Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Role of Live Skype Chats in the Disaster Response to Haiti

Live Skype chats played an invaluable role in the disaster response to Haiti but this has gone largely unnoticed by both mainstream and citizen media. I have a Word document with over 2,000 pages worth of Skype chat messages exchanged  in various groups during the first 2.5 weeks after the earthquake. I have no doubt that this data will become a source of major interest for scholars seeking to evaluate the disaster response in Haiti.

The Skype chats reveal a minute-by-minute account of the actions and decisions that organizations like Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, InSTEDD, Sahana, Google, Thomson-Reuters and others took following the earthquake. Search and Rescue (SAR) teams in Port-au-Prince also participated in these Skype chats:

For the full story behind the above exchange between Anna, Eric and myself, please see my previous blog post. In addition to SAR staff, the US State Department,  a White House liaison contact, SOUTHCOM, DAI, UN/OCHA, WFP, the US Coast Guard, a Telecom company, and so on were all on live Skype chats at one point or another. It’s actually hard to keep track of everyone who has used the various Skype chats since the earthquake.

The most active and critical Skype Chat Groups were/are:

  • Haiti Tech Ushahidi Situation Room (72 users)
  • GPS Conversations for the SAR Dispatch (21 users)
  • SMS Logistics (37)
  • Ushahidi + US Coast Guard + SOUTHCOM (11 users)
  • Urgent Response Group (13 users)
  • Ushahidi Volunteer Task Force (168)

I would really like to see a discourse analysis and social network analysis of this data. Not to mention different visualizations of the data. In fact, I’d love to partner with anyone who has the time and expertise in these areas to do this. For now, lets take the first Skype chat group above, which was the most critical group during the first week, and just focus on the growth of this group in terms of users during the first week. And then lets create some Wordl visualizations based on data in this chat group.

I started the Haiti Tech Ushahidi Situation Room a couple hours after David Kobia and I launched the Ushahidi-Haiti platform. The second person I called (on my cell) after David was Chris Blow from Meedan. Chris got started on the icons for the platform right away. In the meantime, we used color-coded dots to represent the different categories/indicators.

I checked in with Chris on Skype a couple hours later. Below is the progression of users added to the Skype chat during the first week in case anyone wants to start on some simple social network analysis:

[1/12/10 9:09:55 PM] Patrick Meier: hey Chris, you there?

[1/12/10 10:00:27 PM] Patrick Meier added Brian Herbert to this chat

[1/12/10 10:02:30 PM] Patrick Meier added David Kobia to this chat

[1/12/10 10:10:39 PM] Patrick Meier added Jeffrey Villaveces to this chat

[1/12/10 10:47:41 PM] Jeffrey Villaveces added Luishernando to this chat

[1/12/10 11:42:01 PM] Jeffrey Villaveces added Gabriel Dicelis to this chat

[1/12/10 11:48:49 PM] Brian Herbert added Ory Okolloh to this chat

[1/13/10 2:00:03 AM] Patrick Meier added Kennedy Kasina to this chat

[1/13/10 2:00:11 AM] Patrick Meier: just added Ken to this chat

[1/13/10 2:00:43 AM] Ory Okolloh added Henry Addo to this chat

[1/13/10 2:02:54 AM] Brian Herbert added Henry Addo to this chat

[1/13/10 3:30:13 AM] Patrick Meier added Kaushal Jhalla to this chat

[1/13/10 8:46:07 AM] Patrick Meier added Claire U to this chat

[1/13/10 10:06:59 AM] Brian Herbert added Pablo Destefanis to this chat

[1/13/10 10:09:41 AM] Brian Herbert added Oscar Salazar to this chat

[1/13/10 10:22:02 AM] Patrick Meier added Emily Jacobi to this chat

[1/13/10 10:47:32 AM] Oscar Salazar added Nicolas et Alice BIais- Bonhomme to this chat

[1/13/10 10:51:59 AM] Patrick Meier added Rob Baker to this chat

[1/13/10 11:22:54 AM] Emily Jacobi added Mark Belinsky to this chat

[1/13/10 12:05:59 PM] Patrick Meier added Josh Marcus to this chat

[1/13/10 12:08:10 PM] Patrick Meier added Shoreh Elhami to this chat

[1/13/10 12:11:54 PM] Jeffrey Villaveces added Luke Beckman to this chat

[1/13/10 12:18:52 PM] Luke Beckman added Eduardo Jezierski, Eric Rasmussen to this chat

