Monthly Archives: November 2008

Links: Satellite Maps, Scientific Data, Digital Tracing

  • Satellites Predict Cholera: Science Daily just ran a piece on a new technique using satellites to predict and map cholera outbreaks.
  • Visualizing Scientific Data: The annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco will include a session on Visualizing Scientific Data Using KML and Virtual Globes.
  • Digital Images Contain Maker’s Mark: If you thought your digital photos could not be traced back to you, think again. Digital cameras leave a telltale fingerprint buried in the pixels of every image they capture.

Crisis Mappers Meeting

Our first CrisisMappers meeting took place in Orlando, Florida this past weekend. The meeting brought together a small group of tech professionals who are at the very cutting edge of crisis mapping. It truly was a powerhouse. Ushahidi, Development Seed, NiJEL, Emergencity, GeoCommons, InSTEDD, In.itiative and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). This meeting was mostly self-funded and scheduled on a Saturday. The fact that everyone showed up is a clear testament to the commitment we all have to pushing the new field of crisis mapping forward to the next frontier.

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Andrew Turner gave a typical tour de force presentation on some of the most exciting tech-innovations in mapping. I highly recommend viewing his slide show presentations available on Slideshare here. I gave the second introductory talk and chose to highlight two major themes in the future of crisis mapping: Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) and Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA).

The former focuses on our understanding of dynamic mapping platforms as communication tools. In other words, all our communication tools should be fully integrated within our dynamic mapping platforms. Imagine a Google Map interface from which I can receive geo-referenced text messages and forward those messages by SMS broadcast or email right back to the field, without ever having to navigate away from the map. InSTEDD’s GeoChat is a good example of what I have in mind.

Understanding mapping platforms as communication tools poses two challenges common to communication in crisis zones. The first is connectivity while the second is data security. In terms of connectivity, we urgently need to move towards meshed-networked peer-to-peer communication that obviates the need for cell phone towers. As for encryption, SMS encryption should be the default setting on all our communications. Anything less is simply unsatisfactory.

I’ve written about Crisis Mapping Analytics before, so won’t go into detail here. I just want to point out that as our crisis mapping platforms continue to crowdsource data, we will need to make sense of this information in terms of trends over both space and time. We are still far from having any user friendly  point-and-click statistical tools for identifying such trends.

Since I was the only token humanitarian-wanna-be-geek at the meeting, I closed my introductory talk with the following three reminders: (1) if our crisis mapping tools work in humanitarian crises, they’ll work anywhere; (2) we need to identify methods and metrics to evaluate the impact of our crisis mapping platforms; (3) if you don’t keep your crisis mappers as simple as Fisher Price, they are unlikely to be adopted by the humanitarian community; call it the Fisher Price Theory of Crisis Mapping.

Let me expand on the latter point. What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. Most of my humanitarian colleagues have done a Master’s degree in Humanitarian Affairs, International Development, etc. I guarantee you that 99.9% of these graduate programs do not include any seminar on humanitarian information management systems let alone computer science.

The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces. What we in the humanitarian field want are interfaces as simple as computer games. We want software packages that are simply plug-and-play. Say an iGoogle approach which allows us humanitarians to import various “widgets” such as 2-way SMS broadcasting, wiki-mapping, etc.

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The rest of the CrisisMappers meeting was dedicated to a series of thought-provoking presentations on individual crisis mapping projects that each organization is working on. I shan’t attempt a summary here but shall close with the following. I had the good fortune of sitting next to Ushahidi’s David Kobia during the meeting. At one point, he turns to me and motions to his laptop screen: “Look, just got a text message from someone in the DRC.”

David was pointing to Ushahidi’s admin interface, and indeed, someone on the ground had gotten wind of Ushahidi’s new deployment and had texted the dedicated Ushahidi DRC number. The texter was expressing her/his concern that the DRC site was in English which posed problems for French speakers. The text message itself was in French. The Ushahidi team has been working diligently on a French version of the interface and are nearly finished. David asked me if I might be able to reply (in French) to the person and let them know that the completed interface will be ready next week. I did so, and pointed the texter to the “French Flag” icon on the Ushahidi DRC interface.

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Here’s what I find particularly neat about this exchange. First, here we were sitting in a conference room in Florida on a Saturday afternoon getting a text message from someone in the DRC interested in reporting events using Ushahidi’s DRC platform. Second, the admin interface that David had up set up was simple and clear to understand. Third, David had included two optional buttons to send one-click replies to the text messages he receives: (1) please send us more information on the event; (2) please send us more information on the location event. Simple yet elegant. After I finished typing my reply to the sender of the text message, I clicked on send and off went my message, right back to the field. All this took place in less than five minutes.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Incident Map

A colleague of mine recently flagged this automated, quasi real-time crisis map: Global Incident Map. The map displays the latest 25 terror-related incidents using customized icons. These include markers for suspicious devices, bus hijackings, airport incidents, etc. Clicking on the icon provides a link to local news report(s) concerning the event. The service is subscription based so I wasn’t able to tinker around as much as I would have liked.

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Compare this with other automated crisis maps such as the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), Havaria and HealthMap.

