How social media data can improve people’s lives – if used responsibly

Stefaan Verhulst (et al) in the Conversation: “In January 2015, heavy rains triggered unprecedented floods in Malawi. Over the next five weeks, the floods displaced more than 230,000 people and damaged over 64,000 hectares of land.

Almost half the country was labelled a “disaster zone” by Malawi’s government. And as the humanitarian crisis unfolded, relief agencies, such as the Red Cross were faced with the daunting task of allocating aid and resources to places that were virtually unrecorded by the country’s mapping data, and thus rendered almost invisible.

Humanitarian workers struggled to navigate in many of the most affected areas, and one result was that aid did not necessarily reach those most in need.

To prevent similar knowledge gaps in the future, researchers, volunteers and humanitarian workers in Malawi and elsewhere, have turned to an unlikely partner: Facebook.

In 2016, as part of its “Missing Maps” project, the Red Cross accessed Facebook’s rich population density data to find and map people who were critically vulnerable to natural disasters and health emergencies, but remained unrecorded in existing maps.

During local Mapping Parties, volunteers in Malawi used Facebook’s satellite and population data, in addition to other satellite imagery, to trace roads, houses, and water points across Malawi’s communities.

Two years later, Missing Maps in collaboration with Facebook has identified more than 2 million people in Malawi, allowing aid and relief organisations to better plan projects in Malawi’s disaster prone areas.

Disasters kill nearly 100,000 and affect or displace 200 million people annually. As climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of disasters in the near future, leveraging social media data, crowd-sourcing and other means will only become more important.

The potential of data collaboratives

The Malawi partnership is just one manifestation of the concept of data collaboratives. We have defined this as a new form of collaboration beyond the public-private partnership model, in which participants from different sectors  —  including private companies, research institutions, and government agencies  —  can exchange data to help solve public problems.

While such collaboratives are emerging in a number of sectors and areas, the Malawi case is an example of a particular kind of collaborative. It’s what we might call a social media data collaborative.

While much attention has been paid to the impact of social media on politics, much value can be generated from social media data for governing as well, but only when done responsibly….

All of these initiatives are promising, but it is not yet clear that they add up to a comprehensive data responsibility framework or decision tree enabling new ways of working. Such a framework could provide data stewards the means to assess the public value of social media data as well as the risks and harms of sharing it. It could also suggest ways to adequately mitigate this risk.

What’s more, it might help achieve the necessary balance between the benefits and risks of sharing, and ensure that the vast amounts of data being generated by the public every second are ultimately used for the greater good.

More specifically, a generally accepted responsibility framework can help accelerate the emergence of new, innovative data collaboratives, and maximise their potential….(More)”.