Monthly Archives: January 2011

Facebook https is now live for Sudan

A very big thank you to the team at Facebook for allowing users in the Sudan to access Facebook securely. Instead of using the regular http:// access to the site, using https:// means that your connection is securely encrypted. This prevents malicious users from spying on your account and seeing your password, for example. This is why all online banking websites use https, as does Google with gmail. Tunisia in many ways set the precedent. Read this excellent account on the inside story of how Facebook responded to Tunisian hacks.

As we have seen in many situations, Facebook is often used by activists to schedule and coordinate mass action. This is equally true of the Sudan, with this Jan30 Facebook group, which now has over 17,000 members. However, in my recent Skype conversations with a number of Sudanese activists, I’ve realized that many of them didn’t know that the Tunisian government (for example) had been able to hack into Facebook accounts. While using https is not a complete panacea, it definitely is a step in the right direction re communicating securely in repressive environments. I’ve also encouraged colleagues to switch to using Hushmail for email communication.

So for colleagues in the Sudan, to set up https:// access, go to “My Account” then “Settings” and then “Account Security.” Here’s the equivalent in the Arabic interface:

You should click on “Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible” and also on “Send me an email” that way you get sent an automated email when a new computer or mobile phone logs into your account. If you have any questions, feel free to add them in the comments section of this blog.

Here are some other steps you can take to use Facebook more securely:

1. Do not share sensitive info on FB
2. User passphrases instead of passwords
3. Change you name, or at least do not provide your full name on FB*
4. Do not use a picture of yourself for your FB profile picture
5. Logout of FB when not using the site

* Use this with caution as it violates FB’s terms of service and if someone is targeting you, they can report you to FB. Also do not give FB your identification if asked (@JillianYork).

Again, using https and following these five steps is no guarantee that your account won’t be hacked, but it maximizes your chances of using Facebook more safely. If you have any security tips to share, please add them in the comments section of this blog post.

A big thank you once again to Facebook. I emailed them (via another colleague) with my concerns regarding Sudanese activists and they responded in a just a matter of hours. Facebook is also in the process of rolling this https option out for all their users worldwide.

Civil Resistance: Early Lessons Learned from Sudan’s #Jan30

Sudanese activists in Khartoum have shared early reflections on how they can improve their efforts. These lessons are applicable to others engaged in civil resistance and are therefore shared below.

Source 1:

There was insufficient clear communication leading up to the first protest, which led to the first mistake since NCP members were able to fake a delay of the event which mean that we lost a considerable number of our protesters.

The timing of the protest was also off.  You can not except an average Sudanese citizen to protest on the 30th of January after he just got his salary. The satisfaction of that will cover up the feeling of injustices and humiliation. So if a date is set up, it should be the 15th, 16th or 17th (the depression days in the Sudanese dictionary). Also, we can not except protesters to participate in something like this at 11:00am or 11:30am when every body is either in the middle of their job or on the way to it.

And we forget the main factor: the youth. Most of them are students that constrained with lecture attendance sheets: the Sudanese universities are very extreme in that matter since 2005 and students are failed out of class by teachers for skipping more than 25% of lectures, which means they would need to repeat the course or the whole year). So the time should change to 2:00pm or 2:30pm.

In the matter of using Facebook as our only connection yes we can recruit youth and talk to them about the problem that they are facing but in order to transfer from Facebook to the Sudanese reality you need a prepared arena, i.e., at least 50% of the city residents need to know what you will do before you do it. So I suggest more communication with the public before a month at least from the event and this needs creativity and persuasiveness.

Source 2:

… I met two friends and went up the road towards the presidential place at the end of the street. There was massive policemen presence and young people wandering around. I knew that they were confused about where the demonstration would begin. People did not know who were with them and who were against them. When we got closer to cross of Baladiya street with Qasar, people were running away, we kept moving and we saw people in plain clothes with policemen beating four persons, they were about 20 policemen and those  people in plain clothes, armed with stick and pipe, beating very hard those four persons, on chest, head and arms. This scene discouraged people to demonstrate, and of course that was the message security forces were trying to send.

Source 3:

We were very much predictable to the NCP members, we shouldn’t underestimate them in that matter we are dealing with people who have experience in destroying events like this cause the Sudanese didn’t change their ways in that matter since 1985 when they where the one’s who applied them with the rest of the parties… I have many thoughts about how we could work this event out. We also need someone from Egypt to tell us more about organizing and monitoring then we can readjust it to fit Sudan case.

