Monthly Archives: July 2008

US Army Falling Behind in Digital Communication

Senior Army officials are increasingly concerned that they are missing out on the iRevolution, i.e., “the breakneck development of cheap digital communications including cell phones, digital cameras and Web 2.0 Internet sites such as blogs and Facebook,” according to Wired.

That helps explain how “just one man in a cave that’s hooked up to the Internet has been able to out-communicate the greatest communications society in the history of the world—the United States,” says the US Army Secretary Pete Geren.

One solution: “Find a blog to be a part of,” Geren said.

But embracing that high-tech, second language could be hard for the Army, just as it poses challenges for the defense industry.”I was talking to a senior executive this week, one of our major defense contractors,” Geren recounted. “And he said that they’ve assigned a young person to every senior executive to be like his or her translator and connect with the new information technologies.”

At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, a tiny office of Web-savvy mavericks is creating Army-specific Web 2.0 tools (blogs, forums, social networks) for soldiers. Meanwhile, the Air Force, the Pentagon’s main agency for “cyberwarfare,” continues to  view the Internet primarily as a battlefield to be “dominated.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

NearMap Better Than Google Maps for Crisis Mapping?

NearMap, a geospatial media company bought out by Ipernica this week, claims that its “breakthrough technology enables photomaps to be updated much more frequently than other providers such as Google Earth, which can be many months out of date.”

NearMap’s technology enables very high resolution aerial photomaps with multiple angle views to be created at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions… For the first time, people will be able to see the environment change over time, as NearMap’s online photomaps allow users to move back and forward month by month to see changes occur, such as the construction of a home or development of a new road. [And] with NearMap’s revolutionary approach to high resolution photomaps, it has achieved its objective of a 20-fold operating cost reduction over current industry practices.

Ipernica says that NearMap’s ultimate goal is to cover over 20 percent of the world’s population (700 cities) with photomaps updated at least on a monthly basis.According to Ipernica, NearMap has fully automated the process of creating very high definition photomaps and has developed a complete chain of technologies to address these challenging requirements.

If NearMap (or a competing company) broadens its scope to rural populations, the technology could be a particularly useful tool for the purposes of data collection and crisis mapping.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Activists and Nonviolent Tactics in Burma

The Washington Post just published an interesting piece on the next generation of Burma’s political activists. The military Junta controls the sale of SIM cards for mobile phones, pricing them at $1,500. As Post reporter Jill Drew writes, the only way to make a phone call is by using on kiosks pictured below (credit: JD). These kiosks are located on street corners in Rangoon, which makes the communication of sensitive information virtually impossible.

Nevertheless, The Post argues that activists have been strengthened by the Junta’s crackdown and the post-cyclone bungling. The situation in Burma ties several interesting threads together: digital activism, nonviolent action and disaster diplomacy. In an effort to encourage more multidisciplinary research, I have included below specific excerpts that relate to these distinct but related topics.

Digital Activism:

They operate in the shadows, slipping by moonlight from safe house to safe house, changing their cellphones to hide their tracks and meeting under cover of monasteries or clinics to plot changes that have eluded their country for 46 years. If one gets arrested, another steps forward.

Another student said he and some of his peers acted as unofficial election monitors during the referendum, taking photos and interviewing voters who were given already marked ballots or coerced to vote yes.

Nonviolent Action:

The group has launched a series of creative civil disobedience campaigns. Last year, people were invited to dress in white as a symbol of openness; to head to monasteries, Hindu temples or mosques for prayer meetings.

One group of young people decided to organize votes against the proposed constitution, dismissing it as a sham that reinforces the military’s control of the country. So they created hundreds of stickers and T-shirts bearing the word “no” and scattered them on buses, in university lecture halls and in the country’s ubiquitous tea shops.

