Twitter vs. Tyrants: Ushahidi and Data Verification

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. I blogged about the opening remarks of each panelist here. But the key issues really came to fore during the Q/A session.

These issues addressed Ushahidi, data validation, security and education. This blog post addresses the issues raised around Ushahid and data validation. The text below includes my concerns with respect to a number of comments and assumptions made by some of the panelists.

Nathan Freitas (NYU):

  • It’s [Ushahidi] a crisis-mapping platform that  has grown out of the movement in Africa after the Kenyan elections.  It’s akin  to a blog system, but for mapping crisis, and what’s unique about it is it allows you to capture unverified and verified information.

Me: Many thanks to Nathan for referencing Ushahidi in the Congressional Briefing. Nathan’s comments are spot on. One of the unique features of Ushahidi is that the platform allows for the collection of both unverified and verified information.

But what’s the difference between these two types of information in the first place? In general, unverified information simply means information reported by “unknown sources” whereas verified tends to be associated with known sources of reporting, such as official election monitors.

The first and most important point to understand is that both approaches to information collection are compatible and complementary. Official election monitors, like professional journalists, cannot be everywhere at the same time. The “crowd” in crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has a comparative advantage in this respect (see supporting *empirical evidence here).

Clearly, the crowd has many more eyes and ears than any official monitoring network ever will. So discounting any and all information originating from the crowd is hard to justify. One would have to entirely dismiss the added value of all the Tweets, photos and YouTube footage generated by the “crowd” during the post-election violence in Iran.

  • And what’s interesting, I think we’ve seen the first round, the 1.0 of a lot of  this election monitoring.  As these systems come in place, they’ll be running  all the time, and they’ll be used in local elections and in state-level  elections, and the movement for – these tools will be easier, just like blogs.   Everyone blogs; in a few years, everyone’s got their own crisis-mapping  platform.

Me: What a great comment and indeed one of Ushahidi’s goals: for everyone to have their own crisis mapping platform in the near future. That’s what I call an iRevolution. Nathan’s point about the first round of these systems is also really important. The first version of the Ushahidi platform only became downloadable in May of this year; that’s just 5 months ago. We’re just getting started.

Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House):

  • [T]here’s a very critical component [...] often  overlooked in these kinds of programs:  The information needs to be verified. It is useless or even counterproductive to simply be passing around rumors, and  rumor-mongering is very big in elections, and especially Election Day.

Me: Daniel certainly makes an important point although I personally don’t think that the need for verification is often overlooked in election monitoring. In any case, one should note that  rumors themselves need to be monitored and documented pre, during and post-elections. To be sure, if the information collection protocol is too narrow (say using only official monitors are allowed to submit evidence), then rumors (and other important information) may simply be dismissed and go unreported even though they could fuel conflict.

  • So it’s  important as part of the structure that you have qualified people to sort through the information and call what is credible reporting from citizens from very unsubstantiated information.

Me: Honestly, I’m always a little weary when I read comments along the lines of “you need to have qualified people” or “only experts should carry out the task.” Why? Because they tend to dismiss the added value that hundreds of bystanders can bring to the table. As Chris Spence noted about their operations in Moldova, NDI’s main partner organization “was harassed and kicked out of the country” while “the NDI program [was] largely shut down.” So who’s left to monitor? Exactly.

As my colleague Ory Okolloh recently noted, “Kenya had thousands election observers including many NDI monitors.” So what happened? “When it came to sharing their data as far as their observations at the polling everyone balked especially the EU and IRI because it was too “political”. IRI actually released their data almost 8 months later and yet they were supposed to be the filter.”

And so, Okolloh adds, “At a time when some corroboration could have prevented bloodshed, the ‘professionals’ were nowhere to be seen, so if we are talking about verification, legitimacy, and so on … lets start there.”

Chris Spence (NDI):

  • Monitoring groups – and this kind of gets to the threshold questions about Ushahidi and some of the platforms where you’re getting a lot of interesting  information from citizens, but at the end of the day, you’ve really got to  decide, have thresholds been reached which call into question the legitimacy of  the process?  And that’s really the political question that election observers and the groups that we work with have to grapple with.

Me: An interesting comment from NDI but one that perplexes me. I don’t recall users of Ushahidi suggesting that they should be the sole source of information to qualify for threshold points. Again, the most important point to understand is that different approaches to information collection can complement each other in important ways. We need to think less in linear terms and more in terms of information ecosystems with various ecologies of information sources.

  • And there’s so much involved in that methodology that one of the concerns about  the crisis mapping or the crowdsourcing [sic] is that the public can then draw interpretations about the outcome of elections without necessarily having the  filter required.  You know, you can look at a map of some city and see four or  five or 10 or several violations of election law reported by citizens who – you  know, you have to deal with the verification problem – but is that significant in the big picture?

Me: Ok, first of all, lets not confuse “crisis mapping” and “crowdsourcing” or use the terms interchangeably. Second, individuals for the large part are not thick. The maps can clearly state that the information represented is unfiltered and unverified, hence may be misleading. Third (apologies for repeating myself), none of the groups using Ushahidi claim that the data collected is representative of the bigger picture. This gets to the issue of significance.

And fourth, (more repeating), no one I know has suggested we go with once information feed, i.e., one source of information. I’m rather surprised that Chris Spence never brings up the importance of triangulation even though he acknowledges in his opening remarks that there are projects (like Swift River) that are specifically based on triangulation mechanisms to validate crowdsourced information.

Crowdsourced information can be an important repository for triangulation. The more crowdsourced information we have, the more self-triangulation is possible and the more this data can be used as a control mechanism for officially collected information.

Yes, there are issues around verification of data and an Ushahidi powered map may not be random enough for statistical accuracy but, as my colleague Ory Okolloh notes, “the data can point to areas/issues that need further investigation, especially in real-time.”

  • [I]t’s really important that, as these tools get better –  and we like the tools; Ushahidi and the other platforms are great – but we need  to make a distinction between what can be expected out of a professional  monitoring exercise and what can be drawn from unsolicited inputs from  citizens.  And I think there are good things that can be taken from both.

Me: Excellent, I couldn’t agree more. How about organizing a full-day workshop or barcamp on the role of new technologies in contemporary election monitoring? I think this would provide an ideal opportunity to hash out the important points raised by Nathan, Daniel and Chris.

Patrick Philippe Meier

4 responses to “Twitter vs. Tyrants: Ushahidi and Data Verification

  1. Pingback: Twitter vs. Tyrants: Summary of Congressional Briefing « iRevolution

  2. Really interesting post Patrick, thanks. I think Okolloh makes an important point by highlighting that ‘official’ observers thought sharing their data was a political act. The great thing about presenting verified and unverified information together is that is it completely apolitical.

  3. Pingback: Twitter vs. Tyrants: Education and Security « iRevolution

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