May the Crowd Be With You

Three years ago, 167 digital volunteers and I combed through satellite imagery of Somalia to support the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on this joint project. The purpose of this digital humanitarian effort was to identify how many Somalis had been displaced (easily 200,000) due to fighting and violence. Earlier this year, 239 passengers and crew went missing when Malaysia Flight 370 suddenly disappeared. In response, some 8 million digital volunteers mobilized as part of the digital search & rescue effort that followed.

May the Crowd be With You

So in the first case, 168 volunteers were looking for 200,000+ people displaced by violence and in the second case, some 8,000,000 volunteers were looking for 239 missing souls. Last year, in response to Typhoon Haiyan, digital volunteers spent 200 hours or so tagging social media content in support of the UN’s rapid disaster damage assessment efforts. According to responders at the time, some 11 million people in the Philippines were affected by the Typhoon. In contrast, well over 20,000 years of volunteer time went into the search for Flight 370’s missing passengers.

What to do about this heavily skewed distribution of volunteer time? Can (or should) we do anything? Are we simply left with “May the Crowd be with You”?The massive (and as yet unparalleled) online response to Flight 370 won’t be a one-off. We’re entering an era of mass-sourcing where entire populations can be mobilized online. What happens when future mass-sourcing efforts ask digital volunteers to look for military vehicles and aircraft in satellite images taken of a mysterious, unnamed “enemy country” for unknown reasons? Think this is far-fetched? As noted in my forthcoming book, Digital Humanitarians, this online, crowdsourced military surveillance operation already took place (at least once).

As we continue heading towards this new era of mass-sourcing, those with the ability to mobilize entire populations online will indeed yield an impressive new form of power. And as millions of volunteers continue tagging, tracing various features, this volunteer-generated data combined with machine learning will be used to automate future tagging and tracing needs of militaries and multi-billion dollar companies, thus obviating the need for large volumes of volunteers (especially handy should volunteers seek to boycott these digital operations).

At the same time, however, the rise of this artificial intelligence may level the playing field. But few players out there have ready access to high resolution satellite imagery and the actual technical expertise to turn volunteer-generated tags/traces into machine learning classifiers. To this end, perhaps one way forward is to try and “democratize” access to both satellite imagery and the technology needed to make sense of this “Big Data”. Easier said than done. But maybe less impossible than we may think. Perhaps new, disruptive initiatives like Planet Labs will help pave the way forward.

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Using UAVs to Estimate Crowd Populations

Russian friends of mine recently pointed me to a very interesting computer vision program called “White Counter”. The purpose of this mysterious-sounding algorithm was to automatically count people in a dense crowd from video footage. The program developed in early 2012 by two experts in computer vision and artificial intelligence: Anatoliy Katz and Igor Khuraskin. I recently spoke with Anatoliy to learn more about his work given potential applications for counting refugees and internally displaced peoples using UAVs.

He and Igor created their “White Counter” in order to counter government figures on the number of protestors who join demonstrations. As is typical, the Kremlin will always downplay the numbers. So Anatoliy and Igor used insights from fluid dynamics to create their algorithm, measuring average speed of flow as well as density, for example. Note that “White Counter” is not a fully automated solution. The algorithm requires manual counts every 30 seconds in order to estimate overall crowd figures. But the results of the algorithm are impressive: the error margin at this point is less than 3%. Anatoliy and Igo used their algorithm during the “March of Millions” on September 15, 2012 (video above). Their code is python based and open-source, so if you’re interested in experimenting with the code, simply email whitecounter2012@gmail.com.

My colleague Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick and his team are also working on a similar challenge. They too are interested in estimating the size of social movements. As Austin rightly notes, “Establishing the size of a protest event is critical for social movements as they signal their legitimacy to the media, to the general public & as they demonstrate their strength to the authorities that they’re challenging.” But the methods we use to estimate how large a protest is haven’t changed in more than half-a-century. So Austin & team are looking to update these methods using UAVs and aerial imagery. They take a given image, identify the total area covered by protestors, then slice up the image into a grid of micro-images. They then assess the density level of the crowd in each micro-image. The video below introduces the project and research in more detail.

Perhaps in the near future humanitarian UAVs will be able to draw on these advances in computer vision to assess refugee populations and the number of displaced peoples following major disasters. In the meantime, we can use simple crowdsourcing solutions like MicroMappers to estimate populations. There is a precedence for applying crowdsourcing to compute population counts—see this UN Refugee Project, for example. But if you know of any related work other than the JRC’s efforts that draws on automated techniques, then please let me know, thank you!