[1/13/10 12:38:09 PM] Brian Herbert added Erik Hersman to this chat

[1/13/10 1:29:05 PM] Luke Beckman added Brian Steckler to this chat

[1/13/10 1:41:03 PM] Erik Hersman added Caleb Bell to this chat

[1/13/10 2:32:19 PM] Erik Hersman added Jason Mule to this chat

[1/13/10 2:40:31 PM] Luke Beckman added Josh Nesbit to this chat

[1/13/10 5:32:31 PM] Claire U added Fabienne to this chat

[1/13/10 6:13:48 PM] Eduardo Jezierski added Mark Prutsalis to this chat

[1/13/10 7:28:34 PM] David Kobia added Andrew Turner to this chat

[1/13/10 10:59:49 PM] Josh Marcus added Tim Schwartz to this chat

[1/14/10 12:25:58 AM] Tim Schwartz added Ryan Brown to this chat

[1/14/10 4:00:41 AM] Erik Hersman added Meryn Stol to this chat

[1/14/10 4:25:46 AM] Erik Hersman added Victor Miclovich to this chat

[1/14/10 4:29:46 AM] Kennedy Kasina added Charles Kithika to this chat

[1/14/10 5:02:55 AM] Erik Hersman added Brian Joel Conley to this chat

[1/14/10 5:14:35 AM] Kennedy Kasina added lisudza to this chat

[1/14/10 5:21:03 AM] Erik Hersman added aliveinbaghdad to this chat

[1/14/10 1:26:56 PM] Erik Hersman added Dale Zak to this chat

[1/14/10 1:43:43 PM] Dale Zak added benrigby to this chat

[1/14/10 1:51:00 PM] benrigby added Boris Korsunsky to this chat

[1/14/10 2:00:21 PM] Brian Herbert added Abdallah Chamas to this chat

[1/14/10 3:09:37 PM] Josh Nesbit added Paul Goodman to this chat

[1/14/10 3:24:11 PM] Brian Herbert added Satchit Balsari to this chat

[1/14/10 3:37:02 PM] Satchit Balsari added ritwikdey to this chat

[1/14/10 3:50:38 PM] Satchit Balsari added Selvam Velmurugan to this chat

[1/14/10 4:12:47 PM] Josh Marcus added Sharda Sekaran to this chat

[1/14/10 5:53:19 PM] Ory Okolloh added Jonathan Greenblatt to this chat

[1/14/10 7:30:37 PM] Tim Schwartz added wendell_iii to this chat

[1/14/10 10:02:25 PM] Tim Schwartz added Christopher Csikszentmihalyi to this chat

[1/14/10 11:43:09 PM] Josh Nesbit added Robert Munro to this chat

[1/15/10 4:59:07 AM] Brian Steckler added Ryan Burke to this chat

[1/15/10 5:03:45 AM] Kennedy Kasina added joanwmaina to this chat

[1/15/10 5:39:11 AM] David Kobia added Cooper Quintin to this chat

[1/15/10 10:38:10 AM] mark.prutsalis added Chamindra de Silva to chat

[1/15/10 11:24:43 AM] Sharda Sekaran added Amir Reavis-Bey to this chat

[1/15/10 11:27:07 AM] Josh Nesbit added David Wade to this chat

[1/15/10 3:30:51 PM] Paul Goodman added Tapan Parikh to this chat

[1/15/10 7:02:37 PM] Mark Belinsky added Philip Ashlock to this chat

[1/15/10 8:02:39 PM] Brian Steckler added Michael D. McDonald to chat

[1/15/10 10:15:38 PM] mark.prutsalis added David Bitner to this chat

[1/16/10 12:26:11 PM] mark.prutsalis added lifeeth to this chat

[1/16/10 9:23:24 PM] Rob Baker added Rachel Weidinger to this chat

[1/17/10 11:36:20 AM] Josh Nesbit added Lisa Lamanna to this chat

[1/18/10 3:54:06 PM] Luke Beckman added to this chat

[1/18/10 4:18:09 PM] Tim Schwartz added Christina Xu to this chat

[1/19/10 12:10:19 PM] Jeffrey Villaveces added Amaury to this chat

[1/19/10 6:05:19 PM] Ryan Burke added Randy Maule to this chat

[1/19/10 10:24:21 PM] Tapan Parikh added david.notkin to this chat

Here’s the Wordl rendition of the above text:

Below is the Wordl visualization of all the data in the Haiti Chat group, i.e., not only users being added but also the full content of all the chats between 9pm on January 12th through 9pm on January 30th.  This constitutes over 300 pages of content in a Word document. Of course, dates and individual names still come up most frequently.

The Wordl visualization below draws on the first week of data but with all names, dates and times removed. This enables us to focus exclusively on the content or dialogue exchanged between users.

I like the fact that the word “thanks” stands out fairly prominently. Stay tuned for more Wordl visualizations on the other Skype chat groups. In the meantime, if you want to get started on some more statistical discourse analysis or social network analysis, please feel free to get in touch. Thanks!