There are some good resources (in Arabic) for activists in the Sudan and the Arab World (please contact me if you’d like copies):

  • Nonviolent Struggle – 50 Crucial Points.
  • Twitter for Activism.

There is also a Crowdmap on the protests in Khartoum which activists are contributing to.

Crisis Mapping Sudan: Protest Map of Khartoum

Unlike the many maps of the #Jan25 protests in neighboring Egypt there is but this one map for the #Jan30 protests taking place in the Sudan and Khartoum in particular. The map was requested by Sudanese colleagues in Khartoum who in their own words wanted a public map for the world to see what is happening in their own country.

Some 70 individual reports have been mapped thus far. These capture a range of incidents including the following:

  • Police use gas bombs against medical students [View Report]
  • Peaceful gatherings and demonstrations [View1 View2]
  • Sudanese security harassing foreign journalists [View1 View2]
  • Picture of police beating protesters on Palace Street [View]
  • Videos of protest in Khartoum [View]

While all eyes of the media are on Egypt, few are sharing the developments in the Sudan. This makes the Sudan map even more important. As Philip Howard has found in his comprehensive new study on “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” the presence of a comparatively active online civil society appears to be one of the key ingredients for democratic transition. Compared to the online civil society in Egypt, the one in the Sudan is far smaller. But activists in Khartoum have reached out to digital activists outside the country for support. And this joint effort has  resulted in more than just a map.

Sudanese contacts have been sharing relevant information via email  and Skype throughout the day, some of which is mapped, and some which is included in the News section of the map. In addition, digital activists have provided training on Twitter and have set up a Flickr account for the Sudanese activists (at their request). See this DigiActive guide on how to use Twitter for activism, also available in Arabic (PDF).

The group has also been trying hard to set up a local FrontlineSMS number for activists to text their reports directly to the map. The first phone they tried didn’t work, so they’re looking to use a GSM modem in the coming days. (Update: an international number has been set up). Once a number is set up, the activists want to share it widely, including the 16,000+ members of the Jan30 Facebook group. Local activists hope this will help them overcome some of the coordination challenges that cropped up today when there was confusion over where and when the demonstrations were meant to take place. This resulted in smaller dispersed protests instead of mass action. You can read more on first hand accounts of this in the News section which includes an email written by Sudanese activist about what they saw today.

Despite the constraints in organization, activists still took to the streets but did face higher risks by being in smaller more dispersed groups. I’m hoping they’ll be able to regroup and plan their future protests in such a way that there is less confusion. The activists do have a full copy of the mass action strategy guide used by Egyptian protesters this week. This may serve them well if they can circulate it widely in the country.

Crisis Mapping Egypt: Collection of Protest Maps (Updated)

The CrisisMappers Twitter feed has shared a number of maps depicting the ongoing protests in Egypt. Here is a collection of them. Do let me know if we’re missing any. To learn more about crisis mapping, read this blog post: What is Crisis Mapping? and join www.CrisisMappers.net. For a protest map of the demonstrations in Khartoum, Sudan, see this link.

Update: The Cairo-based Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC) has launched the Ushahidi map below. DISC has previously used the platform to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections last November and December  (see this post for more info).

Update: These Twitter maps Hypercities provide another way to visualize the event unfolding across the country.

Update: Storyful has this Google Map of the protests in downtown Cairo:

Update: OpenEgypt, an independent group of volunteers have set up the Open Egypt Crowdmap below:

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has put up this Jan 25th CrowdMap:

The company ESRI has produced the following Web Map of Egypt:

The New York Times has also put this protest map together:

Finally, the LA Times has this map up on their website:

How I’m following the developments in Egypt (Updated)

How to follow a 21st century revolution. What sources am I missing?

Twitter

Live Video

Live Stream

Aggregator

What is Crisis Mapping? An Update on the Field and Looking Ahead

I last updated my piece on A Brief History of Crisis Mapping some two years ago, well before the first International Conference on Crisis Mapping was held (ICCM 2009). So a brief update on the past 24 months may be in order, especially for a field that continues to grow so rapidly. When I Googled the term “crisis mapping” in September 2009, I got 8,680 hits. Today, one gets over 200,000. If you’re curious about the origins of the field and what happened before 2009, my original blog post still serves as a useful intro. I also recommend this recent video on Changing the World One Map at a Time and this earlier blog post on Proposing the Field of Crisis Mapping (also from 2009).

