Monthly Archives: October 2008

Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence

Are citizen journalists playing an increasingly important role in documenting violent conflict and human rights violations? I posed this question during the 2008 Global Voices Summit and answered affirmatively—but without more than a hunch and rather limited anecdotal evidence. Paul Curion took issue and David Sasaki recommended that someone carry out an empirical study.

I appreciated David’s practical recommendation and decided to pursue the project since the topic overlaps with the Conflict Early Warning and Crisis Mapping project I’ve been working on at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Supported by Humanity United, the project seeks to explore the changing role and impact of information communication technology in crisis early warning and humanitarian response.

Seeing that I was in Nairobi visiting my parents during the election violence, I chose Kenya as a case study to assess the role of citizen journalists in crisis environments as compared to the mainstream media. My colleagues Kate Brodock, Briana Kramer and I used event-data analysis to code reports of violent and peaceful events as documented by about a dozen citizen journalist bloggers between December 27, 2007 and January 27, 2008.

We did the same for mainstream media, ranging from print media (national newspapers) to radio and television programs. I also included the Ushahidi data because I wanted to carry out a three way comparison between mainstream news media, citizen journalism and a dedicated crowdsourcing platform.

We then created a Google Earth layer to visualize the data over time and space. Below is a YouTube video I created of the animation (for slower Internet connections). Here is the Google Earth layer (KMZ). The data can also be visualized on Google Maps here.

Yellow icon = mainstream news reports; Blue icon = citizen journalism blogs; Green icon = Ushahidi reports.

A dynamic time line is also available below. The interactive time line depicts the number of daily reports produced by mainstream news, citizen journalists and Ushahidi over the 30-day period of study.

Our preliminary findings:

  • Mainstream media reported actual death count before citizen journalists; however, on many accounts, mainstream media did not report on incidents leading to actual deaths, i.e., early warning signs;
  • Citizen journalist reports and Ushahidi reports did not overlap geographically with mainstream media reports;
  • Citizen journalists tended to report as soon as violence started, well before mainstream media;
  • The number of comments on citizen journalist blogs increased during the 30-day period, or during particular periods of violence;
  • The comment section was also used as a medium for real-time updating;
  • Many citizen journalist bloggers used real-time updates sent to them via SMS, primarily from rural areas;
  • Citizen journalism reports declined after the launch of Ushahidi;
  • Ushahidi reports document an important number of violent events not reported by the mainstream media and citizen journalists;
  • Contrary to news media and citizen journalist reports, Ushahidi data always had specific location information;
  • Ushahidi reports also covered a wider geographical area than both mainstream news and citizen journalist bloggers.

For further information on our project’s methodology and sources, please see this short powerpoint presentation (PDF) which we have also uploaded on Slideshare. For more on crisis mapping, please see this page. For additional information on the role of digital technology during Kenya’s post election violence, see this narrative-based analysis (PDF) by my two colleagues Josh Goldstein and Juliana Rotich.

We look forward to receiving as much feedback as possible so we can improve our methodology and analysis in future case studies. We’re especially keen to have others interpret the dynamics displayed in the animation above. In the meantime, please contact me if you’d like to join the team and contribute to our next case study, which will be of Georgia.

To cite this research, please use: Meier, Patrick and Kate Brodock (2008). “Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi.” (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, HHI, Harvard University: Boston). URL: http://irevolution.wordpress.com/2008/10/23/mapping-kenyas-election-violence

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence

Are citizen journalists playing an increasingly important role in documenting violent conflict and human rights violations? I posed this question during the 2008 Global Voices Summit and answered affirmatively—but without more than a hunch and rather limited anecdotal evidence. Paul Curion took issue and David Sasaki recommended that someone carry out an empirical study.

I appreciated David’s practical recommendation and decided to pursue the project since the topic overlaps with the Conflict Early Warning and Crisis Mapping project I’ve been working on at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Supported by Humanity United, the project seeks to explore the changing role and impact of information communication technology in crisis early warning and humanitarian response.

Seeing that I was in Nairobi visiting my parents during the election violence, I chose Kenya as a case study to assess the role of citizen journalists in crisis environments as compared to the mainstream media. My colleagues Kate Brodock, Briana Kramer and I used event-data analysis to code reports of violent and peaceful events as documented by about a dozen citizen journalist bloggers between December 27, 2007 and January 27, 2008.

