Monthly Archives: October 2008

e-CORCE to render Google Earth Obsolete?

I was watching TV Afrique during my stay in Jo’burg for MobileActive ’08 and caught an interesting piece of news that could have far-reaching implications for crisis mapping: a new project called “e-Continuous Observing System Relayed by Cellular processing Environment” or e-CORCE.

The driving question behind this bold initiative led by le Centre Francais d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) is: “can we provide a massive and automated representation of the whole Earth with 1-m resolution and on a daily basis?”

The project would make use of 13 satellites and 50 relay stations for image processing. CNES hopes to have the e-CORCE operational by 2014.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Hackers 4 Resistance at Mobile Active ‘08

I attended a rather entertaining session on pirating telephony during the third and final day of Mobile Active ’08. What I took away from this session is the untapped potential of white hat hackers. “White hat” refers to ethical hackers as compared to black hat hackers. I think it’s time that digital activists, human rights activists and those engaged in training resistance groups to use nonviolent tactics around the world work more closely with white hat hackers.

There are a number of quasi-legal hacks that could provide invaluable support to some of the work we’re engaged in, particularly with respect to projects carried out in repressive environments. In an ideal world, we would have a group white hat hackers coming together to form an informal consulting group that some of us could approach with specific projects. If you know of any such group, please do give me a shout!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Tech at Mobile Active ‘08

It’s been an eventful three days here in Jo’burg. During Day 2 of the Mobile Active 2008 conference, participants were invited to propose topics for self-organized sessions. I think this was a fabulous idea; some 20+ self-organized sessions took place.

I therefore proposed and moderated one of these sessions, which was entitled “Mobile Communication and Crisis Mapping in Conflict.”

The purpose of this session was to bring together those of us interested in making the most effective use of ICTs in conflict zones and repressive environments. Most effective use of ICTs to what end? For conflict early warning/response, civilian protection, nonviolent action and pro-democracy resistance movements, digital activism and disaster response.

Our friends and colleagues from Ushahidi, Global Voices, Digital Democracy, InSTEDD, UNDP, UNICEF and many more actively participated in the discussion, which lasted over an hour. The main issues addressed included:

  • Connectivity
  • Physical security
  • Data security

On connectivity, the use of satellite phones and VHF radios was broached. The former are cheaper in Burma than regular mobile phones. The importance of making phone credit available during Kenya’s post-election violence was emphasized. One participant suggested that Telecoms make SMS’s free during times of crises, or at least provide subscribers with 10 free SMS’s.

We discussed the problem of congested phone networks during crises and one participant made the observation that Telecoms have little to no incentives for creating redundancy. How do we tackle this? Perhaps, as some suggested, by taking a major initiative such as creating a consortium and launching our own satellites. Others suggested working within existing constraints and identifying creative solutions in the meantime; for example, adding information on early response to “please call me” messages.

Another problem vis-à-vis connectivity is when mobile phone towers go down, or are deliberately shut down by repressive governments. I shared information on a project at MIT that seeks to render mobile phones peer-to-peer technologies, much like file sharing online. This does away with the need for mobile phone towers. As long as trusted individuals are in sufficient proximity, your message (text or voice) can be transmitted through your trusted network of contacts.

I had learned about this project from a colleague earlier that day, and I still think that this initiative is potentially the most revolutionary one I heard about throughout the Mobile Active conference. I’ll be following up with the PhD student working on this project in Boston next week.

On physical security, one participant noted the problem of civilians seeking points of high elevation in order to get phone reception; this regularly places these civilians at risk of nearby snipers. One donor in the room highlighted the constraints they face in funding projects that place individuals in danger. Another participant, who has worked in Iraq and Afghanistan pointed out that being caught with a mobile phone can result in torture and death.

The location of mobile phones can easily be tracked even if the phones are switched off, so I emphasized the importance of removing batteries in order not to be tracked. I also recounted a tactic used by activists in Pakistan back in November 2007, who would send text messages our while driving all around the city, and also using SMS2Blog software to update their blogs in the same way. This surefire way prevented the government from locating the activists. Participants also recommended security guides developed for journalists operating in conflict zones. Tactical Tech’s guides were also highlighted.