Patrick Philippe Meier

From Clinton to Ushahidi-Haiti to Digital Repression and Back

I’m grateful to the State Department for having invited me to attend Secretary Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in DC on Net Freedom. Little did I know before the event that Secretary Clinton was about to tie my main professional and scholarly interests in one speech. As my Fletcher colleague put it:

Before starting her important speech on Net Freedom (which is directly related to the topic of my dissertation), Clinton spoke about the disaster in Haiti. She specifically referred to the critical role that communication networks played in the immediate aftermath of the quake and also noted that,

“The technology community has set up interactive maps to help us identify needs and target resources. And on Monday, a seven-year-old girl and two women were pulled from the rubble of a collapsed supermarket by an American search-and-rescue team after they sent a text message calling for help.”

She was clearly referring to the interactive maps launched by Ushahidi, Open Street Map (OSM) and Sahana as well as the free “4636” SMS number that Ushahidi and partners set up with the support of the State Department. Haitians can send a text to 4636 to report their location and urgent needs. These SMS’s are translated into English and mapped in near real-time on Ushahidi-Haiti.

Secretary Clinton then transitioned to the topic of Net Freedom with the following comment,

“There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. And even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”

Towards the middle of her speech, Clinton emphasized the Obama Administration’s interest in placing new media and digital technologies “in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights [...].” The next steps articulated by Clinton:

“That’s why today I’m announcing that over the next year, we will work with partners in industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to establish a standing effort that will harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals. By relying on mobile phones, mapping applications, and other new tools, we can empower citizens and leverage our traditional diplomacy. We can address deficiencies in the current market for innovation.”

I was particularly pleased to hear more reference to mobile phones and mapping applications. In closing, Clinton wrapped up with the following comment:

“So let me close by asking you to remember the little girl who was pulled from the rubble on Monday in Port-au-Prince. She’s alive, she was reunited with her family, she will have the chance to grow up because these networks took a voice that was buried and spread it to the world. No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries.”

This is when my Fletcher colleague sent out that Tweet:

It would certainly appear that the answer to Brian’s question is “Yes!”

My dissertation focuses on the role of new media and digital technology in popular resistance against authoritarian rule. And I happen to be the Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, which is why I launched the Ushahidi-Haiti platform two hours after the earthquake. The more I work on crisis mapping, the more I experience firsthand the applications for digital activism. And the more I work on digital activism in non-permissive environments, the more I realize how important some of the tactics are for crisis mapping.

In sum, every day that passes provides more and more evidence that this is the space I currently belong in; the intersection between communication technology, interactive mapping, digital activism and nonviolent civil resistance.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Haiti and the Power of Crowdsourcing

It’s been two weeks since I called David Kobia to launch Ushahidi’s crisis mapping platform in Haiti. I could probably write 100 blog posts on the high’s and low’s of the past 14 days. Perhaps there will more time be next month to recount the first two weeks of the disaster response. For now, I wanted to share an astounding example of crowdsourcing that took place 10 days ago.

Boston, January 17, 8pm

Picture a snowy Boston evening and the following “Situation Room” a.k.a. my living room at Blakeley Hall, part of The Fletcher School.

My fellow PhD colleague Anna Schulz, who has rapidly become an expert in satellite imagery analysis and geolocation, receives an urgent request via Skype from InSTEDD‘s Eric Rasmussen pictured below with Nico di Tada. That tent is pitched right next to the runway of Port-au-Prince’s international airport, some 1,600 miles south of Boston.

The urgent request? GPS coordinates for 7 key locations across Port-au-Prince where many Haitians were known to be trapped under rubble. They needed to communicate this information to the Search and Rescue (SAR) teams before 0600. Anna immediately got to work.

Boston, January 17, 8.30pm

An hour later, Anna had found the GPS coordinates for all but one of the locations for the rescue operations.

Boston, January 17, 9.41pm

Boston, January 17, 10.26pm

Some time later, the same urgent request originally sent by Eric and Nico appears on the CrisisMappers Google Group:

Boston, January 17, ~11.00pm

At Anna’s request, I send out the following Tweet on Ushahidi.

Boston, January 18, ~1.00am

The following report is submitted to the Ushahidi-Haiti platform by someone from the Twittersphere:

Boston, January 18, 1.20am

My colleague Jaroslav in The Fletcher Situation room Skypes back to Anna:

Courtesy of high-resolution satellite imagery on Google Earth:

Boston, January 18, ~2.00am

It’s getting late but the ALL CAPS in this Tweet to Ushahidi catches my eye:

My colleague Jaroslav and I decide to try the number. Low and behold, we get Marc on the phone after just one ring. With a mixture of English and French, we find out that he was indeed a former employee of Au Bon Prix which happens to be a book store just off “Au Champs de Mars” near the Palace. We immediately Skype this information back to Eric and Nico at Port-au-Prince airport.

