Monthly Archives: December 2008

Humanitarian Assistance Training Simulator

Howard Rheingold, who is on my “shadow dissertation committee”, recently flagged this very neat training simulator called Virtual Peace for students interested in humanitarian response. The platform brings together digital learning technologies and serious gaming for humanitarian aid education.

VP6

Students and educators enter an immersive, multi-sensory game-based environment that simulates real disaster relief and conflict resolution conditions in order to learn first-hand the necessary tools for sensitive and timely crisis response. […] The simulation developed by these partners takes as its model the real-life events following a major natural disaster: Hurricane Mitch, which devastated much of Central America in 1998.

VP2

When playing the game, students who represent governments, the United Nations (UN) and nongovernmental organizations, meet in the Virtual Peace simulation. As part of the simulation, students are responsible for providing and coordinating aid to the two countries hardest hit by Hurricane Mitch: Honduras and Nicaragua. Students carry out background research on the scenario in order to represent one of 16 different humanitarian organizations such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the Office of Foreign of Affairs of Nicaragua, USAID and the World Health Organization (WHO).

By playing the game together, the students are responsible for navigating the challenges and pathways to effective response. Each student assumes her or his role as an avatar designed to look like actual persons in the international aid community. They converse via voice and text channels in the game space which is designed to look like the real venues where these representatives might convene. Students present their views to the group at large and then (within the virtual space) break out into smaller groups for planning and negotiation.

VP3

In addition to allowing students to use real life diplomatic and conflict resolution skills, students and teachers can bookmark specific instances in the game that can be referred back to for learning purposes when debriefing the simulation. This allows them to assess whether certain goals were met, if students properly represented the values and views of their government or organization and how they can work more effectively in the future.

VP5

By extending to educators the multi-sensory nature of the digital media, Virtual Peace becomes much more than just an extension of a role-playing exercise. Ultimately, it is a cutting edge interdisciplinary platform for creative learning, uniting the technologies of the future and the experiences of the past. For more on virtual training for humanitarian response, see my blog post on 3D Crisis Mapping for Disaster Simulation Training.

I like the fact that Virtual Peace has “transformed video game technology previously used for army training simulations into an innovative tool for international humanitarian aid education.” In addition, I like the combination of the serious game with the social networking platform, Ning. This would be a neat addition to the Humanitarian Studies Initiative (HSI) seminar co-taught by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

Indeed, I wish Virtual Peace had been around in 2006 when I taught an undergraduate course on “Disaster and Conflict Early Warning Systems” because Duke University actually offers a seminar on “Policy Anlaysis for Development” that uses Virtual Peace as a pedagogical tool.

The pictures and accompanying text above were taken from this Virtual Peace video demo:

Patrick Philippe Meier

Africa’s Crossborder Conflicts on Google Earth

This post is an update on the Humanitarian Information Unit’s (HIU) crisis map of crossborder conflicts in Africa. Dennis King at HIU kindly shared with me the shapefiles for the static conflict map so we could create a Google Earth layer from the data. When I write “we”, I actually mean my colleague Lela Prashad who is the co-Executive Director at NiJeL.org.

NiJeL is a member of CrisisMappers and they are doing some phenomenal work in the mapping space. In fact, they have two excellent projects in the Top 15 of USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. When Dennis King agreed to share the HIU data, I therefore turned to Lela to create the Google Earth layer.

HIU

The main conclusion to draw from this little exercise is that time matters. Not exactly earth shattering news but let me spell it out nevertheless. Because the underlying data is static, visualizing the data on Google Earth is not as compelling as mapping dynamic event-data, such as HHI’s Crisis Map of Kenya’s Post-Election Violence. That said, the Google Earth layer at least provides the user with far more “spatial freedom” than the PDF version.

HIU2

The Google Earth layer is available here for download. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and I hope to collaborate with NiJeL again in early 2009 to create a dynamic (space-time) crisis map of the recent Georgia/Russia conflict. In the mean time, many, many thanks to both Lela and Dennis for their time and kind support.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Africa’s Crossborder Conflicts on Google Earth

This post is an update on the Humanitarian Information Unit’s (HIU) crisis map of crossborder conflicts in Africa. Dennis King at HIU kindly shared with me the shapefiles for the static conflict map so we could create a Google Earth layer from the data. When I write “we”, I actually mean my colleague Lela Prashad who is the co-Executive Director at NiJeL.org.

