Who Owns Crisis Data?

Download PDF

[Cross-posted from OpenCrisis.org]

N.B. After investigating the compaint in detail (see this blogpost), we re-opened the resource doc containing the dataset discussed below later on 09 Feb.

This is one of several posts going up as a result of OpenCrisis investigations into a complaint about one of its datasets.  This post will concentrate on the ownership aspects of that complaint.

Please note that this is currently a ‘holding’ blogpost, so people affected can be updated on what’s happening (sadly, all work on this much-used dataset has ceased until we get this all straightened out) – we’ll be adding to it as we have time (we’re concentrating more on making sure the dataset isn’t breaking its stated objective of “first, do no harm”) and as we learn more about this important issue.

Some background:  starting late last year, OpenCrisis began assembling a dataset (South Sudan humanitarian data, geodatasets, Twitter, etc) for its own work, that it then shared with another group (lets call them “LovelyPeople’) that was collecting information for a journalism group (let’s call them ‘Z’) – this second collection was deemed sensitive by ‘Z’, so we carefully left their deployment off our list of groups working on this crisis (for the record, we do this a lot, and will continue to do it for anyone who asks us to).  OpenCrisis made some of its original data (anything considered sensitive was kept private) available to people working in South Sudan via a publicly-visible but not widely-advertised spreadsheet.

Unfortunately,  5 Twitter names  made their way  from ‘Z’s sheet into the new spreadsheet, and ‘Z’ or one of its representatives (it’s unclear which) is now threatening to sue two individuals in OpenCrisis for the reuse of ‘their’ data.  To put this in perspective, the contribution from OpenCrisis to ‘Z’ was roughly 20+ Facebook addresses, 20 blog addresses, 60 multimedia records,  virtually all the local media outlets cited by ‘Z’, virtually all the Twitter lists listed by ‘Z’, 50-70 Twitter names and a direct copy (credited) of the OpenCrisis crisis mapping page as it was at the time.  This is all made more confusing because a third group, LovelyPeople, were also involved, and the OpenCrisis member concerned (Brendan O’Hanrahan) believed that the work with LovelyPeople was on the basis of mutual benefit, because that was stated when he joined the project.

Just to be clear on the OpenCrisis position on this dataset: ‘Z’s specific problem appears to be with the list of Twitter users. There are many many Twitter lists containing the data in question now – so much so that OpenCrisis stopped updating their spreadsheet list back in January – and we have no problems with removing any content that we can’t prove is our own. 

But we don’t want to live in a world where data ownership and worrying about being sued is a concern for every mapper trying to improve the world.  We might get sued, but this isn’t about us.  The much more important thing is resolving (or starting to resolve) the issue of data ownership when that data has been generated collectively by multiple individuals and groups.

So, who owns crisis data?

The heart of this problem is ownership of community-generated data.  I have much reading and thinking to do before I can start to answer this question, but the use of agreements (even if it’s agreement that all data will be shared across the community) appears to be key.

The legal position in the US appears to be clear: “It is important to remember that even if a database or compilation is arranged with sufficient originality to qualify for copyright protection, the facts and data within that database are still in the public domain. Anyone can take those facts and reuse or republish them, as long as that person arranges them in a new way” (Uni of Michigan’s exceptions to copyrights page).  That’s actually a huge relief, because if verified (and IANAL), the constant work that we all do on existing crisis datasets will help us to keep them free to use.

So the issue now appears to be less of a legal one, and more of a moral and ethical one: when is it right to share data between groups, and when is it right to claim ownership?

Data Licences

Although ‘ownership’ of data for good is anathema to us, there is one reason why it can be good: reducing confusion about who can use what where, via licensing.  We often need to say that the data we produce can be used by anyone, and say it legally and publically, and that’s what open data licences do.  Fortunately, there are some good “you can go use this” licences out there (e.g. ODbL), but as OSM et al know from painful experience, picking the right data licence to be compatible with other people’s data gathering and use can be hard.


The privacy of individuals is extremely important in our community.  When we were working through another issue raised by ‘Z’, we considered locking down the spreadsheet to subscribers only – only to realise that that would mean making a list of people (and emails of people) engaged in this work.  Which we’d also have to protect.  We’re still thinking about that one.

Legal protection

We can’t stress this enough: if you’re running a crisis data group, then seriously consider creating a nonprofit company for it. We hate having hierarchies and official registrations too, but without the protection of being an NJ non-profit, those two individuals (and all that they and their family own) would be at risk instead of this being an organisation-to-organisation thing. We’ve started an OpenCrisis page, who owns crisis data, for links and discussion on the ownership issue.  We’d love contributions of useful links and analysis for it.

Crisismapping Meetups Jan-Feb 2014

Download PDF

[Cross-posted from OpenCrisis.org]

This weekend is going to be a busy one for in-person crisismapping events: Digital Humanitarian Training is launching its first meetup in New York, and the Digital Humanitarian Network is running its first in-person meeting in Boston USA (they’re both on our shiny new crisismapping calendar).

As someone who dedicated years to helping crisiscamps around the world and the CrisismappersNYC meetup (spawned from the CrisisCampNY meetups), this makes me both nostalgic and hopeful at the same time.

I’m nostalgic because even the most collaborative groups like CrisisCamp London & Crisismappers NYC are difficult to keep going from a distance (e.g. if you find yourself working 3500 miles from London or even 50 from NYC). Though distance may be short on the map, no amount of tech can fit the enormous gap of quality in meeting-people time. Keeping people engaged in training on crisis mapping, connecting them to other mappers in different cities and handling logistics is a lot for any one person to shoulder. Indeed, the planning, staffing & training work required at an event speak nothing of the ground work involved in identifying venues or maintaining networks and individual connections.

And I’m hopeful to see the next generation of crisismapper meetup organisers come through.  They’ll learn, like we did, about the things that do and don’t work, and hopefully will find some of the things we left behind for them, like the Crisiscamp-in-a-box packs describing everything from what stationery is good to have (post-it notes are always useful) to how to organise training (backstory: Crisiscamp London had a real cardboard box that they stored all their stuff in between meetings).   But hopefully, unlike many of us old ‘uns, they won’t burn out trying to train and map and organise meets all at the same time.

I wish you both luck, Andy and Willow – and if you ever want to drink a pint and talk about all the things that did and didn’t work in the past, I’ll see you sometime in New York!