Boston, January 18, ~2.15am

Boston, January 18, ~4.30am

It’s still snowing in Boston. Time to get a few hours of sleep. We hand over operations to the Ushahidi Team in Africa.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Cyberconflict and Global Politics: New Media, War, Digital Activism

Athina Karatzogianni has just edited another informative book, this one on “Cyberconflict and Global Politics.” I blog-reviewed her previous book on “The Politics of Cyberconflict” here after meeting Athina at Politics 2.0 back in 2008. This blog posts consists of book notes for my dissertation research.

Athina authors the first chapter on “New Media and the Reconfiguration of Power in Global Politics.” Some relevant excerpts:

  • The information revolution is altering the nature of conflict by strengthening network forms of organization over hierarchical forms.
  • Dissidents against governments are able to use a variety of Internet-based techniques [...] to spread alternative frames for events and a possible alternative online democratic sphere. An example of dissidents’ use of the Internet is spamming e-magazines to an unprecedented number of people within China, a method which provides recipients with ‘plausible deniability.’

The second chapter authored by Hall Gardner addresses “War and the Media Paradox.”

  • While the prospects of instant communication had been hailed as a means to prevent conflict and to help negotiate an end to disputes and wars [...] one of the major paradoxes is that a number of media inventions are actually helping to cause, if not perpetuate, social and political conflict in general.
  • In China [...] just prior to the Tiananmen Square repression in June 1989, it had been the transistor radio that provided alternative views to those of the government.

The third chapter on “The Internet as a weapon of war” is primarily focused on news and as such is not directly relevant to my research. Chapter 4 on “Transparency and Accountability in the Age of Cyberpolitics” by Maori Touri has an interesting reference to Kant:

  • The impact of transparency and publicity on human behavior is hardly new with Kant being amongst the first to argue that the principlesof human action could be ethical only if they were public.

The fifth chapter by Michael Dartnell addresses “Web Activism as an Element of Global Security.”

  • While the World Wide Web and information technologies (IT) that emerged over the past decade have a transformative impact on global security, neither they nor the expectations that they arouse are unique to our time. In “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication”, Bertolt Brecht argued that

The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life [...] if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.

  • As James Katz and Ronald Rice suggest, ‘although the Internet has not led to any political revolutions, it has supported and encouraged them (as have—and do—the phone and fax)’ (Katz and Rice 2002:352).
  • Web activism is a form of electronic direct action in which previous one-way media are superseded by global communications devices. [...]. As Miekle notes, ‘Internet activism is largely about raising awareness of the issues concerned, and this means more coverage than the purely online’ (Miekle 2002:26).
  • The telegraph [...] was an innovation that facilitated European imperialism and helped consolidate global dominance.
  • Instead of a tool for revolutionary transformation, Web activism is a powerful new method for political organizations of all stripes in precise circumstances that favor their messages.
  • The evaluation [of the impact of IT on IR] needs to be conducted in a variety of ways since the impacts are in fact a diverse body of content.

Chapter 6 on “The Laws of the Playground” is not relevant to my research nor is chapter 7 on “Information Warfare Operations within the Concept of Individual Self-Defense”. Chapters 8 and 9 are interesting but not directly informative for my dissertation: “The Internet and Militant Jihadism”, and “How Small are Small Numbers in Cyberspace?” Chapter 10 focuses on a case study of Sri Lanka while Chapter 11 draws on the case study of Women in Black.

Chapter 12 by Graham Meikle is on “Electronic Civil Disobedience and Symbolic Power.”

  • Electronic Civil Disobedience [ECD] is a key example of the Internet’s capacity to enable users to exercise what Castells terms ‘counter-power’—’the capacity by social actors to challenge and eventually change the power relations institutionalized in society’ (2007:248).
  • However, the discourse of ECD is contested, and where its proponents seek to align it with the civil disobedience tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it is frequently implicated in other discourses: in the concept of ‘hactivism'; in the concept of ‘netwar'; and in debates about terrorism.
  • [In 1994, the Critical Art Ensemble] aligned the concept of electronic civil disobedience with the widely-understood principles of traditional civil disobedience [...]. There were continuities [...] such as the use of trespass and blockades as central tactics. However, there were also discontinuities, such as the de-emphasizing of mass participation in favor of decentralized, cell-based organization [and] that electronic civil disobedience should be surreptitious, in the hacker tradition.
  • Where practitioners of civil disobedience have been transparent about their opposition [... the Critical Art Ensemble] argued for a clandestine approach, proposing electronic disobedience as ‘an underground activity that should be kept out of the public/popular sphere (as in the hacker tradition) and the eye of the media’ (CAE 2001: 14).
  • [There is a dilemma for activists] in that while the news media are drawn to novelty and disruption, their coverage is also more likely to focus on that very novelty and disruption than on the underlying issues or causes involved, which may in fact work against the activist cause (Scalmer 2002:41).
  • [One challenge for activists] is not just to formulate new strategies and tactics appropriate to a shifting mediascape, but to recognize the ongoing need to create a careful vocabulary for discussing those tactics and strategies.
  • ‘The information revolution is favoring and strengthening network forms of organization, often giving them an advantage of hierarchical forms. The rise of networks means that power is migrating to nonstate actors, because they are able to organize into sprawling multiorganizational networks [...] more readily than can traditional, hierarchical, state actors. This means that conflicts may increasingly be waged by ‘networks’, perhaps more than by ‘hierarchies’. It also means that whoever masters the network form stands to gain the advantage’ (Arquilla and Ronfeld 2001a: 1).