On data security, participants highlighted the problem of address books in mobile phones not being encrypted. This poses serious problems when mobile phones are confiscated, since they can then be used to track down collaborators. From a technical point of view, encrypting address books would be perfectly straightforward. One participant who has good contacts with the Android team said he would follow up and recommend an encrypted functionality for address books.

There are also tactical measures that one can take by using false names, as one participant did in Palestine before Israeli soldiers confiscated his phone. SMS encryption was another point raised during the self-organized session. While open source software like CryptoSMS exists, they tend to be difficult to use.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping at Mobile Active ‘08

Erik Hersman (Ushahidi), Robert Kirkpatrick (InSTEDD) and Christopher Fabian (UNICEF) led an excellent panel on mobile technology in disasters and crises. Erik gave an superb presentation on Ushahidi 2.0 due to be released in the coming weeks. The functionalities that the Ushahidi team has added to the platform are just spot on and really well thought through. I’m very excited for the open source tool to get out into public hands very soon. In the meantime, I will be helping the team test the upgraded tool over the coming weeks.

Robert gave a more technical-oriented presentation on InSTEDD’s latest toy, Mash4X. While I think I grasped the basics and ultimate purpose of the new tool, much of the platform’s description was rather technical. Robert did mention to me later on that they (InSTEDD) are still trying to hit the right notes when they present their work to a non-technical audience. I suggested he give more basic examples, real-world scenarios in which the tool could be used. Robert also showed screenshots of GeoChat which he had described to me back in November 2007.

Christopher presented some of the projects UNICEF is engaged in such as the development of a new laptop computer that can be used in crisis environments. He emphasized the importance of collaborating with groups like Ushahidi and InSTEDD.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy at Mobile Active ‘08

Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky with Digital Democracy are doing phenomenal work in Burma. Their presentation in Jo’burg provided an overview of their projects in the region.

Some of the most interesting observations they made included the following:

  • Activists within Burma smuggle out pictures taken using their mobile phones using flash drives, so that fellow activists in neighboring countries to upload to the web.
  • There is a correlation between access to the Internet and self-identification as activists.
  • A change in communication policy in Burma is most likely to come from pressures by Chinese businessmen who carry out extensive business (trips) to Burma and who are increasingly frustrated by connectivity issues and cost.


I had the opportunity to hang out with Emily and Mark quite a bit over the three-day conference and I’m really excited by the work they’ve been doing and will begin doing in other countries. They were two of the most interesting new friends I made at MobileActive. I’m eager to follow their work and to explore potential areas for collaboration with DigiActive.

Patrick Philippe Meier

DigiActive at Mobile Active ‘08

I was very kindly invited by Katrin Verclas to co-lead a workshop on mobile technology for advocacy and activism for Mobile Active 2008. Perhaps the best part about this was meeting and getting to know my fellow co-leader Hernan Nadal and his work with Greenpeace in Argentina. Hernan gave a really interesting presentation on mobile phone facilitated advocacy campaigns he has carried out with Greenpeace. I highly recommend checking out his slides here.

My presentation provided an overview of DigiActive, an all-volunteer group dedicated to empowering grassroots individuals and communities to maximize their political impact using digital technology. The first half of my presentation focused on examples of activists using the following tools in repressive environments:

  • Mobile technology to organize and mobilize protests
  • Camera phones to document human rights abuses
  • Microblogging tools to bridge mobile and cyber activism

The second half of my presentation addressed challenges such as personal security, costs and dissemination. On the latter point, one observation worth keeping in mind is that identifying distributed public spheres in countries with repressive regimes is critical for disseminating information. For example, while much is centralized in repressive environments, the transportation network tends to be more decentralized. These channels are important sources for disseminating and distributing information. For example, taxis in Cuba and long-distance bus drivers in Zimbabwe.

The slides of my presentation, which figured as a feature on Slideshare’s homepage are available here.

Patrick Philippe Meier