Prairie floods: or how we learned to put the I.T. in humanitarian aid

Build it, and they will come.

At least that was Laura Madison’s hope when she created an online mapping tool that would display real-time information about this year’s spring floods in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

But the impact of the system has been restricted by a lack of engagement from the provincial government, limited manpower and difficulty in raising awareness about the site.

Ushahidi – Swahili for “testimony” – is an online crisis-mapping platform that was originally created to map post-electoral violence in Kenya. It has since been used to map the protests in Egypt and the ongoing conflict in Libya.

Madison is a member of the Crisis Mappers’ Stand-By Task Force, a volunteer-based network that assists crisis-affected communities through co-operation with local and international responders.

However, with family living on the banks of Manitoba’s Red River, Madison decided to apply this technology for the first time within Canada.

“It was a matter of knowing ahead of time that the floods were coming, having that idea of preparedness and using the skills and knowledge of a crisis mapper to get set up and go,” Madison said.

The platform allows citizens to submit incident reports, pictures and video via email, Android or iPhone app, text message or Twitter. These reports then appear on an interactive map informing fellow citizens about the latest developments, such as road closures, power outages, damaged property and evacuations.

Madison approached long-time Ushahidi developer Dale Zak this winter to assist in the set-up and management of mbfloods.ca and skfloods.ca. The sites have since received over 1,100 reports.

“The system can engage citizens because they’re the ones that know what’s happening on the ground – they’re the ones that know what the water level is in their backyard,” said Zak.

Both collaborators have even received emails and calls from residents asking them what the current water levels are, or if a certain road is closed.

“I don’t have the knowledge or capacity to respond to these people – I have to direct them to government services,” Zak said.

The Saskatchewan government has created an informational website at saskflood.ca, but Zak says its data is not up-to-the-minute, has no mobility access and has no way for people to contribute data.

But despite the potential of Ushahidi to address the shortcomings of the government website, Madison and Zak have acknowledged that there are still challenges.

“The technology is only about 10 per cent of the solution, and it’s 90 per cent about the process of marketing and promotion, and making people aware of the map,” said Zak.

According to Madison, the media in Manitoba didn’t pick up on what they were doing for the first two or three weeks.

“When you’re managing a crisis map, it’s difficult to be a PR machine whilst simultaneously dealing with the volume of the reports that you get,” said Madison. “It’s just me – I’m one volunteer.”

Madison and Zak say that for the platform to reach its potential, they need access to provincial resources and data. To date there has been only speculative interest from the Manitoban and Saskatchewan governments.

“I think we have a long way to go in the next year to get people more interested,” said Madison.