The final two chapters focus on a case study of the European Social Forum and capitalism respectively.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter in Iran: Where I disagree with Will Heaven vs Josh Shahryar

Will Heaven of the Daily Telegraph and EA‘s Josh Shahryar have been engaged in a battle of words on the role of Twitter in Iran. I think the battle has now drawn to a close. Given the popularity of my previous post on “Where I disagree with Morozov and Shirky on Digital Activism,” I thought I’d continue the series, which also helps me keep track of my notes for my dissertation.


It all started on December 29th when Will published this article in the Daily Telegraph:

Iran and Twitter: the fatal folly of the online revolutionaries

Which he followed up with this blog post, still on the Daily Telegraph:

Iran’s brutal regime won’t be toppled by Twitter and the niceties of social media

This provoked the following response from Josh (the page may be down):

Twitter Revolution 101: Get Your Facts Right

Will in turn replied to Josh’s post with one of his own:

My response to Twitterati: stop putting Iranian lives at risk

Finally, unless I’ve missed another exchange, Josh posted this closing response yesterday:

Iran & Twitter: Last Words on The Hell of Heaven


I copied and pasted this lengthy exchange in a Word document (available here) and did a word count. The debate generated over 7,500 words. That’s about 12 pages, single-space of font-size 10 text. I’ve re-read this document several times and I’m not quite sure what the debate ultimately amounts to. They both make very good points but neither is willing to concede that.

In my opinion, the contentious exchange stems from the use of the word “revolution” and the subsequent arms-race of anecdotes that all too often causes more confusion than clarity. When Will uses the term, “there has been no revolution in Iran,” he implies a political revolution whereas Josh—on several occasions—clearly states that he’s talking about a revolution in information dissemination: “That Revolution is about awareness, not provoking a political revolt or helping it directly.”

In any case, here are my individual comments on their exchange.

My Response to Will

Will: It’s deluded to think that “hashtags”, “Tweets” and “Twibbons” have threatened the regime for a second.

Really? Then why would the regime or sympathetic elements within Iran try to shut it down?

Will: Here’s the other thing “social media experts” will forget to tell you: dictatorships across the world now use their own tools to hunt down online protesters.

I would like to challenge Will to find one “social media expert” who forgets that digital repression is real. Please see my previous blog post on this.

Will: And it is foolish to think that their use [Tor, Freebase] guarantees safety: if the Revolutionary Guard were to find someone using the software, the consequences would be dire.

Both Will and Josh are fixated on technology at the expense of tactics. I think they’d find this guide on how to communicate securely in repressive environments of interest. There needs to be more cross-fertilization between civil resistance strategies and digital activism tactics. See this post for more.

And before either fault me for making the above guide public, all the information in said-guide is already public and available online. Repressive regimes may very well be aware of most of the tactics and technologies used, but just like chess, this doesn’t mean one side can defeat the other at every game.

Will: When you consider the danger posed to Iranians by online participation – compared with what online participation has achieved – the overall result is hardly tangible, and certainly not worth the risks which have been undertaken.

True, perhaps, but a little too passive a statement for my tastes. Those risks are not static, they can be reduced; hence the guide. And hence the need for more education and training in digital activism around the world. See Tactical Tech‘s excellent work in this area, for example.

One other point that Will overlooks (understandably since he doesn’t live in the US) is the stunning shift in perception that took place in the minds of Americans when viewing Iran’s post-election protests. Prior to the elections, the word Iran would generally evoke the following: “Nuclear weapons”, “Kill the Great Satan”, etc. But after young Iranians took to the streets and the protests were documented on Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, many Americans finally realized that “the other” was perhaps not that different. The shift in mindset was huge.

My Response to Josh

I largely agree with Josh’s take on the role of Twitter in Iran although I see why it’s easy for Will to carefully select one or two arguments and push back. In any case, I do take issue with this comment:

Josh: The fact that Iranians are dying is not the fault of Westerners. It is not even a fault. It is a sacrifice that Iranians must make to gain their freedom.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) suggests that state sovereignty is contingent on a state protecting it’s citizens. A regime that kills some 400 citizens in response to street protests should hardly have the right to remain sovereign. There should be a Chapter 7 UN mandate with 20,000 observers in Iran to prevent any more violence. Realistically though, I don’t know what the solution to this crisis is, but I do feel that we’re all responsible for the bloodshed.

