Ubiquitous Angels

Accepted Session
Short form
Scheduled: Thursday, June 18, 2009 from 11:20am – 12:05pm in Morrison


We're using a variety of gems to build an ambient sensing tool to watch user activity over urban environments. The acts_as_solr gem to help provide faceted search, carrot2 to perform clustering and topic analysis, the twitter gem to fetch user activity in the first place.


We live in dense urban landscapes that have crisis at many different scales. A crisis may be a large event such as a tsunami, an earthquake, a terrorist attack or other large scale disaster. A crisis may be something smaller such as a house fire, or a pileup on the freeway, a gas leak or a road out. A crisis may be something relatively minor, a crisis only to one person, such as being locked out of ones car, or trying to find a lost pet, or needing help sharing babysitting duties.

For the purpose of this talk I am interested in the far end of the long tail of crisis response – and what open source technology we can strap together to build tactical systems for helping tackle such crisis. I have been developing an approach using off the shelf tools that can help resolve local crisis – the smaller more personal crisis that interrupts peoples lives.

If we watch messages over a city, and provide analytic views for interested parties, then a role for “angels” to participate emerges. Interested individuals can act in a matchmaking capacity to connect complementary interests together. We can collaboratively up-score or down-score public comments aggregated from a variety of geo local sources. We can filter away noise so that responders can more easily decide what to respond to. In sum we can make it possible for people on the ground, in the area, to volunteer to help out by providing clarity.

I consider these class of services to be a kind of ubiquitous angel. They are not something that you have to even know exist until they help you.

The tools that we can leverage today to build such services are worth knowing – having many applications. In particular solr ( an enterprise search engine ) and carrot2 ( a topic clustering engine ) can play a powerful role in helping filter noise. Other related projects in particular Ushahidi and Swift have a high degree of overlap and those technologies will be discussed as well.

Beyond today there’s a role for such technology to help us deal with new kinds of crisis in the future. Over the next decades we may be facing economic and environmental concerns that are granular, evenly distributed and problematic in resolution. These kinds of tools and approaches may be useful there as well.

Speaking experience