Outside experts have compared the network to Poland’s Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, a broad-based coalition of workers, intellectuals and students that emerged as a key political player during the country’s transition to democracy. Just as Solidarity organized picnics to keep people in touch, some new groups here meet as book clubs or medical volunteers but could easily turn at key moments to political activity.

Monks remain politically active, too, in spite of increased harassment from security forces since the protests. Some have hidden pamphlets inside their alms bowls to distribute when they go out to collect food in the mornings, according to a Mandalay monk. They have smuggled glue and posters inside the bowls to stick on street walls.

Disaster Diplomacy:

A new generation of democracy activists fights on, its ranks strengthened both by revulsion over last year’s bloodletting and the government’s inept response after a cyclone that killed an estimated 130,000 people two months ago.

Meanwhile, the devastation wrought by the cyclone has sometimes been a trigger for more overt political activities. A handful of members of an embattled activist group called Human Rights Defenders and Promoters headed to the delta after the storm to hand out relief supplies as well as copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They were subsequently sentenced to four years in jail.

The cyclone’s aftermath has also spurred vast new stores of anger, sometimes among monks, who take vows of nonviolence. “Now we want to get weapons,” said a monk known to other dissidents by the nom de guerre “Zero” for his ability to organize and vanish without a trace. “The Buddhist way is lovingkindness. But we lost. So now we want to fight.”

For more information, please see my recent blog on the Burmese cyclone, nonviolent action and the responsibility to empower.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Zimbabweans turn to Blogs and SMS

The Associated Press reports that Zimbabweans are increasingly going online and using SMS to “share stories of life and death in a country where independent traditional media have been all but silenced, and from which reporters from most international media have been barred.” Zimbabwe’s bloggers are mainly opposition activists who “provide valuable independent information and can even make the news.” Some additional excerpts of interest:

Harare-based Kubatana is a network of nonprofit organizations that runs a blogging forum. The forum relies on 13 bloggers in Zimbabwe, who e-mail submissions to an administrator who posts them to the site. The network also reaches beyond the Web by sending text messages to 3,800 subscribers.

In late June, the “This is Zimbabwe” blog started a letter-writing campaign against a German firm that was supplying paper for the sinking Zimbabwean dollar. After about a week, the international media picked up the story and the company, Giesecke & Devrient, announced it would stop dealing with Zimbabwe.

Another typical posting simply lists names of victims of political violence, each accompanied by one sentence on how the person was beaten to death.

In many cases it’s impossible to tell who is doing the postings because the risks are so great. Government eavesdroppers are believed to be roaming the Web and intercepting cell phone calls, especially after a law was passed last year allowing authorities to monitor phone calls and the Internet. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the legislation was modeled after counter-terrorism legislation in America and the U.N.

Only the state-run TV and radio stations and The Herald, a government newspaper, provide daily news in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio stations broadcasting from within the country. Journalists without hard-to-come-by government accreditation find it hard to operate.

For those who are online, near-daily power outages, followed by power surges, can make the Web an inconsistent means of communicating and gathering information. Cell phone service is also inconsistent at best; it can sometimes take hours to send text messages.

SW Radio Africa, a station based outside London that broadcasts into Zimbabwe, sends texts to 25,000 listeners a day, and they are adding about a thousand numbers each week. And it’s not just one-way. The radio station has a local phone number in Zimbabwe so listeners can send text messages or leave voicemail messages without long distance charges, and then someone from the station can call them back. Radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe from outside are forced to broadcast on multiple frequencies to avoid being jammed by the government.

A recently imposed import duty on newspapers charges a 40 percent tax for independent voices like the newspaper The Zimbabwean, published abroad and shipped in and available on the Web. Weekly circulation has recently dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 and the paper has stopped publishing its Sunday edition.

See my post here for information on the Dial-Up Radio project in Zimbabwe.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Citizen Communications In Crisis

I recently spoke with Professor Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about her Crisis Informatics research project and followed up by reading her co-authored paper entitled: “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation” published in 2007. The focus of Leysia’s publication overlaps with my previous blog entry on the intersection of citizen journalism (Global Voices) and conflict early warning/response.