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See Also:

  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]

Humanitarian UAVs in the Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands experienced heavy rains and flash floods following Tropical Cyclone Ita earlier this year. Over 50,000 people were affected and dozens killed, according to ReliefWeb. Infrastructure damage was extensive; entire houses were washed away and thousands lost their food gardens.

solomonfloods

Disaster responders used a rotary-wing UAV (an “Oktocopter”) to assist with the damage assessment efforts. More specifically, the UAV was used to assess the extent of the flood damage in the most affected area along Mataniko River.

Solomons UAV

The UAV was also used to map an area proposed for resettlement. In addition, the UAV was flown over a dam to assess potential damage. These flights were pre-programmed and thus autonomous. (Here’s a quick video demo on how to program UAV flights for disaster response). The UAV was flown at 110 meters altitude in order to capture very high-resolution imagery. “The altitude of 110m also allowed for an operation below the traditional air space and ensured a continuous visibility of the UAV from the starting / landing position.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 4.04.49 AM

While responders faced several challenges with the UAV, they nevertheless stated that “The UAV was extremely useful for the required mapping” (PDF). Some of these challenges included the limited availability of batteries, which limited the number of UAV flights. The wind also posed a challenge.

Solomons Analysis

Responders took more than 800 pictures (during one 17 minute flight) over the above area which was proposed for resettlement. About 10% of these images were then stitched together to form the mosaic displayed above. The result below depicts flooded areas along Mataniko River. According to responders, “This image data can be utilized to demonstrate the danger of destruction to people who start to resettle in the Mataniko River Valley. These very high resolution images (~ 3 to 5 cm) show details such as destroyed cars, parts of houses, etc. which demonstrate the force of the high water.” In sum, “The maps together with the images of the river could be utilized to raise awareness not to settle again in these areas.”

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 4.14.33 AM

Images taken of the dam were used to create the Digital Terrain Model (DTM) below. This enables responders to determine areas where the dam is most likely to overflow due to damage or future floods.

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 4.15.40 AM

The result of this DTM analysis enables responders to target the placement of rubber mats fixed with sand bags around the damn’s most vulnerable points.

Solomons Dam

In conclusion, disaster responders write that the use of “UAVs for data acquisition can be highly recommended. The flexibility of an UAV can be of high benefit for mapping purposes, especially in cases where fast data acquisition is desired, e.g. natural hazards. An important advantage of a UAV as platform is that image data recording is performed at low height and not disturbed by cloud cover. In theory a fixed-wing UAV might be more efficient for rapid mapping. However, the DTM applications would not be possible in this resolution with a fixed wing UAV. Notably due to the flexibility for potential starting and landing areas and the handling of the topography characterized by step valleys and obstacles such as power lines between mountain tops within the study area. Especially within the flooded areas a spatially sufficient start and land area for fixed wing UAVs would have been hard to identify.”

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See Also:

  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Common Misconceptions About Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

Proof: How Crowdsourced Election Monitoring Makes a Difference

My colleagues Catie Bailard & Steven Livingston have just published the results of their empirical study on the impact of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring. Readers of iRevolution may recall that my doctoral dissertation analyzed the use of crowdsourcing in repressive environments and specifically during contested elections. This explains my keen interest in the results of my colleagues’ news data-driven study, which suggests that crowdsourcing does have a measurable and positive impact on voter turnout.

Reclaim Naija

Catie and Steven are “interested in digitally enabled collective action initiatives” spearheaded by “nonstate actors, especially in places where the state is incapable of meeting the expectations of democratic governance.” They are particularly interested in measuring the impact of said initiatives. “By leveraging the efficiencies found in small, incremental, digitally enabled contributions (an SMS text, phone call, email or tweet) to a public good (a more transparent election process), crowdsourced elections monitoring constitutes [an] important example of digitally-enabled collective action.” To be sure, “the successful deployment of a crowdsourced elections monitoring initiative can generate information about a specific political process—information that would otherwise be impossible to generate in nations and geographic spaces with limited organizational and administrative capacity.”

To this end, their new study tests for the effects of citizen-based crowdsourced election monitoring efforts on the 2011 Nigerian presidential elections. More specifically, they analyzed close to 30,000 citizen-generated reports of failures, abuses and successes which were publicly crowdsourced and mapped as part of the Reclaim Naija project. Controlling for a number of factors, Catie and Steven find that the number and nature of crowdsourced reports is “significantly correlated with increased voter turnout.”

