For harnessing social data to improve disaster response
Heavy, relentless rains poured down on the residents of Jakarta in February, causing floodwaters to hit 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in some parts of the city and displacing more than 1,300 people. But the 2021 monsoon season was merely the latest in a string of annual floods, as rains batter the sinking Indonesian capital, paralyzing transportation networks and overwhelming neighborhoods.
A team of researchers saw that in the immediate aftermath of each disaster—when most damage and loss occurred—there seemed to be a dearth of official information from authorities. But “our team noticed there’s a lot of data—it just exists in different forms,” Nashin Mahtani says. “During the flooding, people were tweeting at incredible frequency. People were warning each other about places to avoid, identifying where it was possible to cross flooded areas with a boat and asking for help.”
The team set out to turn those disparate social media posts into an actionable information center for residents and first responders alike. In 2013, it unveiled the platform PetaJakarta.org, which allowed residents to report floods via Twitter, information that contributed to a real-time disaster map. In 2017, the project rebranded to PetaBencana.id and incorporated into its own independent nongovernmental organization, Yayasan Peta Bencana, led by current director Mahtani. Millions of residents have accessed it to make real-time, often life-or-death decisions during emergencies.
And in 2020, Mahtani finished an expansion project to push coverage beyond Jakarta to the entire region and to track not only floods but other hazards.
“There was an incredible learning curve, because of the multiple roles I was required to take on during the expansion to service 350 million people,” she says. “I was pushed far beyond my comfort zone, but the journey only proved how versatile and capable we can be in the midst of challenges.”
And now Mahtani is seeing the guts of the PetaBencana.id site—CogniCity open source software—used to develop disaster maps in the Philippines, India and Vietnam. In Hong Kong, researchers are using the software to develop a program called Breadline that connects restaurants and bakeries with extra food to volunteers who then distribute it to those in need. It’s that harnessing of collective knowledge that she points to as the future of ensuring public safety and well-being.
Q&A: Nashin Mahtani on global inequities, a more holistic approach to projects and the importance of mentors
What project most influenced you personally?
One that definitely stands out was a research project in the eighth grade for a class about globalization. At a middle-school level, I was reading about supply chains and remember feeling deeply troubled by the many traces of child labor. As I learned more about the underlying structural inequalities behind vicious cycles of poverty, the lack of access to education struck most strongly to me. Coming from a family where no one prior had the opportunity to attend university, I always deeply valued the tremendous educational opportunities I was afforded. This project, however, really expounded the realization about the harmful ramifications of this inequality.
Since then, I began and continue to involve myself in volunteer projects that are dedicated to education. Reflecting back now, I see that in all areas, I have been driven toward finding ways of sharing and communicating knowledge in many forms.
What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?
The ability to listen. Too often, there’s a presumed assumption of expertise based on titles, roles or backgrounds—resulting in a one-way mode of communication. However, no matter the context, the person you’re speaking with will always know something that you don’t.
How are young people changing the world of projects?
Perhaps especially in Asia, young people today are learning how to have our voices heard in bureaucratic and cultural systems that have traditionally been structured to favor age over capability.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
Being a young leader can sometimes feel incredibly lonely. It’s essential to surround yourself with mentors and people who you can learn from and share the experience with. It’s comforting to realize you are never alone and that there are incredible people you can learn from, and support and grow with.
What’s one way managing projects will change over the next decade?
One of my deepest hopes is that the future of managing projects will be more integrated: a holistic approach to project execution, monitoring and evaluation, instead of segmentation by category or discipline. If we are to address our most pressing challenges today, we must be able to think at the scales of systems.
What famous person would you want on your project team?
The linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky for his generosity in sharing knowledge, his passion and drive, the way he thinks transversally through the widest range of complex topics and communicates their relationships so accessibly, and his spirit of hope.
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We asked the Future 50: What are you reading—and recommending—right now?
We asked the Future 50: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Learn to pay attention to, and listen to, your heart. —Nashin Mahtani
Perspectives on how young people are changing the world of projects.
Perhaps especially in Asia, young people today are learning how to have our voices heard in bureaucratic and cultural systems that have traditionally been structured to favor age over capability. —Nashin Mahtani