I definitely disagree with Josh’s implication that revolutions require death and destruction. “Be smart, don’t be dead” is what I tell political activists. There are very good reasons why nonviolent action is called “A Force More Powerful.” Digital activists really need to get up to speed on nonviolent civil resistance tactics and strategies just as the latter need to get up to speed on how to communicate more securely in repressive environments.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Breaking News: Repressive States Use Technologies to Repress!

I kid you not: repressive regimes actually have the nerve to use technologies to repress! Who would’ve guessed?! Nobody could possibly have seen this one coming. I mean, this shocking development is completely unprecedented in the history of state repression. Goodness, how did these repressive regimes even come up with the idea?!

Yes, that was sarcasm. But I never cease to be amazed by the incredible hullabaloo generated by the media every time a new anecdote pops up on a repressive regime caught red handed with digital technology. Just stunning. It’s as if world history started yesterday.

I hate to state what should be obvious but repressive states also used technology to repress in 2009, and in 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001 … You get the point. Hint: tech-based repression doesn’t start in 1984 either, try a little earlier. As Brafman and Beckstrom point out,

All phone calls were routed through Moscow [during the time of the Soviet Union]. Why? The Kremlin wanted to keep tabs on what you were talking about–whether plotting to overthrow the government or locating spare parts for your tractor. The Soviets weren’t the first, or the last, to keep central control of communication lines. Even the Roman empire, though spread around the world, maintained a highly centralized transportation system, giving rise to the expression ‘All roads lead to Rome’ (52).

Why the media continues to treat digital repression as a surprise is beyond me. Repressive states have used technologies for hundreds of years. So someone please tell me why repressive regimes wouldn’t use new technologies as well? Because they’re new? No, that’s probably not it. Wait, because they’re cheap? Or effective? Darn, I don’t know, what’s the answer? Is this a trick question?

As Evgeny Morozov notes,

There is, of course, nothing surprising about it: why wouldn’t governments be doing this? After all, there are many smart techies working for the governments as well – and sometimes they even believe in and like what they are doing.

But you still come across the typical comment “I told you so!” on Twitter, blogs, etc., “I told you that repressive states would use technology to repress!” And so the anecdotes keep flying and the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” keep coming. The media freaks out, everyone gets excited. And the next day is exactly the same since the media thrives on repetitive soundbites, especially very catchy (preferably one-word) soundbites, which explains why I increasingly feel like I’m stuck in digital groundhog day.

If I had more time, I’d write a blog post entitled “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Best Anecdote on Digital Repression Ever” along the lines of Evgeny’s fun post on “10 Easy Steps to Writing the Scariest Cyberwarfare Article Ever.” But my post would be a lot shorter:

1) Find an anecdote in the mainstream media;
2) Formulate a blockbuster title ending with an exclamation mark;
3) Preface your post with a note that no one but you anticipated this to happen;
4) Quote at least one full paragraph on the anecdote from another source;
5) For extra credit, create your own new one-word soundbite;
6) Conclude with a few snarky lines about how this clearly refutes all the dumb hype on digital technologies.

Some applaud the media’s focus on digital repression. They are grateful to the media for countering the Utopian hype. Fair enough, but this refrain is quickly becoming an excuse to spew out more anecdotes instead of contributing solid analysis. Moreover, the media is largely responsible for promoting the techno-Utopian hype to begin with. This inevitably triggers an arms race of anecdotes, which only leads to mutually assured confusion. But don’t panic, we’ve always got our catchy one-word soundbites to clear things up!

So here’s a practical thought: why doesn’t someone aggregate and code all these anecdotes to analyze them and look for trends? I realize that’s a little harder than writing up daily blog posts on the latest anecdotes so why not do this together? Lets set up an open spreadsheet to keep track of digital repression event-data. Then, when we have 6 months or more of event-data for a particular country, lets analyze this data so we can actually say something more informative about the dynamics of digital repression.

Come to think of it, Global Voices Advocacy, Herdict and the OpenNet Initiative are already doing a lot of this information collection, and very well. Still, it would be great if they could turn this information into event-data and expand beyond the Internet to include mobile phones and other digital technologies. Something along these lines, perhaps.

This won’t answer all our questions, but it would give us the underlying event-data to study digital repression at the tactical level over time. (Would asking daily data updates be too much?).

The next step would be to do the same for “digital liberation”, i.e., capturing event-data on how/when/where civil society groups evade digital repression. Analyzing both datasets would allow us to get a grasp on the cat-and-mouse dynamics that may characterize the race between digital activists and repressive states. I think the analysis would show that states are more often than not reactive. But who knows. Such is life in data hell.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Starfish and the Spider: 8 Principles of Decentralization

“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom is still one of my favorite books on organizational theory and complex systems.