We did the same for mainstream media, ranging from print media (national newspapers) to radio and television programs. I also included the Ushahidi data because I wanted to carry out a three way comparison between mainstream news media, citizen journalism and a dedicated crowdsourcing platform.

We then created a Google Earth layer to visualize the data over time and space. Below is a YouTube video I created of the animation (for slower Internet connections). Here is the Google Earth layer (KMZ). The data can also be visualized on Google Maps here.

Yellow icon = mainstream news reports; Blue icon = citizen journalism blogs; Green icon = Ushahidi reports.

A dynamic time line is also available below. The interactive time line depicts the number of daily reports produced by mainstream news, citizen journalists and Ushahidi over the 30-day period of study.

Our preliminary findings:

  • Mainstream media reported actual death count before citizen journalists; however, on many accounts, mainstream media did not report on incidents leading to actual deaths, i.e., early warning signs;
  • Citizen journalist reports and Ushahidi reports did not overlap geographically with mainstream media reports;
  • Citizen journalists tended to report as soon as violence started, well before mainstream media;
  • The number of comments on citizen journalist blogs increased during the 30-day period, or during particular periods of violence;
  • The comment section was also used as a medium for real-time updating;
  • Many citizen journalist bloggers used real-time updates sent to them via SMS, primarily from rural areas;
  • Citizen journalism reports declined after the launch of Ushahidi;
  • Ushahidi reports document an important number of violent events not reported by the mainstream media and citizen journalists;
  • Contrary to news media and citizen journalist reports, Ushahidi data always had specific location information;
  • Ushahidi reports also covered a wider geographical area than both mainstream news and citizen journalist bloggers.

For further information on our project’s methodology and sources, please see this short powerpoint presentation (PDF) which we have also uploaded on Slideshare. For more on crisis mapping, please see this page. For additional information on the role of digital technology during Kenya’s post election violence, see this narrative-based analysis (PDF) by my two colleagues Josh Goldstein and Juliana Rotich.

We look forward to receiving as much feedback as possible so we can improve our methodology and analysis in future case studies. We’re especially keen to have others interpret the dynamics displayed in the animation above. In the meantime, please contact me if you’d like to join the team and contribute to our next case study, which will be of Georgia.

To cite this research, please use: Meier, Patrick and Kate Brodock (2008). “Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence: Comparing Mainstream News, Citizen Journalism and Ushahidi.” (Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, HHI, Harvard University: Boston).
URL: http://irevolution.net/2008/10/23/mapping-kenyas-election-violence

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech: Maps for Advocacy

Tactical Tech recently released it’s Maps for Advocacy guide, which is a must-read for those new to the field of crisis mapping. The guide is an excellent collection of user scenarios and mini case studies that span a diverse range of fields and technologies.

My main concern with Tactical Tech’s research on mapping for advocacy has to do with impact evaluation, or lack thereof. It’s one thing to describe a crisis mapping project, the tools involved and purpose, but it’s quite another to evaluate whether the project had any impact, whether it’s replicable and/or why it may not have been effective.

Crisis mapping is a new field with projects proliferating in multiple directions. But there are few feedback loops in place that enable us to learn from any impact these projects may have had. Anecdotal evidence is a start, but hardly sufficient to build a case for crisis mapping and advocacy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Developing ICT to Meed Social Needs

I just came across Jim Fruchterman‘s excellent piece on “Developing Information Technology to Meet Social Needs,” which was recently published in Innovations. If Jim’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s Benetech‘s CEO.

Jim recognizes that when technology innovation doesn’t generate major financial returns, it is rarely pursued. This is where Benetech comes in. Jim’s objective is to “overcome market failure in socially beneficial applications of information technology.” The Benetech story makes for an interesting and important historical case study on how Jim and colleagues adapated the high-tech company to develop technology for social causes.

What follows are some interesting excerpts from Jim’s piece along with some of my comments.

Our initial idea was spying for human rights, using the same kind of technology as the government intelligence agencies. [In June 2000, however], it was clear that “Spying for Humanity” wasn’t the first place that technology should be used. There were much more basic needs to IT than sophisticated surveillance tools. We needed to build tools that could be used by unsophisticated human rights activists in the field.