Clearly a full update on the past 24 months would constitute at least an MA thesis (if you’re a grad student and looking for a topic, email me!). So what is Crisis Mapping? “Dots on a map” is often the tongue-in-cheek reply. Crisis Mapping is of course a lot more than that. To place Crisis Mapping into context, it helps to think of the field as a subset of the “Live Mapping” space. I also often use the following analogy, crisis mapping platforms are to crises zones what MRI’s are to emergency rooms. Static, paper-based maps would be the equivalent of X-rays in this analogy. Crisis Mapping is thus live mapping focused on crises, and the term crisis here is deliberately broad, from slow-burn crises to sudden-onset disasters. Crisis Mapping is certainly not restricted to political crises but may include social and environmental crises, for example.

Crisis Mapping can be described as combining the following 3 components: information collection, visualization and analysis. Of course, all these elements are within the context of a dynamic, interactive map. So I typically use the following taxonomy:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Crisis Map Visualization
  3. Crisis Map Analysis

On Crisis Map Sourcing, there are multiple methodologies and technologies that one can use for information collection. These range from the traditional paper-based survey approaches and Walking-Papers to crowdsourcing reports via SMS and automatically parsing social media data on the web. Visualization is about rendering the information collected on a dynamic, interactive map in such a way that the rendering provides maximum insight on the data collected and any potential visual patterns. This is of course nothing new to the field of cartography and geographic information systems. What is perhaps new is that the technologies used for the visualization are free or open source or both, and that they don’t require much in the way of prior training. Some have referred to this as neogeography.

Crisis Map Analysis is also nothing new and simply entails the application of statistical techniques to spatial data for pattern or “signature” detection. What is perhaps novel is that the analysis is now happening more and more on the fly, i.e., in real-time. The point of doing this kind of analysis is to provide in-the-moment decision-support to users of a given Crisis Mapping platform. Thus the interface of said platforms should allow users to easily query the map and test out different scenarios to identify the best course of action given a changing or evolving environment. Ideally, a Crisis Mapping platform should also allow you to assess the impact of your actions.

So these are the terms and concepts that one can use to talk about the field of Crisis Mapping. But what exactly has changed over the two years?

I’d say the increasing use of free and open source crisis mapping software, for one. There has also been a lot more interest in the use of social media and up-to-date satellite imagery as a source of information. The same goes with using crowdsourcing to collect crisis information. The rise of online volunteers engaged in crisis mapping is another new and important development which holds much potential. This is particularly true as formal humanitarian organizations are now taking important steps to interface with these volunteer communities.

Perhaps what I am most excited about is the recent use of Crisis Mapping not just to identify problems but also existing solutions; the idea is to combine crowdsourcing with crowdfeeding to create a crowdsourcing “market place” that matches needs with resources. The basic idea is to help other help themselves. Professional disaster responders may not always be there to help but the crowd is always there. To learn more about this approach, please see this blog post.

One interesting impact of Crisis Mapping that hadn’t occurred to me two years ago is the social connectivity aspect. What do I mean by that? Simply this: the value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force exists in the first place. So Collaborative Crisis Mapping can generate both weak and strong-ties.

Where do I see the field going over the next 24 months? I think we’ll see more focus on solutions to process large volumes of geo-data in real time, especially of the social media and SMS type. By process I  mean automated data-mining, entity-extraction, geo-location, categorization and language translation combined with human-driven curation tools. The application of “Mechanical Turk” services may also become more common place.

What else? Existing Crisis Mapping platforms are highly limited because the majority are only available in the English language. So I expect this to change in the near future if platforms are really to scale. The role of mobile technologies will remain center stage, of course, with more multimedia content appearing on crisis maps along with live video feeds. As a result, I also expect (and hope) to see more examples of Maptivism, i.e., tactical live mapping.

In addition, I’d like to see more on-the-fly mashups of live data. Take the flood mapping in Queensland, Australia, for example. I hope to see future live maps like this one include live traffic and weather updates (and forecasts) as dynamics layers. Colleagues Anahi Ayala and Helena Puig have also been playing around with the idea of combining geo-referenced crowdsourced SMS reports with cell phone coverage maps to identify potential areas of “over-” and “under-reporting.” One could then develop simple algorithms to potentially identify unusual gaps in SMS reporting.

Finally, I’d like to see more “check-in” (and check-out) features integrated into Crisis Mapping platforms, i.e., simple one-click updates on one’s location and activity has many use-cases in crisis response, particularly if this can be combined with alternative uses of geo-caching, e.g., pre-formulated messages that are automatically activated upon checking-in at given locations and points in time. So instead of  the traditional message “In case of an emergency, break glass” you’d have “In case of emergency, check-in for info on how to survive.”