The starfish represents decentralized “organizations” while the spider describes hierarchical command-and-control structures. In reviewing the book, the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum wrote that “[it has] not only stimulated my thinking, but as a result of the reading, I proposed ten action points for my own organization.”

The Starfish and the Spider is about “what happens when there’s no one in charge. It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.” The book draws on a series of case studies that illustrate 8 Principles of Decentralization. I include these below with short examples.

1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized:

Not only did the Apaches survive the Spanish attacks, but amazingly, the attacks served to make them even stronger. When the Spanish attacked them, the Apaches became even more decentralized and even more difficult to conquer (21).

2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders:

When we first encounter a collection of file-swapping teenagers, or a native tribe in the Arizona desert, their power is easy to overlook. We need an entirely different set of tools in order to understand them (36).

3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system:

It’s not that open systems necessarily make better systems. It’s just that they’re able to respond more quickly because each member has access to knowledge and the ability to make direct use of it (39).

4. Open systems can easily mutate:

The Apaches did not—and could not—plan ahead about how to deal with the European invaders, but once the Spanish showed up, Apache society easily mutated. They went from living in villages to being nomads. The decision didn’t have to be approved by headquarters (40).

5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you:

For a century, the recording industry was owned by a handful of corporations, and then a bunch of hackers altered the face of the industry. We’ll see this pattern repeat itself across different sectors and in different industries (41).

6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease:

The combined revenues of the remaining four [music industry giants] were 25 percent less than they had been in 2001. Where did the revenues go? Not to P2P players [Napster]. The revenue disappeared (50).

7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute:

People take great care in making the articles objective, accurate, and easy to understand [on Wikipedia] (74).

8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized:

As we saw in the case of the Apaches and the P2P players, when attacked decentralized organizations become even more decentralized (139).

Patrick Phillipe Meier

Where I Disagree with Morozov vs Shirky on Digital Activism

Prospect Magazine just published the final back-and-forth between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky on digital activism. The debate followed Evgeny’s cover story in Prospect published last November, which I responded to (and disagreed with) at length here: Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?! And here: Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven.

I enjoyed reading the final exchange between Morozov and Shirky. Here’s where I agree and disagree with both authors.

Agree with Morozov

  • Growing Internet censorship in Iran is a logical reaction from a “rational-thinking” government concerned with possible revolution.
  • Only focusing on who controls communication networks may not be terribly helpful since Iran has other ways to control the internet. “One unfortunate consequence of limiting our analysis of internet control to censorship only is that it presents all authoritarian governments as technophobic and unable to capitalise on new technologies,” which is hardly the case.

Disagree with Morozov

  • Protests are not necessarily rare in repressive states. According to a study in 2006, “group protests in China have risen at a rate of at least 17% a year.” In 2005, there were an estimated 241 group protests per day. In Pakistan, local Field Monitors with Swisspeace coded 54 individual protests during 2007. Compare this with Reuters coverage of Pakistan, which only reported 7 protests that same year. If it’s not in the news does not mean it’s not happening.
  • The regime in Tehran may very well have the ability to turn off mobile phone coverage in public places where protests are organized but remember those things called land line telephones? Iran has 24.8 million of those (2008 est.) and is ranked 12th (above South Korea and Canada) in number of land line phones (ref). And besides, we’ve clearly seen that mobile phones are increasingly used for more than just communication. The tragic video footage of Neda (along with hundreds of other pictures) were all captured on mobile phones.
  • The fact that the Iranian regime has become more authoritarian following the post-elections  protests does not automatically imply the regime has become stronger. As I have written elsewhere, citing Brafman and Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider: “when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.” A more centralized and paranoid regime, however, doesn’t mean a more powerful regime. Greater repression is a typical reaction by a threatened regime during a revolution and often before a change of power.
  • The increased repression can also backfire. As mentioned in this previous blog post, “Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.” For further research on this issue, I recommend reading this piece on “Repression, Backfire and the Theory of Transformative Events,” by David Hess and Brian Martin.
  • One should also take into consideration the organizational topology of resistance movements. Brafman and Beckstrom argue that “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more decentralized.” This may make it more difficult for the regime to identify and crack down on the resistance movement in Iran.
  • I don’t think Burma serves as a valid comparison with Iran. In addition, the fact that there were no major democratic changes in Burma following the Saffron revolution in 2007 hardly means that the situation has been static since. I recently spoke with two colleagues who were in Burma a few months ago and was taken aback by some of the changes they observed.
  • Morozov asks what is to be gained if the ability to organize protests is matched or even overpowered by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters and possible future dissidents? A good question but one that seems to assumes a static and linear state of affairs. As I have argued elsewhere, tactical innovation, organizational learning and technological change means that this is unlikely.