Reclaim Naija 2

What explains this correlation? The authors “do not argue that this increased turnout is a result of crowdsourced reports increasing citizens’ motivation or desire to vote.” They emphasize that their data does not speak to individual citizen motivations. Instead, Catie and Steven show that “crowdsourced reports provided operationally critical information about the functionality of the elections process to government officials. Specifically, crowdsourced information led to the reallocation of resources to specific polling stations (those found to be in some way defective by information provided by crowdsourced reports) in preparation for the presidential elections.”

(As an aside, this finding is also relevant for crowdsourced crisis mapping efforts in response to natural disasters. In these situations, citizen-generated disaster reports can—and in some cases do—provide humanitarian organizations with operationally critical information on disaster damage and resulting needs).

In sum, “the electoral deficiencies revealed by crowdsourced reports […] provided actionable information to officials that enabled them to reallocate election resources in preparation for the presidential election […]. This strengthened the functionality of those polling stations, thereby increasing the number of votes that could be successfully cast and counted–an argument that is supported by both quantitative and qualitative data brought to bear in this analysis.” Another important finding is that the resulting “higher turnout in the presidential election was of particular benefit to the incumbent candidate.” As Catie and Steven rightly note, “this has important implications for how various actors may choose to utilize the information generated by new [technologies].”

In conclusion, the authors argue that “digital technologies fundamentally change information environments and, by doing so, alter the opportunities and constraints that the political actors face.” This new study is an important contribution to the literature and should be required reading for anyone interested in digitally-enabled, crowdsourced collective action. Of course, the analysis focuses on “just” one case study, which means that the effects identified in Nigeria may not occur in other crowdsourced, election monitoring efforts. But that’s another reason why this study is important—it will no doubt catalyze future research to determine just how generalizable these initial findings are.

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See also:

  • Traditional Election Monitoring Versus Crowdsourced Monitoring: Which Has More Impact? [link]
  • Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) [link]
  • Automatically Classifying Crowdsourced Election Reports [link]
  • Evolution in Live Mapping: The Egyptian Elections [link]

Piloting MicroMappers: How to Become a Digital Ranger in Namibia (Revised!)

Many thanks to all of you who have signed up to search and protect Namibia’s beautiful wildlife! (There’s still time to sign up here; you’ll receive an email on Friday, September 26th with the link to volunteer).

Our MicroMappers Wildlife Challenge will launch on Friday, September 26th and run through Sunday, September 28th. More specifically, we’ll begin the search for Namibia’s wildlife at 12noon Namibia time that Friday (which is 12noon Geneva, 11am London, 6am New York, 6pm Shanghai, 7pm Tokyo, 8pm Sydney). You can join the expedition at any time after this. Simply add yourself to this list-serve to participate. Anyone who can get online can be a digital ranger, no prior experience necessary. We’ll continue our digital search until sunset on Sunday evening.

Namibia Map 1

As noted here, rangers at Kuzikus Wildlife Reserve need our help to find wild animals in their reserve. This will help our ranger friends to better protect these beautiful animals from poachers and other threats. According to the rangers, “Rhino poaching continues to be a growing problem that threatens to extinguish some rhino species within a decade or two. Rhino monitoring is thus important for their protection. Using digital maps in combination with MicroMappers to trace aerial images of rhinos could greatly improve rhino monitoring efforts.”

NamibiaMap2
At 12noon Namibia time on Friday, September 26th, we’ll send an email to the above list-serve with the link to our MicroMappers Aerial Clicker, which we’ll use to crowdsource the search for Namibia’s wildlife. We’ll also publish a blog post on MicroMappers.org with the link. Here’s what the Clicker looks like (click to enlarge the Clicker):

MM Aerial Clicker Namibia

When we find animals, we’ll draw “digital shields” around them. Before we show you how to draw these shields and what types of animals we’ll be looking for, here are examples of helpful shields (versus unhelpful ones); note that we’ve had to change these instructions, so please review them carefully! 

MM Rihno Zoom

This looks like two animals! So lets draw two shields.

MM Rhine New YES

The white outlines are the shields that we drew using the Aerial Clicker above. Notice that our shields include the shadows of the animals, this important. If the animals are close to each other, the shields can overlap but there can only be one shield per animal (one shield per rhino in this case : )

MM Rhino New NO

These shields are too close to the animals, please give them more room!

MM Rhino No
These shields are too big.

