Microformats for Macroevents


Around two years ago I had the pleasure of meeting some of Silicon Valley’s brightest developers for a conversation on microformat open standards. Among this group was Tantek Çelik, a member of microformats.org and one of the early contributors to the open standard for hcards and vcards. At the time, I was interested in micro-formats as part of the next evolution of web applications, it was only recently that I began to see the need for micro-formats that could be applied to more urgent real-world scenarios. While developing Haiti Tracker at Ushahidi, I discovered two new sets of open micro-format standards aimed at augmenting the flow of emergency information in ways that can save lives.

What is a Microformat?

Microformats are described on microformats.org as being a way of thinking about data and design principles for formats. They go on to say that micro-formats are “a set of simple open data format standards that many are actively developing and implementing for more/better structured blogging and web microcontent publishing in general.” For the non devs out there, what all that translates to is a way of marking up machine readable content in ways that are both relevant to the machine and the human reader.

In html writing a person’s name and phone is done like so:

<p>Johnny Walker - Home +1.555.555.5555<p>

To humans, that makes perfect sense; to the machine it’s just a string of alphanumeric digits.

Using micro-formats, one might instead write:

<span class="vcard"><span class="fn">Johnny</span> <span class="ln">Walker</span> - <span class="tel"><span class="type">Home</span> +1.415.555.1212</span>

Now a software application knows to interpret a first name as a first name, a lastname as a lastname and our contacts number as his home number.

Microformatting Emergency Information

An area that’s relatively new to me, is the role microformats play in marking up information relevant to crisis events. Three emerging standards here are PFIF (People Finder Interchange Format), GeoRSS and GML (Geography Markup Language) and EDXL (Emergency Data Exchange Language). These are three XML format standards for passing along context in addition to the data itself. I’ll go into detail on PFIF because it’s of particular interest to the recent situation in Haiti.

PFIF (People Finder Interchange Format)

An example of a form that collects information to the PFIF format (click the image for a closer look).

Screen shot 2010-01-20 at 6.54.27 PM.png

And an example of the XML generated:

Screen shot 2010-01-20 at 7.06.02 PM.png

The various bits of information recorded are marked-up with machine readable tags that convey the same context that humans understand by reading the form. This allows various software applications to talk to each other without confusion. A number of organizations are using microformats for increasingly sophisticated emergency response applications like InSTEDD’s EIS and GeoChat. Something Ushahidi is also tackling with SULSa.

One of the cool things PFIF provides is a way to offer cyclical data-flow. One app might allow users to report people as missing, another might allow web users to report missing people as found, with such a standard the two applications can easily pass information back and forth to each other. This was the case with Haiti Crisis People Finder (now curated by Google). This allows organizations to not just report incidents of emergency, but to also ‘close the loop’. In this case, to designate a missing person as found. (ex. Woman reports her child missing to Ushahidi. Another reports an ‘orphaned’ child wandering the streets. The family is reconnected, the application can accurately downgrade the initial report as ‘closed’.) The critical factor here is not just allowing users to know, but to allow software to ‘know’ as well by offering them mark-up they can interpret.

EDXL (Emergency Data Exchange Language)

The EDXL is an XML based messaging standard that facilitates information sharing between government entities and emergency related organizations. For more check here.

GeoRSS GML and Simple (Geography Markup Language)

GML is an XML format for “the modelling, transport, and storage of geographic information.” It allows applications to share information about the locations of their users. For more on GeoRSS check this page.

These open standards are all a part of the effort to increase efficiency and interoperability between different groups and software applications, something invaluable to increasing the response times of emergency organizations to the victims of disasters.

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About the author: Jonathan Gosier is a UI designer, software developer and writer. He currently lives in Kampala, Uganda where he incubates and invests in East African entrepreneurs as the CEO of Appfrica Labs. He's also a TED Fellow.
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