Robert Munro
/ Rob Munro

I'm a computational linguist working in communication technologies. This covers a broad area of technology and development, from crowdsourcing and machine-learning for extracting rich information from natural language to the installation of supporting infrastructures.

I work as the CEO of Idibon, based in San Francisco and founded with the goal of bringing language technologies to all the world's languages. I also serve on the advisory boards of a number of companies and foundations that aim to bring social change, and I am a regular speaker about how communication is changing in an increasingly connected world.

I have lived in many diverse environments, from Sierra Leone and the Amazon to London, Sydney and Silicon Valley. I have a PhD from Stanford University. When not working I travel the hidden corners of the world by bicycle, most recently cycling across Alaska. I share my thoughts at @WWRob, Jungle Light Speed and via Idibon's articles.

Idibon

As CEO and co-founder of Idibon, I drive our vision, decisions and strategic direction. I have enjoyed bringing together one of the strongest teams in language technology from around the world and negotiated funding from some of Silicon Valley's leading investors, leading our team towards our objective of bringing language technologies to all the world's languages.

Idibon delivers a unique combination of machine learning integrated with a global network of analysts. We help people understand their unstructured language and communications data, from marketers, to data scientists and disaster response professionals. Our computational linguistics technology empowers our users to support millions of people in dozens of languages around the world.

Crowdsourcing and Natural Language Processing for Disaster Response

I am the recognized global expert in Crowdsourcing and Natural Language Processing for disaster response, having helped crisis-affected populations and disaster response professionals respond to dozens of large disasters, both human and man-made, in more than a dozen countries, from floods in Pakistan to violence in the Middle East and hurricanes in the USA.

I introduced crowdsourcing to the disaster response community when I coordinated the translation, geolocation and categorization of emergency text messages sent in Haiti in the wake of January 12, 2010 earthquake. I worked with 1000s Kreyol and French-speaking volunteers from 49 countries, turning text messages in Haitian Kreyol into categorized English messages with precise coordinates. For 80,000 messages, the typical turnaround was just 5 minutes: their vital local knowledge saved hundreds of lives and directed the first aid to tens of thousands.

Similarly, with Natural Language Processing I showed how machine-learning can help identify and prioritize urgent reports and track trends in the quickly changing post-disaster environment. This ultimately formed part of my PhD at Stanford.

My experiences have left me profoundly impressed with how crisis-affected communities are able to respond to tragic and often sudden events by bootstrapping their own recovery. My experiences have also left me believing that the not-for-profit community does more harm than good following disasters, especially in information management, with the international success coming from professional technology companies whose products are tried and tested more broadly. This was one central motivation to create Idibon and we are proud to support disaster response both locally and globally.

Global Health Monitoring

I have maintained a strong interest in technology for tracking global health, especially in monitoring and preventing epidemics.

In 2011 I worked at Global Viral Forecasting (now Metabiota) as the Chief Technology Officer for EpidemicIQ, a system for tracking disease outbreaks world-wide. The goal is to predict and prevent future epidemics. This was ground-breaking work with a skilled and diverse team, enabling us to track disease outbreaks from billions of data-points daily from data in more than a dozen languages, often beating the major health organizations by days in identifying outbreaks.

Like my disaster response work, it also relied heavily on machine-learning and crowdsourcing. One innovation was the use of online games to pay workers. When there was an E-Coli outbreak in Germany, we helped track the outbreak by paying people virtual currency to help process the reports. In one case, the currency took the form of virtual 'seeds' in a farming game: so by playing an agricultural game online, German-speakers were helping track a real agricultural outbreak outside their doors.

This work was presented to the UN General Assembly on Big Data and Global Development, among other places. See my post in tracking epidemics for more info.

Clean Energy

Prior to moving to the US I lived in Sierra Leone, working for the Environmental Foundation for Africa and for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Liberia, installing solar power systems in schools, clinics and national parks. I joined Energy for Opportunity as the Chief Information Officer at the organization's conception and managed the information and communication systems for our West African-based Solar Power operations, helping the company from its launch to see it grow to become the leading renewable energy provider in the region.

It has been a joy to see Energy for Opportunity become one of the largest power companies in Sierra Leone, a place where the cheapest energy is also often the greenest. I stepped down as CIO of Energy for Opportunity when I became CEO of Idibon, but I remain active in the company and in the Bay Area energy community.

Understanding the Diversity of Languages

Providing resources in a person's first language allows them to negotiate the connected world on their own terms.

As much as half of the world's 7,000 languages will disappear within the next century. The majority are only spoken languages, so the race is on to record as many as possible before all trace of the language, stories and culture are lost. As part of the same globalizing outcomes, we now have the technologies to record and study the world's languages for the first time, meaning we have a thin sliver of time to capture much of humanity that will otherwise be lost.

I have worked on architectures and strategies for recording the world's languages for more than a decade, including early work on the The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project, which supports the (often unique) recordings of 100s of languages. In July 2011, I also helped run the Workshop on Crowdsourcing Technologies for Language and Cognition Studies, bringing together the researchers who are embracing the ability to interact with people and study their communications via new technologies and experimental methods.

More directly, I also had the privilege to live with the Matses of the Amazon and study and record their language, one of the most unique on earth.