Crowdsourcing Solutions on Climate Change's Frontline

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Crowdsourcing Solutions on Climate Change's Frontline

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Seasonal flooding has long been a fact of life for Jakarta’s 30 million inhabitants. However, in recent years, rising seas and torrential monsoon rains have swamped the city’s flood controls and pushed its seawall to within inches of topping.

The Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency long relied on a static pdf map of the city to help Jakartans stay out of danger and navigate the flooding. Updated only four times a day, the map was rarely able to capture the city's rapidly changing flood conditions.

In 2014, as frustrations over the agency’s approach to flood management began to mount, a group of concerned researchers and local Jakartans got together to engineer a solution of their own.

Created as a partnership between the Urban Risk Lab at MIT and the National Disaster Management Agency, PetaBencana uses social media to gather, sort and display information about flooding and other natural disasters in real time. In effect, the program democratizes disaster relief, using local knowledge to build local solutions.

PetaBencana uses CogniCity, an open-source software app, to comb Twitter and other social media for keywords, like “flood,” paired with geotagged photos. The app then combines this information with official reports to produce an online flood map with up-to-the-minute accuracy.

When government makes all the decisions, “we have a bottleneck of information,” says Etienne Turpin, a cofounder of PetaBencana. “But if real-time information is being collected, validated and shared, then we have 31 million decision makers deciding, 'Should I drive this way? Should I avoid a certain area?’”

PetaBencana’s maps aren’t just useful for commuters; they’ve become an invaluable tool for emergency responders as well. Since 2015, PetaBencana has become a daily part of the government’s emergency management operations, even prompting Jakarta’s governor to proclaim online flood reporting a civic duty.

In early 2017, PetaBencana expanded its coverage to Surabaya and Bandung, Indonesia’s second and third largest cities. Meanwhile, the program’s crowdsourced approach is gaining traction internationally, with PetaBencana being heralded as a model for community engagement in future disaster relief efforts.

As top-down oriented climate initiatives continue to run into roadblocks, you can expect to see more organizations adopting PetaBencana’s crowdsourced approach to disaster relief, turning to citizens—and their selfies—to save lives.

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