What are your thoughts? Where do you see the field of Crisis Mapping going over the next 12-24 months?

ICTs, Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship: Comprehensive Literature Review

Building on my previous post with respect to Howard Philip’s “Origin of Dictatorship and Democracy,” I’ve completed a draft of my dissertation chapter which comprises a comprehensive literature on the impact of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on Democracy, Activism and Dictatorship. This is a 54-page document (17,000+ words)  which I believe represents the most up-to-date and in-depth review of the literature currently available. The chapter reviews both the quantitative and qualitative literature in this space.

You can download the chapter here (PDF).

I’m actively looking for feedback to make the chapter even stronger and more useful to scholars and practitioners interested in this space. So please do add any recommendations you may have in the comments section below. Thank you very much!

The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy

I defended my dissertation proposal in early 2008 but the majority of the literature most relevant and helpful to my doctoral research surfaced in 2009 and 2010. So I’m rather grateful to the PhD program at The Fletcher School for letting me run with my chosen dissertation topic given the limited empirical literature to draw on back then.

The best new book I’ve come across since my proposal is Philip Howard’s “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” which was published just a few months ago. Howard seeks to answer the following question: “What is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?” More specifically, “The goal of this book is to analyze the ways in which new information technologies have contributed to democratic entrenchment or transition in countries with large Muslim communities.”

Howard demonstrates that “technology diffusion has had a crucial causal role in improvements in democratic institutions” and “that technology diffusion has become, in combination with other factors, both a necessary and sufficient cause of democratic transition or entrenchment.” Howard concludes: “Clearly the Internet and cell phones have not on their own caused a single democratic transition, but it is safe to conclude that today, no democratic transition is possible without information technologies.”

The book is getting superb reviews, and that is absolutely no surprise. This is truly the best book I’ve read on the topic of my dissertation thus far. Why? Howard’s research design and mixed-methods approach is by far the most rigorous one in the literature to date. I therefore plan to dedicate a few blog posts to summarize Howard’s approach and findings, starting here with the book’s prologue: “The Revolution in the Middle East will be Digitized,” which focuses on the Green Revolution in Iran. Below are some excerpts and commentary that reflect some of the key arguments from this first section of the book.

One of the main roles that information and communication technologies (ICTs) played in Iran was dissemination, which had a second-order effect on increasing levels of participation both in the streets and online.

“Opposition campaign managers in Iran consistently say that such Internet applications allow them to get messages out as never before and thereby organize bigger and bigger campaign rallies. Without access to broadcast media, savvy opposition campaigners turned social media applications like Facebook from minor pop culture fads into a major tool of political communication.”

“During the protests, even the most apolitical bloggers covered the demonstrations, and traffic at the dominant blogs swelled [and] social networking applications […] allowed even small enclaves to create content and reconnect with friends and family in Iran.”

“It does not matter that the number of bloggers, twitterers, or internet users may seem small, because in a networked social moment only a few ‘brokers’ need to be using these tools to keep everyone up to date.”

“These are the communication tools for the wealthy, urban, educated elites whose loyalties or defection will make or break authoritarian rule. Indeed, it is probably more useful to evaluate applications such as Twitter through the communities they support, rather than through tool features. […] Social movement scholars write that elite defection usually marks the end of an authoritarian regime.”

“In some ways the regime’s response was decidedly old media: expelling foreign correspondents, blocking phone lines, preventing the publication of daily newspapers, and accusing enemy governments of spreading misinformation.”

“They did not count on the large number of Iranians eager to submit their own content to international news agencies, and, perhaps more important, they did not realize that large numbers of Iranians would use social media to share their own personal stories of beatings, tear gas inhalation, and protest euphoria with each other.”

“Cyberactivism is no longer the unique provenance of isolated, politically motivated hackers. It is instead deeply integrated with contemporary social movement strategy and accessible to computer and mobile phone users with only basic skills: it is a distinguishing feature of modern political communication and a means of creating the élan that marks social change.”

Like Malcom Gladwell, Howard also addresses the role of strong and weak-ties in digital activism. To learn more about Gladwell’s point of view (and mine) regarding the question of social ties, please see my previous blog post here.

“Millions of people took to the streets in the week after the election results were announced and certainly not all were using Twitter. The majority of them, however, were responding to both strong and weak network ties and to the digital technologies designed to maintain those ties.”