Leysia provides a valuable and insightful sociological perspective that is often lacking in our own field.  Indeed, the sociology of disaster includes a public with its own impetus for participation that conventional conflict early warning/response systems rarely consider. Following are some excerpts from her paper that I found pertinent and interesting:

  • ICT in disaster contexts will give further rise to improvised activities and temporary organizations with which formal response organizations need to align.
  • The role held by members of the public in disaster—a role that has always been characterized as one of high involvement by disaster sociologists throughout the nearly century-long history of disaster research—is becoming more visible, active, and in possession of greater reach than ever seen before.
  • Our stance is that the old, linear model for information dissemination of authorities-to-public relations-to-media is outmoded, and will be replaced—at least in practice—by one that is much more complex. Peer communications technologies are a critical piece of these emergent information pathways.
  • Disaster social scientists have long documented the nature of post-disaster public participation as active and largely altruistic. “First responders” are not, in practice, the trained professionals who are deployed to a scene in spite of the common use of that term for them; they are instead people from the local and surrounding communities.
  • People are natural information seekers, and will seek information from multiple sources, relying primarily on their own social networks—friends and family—to validate and interpret information coming from formal sources, and then to calculate their own response measures.
  • The possibilities for public participation are expanding with increased access to the Internet and the wide diffusion of mobile technology—mobile phones, text  and multimedia messaging, and global positioning devices. This technology in the hands of the people further pushes on boundaries between informal and formal rescue and response efforts, and has enabled new media forms that are broadly known as citizen journalism.
  • For example, wikis enable broad participation in the creation and dissemination of information. Some visual wikis use mapping technology for linking textual or photographic information to representations of physical locations, thereby documenting, for example, the extent of damage to a specific neighborhood. Recent disasters show how people, whom we already know will seek information from multiple sources during uncertain conditions, have fueled the proliferation and utility of these sites. In this way, the public is able to take not only a more active part in seeking information, but also in providing information to each other, as well as to formal response efforts.
  • Emerging ICT-supported communications in crisis will result in changing conditions that need to be addressed by the formal response. ICT-supported citizen communications can spawn, often opportunistically, information useful to the formal response effort. Citizen communications can also create new opportunities for the creation of new, temporary organizations that help with the informal response effort. The idea of emergent or ephemeral organizations that arise following disaster is not at all new; in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of disaster sociology, and supports the need for communities to be able to improvise response under uncertain and dynamic conditions. ICT-supported communications, however, add another powerful means by which this kind of organization can occur. No longer do people need the benefit of physical proximity to coordinate and serendipitously discover each other.
  • Implications for Relief Efforts: As the reach of response extends to a broader audience with ICT, how will the formal response effort align with, support and leverage wider community response? Relief work—the provision of food, shelter and basic necessities—already largely arises out of volunteerism through either grassroots efforts or managed through official channels.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping and Data Visualization

I’ve written on “Crisis Mapping Analytics” before but the subject warrants more attention. When I looked into developing conflict maps for FAST back in 2004, I realized that the conflict early warning community was simply following in the footsteps of the disaster management community. The latter have been developing all sorts of crisis maps for decades.

Why the lag? Most likely because the majority of conflict data is not geo-referenced (beyond the country level, or admin 1). We’ve also been more interested in the temporal dimension of conflict forecasting rather than the spatial dimension—even though the latter can reveal important spatial patterns useful for  temporal forecasting. In any case, the disaster community continues to be in the lead vis-a-vis crisis mapping. Of course, they have the advantage of drawing on a wide network of physical sensors around the world to monitor spatially and in real time such hazards as earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. See for example the real-time updated maps by GDACS and Havaria below.

The latest in these developments is HealthMap, which is supported by Google.org’s Predict and Prevent Initiative. As reported by Wired, the underlying algorithm parses text from Google News and the World Health Organization to populate the map.

