Helping the Helpers

Smartphones are quickly becoming the primary computing and communication platform for people’s daily tasks. With the rise of social networks, “netizens” are now comfortable with frequently updating their social profiles with their current activities and/or locations. This new source of information, social signals from microblog platforms, has been found to be especially useful in disaster management and relief operations. For example, during the recent Beijing flash floods, people took to Twitter to provide info rmation about the flooded areas and collaboratively developed a live crisis map of the floods impact using Google Maps. By integrating crowdsourced information with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data or other open datasets released by the local government, some technical volunteers have developed useful mobile applications for disaster reliefs. However, each organization usually has its own application that creates or consumes data stored in standalone databases, or even worse, in spreadsheets. This means most of these applications are built in silos without exploiting the potential of being “interlinked” with other data collected from other organizations, or even the government. The lack of expertise and the cost for building mobile applications cause relief workers to turn to more manual steps for merging various reports from volunteers. Consequently, the increasingly unorganized and scattered information become noise in the system and can sometimes slowdown the decision making process.

One major challenge is how to effectively integrate data generated by multiple parties, including the “crowd”, relief organizations, and governement agencies. We address this challenge by using Linked Data principles to enable the reuse, extension and integration of heterogeneous structured data from distributed sources. However, consuming and generating Linked Data is difficult especially on mobile devices. In this project, we are also focussing on reducing the barrier to the adoption of Linked Data technologies on smartphones.

Our goal is to enable relief organizations to quickly deploy applications that take advantage of key sources that are fundamental for today’s networked citizens, including Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, current news releases, and government data. These applications will also have the capability of empowering citizens involved in crisis situations to contribute via crowdsourcing, and to communicate up-to-date information to others. Punya is built on top of the App Inventor block programming system. It provides features that (i) embeds semantic concepts directly into the process of mobile app-building while hiding most of the operational details from novice developers, (ii) consumes streams of structured information from microblog platforms, crowdsourced and existing open data, and (iii) send real-time push notification to alert targeted audience.


Our vision is to build up an ecosystem of multi-language and multi-modal tools and volunteer developers around mobile technologies. We envision volunteers working with relief organizations to collaboratively customize, develop, or use mobile apps during a particular crisis to perform a variety of tasks – such as data collection, notification of aggregate information to key decision makers, and co-ordination of relief efforts. The use of mobile technologies will greatly speed up these relief operations that currently suffer from lack of technology or insufficient human resources. The Punya project is aimed at enabling this ecosystem to exist by addressing the key mobile requirements of the humanitarian sector and opening it out to mobile volunteers  by reducing the barrier to using these technologies.