NiJeL is a member of CrisisMappers and they are doing some phenomenal work in the mapping space. In fact, they have two excellent projects in the Top 15 of USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. When Dennis King agreed to share the HIU data, I therefore turned to Lela to create the Google Earth layer.

HIU

The main conclusion to draw from this little exercise is that time matters. Not exactly earth shattering news but let me spell it out nevertheless. Because the underlying data is static, visualizing the data on Google Earth is not as compelling as mapping dynamic event-data, such as HHI’s Crisis Map of Kenya’s Post-Election Violence. That said, the Google Earth layer at least provides the user with far more “spatial freedom” than the PDF version.

HIU2

The Google Earth layer is available here for download. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and I hope to collaborate with NiJeL again in early 2009 to create a dynamic (space-time) crisis map of the recent Georgia/Russia conflict. In the mean time, many, many thanks to both Lela and Dennis for their time and kind support.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Greek Riots, Facebook, Twitter and SMS (Updated)

I am particularly interested in riots since part of my doctoral research focuses on the strategic and tactical uses of digital technology to organize, mobilize and coordinate protest events in repressive contexts. On this note, Alternet just published this piece by Andrew Lam on the “Greek Riots and the News Media in the Age of Twitter,” which echoes some of the issues raised during the panel discussion I participated in last week in  DC on the decline of foreign reporting and rise of citizen journalism.

The Greek riots are a classic case of iRevolutions in the making, i.e., individuals and networks (hyper) empowered by linking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and SMS. What follows first are my thoughts on the two main points that the Andrew highlights in his piece. The second part of this post sheds light on the dynamics of riots by drawing on complexity science and Clay Shirky’s work.

greekriotmontage

Initial Conditions: The riots were sparked after a 15-year old student “died from a gunshot wound in his heart, inflicted by a policeman following an altercation between a police patrol and a small group of youths in Athens” (1). Thousands of young people took to the streets after quickly spreading the news via Facebook, Twitter and SMS.

But as Andrew points out, no one bothered to verify or investigate the police officer’s claim that he was innocent: “When the coroner’s report came out several days later, it said the bullet was dented, meaning it ricocheted before hitting the teenager, but the information changed nothing. Athens had been burning for several nights, and the people, whose rage fueled the flames, couldn’t care less for facts.”

These valid points aside, my first question is what took the coroner so long? Extracting a bullet (pardon the morbidity) is not exactly brain surgery.  If said coroner had a mobile phone, s/he could have taken a picture of the dented bullet and shared it as widely as possible hoping that it would go viral. I have no idea how effective that would have been, but it’s a thought. The second question I have is whether any investigative journalists were pressing the coroner to get on with it?

Future Conditions: Andrew notes that “professional front line reporters may very well be on the way to being redundant in a world where, according to Reuters Director of News Media Development, Chris Cramer, ‘Every key event going forward will be covered by members of the public, and not by traditional journalists.’” (I just checked the Wikipedia page on the riots and it was edited close to 200 times within 48 hours of the shooting).

However, as I mentioned during last week’s panel, the mainstream media has an increasingly more important social service to play in the Twitter Age: distinguishing fact from fiction. Andrew is thus spot on when he writes that “the role of the mature news organization […] is to filter real news from pseudo news, rather than treating all content as equal.”

Complexity Science: Power laws are a defining signature of complex systems. The Richter scale, which relates earthquake frequencies to magnitude, is probably the most well known power law. As we all know, there are many small tremors every day but only a few major earthquakes every century. As it happens, protests such as strikes also follow a power law distribution. See for example this piece by Michael Bigs in the American Journal of Sociology. Here’s the abstract:

Historians have persistently likened strike waves to wildfires, avalanches, and epidemics. These phenomena are characterized by a power-law distribution of event sizes. This kind of analysis is applied to outbreaks of class conflict in Chicago from 1881 to 1886. Events are defined as individual strikes or miniature strike waves; size is measured by the number of establishments or workers involved. In each case, events follow a power law spanning two or three orders of magnitude. A similar pattern is found for strikes in Paris from 1890 to 1899. The “forest fire” model serves to illustrate the kind of process that can generate this distribution.