If you’ve found something that may be an animal but you’re not sure, then please draw a shield anyway just in case. Don’t worry if most pictures don’t have any animals. Knowing where the animals are not is just as important as knowing where they are!

MM Giraffe Zoom

This looks like a giraffe! So lets draw a shield.

MM Giraffe No2

This shield does not include the giraffe’s shadow! So lets try again.

MM Giraffe No

This shield is too large. Lets try again!

MM Giraffe New YES

Now that’s perfect!

Here are some more pictures of animals that we’ll be looking for. As a digital ranger, you’ll simply need to draw shields around these animals, that’s all there is to it. The shields can overlap if need be, but remember: one shield per animal, include their shadows and give them some room to move around : )

MM Ostritch

Can you spot the ostriches? Click picture above to enlarge. You’ll be abel to zoom in with the Aerial Clicker during the Wildlife Challenge.

MM Oryx

Can you spot the five oryxes in the above? (Actually, there may be a 6th one, can you see it in the shadows?).

MM Impala

And the impalas in the left of the picture? Again, you’ll be able zoom in with the Aerial Clicker.

So how exactly does this Aerial Clicker work? Here’s a short video that shows just easy it is to draw a digital shield using the Clicker (note that we’ve had to change the instructions, so please review this video carefully!):

Thanks for reading and for watching! The results of this expedition will help rangers in Namibia make sure they have found all the animals, which is important for their wildlife protection efforts. We’ll have thousands of aerial photographs to search through next week, which means that our ranger friends in Namibia need as much help as possible! So this is where you come on in: please spread the word and invite your friends, families and colleagues to search and protect Namibia’s beautiful wildlife.

MicroMappers is a joint project with the United Nations (OCHA), and the purpose of this pilot is also to test the Aerial Clicker for future humanitarian response efforts. More here. Any questions or suggestions? Feel free to email me at patrick@iRevolution.net or add them in the comments section below.

Thank you!

And the UAV/Drone Social Innovation Award Goes To?

The winner of the Drone Social Innovation Award has just been announced! The $10,000 prize is awarded to the most socially beneficial, documented use of a UAV platform that costs less than $3,000. The purpose of this award is to “spur innovation, investment, and attention to the positive role this technology can play in our society.” Many thanks to my colleague Timothy Reuter for including me on the panel of judges for this novel Social Innovation Award, which was kindly sponsored by NEXA Capital Partners.

Here’s a quick look at our finalists!

Disaster Relief in the Philippines

Using low-cost UAVs to take high-resolution imagery of disaster-affected areas following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The team behind these efforts is also working with NGOs from around the world to enable them to use this simple technology for situational awareness in times of crisis. The team is also developing platforms to deliver critical items to locations that are difficult to access in post-disaster scenarios.

Taking Autism to the Sky

Teaching young children with autism how to build and fly their own UAVs. The team behind this initiative to scale their work and teach autistic kids both better social skills and “concrete skills in drone technology that could get them a job one day. It’s just one of the many proposed uses of drones in schools and in science and technology education.”

Crowd Estimation with UAVs

While this entry focuses specifically on the use of UAVs and algorithms to determine the size of social movements (e.g., rallies & protests), there may be application to estimating population flows in refugee and IDP settings. I have a blog post on this topic coming up, stay tuned!

Drones for environmental conservation

Aerial photos and videos helped to direct millions in funding to acquire and preserve hundreds of acres of valuable habitat and strategic additions to public park space. “In a single glance, an aerial photo allows you understand so much more about location than a view from the ground.”

Landmine detection

Bosnia-Herzegovina has one of the highest densities of land mines in the world. So this team from Barcelona is exploring how UAVs might accelerate the process of land mine detection. See this post to learn about another UAV land mine detection effort following the massive flooding in the region this summer.

Whale Research and Conservation

Using benign research tools like UAVs to prove you can study whales without killing them. This allows conservationists to study whales’ DNA  along with their stress hormones without disturbing them or requiring the use of loud and expensive airplanes.


And the award goes to… (drum roll please)… not one but two entries (yes it really was a tie)!  Big congratulations to the teams behind the Land Mine Detection and Disaster Response projects! We really look forward to following your progress. Thank you for your important contributions to social innovation!

We are hoping to making this new “Drone Social Innovation Award” an annual competition (if the stars align again next year). So stay tuned. In the meantime, many thanks again to Timothy Reuter for spearheading this social innovation challenge, to my fellow judges, and most importantly to all participants for taking the time to share their remarkable projects!