“The unprecedented activation of weak social ties brought the concerns of disaffected youth, cheated voters, and beaten protesters to the attention of the mullahs. The result was a split within the ruling establishment on how to deal with the insurgency, how to proceed with counting ballots, and how to credibly authorize Ahmadinejad to take power.”

Howard’s balanced approach to the impact of ICTs on democracy is one of the main strengths of his book.

“So the country has one of the world’s most vibrant social media communities and the most concentrated broadcast media system in the Muslim world. Why, then, has the digital revolution in Iran not had the type of clear political outcomes or institutional consequences seen in other authoritarian regimes?”

“The answer, in part, is that while such information technologies have become a fundamental infrastructure for journalists and civil society groups, they are a necessary but not sufficient causal condition for contemporary regime change. So based on real-world experience, what is the causal recipe for democratization, and are information technologies an important ingredient?”

“In the language of fuzzy sets ways, Iran’s postelection insurgency was almost an example of a digital revolution. In is unlikely that protests would have lasted as long, raised so much international support, and had such an impact on domestic politics had it not been for mobile phones and the internet. The internet did not cause the insurgency, and it is probably a truism to say that no contemporary democratic revolution in the Middle East will happen without the internet. In times of political crisis, banal tools for wasting time, like Twitter and YouTube, become the supporting infrastructure of social movements. As one ethnic Azeri blogger told me, the regime has learned that the Internet makes collective action possible.”

“Technology alone does not cause political change—it did not in Iran’s case. But it does provide new capacities and impose new constraints on political actors. New information technologies do not topple dictators; they are used to catch dictators off-guard.”

That last paragraph resonates with me and relates to this idea of information cascades that Dan Drezner has written about here. The momentary window of opportunity that reversals information cascades offer can be used to catch dictators off-guard. This explains why preparedness and training is important.

So what ultimately was the actual impact of the 2009 protests? According to Howard,

“Digital media sustained protests well beyond what pundits expected. Indeed, this new information infrastructure gave social movement leaders the capacity not only to reach out to sympathetic audiences overseas but also to reach two important domestic constituencies: rural, conservative voters who had few connections to the urban chaos; and the clerical establishment.”

“Most important, the Internet gave the social movement access to the clerical establishment through weak ties of social networks that connected mullahs to Iranians on the street.”

“Iran’s street protests failed to topple their government. But just as important, the world’s most technologically advanced censors failed to manage the government’s election crisis. And the region’s dictators have a new concern: their own tech-savvy, disaffected youth.”

“The world has seen interest in change expressed from within Iran, and this may prove to be the most destabilizing outcome of the protests. The regime’s brutalities streamed around the globe. The world saw the dissent; the regime knows the world saw the dissent.”

This idea of shared awareness appeals to me a lot, not least because of my work on the Ushahidi platform since the tool—when used correctly—can generate shared awareness. But why is shared awareness even important in this context?

As Shirky recently noted here, “social media tools provides participants with ’shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too.” Dan Drezner takes it one step further, arguing here that, “the ability of the state to repress can evaporate […] at moments when a critical mass off citizens recognizes their mutual dissatisfaction with their government.”

For me, one of the most salient points that Howard makes in the prologue to this book is this: “The initial conditions for social movement organizing are very different from those of the pre-internet era.” Here are some other key take-aways:

“In contemporary systems of political communication, citizens turn to the Internet as a source of news and information in times of political crisis. It is not only that online social networking services are influential as a communications media; rather, they are now also a fundamental infrastructure for social movements. And the Internet globalizes local struggles.”

“Information and communication technologies are the infrastructure for transposing democratic ideals from community to community. They support the process of learning new approaches to political representation, of testing new organizational strategies, and of cognitively extending the possibilities and prospects for political transformation from one context to another.”

“But it would be a mistake to tie any theory of social change to a particular piece of software. In the summer of 2009 the Iranian insurgency was very much shaped by several digital communication tools, which allowed social movements within the country to organize protests and exchange information and made it possible for those groups to maintain contact with the rest of the world.”

“Traditional radio and televised appeals did not figure in the mobilization, and they are not very important to understanding what happened in Iran last summer.”

“If new information technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet provided the communications infrastructure for mobiliza- tion, was the lack of democratic transition a technological or social failing?”

This last question is spot on and for me the correct way to phrase the debate on digital activism in repressive environments. The question can also be applied to deployments of the Ushahidi platform, i.e., is the lack of impact of an Ushahidi deployment a technological or social failing?