But that’s not all, the algorithm also parses discussion groups, filtering the information and boiling it down into mapped data which can be used to track new disease outbreaks.

HealthMap goes beyond the standard mashup and is more like a small-scale implementation of the long-awaited semantic web. [...]

In a study published this March in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, the researchers found that their automated classification system was accurate 84 percent of the time. Algorithm improvements have pushed accuracy close to 90 percent now, according to the researchers. [...]

Right now, the researchers are focused on adding more sources, particularly in other languages, as well as improving their methodologies.

Freifeld and Brownstein are looking into using more social media sources, but they’ve encountered a problem that most internet users are already familiar with: There’s too much noise.

“We have certainly explored looking at more free and noisier sources like blogs and things like Twitter,” Freifeld said. “But they pose the problem of capturing a good quality signature from all that stuff.”

Is the conflict early warning/response field likely to follow suite?

Back in 2006, Google.org head Larry Brilliant told Wired.com about his vision for a service that looks a lot like HealthMap.

“I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street,” Brilliant said.

Healthmap is not quite there yet vis-a-vis spatial resolution but the question is whether a similar platform for (micro) conflict monitoring would bridge the warning-response gap if it could be operationalized?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Second Response to Paul Curion on Global Voices

This is cross-posted in the comments section on Paul’s blog as well.

Paul: Patrick, I think your bias is showing. Your use of the word “extremist” looks dangerously close to being a euphemism for “things that I disagree with”; corruption, for example, is not an “extremist” action.

I completely agree, corruption is not extremist action (although it depends whether you are facing the direct consequences of such action). But you’re not responding to the main point I’m making (understandably since I have not been as careful as I should be in choosing appropriate words in formulating my responses to your comments, my apologies for that). Citizen media, investigative journalism, the use of Web 2.0 tools to document instances of human rights violations, government corruption, etc. are ways to expose wrong doing. They are “new” sources of potentially important information for conflict early warning/response. We no longer have to rely strictly on state media or national media. I think that’s a good thing. This of course does not mean that citizen journalism will provide all the answers to continuing challenges in the field.

On the issue of bias, which you brought up more than once, I wouldn’t want to live in a world completely free of bias, there would be no learning, no creation of knowledge, etc. (the analogy I would use is entropy and the heat-death of the universe). But that’s just a side point, more of a philosophical issue which does not add to the conversation.

As regards legal actions, there was discussion about how bloggers could work together to start influencing change in legislation, but also how to use existing laws to expose governments as clearly violating their own laws. That said, I’m really hoping the GV folks will start contributing to this conversation, because the two of us could go on forever and I’m not qualified, nor is it my place, to speak on behalf of GV. I’m an outsider and they may very well take issue with some of my points as well. So I hope the conversation leads to more “global voices” participating.

But what is the response? I’m still not seeing it – not in the sense that it doesn’t appear in a peer-reviewed journals (I don’t actually read peer-reviewed journals…), but in the sense that I can’t see what the response could be. Let me be clear: blogging is a response, data visualisation is a response, but not the type of response that I think you’re talking about.

Indeed, blogging in itself is a response. The operational responses, which I hope our colleagues from Kenya will share with us in their own words, are more micro-level responses in the form of real time information sharing. Kenya’s bloggers filled a notable vacuum in the national media following the elections (I was in Nairobi during this time). I consider this an important response. FAST field monitors did not contribute to this type of information sharing. Events were coded and stored on servers in Bern.

I could be wrong, however. I get the sense that you believe that this activity is worthwhile simply for its own sake – as part of the democratic process – and I’d tend to agree. However what I read here – and in the other discussions around the summit – goes beyond simply blogging because it’s worthwhile. It has a programmatic element, a directional element – but that means that the bar is higher.

I completely fully agree.

