Texting As Killer, As Savior


Source. Second place winning design, from Kayla Rivera at Valencia CC, Wiley Student Advertising Design Challenge: Texting & Driving Don't Mix

Any driver knows the dangers of texting. Yet this practice has become commonplace. Dr. Robin Landa recently challenged students to design an ad campaign about the dangers of texting and driving; the design above is one of my favorites.

But texting can also save lives, even for the illiterate. Let me explain.

There are emerging open source technologies, based on network science and crowd sourcing that promise to transform how we respond to natural disasters and to disease outbreaks. Because these tools are open source, users can improve them so that it will evolve organically. The power of this new approach is the speed and efficiency of collecting huge amounts of information that can be analyzed anywhere in the world and quickly shared with those in need.

Even more impressive, you don't need to be able to read or type in order to share information. Recent technologies can accept voice mails for input into databases. Surprisingly, use of mobile devices in poor regions such as Haiti played a major role in disaster response after the 2010 earthquake. I learned that it is common practice for a cell phone to be shared with a number of people, increasing access to communication.

I address these societal benefits in a commentary published in this week's issue of Science:

For more information, see my previous posting on Ushahidi.

Societal Benefits of Network Science

The News Story "Stepping away from the trees for a look at the forest" (17 December 2010, Science News staff, special section on Insights of the Decade, p. 1612) describes the potential of network science to solve complex problems, including the use of crowd-sourcing.

Network science has also been applied to disaster response, such as the aftermath of the magnitude 7.0 MW earthquake in Haiti in 2010. An open-source technology named Ushahidi ("testimony" in Swahili) (1) was used to create high-resolution maps of accessible roads through integration of more than 80,000 text messages and geographic information systems. This platform can also process voice messages, making it a useful tool for the illiterate. These aggregated data allowed more rapid transport of earthquake victims to hospitals, given the paucity of reliable road maps before the disaster.

Similar open source tools such as Geo-Chat (2, 3) have been applied to disease outbreaks globally and to human rights issues in Burma (4), facilitating anonymous reporting of sexual violence, human trafficking, and child soldiers. Societal benefits of these technologies will broaden as more users revise methods for uploading, processing, visualizing, and interpreting data to inform public policy.

1. C. C. Freifeld et al., PLoS Med. 7, e1000376 (2010). CrossRef
2. Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases, and Disasters (InSTEDD) (http://instedd.org/).
3. D. Butler, Nat. News 10.1038/news.2009.187 (25 March 2009). CrossRef
4. Handheld Human Rights (www.handheldhumanrights.org/).

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