be diverted to terrorist groups such as the Taliban, despite a significant amount of the aid effort being directed by the United Nations.
The good news is that because of this controversy, funding has picked up over the past few days. Here is the update as of August 19, 2010:
Tapping into Crowdsourced Incident Reports
Wanting to know what was actually happening on the ground, I also immediately hooked into Ushahidi—having discovered this really useful grass roots open source crisis management platform during the early weeks of the hurricane-crisis in Haiti. Sure enough, there’s a Pakistan Floods Ushahidi site, PakReport.org.
As Robert Munro reports in his blog post: How to cope with very large volumes of crowdsourced reports? Add more crowd!
"We are working to support a team led by Faisal Chohan of BrightSpyre in Pakistan who are mapping the flood and post-flood conditions there, collecting reports from the general public and aid organizations via SMS, media monitoring and direct reports (www.pakreport.org). The potential scale of this information is extremely large, and therefore so is the potential bottleneck.
For this reason, we have built a new module for their Ushahidi deployment to ‘crowdsource the crowdsourced reports’. It is not feasible to open up the dashboard of an Ushahidi instance to too many people for reasons of scalability and security. However, we can export just the value-adding process of turning a written report into a geolocated, categorized report that is translated into one or more languages. For the deployment in Pakistan we are utilizing CrowdFlower for this process. Urdu, Pashto and English speaking volunteers from anywhere in the world can come online to the CrowdFlower task (pakreport.crowdflower.com), read one message at a time and then complete a form to add coordinates, categories and translations.
The Ushahidi community began using this approach during the Haitian crisis, to take advantage of the Haitian diaspora to help in translating incident reports to and from the local language. The Pakistani diaspora is also highly likely to spring into action. After all, translating and verifying local information may help you both keep your finger on the pulse of what's going on in your neighborhood and help you deal with the stress and concern about your family and friends.
Collaborative Response During a Crisis: Crowdsourcing is Key!
As I was marvelling at the amazing amount and actionable utility of the information being provided during this and many earlier crises -- Katrina, the Gulf Oil Spill, the Haitian Earthquake, the SouthEast Asian Tsunami, and the unrest in Kenya which spawned tools like Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili), I remembered one of our first customer co-design sessions, which took place in 1991 in Glen Cove, NY. In that workshop, Mitre Labs asked for our clients' help in designing a “crisis response” system that could be used to coordinate government agencies, NGOs, and subject matter experts around the globe whenever a crisis (natural or man-made) occurred. This was in the pre-browser days of the Internet. Yet our group of 100+ clients--about 20 of whom worked directly with the Mitre team to ideate solutions with the Mitre subject matter experts--pretty accurately predicted a near term solution that would take advantage of Internet standards and information exchange and ad hoc conferencing calls, with quick-and-cheap-to deploy emergency communications equipment, including video, cellphone or satellite phone. I remember that one of the Mitre Labs’ team “problem statements” was that once two or three different emergencies occurred around the globe, they could no longer depend on CNN to provide real time video coverage and reporting. I also remember checking in with Henry Bayard at Mitre Labs a few years later--after the advent of the browser--to learn that the Web had made a tremendous difference to agencies' abilities both to coordinate in times of crisis, and also that "rival" agencies had begun to compete with one another to see who could post the most accurate, up-to-date information so that it would be available all the time, but especially when a crisis hit.
Today, the vision has become a reality. The ad hoc real time crisis collaboration that we could all foresee two decades ago is standard practice. Using Internet standards, video feeds, mapping tools, mobile phones and our global networks, we can pull together and coordinate amazingly well. The key difference in what we could envision in the early ‘90s and what we’re experiencing two decades later is this: at the time, we were focused on getting information to cross-disciplinary subject matter experts who could then provide advice and support. Today, we realize that “citizen journalists” – engaged people who are on site and have the “ground truth” are often our most important asset in times of real crisis!