Social media has scored big successes in helping crowds to gather and communicate online to challenge oppressive regimes in recent weeks, but digital gathering places that are basically public—and the crowd-sourced data they generate—also carry risks.

Crowds are forming so rapidly online—the photo-sharing app Instagram reported enrolling one million users in the past six weeks—that many platform managers fail to take full responsibility for protecting the users who post reports online, or for anticipating how the data might be abused by authorities.

"There is no system" for curating online crowd data," said Nadim Mahmud, director of Medic Mobile, a service that helps to set up mobile phone and texting networks to improve health-care delivery in the developing world. Tensions and competition can also arise among organizations that do try to manage online crowd data, he added.

Or worse. Locals who naively share online reports on events such as human rights abuses can put their lives in danger if oppressive officials choose to identify the sources and track them down.

"That trend of 'act first, identify later' is proliferating," said Mark Belinsky, president and founder of Digital Democracy, which works on technology projects for human rights. "That can lead to people being killed."

Information exploited mainly for marketing purposes or passive socializing in the U.S. can become "really dangerous in other countries," Belinsky said, predicting a growth in Facebook privacy scandals as more people who do not live in democracies sign on.

Belinsky and Mahmud made their comments earlier this month during a Social Media Week panel, "Open UN: Engagement in the Era of Real-Time," in New York City.

Open and real-time technologies, including Facebook, Twitter, and others that address aid and development issues, enable the rapid formation of online communities. These applications and Web sites often rely on the power of crowd-sourcing and can facilitate social protection and social welfare, but they also trade on the openness and public exposure of those who post data, said John Crowley, a researcher with Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, during the panel discussion.

Developers of such applications and services must be stewards of that data, he said, adding: "You can't just make this stuff open…there are a number of competing factions in the open source world. There should be a collaborative dynamic. There isn't always one."

Real-time data tools gather early 'good-enough' data

Piers Fawkes of PSFK, who sketched the results of a report on real-time data applications that his trends-research firm wrote for the U.N., took a more neutral tone on crowd-sourced tools, although he also noted the "hazards and opportunities" associated with such approaches.

Real-time data is now being collated to create dozens of tool types that go by seductive names such as human sensor networks, personal censuses, social-sentiment measurements, mobile communities, see-something/text-something, instant mapping, context cartography, timeline narratives, intelligent infrastructure and data democracy.

"Citizens become participants in data collection without having to alter their normal routines," Fawkes said.

The goal in such cases is less to create scientific data than to create "good-enough data," Fawkes said, that such information could help get the U.N. started in taking a closer look at local needs and developing response plans.

Quickly collected crowd-sourced data can enable early interventions and the implementation of social safety nets that can bring quick aid to a disaster zone or political crisis and thereby prevent long-term damage to communities.

For instance, the "Oil Reporter" tool was developed to collect online reports on the spread of the impacts following last year's Gulf oil spill. The smart phone app interface asks visitors orobservers simple questions such as "what do you see?" and "how much oil do you see?" and "Is there wildlife present?" Users can also submit photos and videos of local conditions. The data is then collected and stored at San Diego State University and used to create a real-time map that is available to the public.

A similar application, "Harassmap," allows users in Egypt to report sexual harassment anonymously to a Web site that helps officials generate a map that allows them to focus law enforcement on trouble spots.

"This is about empowerment and agency by being involved and having your voice heard in some way," said Fawkes' colleague Scott Lachut.

Crowley also noted one of his favorite uses of crowd-sourced data. "I cannot overstate the power of maps," he said, citing the example of how locals in Haiti and emergency responders collaborated on an OpenStreetMap tool to share information about people in need of help in the aftermath of the January 2009 earthquake in that country.

Image: U.S. Department of Transportation