One classic way to illustrate this is by using the analogy of grains of sand falling on a sand pile. Eventually, small and large avalanches begin to occur at different frequencies that follow a power law.

sandpile1

The study of complex systems is often called the study of history. The sand pile becomes increasingly unstable over time as grains of sand cause “fingers of instability” to run through the structure, like fissures running across a wine glass or cracks in the earth as an earthquake unloads the built up tension. If you want to understand the vulnerability of the sand pile of a “Richter 9″ earthquake, dissecting the falling grains will give you little insight. In other words, the answer lies in the past, in the evolution of the sand pile.

I make this point to reinforce the fact that the recent shooting and riots in Greece should be understood in context. The incident was  but one of several that befell Mount Olympus. As Katrin Verclas and others have commented (below) in response to this blog post, “the disenchantment of Greek students, the mistrust in and corruption of the right-wing government,”  as well as the “many acts of police brutality and incompetence through the years,” provides the historical context behind the shooting. “This is why people wouldn’t wait for the coronary report. There were many things wrong even before the shooting and the coronary report.”

Networks Analysis: One way to think about the impact of the information revolution on the ability of groups to mobilize and organize is to use the analogy of disease contagion, which also follows a power law distribution. As Clay Shirky writes, “The classic model for the spread of disease looks at three variables—likelihood of infection, likelihood of contact between any two people, and overall size of population. If any of those variables increases, the overall spread of disease increases as well.”

As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.

The reason I raise this issue of power laws and epidemics of information is to address the issue of rumors. As Andrew Lam writes, “the streamlining of news [via Twitter and SMS] makes the story skeletal and thin, bordering on becoming rumor and hearsay.” Countering false rumors  in a highly connected network may require a systems approach since command-and-control is unlikely to work (short of switching the network off).

This is where the work by Malcom Gladwell, Mark Buchanan and and the Santa Fe Institute’s (SFI) research might shed some light on the viral cure for false rumors in the Twitter Age.

See also my follow up post on the Greek riots.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Depiction – Decision Support for Crisis Mapping

I got word from my colleague Jim Benson at Modus Cooperandi that Depiction just launched. Depiction is a GIS based simulation (what-if-mapping) tool that can quickly building data visualizations and run them through a variety of scenarios using the following three easy steps:

Depiction

  • Location: Select a geographic area, then download or import satellite images, street maps, digital images, spreadsheets, shape files, or even live reports.
  • Integration: Your data immediately becomes interactive, influencing the behavior of other elements. You can add, edit, or even create new elements and make rules to govern the interactions between elements in your Depiction.
  • Exploration: Organize and display data where and when you want it. Measure, count, annotate and more.

I really like the ideas that this platform brings together: crisis mapping, simulation and decision support. Being able to play out what-if scenarios is key to making more informed decisions. For example, this interactive component allows users to identify the best route for an evacuation or the delivery of relief supplies should the primary route become inaccessible.  The platform can also receive live reports via email and have them mapped in real time.  I hope the developers will add an SMS component. In any case, Depiction brings crisis mapping closer to serious gaming.

One scenario the group makes available for free trial purposes is a tsunami hitting India. “Depiction provides a what-if scenario map to explore the functionality of the platform. The scenario shows imagery and data for Nagapatnam, India, including a what-if look at a 15-foot tsunami inundation. All of the data in this tsunami scenario is freely available from the internet.”

Depiction2

Finally, I also like the fact that their tutorials are all video based, far more compelling than a text-based manual.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Conference: Creating the Future

Robbert Guerra at Freedom House kindly flagged this conference for me:

Creating the Future: Computers Freedom & Privacy Conference

Suggested topics include:

  • Anonymity Online
  • Citizen Journalism
  • Social Networks
  • P2P Networks
  • Cybercrime & Cyberterrorism
  • Open Access and Open Standards
  • Technology Policy Administration

Call for Papers due January 9th, 2009.

New Page on Projects

What I am currently working on (updated monthly):

http://irevolution.wordpress.com/projects