Agree with Shirky

  • Just like the Protestant Reformation was shaped by the printing press, the Iranian protests were and is being shaped by social media, rather than simply Twitter. Perhaps “the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy.”
  • I’m including the following paragraphs in full as they are relevant to my dissertation research. For me the key words here are “synchronized public.”

“The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario).

Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens. As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.

  • Iran is unlikely to become a permanent Burma since “the kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran.”

Disagree with Shirky

  • On the Habermas reference to the “synchronized public”, Shirky overlooks the fact that a centralized, command-and-control organization is likely to have the upper hand on synchronization. He also forgets that repressive regimes do not face the same collective action problem that resistance movements face (c.f. information cascades). Granted, the “public” may be quicker in adapting to relatively rapid and small-albeit-important changes in the political environment but this needs to be tested in more depth.
  • Shirky agrees with Evgeny regarding the possibility that Iran may move towards the Burmese model of steady control. Put this way, I also agree with the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow. Neither Shirky, Morozov or myself are Iran specialists or have any inside information on the internal politics of the country. So best not to rely on any of us for expert political commentary on Iranian politics.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Diane Coyle Responds to Criticisms of UN/Vodafore Report

Guest Blogger: Diane Coyle, lead author of UN/Vodafone Report

The tone of some comments about our report has surprised and disappointed me. It should go without saying that a report-as opposed to a catalog-could never include all the technologies and applications available in this exciting field now.

We selected examples that illustrated relevant aspects of the use of communications and information in the context of an emergency or conflict. The selection methodology was that they should be good illustrations of innovative uses, covering a reasonable spread of technologies, users and countries. In addition, we played to our own strengths in terms of the technologies and approaches we know well, meaning that we understood thoroughly the contribution they can make.

What’s more, this is not an academic report, which some of the criticisms ignored. It is meant to be accessible to a general audience, especially practitioners and policy makers. Why on earth would we include a literature review?

Some comments simply seemed to have missed the point, and no doubt I could have spelled some things out more clearly. For example, the point made in the document about Cyclone Nargis is precisely that even in contexts which hold no promise for humanitarian agencies to introduce new information-rich technologies, very simple low-tech information can still help build community resilience.

Having said that, I am really grateful for comments which pointed out a few factual errors and infelicities, and I hope we can correct them soon. I’m confident that the report makes an important contribution in highlighting the potential for the latest technologies in this field, and the obstacles to realization of that potential.

Responding to Feedback on UN Foundation/Vodafone Report

Update: I’m in conversation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation about adding a paragraph on case selection, a case study on Sahana and correcting the error on UNOSAT.

The UN/Vodafone Foundation recently published a new Report on New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts. This blog post responds to feedback on this report. Please note that I do so as second-author. My respected colleague Diane Coyle is the report’s lead author and editor so she may have other thoughts on the feedback. Naturally, I will only address the feedback that relates to my input.

  • Intended audience: The report was written for a general (non-technical/expert) audience as a way to showcase technology applications in the humanitarian space.
  • Case selection: The case studies were selected in consultation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation throughout the research period. These consultations included the authors of the report (Diane and myself) and three members of the UN/Vodafone Foundation who served as editors. Some of the case studies were requested by the Foundation. For the other case studies, we strove to highlight some of the most recent initiatives in consultation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation. Of the 19 case studies selected, 13 didn’t exist some 2 years ago. The others comprise major global initiatives, fit well together as examples for a general audience, or were requested case studies. Clearly, the limited space did not allow us include everyone’s favorite project.
  • Length of report: We originally had some 80-or-so draft pages between us and had to reduce the content to about 60 pages. This meant having to decide what to keep and what to put aside. Some of the rewrite was also done to make the report less technical and more widely understandable. This helped to save on space.
  • UNOSAT and Sri Lanka: The reference does not intend to endorse or discount the interpretation of the imagery by the international community. The reference is based on in-person consultations with several well-placed experts. That said, I would agree that some rephrasing is in order this paragraph needs to be reworked.

On a personal note, I have found the tone of some criticisms rather disappointing and old school. There are several ways to give feedback: one is constructive, another is destructive. The former provides incentives to improve and continue an open collaborative conversation as a community. The latter defeats the incentive for growth and leads to a more self-centered community.

Some of the criticisms of this report have been destructive. Why is it that some of us can’t get our points across with more composure? Does bitterness make us feel more important? I expected a lot more from some of my (older, wiser) colleagues. But I haven’t always been good on providing constructive feedback either, so thanks to my “new fan club” I’ve got another New Year’s resolution for 2010: I will do my best to give constructive, supportive feedback.

Patrick Philippe Meier