Patrick Philippe Meier

CrisisWire Goes Live

CrisisWire is a “self-aggregating website that pulls information on any disaster around the US and displays it on one page.” The project seeks to get information into the hands of the people that need it most.

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From Nate Ritter:

During a disaster people spend valuable time searching the internet and waiting for the media to report on their city, their neighborhood, their street.  While main stream media serves a vital role during disasters, it is impossible to update the population on everything that is happening during a crisis.  There usually isn’t enough time or resources.  CrisisWire not only uses the traditional media outlets’ valuable information but will also utilize citizen journalist and google maps to track the disaster. YouTube.com (videos), Flickr.com (photos) and a whole host of other types of published media will also soon be integrated.

Future iterations of CrisisWire will include text messages to reach disaster-affected communities who have lost their electricity, Internet access, or who have been displaced from their home. The developers of CrisisWire hope that the platform will “change the way people respond and learn about disasters.” The team  just set up a page on the fires in Santa Barabara, which will be a good “on-site” test for CrisisWire. At the moment, only one contributor appears to be populating the dynamic map.

As always, my interest in such platforms (including Ushahidi, Humanitarian SensorWeb, etc)., is their:

  1. Viability in conflict zones and places with minimal communications infrastructure;
  2. Link to local, decentralized early response;
  3. Actual impact on the ground.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Global Internet Freedom Index

Karin Karlekar from Freedom House gave a really interesting presentation on the development of a Global Internet Freedom Index, or IGIF. She is planning a pilot study of 15 countries that will include analytical reports and numerical ratings.

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The index’s scoring system will be similar to the Freedom House media freedom index in order to facilitate for comparisons. The IGIF will include both Internet and mobile/phone text messaging. It will focus especially on transmission of news and political relevant communications, while acknowledging that some restrictions on harmful content may be legitimate.

The index is comprised of three general themes, each of which includes a number of (weighted) sub-indicators. The key components of the themes below is access to technology and the free flow of information/content.

  1. Obstacles to access
  2. Limits on content and communication
  3. Violation of individual online rights

One of the sub-indicators, for example, focuses on activism in order to capture local resistance and activism in addition to government restrictions.

I think this is an excellent initiative with the expected added value long term being the ability to identify competing trends between Repression 2.0 and Democracy 2.0. This goes to the heart of my dissertation topic and I hope to draw on the IGIF framework to inform my field research questions.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Media Tactics

The second panel focused on the media tactics of regimes and opponents. Xiao Qiang gave the first presentation which addressed Chinese digital media controls and access to public expresssion. Rebecca MacKinnon presented the findings of her research on China’s censorship 2.0: how companies censor bloggers. The third talk, by Mahmood Enayat, focused on resistance 2.0: power and counter-power in Persian websphere.

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“In china,” says Xiao, the digital battle “is about controlling information space, both via censorship and propaganda.” The Internet is not just a medium, it’s a social space where netizens organize into communities, share, etc. The Chinese government seeks to control the “main melody” via censorship and disinformation. So Chinese cyberspace is a control space.

How do some Chinese seek to circumvent this control? A number of official Chinese journalists actually lead double-lives; working for the state-controlled media during the day, and blogging or participating in BBS forums at night. Political satire (“eGao”) is also used in response to Chinese media control. There is also an important gap in control between local and central authorities in terms of implementing censorship rules; there is also a timing factor that contributes to the control gap.

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Rebecca MacKinnon is a leading China expert, having been posted with CNN in Beijing for 9 years and now teaches in Hong King. “There are different kinds of Internet censorship,” says Rebecca, reminding us as well that the Great Firewall of China which filters websites outside China was coind by bloggers. In addition to filtering, Chinese authorities are known to delete websites, shut down domestic sites as well as data centers. Multinational Companies are complicit in Chinese internet censorship.

Rebecca and her team decided to test just how censored China’s different blogging websites really are. Using paragraphs with sensitive political language, they manually tested 15 blog hosting websites to test what content  were being filterred. The team used 108 different types of content and found huge variation in blogging platforms censoring, from one site filtering 56% content to another filtering only 0.9%; of the same content. There is also evidence that the filtering is not always automatic and indeed includes manual intervention.

In one interesting example, Rebbecca mentions a blog post by a former high-level Chinese political adviser. The post, entitled: “Letter to my Son: wishing for multiparty democracy in China.” The blog was highly political but did not use inflammatory language and therefore was not filtered. Out of curiousity, Rebecca copied and pasted articles from the main state-owned media, Xinhua, and found that some of the state’s own articles would get censored!

So why do we see so much variation in Internet filtering within China?

  • Instructions to companies from city or provincial state council inforation office internet section, interpreted diffently;
  • Different methods desvised for implementation;
  • Relationship between company management, investors and regulatory bodies;
  • Manager/editor’s relationship with local state council;

In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.

What are the implications of this study? We need larger scale studies of domestic web censorship (including chat rooms, social networking sites, instant-messaging, mobile services, etc.). Unlike automated filtering tests, these tests require manual testing and constant analysis by Chinese speakers with contextual knowledge. We need surveys of web service company employees; also of users and bloggers about their experience.