In general, I think mainstream tools are still too complicated and cumbersome. The emergence of citizen journalism means that anyone can become a human rights activist. These individuals will use their own everyday-tools to document such abuses, e.g., camera phones, Youtube, blogs, etc.

The tools are already out there, whether we like it or not, and crowdsourcing human rights information may be the way to go. Of course, I realize that the quality of the data may not be up to par with Patrick Ball‘s methods at Benetech, but this could perhaps change with time.

On a related note, I would recommend reading Clay Shirky’s new book “Here Comes Everybody” and Leysia Palen’s piece on “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation.”

To this end, “Spying for Humanity” is already happening. The question I ask in my dissertation is whether “humanity” will be able to “out-spy” repressive regimes, or vice-versa.

Think of the human rights sector as a processing industry with a typical pyramidic structure. At the base of the pyramid are the grassroots human rights organizations numbering in the tens of thousands. These groups are on the front lines of human rights violations. […]. [The] narratives [they provide] are the raw material of human rights work; everything else in human rights work is built with these raw materials.

Above the grassroots groups in the pyramid are the provincial or national groups. These larger groups are politically better connected, […]. They also play a role in quality control: membership in a bona fide network confers more credibility to the reports of a grassroots group.

Regional and international groups concentrate the human rights information even more. This information is aggregated and processed into higher value forms. The single incident of human rights abuse is combined with other incidents into a pattern of abuse. These patterns are the basis for international human rights campaigns […].

I find this a really neat way to describe the human rights sector. My concern, coming from the field of conflict early warning/response, is that we always think of the base of the pyramid, ie, the grassroots, as sources for raw material that feed into our work, but we rarely view the base of the pyramid as first-responders. We tend to leave that for “ourselves” at the national, regional and international level. What is most lacking at the grassroots level is tactical training in field craft.

On patterns, see my previous blog on Crisis Mapping Analytics. Satellite imagery provides an important underutilized resource for pattern analysis of mass atrocities. This a gap that the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) seeks to address in the near future.

The common product of the human rights community at all levels in the pyramid is information. The human rights sector is an information processing industry. Because of the limited resources available, computers and information technology are not used to anywhere near full potential. The paradox of the human rights community is that it is an information-processing industry that has limited access to information technology.

A very interesting point.

Later on in his piece, Jim describes the criteria that Benetech considers when deciding to pick a project. I include these below as they may be of interest to colleagues also working in this space.

How Benetech picks projects:

  • Return on investment: In our case, the return is to society, not to us. We frequently use benchmarking as a method of assessing returns.
  • Uniqueness: We want to be dramatically different: no interest in being 10% better than some other solution. If it already exists, we should be doing it for a fraction of the existing cost or bringing it to a completely different community.
  • A sustainability case: How can we keep this going without draining resources from Benetech forever?
  • Low technical risk: We assume the technology is out there, but nobody is motivated to bring it to the social application.
  • Deal size: Ideally in the $1 to $4 million range to encourage sustainability.
  • Fit of the technology with our capabilities: Is it in a field that Benetech knows something about?
  • Exit options: We try to devise three exit options before we start a project.
  • Access to resources: Can we access the resources we need to succeed?
  • Potential partnerships: What partners can we leverage? How can we encourage community involvement in this project?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Tactical Tech’s new Mobile-in-a-Box

One of the self-organized sessions I attended at MobileActive ’08 was led by Tactical Tech. The session introduced the group’s new toolkit, Mobiles in-a-box: Tools and Tactics for Mobile Advocacy. The kit is a “collection of tools, tactics, how-to guides and case studies designed to inspire advocacy organisations and present possibilities for the use of mobile telephony in their work.”

Given my dissertation research on the tactical uses of technology by repressive regimes and resistance movements, I was very much looking forward to reading through the tool kit on my way back to Boston. Tactical Tech’s work also overlaps with my interest in strategic nonviolence and digital activism, two topics that I have given presentations and lectures on over the years.

Not surprisingly, most of the toolkit’s points on security issues are identical to some of the lessons learned in the field of conflict early warning and humanitarian response. One point of contention, however, is that according Mike Grenville, it is not sufficient to simply turn off a mobile phone to prevent the device’s location from being tracked, one must also remove the phone’s batteries. The toolkit does not make this suggestion even though the guide does cite Mike’s work. I wonder who’s right, anyone know?

Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I learned by reading the toolkit is the following:

Each image that you make [sic] on your phone automatically contains details of the location, along with details of the date, time adn type of camera or phone used; this is part of the JPG standard, teh file format most commonly used for digital images. […] Tools are available which enable this ‘hidden’ information to be viewed and, in most cases, stripped out before the image is forwarded […]. You can download a freeware tool called JPEG stripper which will remove the ‘metadata’ from your images.

The kit is without doubt an important contribution to the field and serves as a valuable resource to new activists interested in using mobile phones for advocacy. The key word here being “new”. What is really missing is a strong link with the advanced tactics and scenarios developed within the field of nonviolent action and associated lessons learned. While I have written about this before, I am repeatedly struck by the (particularly unhelpful) gulf that exists between the fields of digital activism and strategic nonviolence, which is one of the main reasons why I joined DigiActive.

It is important that the community of digital activists spend some serious time learning about the field and practice of strategic nonviolence. This means reading the literature, understanding historical and contemporary case studies, participating in nonviolent action trainings and meeting counterparts engaged in strategic nonviolence. Fear not, I’m telling my colleagues in the strategic nonviolence field the same thing about digital activists. But what we need is to cross-fertilize expertise in both fields is to organize a two-day workshop that brings both communities together to discuss tactics, tactics and tactics.

I will do my best to make this happen in 2009. However, this will only work via partnerships and collaboration. DigiActive already has links with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). Perhaps Tactical Tech and Digital Democracy might want to contribute their expertise?

In the meantime, I’d like to recommend that my colleagues in the field of digital activism and tactical technology start playing “A Force More Powerful.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Past and Future of Crisis Mapping

I’ve written about crisis mapping on this blog and elsewhere so what I want to do here is simply reflect on where we’ve been in the field and on what I’d like to see happening over the coming weeks, months and years. For a “Brief History of Crisis Mapping” click here and for a “Video Primer on Crisis Mapping” please follow this link.

What follows is thus a brief personal account of the field of operational crisis mapping as I have experienced it over the past five years. I also add three (TED) wishes for the future of crisis mapping, which, when fulfilled, should usher in the next logical step in the field, namely Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM).

I first began thinking about crisis maps in 2003 when consulting for the OSCE on the Environmental Security Initiative (EnvSec), which made extensive use of social mapping to assess environmental security dynamics in Central Asia. I was impressed by the notable added value that the maps brought to that project (particularly at the community level) and wanted to do the same for the field of conflict prevention and early warning.

I therefore toyed around with the idea of “FAST Maps” in 2003 when setting up FAST International’s United Nations (UN) Liaison Office in New York. FAST was one of the leading pioneers of conflict monitoring and early warning analysis. At the time, however, FAST was only producing conflict barometers, or baselines, i.e., time series frequency analysis of conflict (and peace) events. I therefore followed up with a series of proposals on “FAST Maps” sharing them with Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University’s Earth Institute amongst others.

Here is how I defined FAST Maps back in 2003:

Unfortunately, Swisspeace was unable to secure funding to see this project through, so in 2004 I joined the CEWARN team in the Horn of Africa and set up a GIS Unit in Addis Ababa to map cross-border conflicts in the region. When I left my full time consulting work to pursue my PhD at The Fletcher School, the team in Addis did not have the resources to expand let alone sustain the mapping component of CEWARN.

The main hurdles were threefold: (1) GIS tools were anything but user-friendly and particularly difficult to teach to colleagues who did not have a background in GIS; (2) the cost of the ArcView license was prohibitive; and (3) many in the field of conflict early warning, including donors, still did not get the point of crisis mapping, which meant (amongst other things) that our field monitors in the Horn were never equipped with handheld GPS units, a suggestion I had made in 2005.

In sum, crisis mapping faced a number of hurdles between 2003-2006, but we’ve come a long way since. Although the ideas were being developed as early as 2003, more intuitive and accessible mapping technology was not yet available and an understanding of the value-added of crisis mapping had not fully materialized.