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See Also:

  • Crowdsourcing the Analysis of Aerial Imagery for Wildlife Protection  and Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]

On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention

My colleague Helena Puig Larrauri recently published this excellent piece on the ethical problems & possible solutions to using UAVs for good in conflict settings. I highly recommend reading her article. The purpose of my blog post is simply to reflect on the important issues that Helena raises.

DPKOdrone

One of Helena’s driving questions in this: “Does the local population get a say in what data is collected, and to what purpose?” She asks this in the context of the surveillance drones (pictured above) used by the United Nation’s Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). While the use of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones raises a number of complicated issues, Helena is right to insist that we begin discussing these hard issues earlier rather than later. To this end, she presents “three problems and two possible solutions to start a conversation on drones, ethics and conflict.” I italicized solutions because much of the nascent discourse on this topic seems preoccupied with repeating all the problems that have already been identified, leaving little time and consideration to discussions on possible solutions. So kudos to Helena.

Problem 1: Privacy and Consent. How viable is it to obtain consent from those being imaged for UAV-collected data? As noted in this blog post on data protection protocols for crisis mapping, the International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes that, “When such consent cannot be realistically obtained, information allowing the identification of victims or witnesses, should only be relayed in the public domain if the expected protection outcome clearly outweighs the risks. In case of doubt, displaying only aggregated data, with no individual markers, is strongly recommended.” But Helena argues that drawing the line on what is actually life-threatening in a conflict context is particularly hard. “UAVs cannot detect intent, so how are imagery analysts to determine if a situation is likely to result in loss of life?” These are really important questions, and I certainly do not have all, most or any of the answers.

In terms of UAVs not being able to detect intent, could other data sources be used to monitor tactics and strategies that may indicate intent to harm? On a different note, DigitalGlobe’s latest & most sophisticated satellite, WorldView-3, captures images at an astounding 31-centimeter resolution and can even see wildfires beneath the smoke. What happens when commercial satellites are able to capture imagery at 20 or 10 centimeter resolutions? Will DigitalGlobe ask the planet’s population for their consent? Does anyone know of any studies out there that have analyzed just how much—and also what kind—of personal identifying information can be captured via satellite and UAV imagery across various resolutions, especially when linked to other datasets?

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 2.02.42 PM

Problem 2: Fear and Confusion. Helena kindly refers to this blog post of mine on common misconceptions about UAVs. I gasped when she quite rightly noted that my post didn’t explicitly distinguish between the use of UAVs in response to natural hazards versus violent, armed conflict. To be clear, I was speaking strictly and only about the former. The very real possibility for fear and confusion that Helena and others describe is precisely why I’ve remained stead-fast about including the following guideline in the Humanitarian UAV Network’s Code of Conduct:

“Do not operate humanitarian UAVs in conflict zones or in countries under repressive, authoritarian rule; particularly if military drones have recently been used in these countries.”

As Helena notes, a consortium of NGOs working in the DRC have warned that DPKO’s use of surveillance drones in the country could “blur the lines between military and humanitarian actors.” According to Daniel Gilman from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who also authored OCHA’s Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs,

“The DRC NGO position piece has to be understood in the context of the Oslo Guidelines on the use of Military and Civil Defense Assets in Disaster Relief – from conversations with some people engaged on the ground, the issue was less the tech itself [i.e., the drones] than the fact that the mission was talking about using this [tech] both for military interventions and ‘humanitarian’ needs, particularly since [DPKO's] Mission doesn’t have a humanitarian mandate. We should be careful of eliding issues around dual-use by military actors with use by humanitarians in conflicts or with general concerns about privacy” (Email exchange on Sept. 8, 2014, permission to publish this excerpt granted in writing).

This is a very important point. Still, distinguishing between UAVs operated by the military versus those used by humanitarian organizations for non-military purposes is no easy task—assuming it is even possible. Does this mean that UAVs should simply not be used for good in conflict zones? I’m conflicted. (As an aside, this dilemma reminds me of the “Security Dilemma” in International Relations Theory and in particular the related “Offense-Defense Theory“).

Perhaps an alternative is for DPKO to use their helicopters instead (like the one below), which, for some (most?) civilians, may look somewhat more scary than DPKO’s drone above. Keep in mind that such helicopters & military cargo planes are also significantly louder, which may add to the fear. Also, using helicopters to capture aerial imagery doesn’t really solve the privacy and consent problem.

