Can 'Verily' build a smarter social media for disasters?

"The vast majority of us are in second grade when it comes to the responsibility that goes with sharing information during a crisis like the one that happens in Boston," says Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute.

It's true that the false rumors on Twitter as well as the lynch mob mentality that seemed to overtake Reddit in the wake of the marathon bombing weren't exactly the best advertisement for the usefulness of social media in crisis situations. But Meier, formerly director of the crisis-mapping organization Ushahidi, sees a silver-lining in all the criticism. "“The backlash is healthy. I think a lot of people are going to learn and are going to think twice," he said, in a recent phone interview.

Meier, along with Iyad Rahwan of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is working to develop a new application which they call Verily, which they hope will become a go-to resource for information verification in the wake of a crisis. A way of "crowdsourcing critical thinking" as he puts it.

According to a recent paper explaining the idea, the interface for Verily would look something like this:  

 

Rather than simply posting information on Twitter or Reddit, users could post specific requests for information. Or if they are posting specific claims, they'll need to back it up. "We want to crowdsource critical thinking during disaster response," Meier says. "There are rumors and unsubstantiated claims. So with every piece of evidence you’re posting on this Pinterist-like board, you’re required to post a sentence or two or three on why you think that picture is true or not, or that report is true or not. You can also comment on evidence that others posted."

The system will also be gamified. Users will get trustworthiness points for making contributions that lead to the proving or disproving of a claim. Meier writes:

These points correspond to the participant's reputation which measures the influence a participant has in the system and the actions she can perform. Furthermore, points can be used to provide more explicit motivation such as public recognition (e.g., being listed as a top helper on the project's website), a way to recommend oneself to the humanitarian community with the view of becoming a trusted ambassador, lottery to win a non-monetary prize, receiving new equipment to carry out tasks more effectively, getting an invitation to a dinner with key project people, etc. Gamification aspect of points will be intensified by assigning badges for particular types of contributions.

Meier says the idea was inspired by DARPA's Red Balloon Challenge, in which teams competed to find 10 weather balloons fixed at locations throughout the United States. The winning team used financial incentives to reward social media users for helping them to find the balloons. 

Meier hopes Verily may be ready to deploy in a rough beta version within the next three months or so, so we'll soon see if it's a useful tool for following disaster news, and for relief workers and law enforcement to gather information from people on the ground, or if it's prone to the same echo chamber effect that hampers Twitter and Reddit. If it proves to be effective, I can also imagine it being a useful tool for mainstream journalists, who, in the case of Boston, were a bit too quick to jump on promising leads from social media. 

"We might even get to third grade by the end of the year," Meier says. 

Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

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