Five years later, crisis mapping is all the buzz, and the technology is finally here to make it happen. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) has been engaged in major applied research project on crisis mapping for almost two years. And new donors like Humanity United are excited about the potential of crisis mapping. A new initiative, CrisisMappers, set up by Erik Hersman and myself seeks to facilitate the exchange of best practices and to ensure interoperability across mapping platforms.

Thanks to Google Maps and Google Earth, we’ve moved from static hardcopy maps, to dynamic, interactive and multi-layer digital maps like Ushahidi. OpenLayers and GeoDjango are two recently released tools that further facilitate our efforts.

There is still some way to go, however, at least in terms of the ideas I had back in 2003. So here are my three wishes for the immediate future of crisis mapping:

First wish: we need to think of maps not simply as dynamic tools for improving situational awareness but also as communication tools. The example I’ve used over the past two years:

A local NGO in Somalia encounters a roadblock, they take a picture or video using their camera phone and/or write a quick text message using the format: [town*message] or [lat*long*message]. They send the info to a designated number. Better yet, they have a pre-installed application on their phone (like the iPhone app for Ushahidi) that automatically geo-references and sends the text/picture/video.

Once sent, the text/picture/video gets geo-referenced in real-time on a dedicated Google Maps platform like the SensorWeb.

An icon denoting a security-related event pops up on the map. Anyone monitoring the SensorWeb clicks on the icon, a box opens with the identity (name/picture) of the person who sent the message, the actual message (SMS/video/text), and location.

Within that box are four links: Call, Reply, Broadcast and Tag. Selecting “Call” automatically calls the person back via Skype or similar VoIP tool. Selecting “Reply” or “Broadcast” prompts the user for the preferred mode of communication, i.e, by “SMS” or “Email”. This allows the user to access an address book, select contacts and, for example, to use SMS broadcasting to forward the text (or picture) right back to the field with the option of adding to the text a set of instructions for early response.

The point here is that the user never needs to navigate away from the map, which is what turns the map into a communication tool. The user is at most 3 clicks of the mouse away from facilitating real-time networked communication. Being on the Board of Advisers for Ushahidi and on the SensorWeb team, I hope this is a functionality that both projects will seriously consider and implement.

Second wish: RSS feeds need to be an integral part of mapping platforms, much like they are for Google Reader. If done well, the feeds can automate the process outlined above. For example, local communities should be able to subscribe to Ushahidi in order to receive (and also submit) information via email and/or SMS on specific events, e.g., robbery or to all events within a specific geographic area, say Kibera. This new approach can help us shift away from traditional hierarchical approaches (that characterize the majority of current conflict early warning/response initiatives) and foster a more distributed approach to conflict prevention. For only then will we be able to facilitate the crowdsourcing of information AND response.

Third wish: this has to do with data security and connectivity. In terms of security, Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) platforms should integrate encrypted SMS and email communication. Users should also be given the option of remaining anonymous. As for connectivity, future MCM platforms should promote peer-to-peer mobile phone technology that enables mobile phone users to communicate directly between one another without the need for cell phone towers. This technology is currently being developed out of MIT and, in my opinion, has the potential to have even more far reaching consequences in the telephony sector than Napster (file sharing) did in the music industry.

In conclusion, we’ve come a long way since 2003 but there is still plenty to do. We need more creative thinking and innovative applications. As Columbia University Professor Michael Cervieri recently noted in Kenya’s leading national newspaper regarding Ushahidi and the election violence, people in proximity to violent conflict are not going to be sitting at their computers (the very few who have access to computers) waiting to get information, “they are going to run.” This is obvious and why the future of crisis mapping belongs to Mobile Crisis Mapping.

In addition, future Mobile Crisis Mapping platforms should use spiders to craw the web (newswires and blogs) to populate the map in addition to having individuals in the field adding relevant information to the map. We need both. For the automated feeds, I’m thinking of an approach similar to Havaria and HealthMap which I’ve written about here.

I am relying on the Ushahidi team to help pave the way forward and to continue pioneering the field of Mobile Crisis Mapping over the next few months and years. At the same time, I will rely on the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) to help develop the field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) in collaboration with Ushahidi and partners. In sum, the future of Crisis Mapping = Mobile Technology + Crisis Mapping Analytics = Mobile Crisis Mapping.

Patrick Philippe Meier