Rice highlights rise of digital and robotic humanitarianism

Patrick Meier drew on real-world examples to illustrate how digital crisis mapping, aerial robotics such as drones and other autonomous robotics solutions are being used in a wide range of humanitarian efforts during his keynote address for the Digital Frontiers 2016 conference held Sept. 22-23 and The Humanities and Technology Camp (THATCamp) held Sept. 24, both at Rice. Meier, an internationally recognized expert and consultant on humanitarian technology and innovation, spoke to leading digital humanities experts from across the country gathered at Rice for the two events.

Patrick Meier discussed his work in digital and robotic humanitarianism during the Digital Frontiers 2016 conference at Rice Sept. 23. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

Patrick Meier discussed his work in digital and robotic humanitarianism during the Digital Frontiers 2016 conference at Rice Sept. 23. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

In 2010, Meier was a graduate student in international relations at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy outside of Boston, when a massive earthquake hit the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. More than 100,000 people were feared dead. “My girlfriend at the time, now wife, was in Port-au-Prince doing research,” said Meier, the executive director and co-founder of WeRobotics, who spoke in the BioScience Research Collaborative’s first-floor auditorium. “I had no idea if she was OK or not. I tried her cellphone, I tried text messages, I tried Skype. I went on social media to see if there was any kind of sign-of-life activity. It wasn’t until about 10 hours later, around 2 a.m., that I finally got a text message back (saying) that she was OK, that she (had) just narrowly escaped a collapsing building.”

In the long hours before hearing from his girlfriend, while anxiously watching coverage of the earthquake’s aftermath on CNN, Meier decided to take action. “I just needed to do something. I started this crisis map, a digital online map, and started mapping needs and disaster damage and other types of information relevant for humanitarian relief efforts.”

Meier used the Ushahidi platform, a free and open-source mapping technology created in Kenya in the aftermath of the country’s disputed 2007 presidential election. He described Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, as a multimedia inbox connected to a live map. It allows the texts, tweets, emails and mobile phone photos and videos of everyday people to be connected with official players in humanitarian response. “I was really surprised to see how many Haitians were actually tweeting live from Port-au-Prince,” Meier said. “And then the Haitian diaspora, which is a global community, were also tweeting about what they were learning.”

Soon, Meier and a group of friends had enlisted and trained more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students at Tufts on how to monitor social and mainstream media for relevant, “mappable” content: people who were trapped under rubble, pharmacies that still had medications or schools that were in need of food and water. These “digital humanitarians” monitored hundreds and hundreds of online sources for information on Haiti almost 24/7.

The Ushahidi Haiti Crisis Map became a live map with thousands of individual reports added during the entire project and was used by the United Nations, U.S. Marines and the U.S. Coast Guard, Meier said.

The conference brought together scholars and students, librarians and archivists, genealogists and public historians as well as community members to share their experience of using digital resources in the humanities.

The conference brought together scholars and students, librarians and archivists, genealogists and public historians as well as community members to share their experience of using digital resources in the humanities.

In recent years, Meier has turned his attention and efforts to the development and use of aerial terrestrial and maritime robotics in disaster recovery and prevention. The founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, he was in Nepal in 2015 after the severe earthquake that struck near Kathmandu. He led efforts to map the small town of Panga with drones, which assisted local officials with tracking the recovery process, such as where debris had been cleared and what houses were likely to collapse.

Another one of Meier’s project has involved the use of autonomous swimming robots to automatically map lake floors and look for cracks that may trigger mountain tsunamis in the Himalayas, which are the result of climate change, Meier said. For example, on the Ngozumpa Glacier, one of Nepal’s largest and longest in the region, hundreds of supraglacial lakes dot the glacier’s surface. One lake in particular is known for its continuous volume purges on an annual basis. Near the start of the monsoon in the summer, in less than 48 hours, it loses enough water to fill over 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools, he said. Using robotics to do the monitoring work is both faster, more accurate and safe than having humans take the measurements.

“It’s easy to look at all these little robots and just dismiss them,” Meier said. “It turns out that these flying, swimming, diving, driving robots are potentially be going to be driving the next industrial revolution. It’s not just me making that claim. It’s the World Economic Forum, the U.N. and others. There’s an expectation that it’s going to change everything. It’s going to disrupt all sectors and all industries. What we must do as a community of practice is to reassure that this next industrial revolution is one that is a just and inclusive revolution, one that includes, in particular, global partners and local communities. We need to democratize the next industrial revolution.”

Using digital resources in the humanities

Rice's Lisa Spiro, left, and Melissa Bailar helped co-organize the conference.

Rice’s Lisa Spiro, left, and Melissa Bailar helped co-organize the conference.

Digital Frontiers, a project of the University of North Texas Libraries, annually brings together scholars and students, librarians and archivists, genealogists and public historians as well as community members to share their experience of using digital resources in the humanities. The Rice event was co-organized by the School of Humanities’ Humanities Research Center and Fondren Library.

“Since Rice is expanding its support for digital humanities projects, it was a good time for us to host this conference,” said Melissa Bailar, associate director of the Humanities Research Center and professor in the practice of humanities. “We’ve had several people present Rice projects at the conference over the past few years, and our scholars and librarians are well-connected to the digital humanities community.”

Bailar and Lisa Spiro, executive director of digital scholarship services at Fondren Library, are currently Rice’s co-principal investigators on a two-year, $500,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, “Resilient Networks To Support Inclusive Digital Humanities,” which is awarding competitive jump-start grants of $5,000 to Rice faculty pursuing digital humanities projects. For more information about the initiative, see http://news.rice.edu/2016/09/02/rice-faculty-encouraged-to-apply-for-digital-humanities-projects-grants. 

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.