Again, your bias is showing – who decides which blogs are to be “trusted”, and what does “trusted” mean in this context? How do you know that GV bloggers have a “vibrant and pro-active network”? And what about the voices on the other side – the “extremist” side, who may be “extremist” precisely because they lack a voice? These are deeper questions which I am sure were discussed at the Summit and elsewhere, but their existence should make you wary of proclaiming their superiority without at least some qualifications.

Biased Patrick: You decide which blogs are to be trusted, you develop your own community of trusted sources. The iRevolution is about you, the individual, who stands to be more empowered to make his/her own more-informed choices. There were some 80 GV bloggers in Budapest and I spent the better part of three days, from morning to dinner with them. They struck me as a vibrant and pro-active network. Much of this came from the side conversations during breaks, etc. As for the voices on the “extremist” side, they are doing really well in adopting new technology for disseminating their “extremist” points of views. Take Al Qaeda for example, they have a superb, first-rate communications department which has allowed them to make use of Web 2.0 platforms to increase visibility, recruitment and improve training.

Representative of who? I ask you because while I was reading David Sasaki’s excellent post on the GV summit, I was struck by the following passage:

As incredibly diverse as the global blogosphere is, the ‘blogger demographic’ tends to very homogenous. From Tanzania to Tasmania, most bloggers live in the wealthy neighborhoods of urban centers, most are well educated, and most belong to the majority groups of their countries.

which is something which I would have guessed in more general terms. I don’t know what the profile of FASTs field monitors was, but I’m guessing it wasn’t that much different to the current GV profile?

I misunderstood what you meant in your previous response, so I completely take your point. Representative of who remains an open question. But I also think that this misses the more important point that I was hoping to make. I don’t want to be cornered into arguing about what GV is or is not. What my original post argued was that we (the conflict early warning/response community) may gain from paying more attention to blogs as a source of local information for the purposes of early warning/response. Hence my contrast with FAST. Our colleagues in Kenya were blogging on a virtually real-time basis, providing up-to-date information on events taking place across the country. The point is that they delivered, and took it upon themselves to do so; regardless of whether they live in wealthy neighborhoods or not. Many of them were in the streets as events were unfolding. This is the kind of local information that I value.

Again, I understand that what you’re reacting to are my somewhat sweeping claims about democracy, etc. But I don’t want this to distract from the main point I’m trying to get across, ie, that our community has some things to learn from the GV community and vice versa. Hence my hoping that this dialogue will prompt our GV colleagues to contribute (and possibly correct some of my own statements).

What you’ve outlined isn’t accountability in any strong sense – all of the actions that you describe here are certainly part of a dialogue, but I’m not sure they’re accountability mechanisms. I may be being unfair in my accusation here – it’s hard to know what I want GV to be accountable for – but you can be certain that this will be an issue which it will face in future.

I grant you that my take on what constitutes accountability is not the traditional, institutional, centralized version. Perhaps I’m too biased (again ; ) given that I identify more with the open source, decentralized philosophy of the Web 2.0 generation. Again, the piece by Benkler will hopefully convince you that there is a real significant change occurring, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself vis-a-vis the probable impact for the conflict early warning community.

I wasn’t at the GV Summit, and I haven’t had the discussions you’ve had with people like Ushaidi, so I am not as well-placed as you to talk about their status and plans. However my complaint is that I’m not seeing the evidence that these projects are having the impact that they (you?) claim, and I just want to be persuaded of that impact before I make any claims about them.

We’re definitely on the same page vis-a-vis the critical importance of demonstrating impact. This has been the very basis of my criticisms with respect to the majority of operational conflict early warning systems. So I’m equally interested in identifying whatever impact Ushahidi has had. But that was not the purpose of my post. See this post on crisis mapping analytics where I ask the same question as you do regarding impact.

I’m going to give this thread a rest now in the hopes that our GV and Ushahidi colleagues may jump in with their comments. Thanks again for the reality-check, Paul.

Patrick Philippe Meier