UNheli

On the plus side, we can at least distinguish these UN-marked helicopters from other military attack helicopters used by repressive regimes. Then again, what prevents a ruthless regime from painting their helicopters white and adding big UN letters to maintain an element of surprise when bombing their own civilians?

un-drone

Going back to DPKO’s drone, it is perhaps worth emphasizing that these models are definitely on the larger and heavier end of the spectrum. Compare the above with the small, ultralight UAV below, which was used following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. This UAV is almost entirely made of foam and thus weighs only ~600 grams. When airborne, it looks like a bird. So it may elicit less fear even if DPKO ends up using this model in the future.

Problem 3: Response and Deterrence. Helena asks whether it is ethical for DPKO or other UN/NGO actors to deploy UAVs “if they do not have the capacity to respond to increased information on threats?” Could the use of UAV raise expectations of a response? “One possible counter-argument is to say that the presence of UAVs is in itself a deterrent” to would-be perpetrators of violence, “just as the presence of UN peacekeepers is meant to be a deterrent.” As Helena writes, the head of DPKO has suggested that deterrence is actually a direct aim of the UN’s drone program. “But the notion that a digital Panopticon can deter violent acts is disputable (see for example here), since most conflict actors on the ground are unlikely to be aware that they are being watched and / or are immune to the consequences of surveillance.”

I suppose this leads to the following question: are there ways to make conflict actors on the ground aware that they are perhaps being watched? Then again, if they do realize that they’re being watched, won’t they simply adapt and evolve strategies to evade or shoot down DPKO’s UAVs? This would then force DPKO to change it’s own strategy, perhaps adopting more stealthy UAVs. What broader consequences and possible unintended impact could this have on civilian, crisis-affected communities?

Solution 1: Education and Civic Engagement. I completely agree with Helena’s emphasis on both education and civic engagements, two key points I’ve made in a number of posts (here, here & here). I also agree that “This can make way for informed consent about the operation of drones, allowing communities to engage critically, offer grounded advice and hold drone operators to account.” But this brings us back to Helena’s first question: “what happens if a community, after being educated and openly consulted about a UAV program, decides that drones pose too much of a risk or are otherwise not beneficial? In other words, can communities stop UN- or NGO-operated drones from collecting information they have not consented to sharing? Education will be insufficient if there are no mechanisms in place for participatory decision-making on drone use in conflict settings.” So what to do? Perhaps Helena’s second solution may shed some light.

Solution 2: From Civic Engagement to Empowerment. In Helena’s view, “the critical ethical question about drones and conflict is how they shift the balance of power. As with other data-driven, tech-enabled tools, ultimately the only ethical solution (and probably also the most effective at achieving impact) is community-driven implementation of UAV programs.” I completely agree with this as well, which is why I’m very interested in this community-based project in Haiti and this grassroots UAV initiative; in fact, I invited the latter’s team leads to join the Advisory Board of the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) given their expertise in UAVs and their explicit focus on community engagement.

UAViators Long Logo

In terms of peacebuilding applications, Helena writes that “there is plenty that local peacebuilders could use drones for in conflict settings: from peace activism using tactics for civil resistance, to citizen journalism that communicates the effects of conflict, to community monitoring and reporting of displacement due to violence.” But as she rightly notes, these novel applications exacerbate the three ethical problems outlined above. So what now?

I have some (unformed) ideas but this blog post is long enough already. I’ll leave this for a future post and simply add the following for now. First, in terms of civil resistance and the need to distinguish between a regime’s UAV versus activist UAVs, perhaps secret codes could be used to signal that a UAV flying for a civil resistance mission. This could mean painting certain patterns on the UAV or flying in a particular pattern. Of course, this leads back to the age-old challenge of disseminating the codes widely enough while keeping them from falling into the wrong hands.

Second, I used to work extensively in the conflict prevention and conflict early warning space (see my original blog on this). During this time, I was a strong advocate for a people-centered approach to early warning and rapid response systems. The UN ‘s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems (PDF), defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

“… to empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time & in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.”

This shift is ultimately a shift in the balance of power, away from state-centric power to people-power, which is why I wholeheartedly agree with Helena’s closing thoughts: “The more I consider how drones could be used for good in conflict settings, the more I think that local peacebuilders need to turn the ethics discourse on its head: as well as defending privacy and holding drone operators to account, start using the same tools and engage from a place of power.” This is not about us.

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See Also:

  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Official UN Policy Brief on Humanitarian UAVs [link]
  • Reflections on Use of UAVs in Humanitarian Interventions [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? [link]