Fighting Water with Data

Here in Thailand, we're suffering the worst floods the country has seen in over 50 years. Most of the country has been hit at some point in the past 3 months, and right now, all that water is flushing out through Bangkok-- large swaths of the capital is currently underwater, and though downtown has thus far been spared, it may get worse yet.

Looking on the techno-optimistic bright side, a few interesting web-based tools have come out of the strife.  My favorite is, where Bangkok residents who have fled can enter their address and find out, well, if their house is flooded. The site's data is all crowdsourced-- meaning Bangkokers who have stayed behind can go online and let the world know how things look from where they sit. The site then aggregates that information, sorts it by zip code, and presents it in a user-friendly Java interface.

This is the best kind of crowdsourcing. After the Haiti earthquake last year, crowdsourcing got a bad rap, when citizens under duress exaggerated reports to expedite aid to their own communities. With strong incentive to stretch the truth, in some cases less than a third of reports were accurate. (This is to take nothing away from the successes of crowdsourcing in the aftermath of that earthquake-- for example "microtasking," a form of crowdsourcing, saved aid workers huge amounts of staff time by outsourcing and expediting simple tasks.)

Here in Thailand, there is no material incentive attached to making these reports, and so people are making them only to help out their neighbors. For this kind of goodwill-based community support, crowdsourcing can be an invaluabletool. Certainly, for my friends who have fled Bangkok and headed north, being able to remotely check out how their neighborhood is doing has saved a lot of stress and worry.

Another pretty cool tool is Google's crisismap for the floods. Pulling open source data from such disparate sources as the Thai Department of Highways, the UN and NASA, the map helps visualize what parts of the country are in the greatest danger, which roads are impassable, and where to find shelters or highwater parking spaces.

It may all be paltry consolation for a city underwater, but having information sure beats not having it!