• Written by Jo Pratt
    30 January 2017

This blog is by Mitiana Arbon.
The emergence of crowdsourcing platforms have engendered innovation in the mobilisation of global online communities to assist in disaster management. In the last two years Cyclones Pam and Winston saw the activation and application of the Pacific’s first experiences with crowdsourcing platforms. Through the use of the platform Tomnod, online communities aided in the mapping of disaster assessments and planning of relief efforts across Vanuatu and Fiji.

Crowdsourcing is characterised as a form of social mobilization in which individuals, groups and companies are enlisted to volunteer services, information or financial capital to benefit a particular person, organization or event. These actions can take the form of micro-funding for company startups, to searching through aerial photos for ancient tombs.

Crowdsourcing for Humanitarian Relief

In disaster management, crowdsourcing can be broken into two streams of response: platforms that crowdsource real-time data from those directly affected; and platforms that crowdsource data needs via online communities. Platforms such as Ushahidi – used in the Haiti earthquake – enabled those directly affected to send real-time data from mobile phones such as photos of damages, or calls for help. This information was then overlaid on base maps to help responders identify urgent issues and damage clusters. While useful as a form of real-time mapping of needs, such direct action platforms are limited by on-the-ground challenges, such as network access and power outages.

Other platforms, such as Tomnod are designed to circumvent limitations on the ground, relying instead on global online citizens to volunteer their time to tag and code needs depending on the specific campaign. Whether it is identifying damaged buildings, counting Somalian refugee tents, or scanning oceans for possible wreckages of MH370, such campaigns attempt to tap into the digital humanitarian capacity of the Internet.

In the Pacific, the first foray into online crowdsourcing during natural disasters was led by Tomnod’s campaign to map the damages of Cyclone Pam and Cyclone Winston. Owned by American based DigitalGlobe – the world’s largest satellite imagery company – Tomnod is the crowdsourcing platform of the company’s crisis response service ‘FirstLook’ which provided access to timely satellite imagery during the cyclones free of charge. Despite the sophisticated technology used to create the maps used, Tomnod itself is simple to use and requires no technical expertise. To manage accuracy, Tomnod relies on a blend of artificial intelligence in which the frequency of tagging on the same maps are triangulated to verify the overall accuracy of users.

Cyclone Pam

As Cyclone Pam struck the islands of Vanuatu in 2015, DigitalGlobe’s satellites World View 1 and World View 2 captured the cyclone’s destructive progress. With approximately 90% of the country’s buildings damaged, satellite images were uploaded to Tomnod, and a campaign to assess the damage was launched. Users were able to switch between pre- and post-event imagery, tagging major destruction, flooded/damaged buildings, and flooded/blocked roads. As new islands in the archipelago were mapped via satellite, these were uploaded into the Tomnod campaign. Shared with relief teams, the information was used to help map the needs and damage in remote and difficult to reach areas that were hardest hit by the cyclone.

Top: Data collector practicing submitting surveys after Cyclone Pam, Vanuatu. Photo: Aulia Rahman

Cyclone Winston
Similar to Vanuatu, DigitalGlobe’s satellites captured the devastation as Cyclone Winston made its way across the Fijian islands with wind speeds of up to 175 km/h. Despite the presence of cloud cover, DigitalGlobe’s constellation of high-resolution satellites captured images of the ground within 24 hours of the storm landing. These were subsequently uploaded to a Tomnod campaign, where volunteers once again tagged the satellite images of Fiji as areas of major destruction, flooded/damaged buildings, and flooded/blocked roads. Fresh imagery and results were delivered in near real-time as volunteers analysed data.

In doing so volunteers were able to identify 5,500 points of need over approximately 5,400 square kilometers of high resolution imagery. This information was then jointly collected and analysed by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Fijian Government, with disaster assessments distributed to response agencies to aid relief efforts. Current available results of the Cyclone Winston campaign are still available [here].


Even though platforms such as Tomnod use satellite enabled responses to overcome the limitations of direct action platforms like Ushahidi, such high-tech responses are still open to problems. As evidenced by Tomnod’s campaign during the MH370 search, an unexpected high volume of users caused the site to crash. If this had been during Cyclone Pam or Winston, overreliance on this platform would have caused significant coordination and management delays to relief efforts. Tomnod also relies on a high volume of volunteers to analyse the large amounts of data collected. Such efforts require active and continuous online advertising to mobilise timely support. If crowdsourcing platforms are to maximise their online volunteer capacity, additional planning is needed to help coordinate online activity to harness pre-existing networks such as relevant global diaspora communities. Ushahidi’s Haitian earthquake campaign required the aid of hundreds of creole speaking Haitians in the diaspora to translate and contextualize the messages needed to assist in mapping damages.

With projected frequencies of natural disasters in the region, such crowdsourcing platforms still require further scrutiny and planning by policy makers to harness their potential. Such solutions require governments to engage in discussions in planning and choosing what platform works best and how this data can be used to improve coordination in national disaster plans. In spite of the many challenges which still need to be addressed, such technological innovations provide much potential for disaster management not just in the Pacific, but worldwide.

Mitiana Arbon is a Pacific Studies Student at the Australian National University, and is currently undertaking an internship with Akvo.