Technology Perception

I recently gave a talk at the Wolfram Data Summit about the challenges of  human perception that new technologies reveal. The field of data visualization for decades has discovered these challenges and adapted to them. They are mere speed bumps in the road to improved data analysis, but they are interesting for what they reveal about human perception.

For instance, one of the best examples of new technology in the field of emergency response is the open source Ushahidi platform. The concept is simple: individuals submit reports of status and need, frequently via SMS, to an office that parses them and places them on a map. The Haiti Crisis Map is a fantastic example. Note, when you visit the site, that the data can be filtered by categories, listed on the right.

Haiti Crisis Map

Haiti Crisis Map default view

There are a lot of potential uses for this type of technology. The first few that come to mind are that organizations can use the display to plan their deployment, post-disaster, and logistics departments can use the information to develop preliminary plans for the distribution of food, supplies, etc.

The human perception problem relates to the visual display of information. A quick glance at the default map makes it pretty clear where most of the need is. Groups planning a response effort may want to head for the area of the large red “941″ dot. Or do they?

Port au Prince suffered an incredible amount of damage during the earthquake and there is no doubting that there were (and still are) a lot of people there, suffering. Many acute responders spent most of their time locating and rescuing people trapped in collapsed buildings. That is a good thing and to the extent that the Haiti Crisis Map helped lead them to the best places, then it served its purpose and was a huge success.

Disasters are full of stories, however. I pointed out at the Wolfram Data Summit that zooming out and scrolling the map to show more of the bay reveals a different story.

La Gonâve is to the left

La Gonâve is to the left

La Gonâve is an industrial island with little local food production. Residents rely almost entirely on food supply from Port au Prince. After the earthquake, when the supply lines were cut, food prices skyrocketed on La Gonâve. There was minimal earthquake damage there, but many residents were beginning to starve shortly after the quake because they could no longer afford to purchase food.

Ushahidi captured this story. However, even after zooming out and panning to reveal the island, it looks like a relatively unharmed area in the context of the quake. The human eye is drawn to the large red “2564,” the area from which there clearly there are the most reports. Red, too, is a danger color, so we inherently view the large red dot as being the biggest problem area.

Some of the reports from La Gonâve read:

We have nothing to eat at Lagonave. Please help us. We don’t want to die.

Please, can we still be counted as victims of the drama that occured? I am tired of sending messages to tell you that in La Gonave, we can no longer survive because famin (empty stomach) is overwhelming… URGENT TO RESPOND

The type of aid that Gonâve most needed — food and water — could have been delivered quickly and efficiently without hindering other response efforts. In truth, it was, but perhaps not as early as it could have been; most focus was on the damage and suffering in Port au Prince.

Maps now are a ubiquitous part of the “connected” lifestyle. We use them all over the Internet, when looking for apartments and restaurants to trying to determine bus routes and school districts. When we use them, however, we frequently look for clusters of activity.

Clusters of activity

In this map, if you live in Arlington and want to find a restaurant, you probably would head into the District instead of to Reston. I would, too, based on the cluster of arrows appearing there.

What we have to remember is that outlying points, in a crisis map, don’t represent fewer opportunities; they represent human suffering. That suffering can take many forms. Just like with La Gonâve, the needs of the people in the less densely represented area on the map may be entirely different from those in the clustered areas. As humans, are we supposed to make judgements about whether suffering from starvation or suffering from homelessness is worse? If we’re going to display these on a map with red dots, how do we convey that the suffering on La Gonâve represents a worthy target for aid?

These are problems of human perception that are neither new or unrecognized. The difference is that technologies like Ushahidi and the Haiti Crisis Map accelerate the pace with which we are able to aggregate information and therefore add more emphasis to the need to develop reasonable methodologies for designing solutions to weaknesses in human perception.

Dynamic mapping technologies are both new and exciting. Humanitarian crises are stressful and demanding. The nexus is an emerging field that promises to improve the efficiency of aid programs and reduce human suffering. It might be time to engage psychologists to help us smooth the rough edges so that these tools can graduate from the periphery of humanitarian aid and become central cores around which we design response efforts.

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