Implication for activism: circumvention is important but its not the solution to the whole censorship problem. We need to educate bloggers and netizens about strategies to deal with censorship.

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Mahmood Enayat from the Oxford Internet Institute gave an entertaining presentation on the use of digital media in Iran. (NB: my notes for this section self-deleted, don’t ask). In any case, Mahmood’s presentation was engaging. He discussed the role of underground music one the one hand and the use of YouTube. My apologies to Enayat for this being so short.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Reshaping Public Spheres

Andrew Puddephatt from Global Partners gave the first panel presentation here at the conference on digital media and repressive regimes. He focused on the issue of shaping digital media for human rights. The basic premise of Andrew’s talk is that access to information is a human right. The problem is how we get there.

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What I took from his talk was that:

  • We should steer away from talking about the media, since there’s no longer such a think. While he didn’t use the following language, I think he would agree: instead of the media, we now have a digital/communication ecosystem, which displays nonlinear dynamics and is by definition more complex;
  • While digital media enthusiasts see digital technologies as a great liberating force, and while these technologies can certainly be disruptive, it’s a two-way street: censorship of content and surveillance are both on the rise;
  • It is meaningless to talk about right to communication if people don’t have access to communication technologies. We have to think about infrastructure;
  • Google shape protocols for search; protocols are commercial secrets, shaped by forces that anything but transparent;
  • We need a digital/communication infrastructure that foster creativity and innovation;
  • All evidence points to the suggestion that the mobile phone will be the key communication tool of our century. The most exciting technology development is being made in this area;
  • New media undermine repressive structures, they are transgressive. However, democratic governments are also worried about the potential impact in the West;
  • Extremists have been empowered thanks to new media;
  • The main challenge is persuading democratic governments that while there are people out there who wish to use new media for ill, the digital media revolution nevertheless has for the first time the potential to create a genuine public sphere.

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Robert Guerra of Freedom House gave the second talk of the day, which focused on Internet freedom, online activism and emerging threats. Robert argues that we should expect to see threats to internet freedom emerging as a response to the ground gained by digital activists. Just as we may be moving towards Democracy 2.0, we’re about to be introduced (if we haven’t already) to Repression 2.0.

In Egypt freedom of association is only allowed for groups of 5 or less, otherwise larger gatherings are illegal by law. Online activism allows activists to get around this and to do so by the thousand and new media in repressive regimes can promote nonviolent confrontation. So in one regard, online activism presents fewer risks.

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The framing of Democracy 2.0 versus Repression 2.0 was a useful springboard for my presentation as third speaker of the day. My talk focused on the idea of “digital resistance” which I define as the intersection between digital activism and strategic nonviolent action against repressive regimes. The question I pose is whether digital resistance poses a threat to repressive rule, or vice versa? Why or why not?

There are more and more anecdotes and qualitative case studies available that describe successful instances of digital activism; see those documented on DigiActive, for example. What do all these examples add up to? Can we start measuring the aggregate impact of digital activism on repressive rule? How might we analyze quantitatively the qualitative, anecdotal impact of digital resistance, or lack thereof?  In other words, are we likely to see the fall of Repression 2.0 like we did of Communism? See this previous blog entry for some preliminary thoughts on the question.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Iran: Mullahs Impose Restrictions on SMS

Mobile phone users in Iran who wish to use the SMS feature on their mobile phones will now be required to apply for security clearance by the Ministry of of Intelligence and Security.

Sending SMS deemed contrary to national security will be punishable by law. Any change of address by the subscriber of the service must be reported promptly to the relevant authorities. It is the security agents who decide which SMS are in breach of national security .

In October, A number of senior officials of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), the main body for imposing censorship, have expressed its deep concern over the use of SMS messaging by the Iranian Resistance’s network inside Iran (source).

Some 20 million text messages are sent every day in Iran according to some sources. Will the new regulation have a significant impact on that number? If so, will the regime care at all about the loss of revenue?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media in Repressive Regimes – Intro

I’m now in Copenhagen to participate in what is bound to be a fascinating conference on the role and use of digital media in repressive regimes. On the way to the venue, I was greeted by a dozen familiar faces in the conference hotel, all of them from Global Voices 2008.

Ole Brun from the Institute for Society and Globalization at Roskilde University gave the opening talk to place the two-day conference into context. Ole pointed out that the social sciences have been rather sluggish in the study of new digital media in repressive contexts.

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We have sought to study the impact of information communication technologies on democracy. Perhaps this question is too ambitious. Can we instead start understanding what impact new media has on political structures, transparence and accountability, new ties between disparate groups.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Links: Obama, Picture Passwords, Mini-UAVs

  • Obama, Internet and Elections: Obama’s victories in the Democratic primaries and the presidential election would not have been possible without Internet-empowered fundraising and social networking.
  • Mini-UAVs used to Collect Health Samples: The National Health Laboratory Services of South Africa is using mini-UAV’s to collect HIV/AIDS and TB samples from remote health posts in the region. Could this be applied to conflict early warning and early response?