Howard makes a number of points in his prologue that made me think about the Ushahidi and SwiftRiver platforms. For example,

“Authoritarian regimes always conduct propaganda battles over broadcast media. But what is the regime countermeasure for the chilling effects of a plea from someone in your social network who has been a victim of police brutality?”

“Rafsanjani developed a plan for ad hoc exit polling by mobile phones. Deliberative democracy theorists argue that independent exit polling is a key logistical feature of healthy election practices. This probably explains why disabling mobile phone services is so important for discouraging any organized measurement of how rigged a contemporary election may be.”

“Specialty Persian news channels in Los Angeles received hundreds of digital videos daily, and YouTube became the repository for the digitally captured, lived experiences of the chaotic streets of Tehran. On June 20, Neda Agha-Soltan was shot dead at a demonstration, and her death was caught on several mobile phone cameras.”


Crisis Mapping by Fire: Satellite Imagery Analysis of Kenya’s Election Violence

My brother Brice just sent me a very interesting study that combines satellite imagery and field reporting to analyze Kenya’s 2008 election violence. The peer-reviewed piece is entitled “Violence and Exodus in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 2008: Predictable and Preventable?” and was pub- lished in the Journal of East African Studies.

Given the use of satellites to monitor the referendum in Sudan, this blog post reviews the methodology and insights gained from the Kenya analysis. I’ll do this by providing key excerpts from the study along with my own commentary. This case study is of particularly interest to me since I was in Kenya the time and because that was when the first Ushahidi platform was launched. For more information on the use of satellite imagery to document human rights abuses, I highly recommend Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights Explorer.

I wasn’t aware how much scrambling for information was going on in the humanitarian community:

“Over the first days, and then weeks following the December election, information about the outbreak and extent of violence was fragmented and difficult to access. Even those tasked with responding most rapidly to violence and displacement faced problems in interpreting information that was frequently distorted by rumour and misinformation.”

Interesting to know that humanitarians were facing some of the same challenges as crowdsourcing presents. Would using SwiftRiver have made a difference to try and assess the validity of the information they were collecting?

“In the early days of January 2007, UN agencies and other humanitarian bodies had numerous sources reporting that tens of thousands of people had been displaced and dozens killed across the country, yet details on the extent, location, and chronology of the violence were hard to establish, making it difficult for these agencies to plan an effective response.”

Note the need for location and time-stamped information. Would drawing on reports from the Ushahidi platform have helped? See my co-authored study on Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence. That said, this was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in Kenya so the reports may not have been of the highest quality.

“The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), for example, implemented the election contingency plan it had put in place prior to the December polls, but staff could not confirm reports of violence, and could not deliver essential food and relief items to those people displaced by the fighting because of roadblocks mounted by protestors. Even after carrying out a helicopter assessment mission on 1 January 2008, the KRCS still found it difficult to present an overall picture of the location and timing of the violence.”

So UN agencies in Kenya turned to satellite imagery.

“In response to the challenges facing them in January 2007, UN agencies in Kenya asked UNOSAT to produce a series of maps showing the likely location of election-related violence in the west of the country. UNOSAT has a variety of satellite imaging data available to them, but one tool used to map conflict situations is data on active fires. Fire plays an important role in forcing people from their homes and terrorizing local populations, so the location of active burn sites in a conflict zone offers a reasonable indicator of where violence and displacement is occurring.”

“Indeed, upon examining available fire data from Kenya for 27 December to 3 January, staff at UNOSAT noticed unusual patterns of fires on tea plantations—areas where fire is never normally employed for agricultural management. They then carried out further analysis, and created maps of areas where, according to a chronological and spatial evaluation of the fire data, it was ‘probable that a majority of detected fires are directly or indirectly linked to the civil unrest’.”

“The result was five maps covering a portion of Rift Valley Province from Nakuru to Kitale, as well as the eastern edges of Nyanza and Western Provinces. Map 1 provides an aggregate view of all active fire locations from 27 December 2007 to 3 January 2008.”

“Maps 2-5 show fires on specific days during that period. Each of the diamonds on the maps represents an area of a square kilometre that contained an active fire location at the time a satellite passed overhead. Fires generally have to cover an area of about fifty square metres to be noticed by this technology, though intensity can affect this. The colouring in the background, on the other hand, is a function of the relative clustering of active fire locations—purely a tool to direct the map-reader and not an indication of fire intensity.”

“Apart from demonstrating the geographical dimensions of the arson and conflict occurring in the area, the maps also begin to provide a general chronology of events into which more specific accounts from witness testimonies and other sources can be integrated. UNOSAT’s four chronological maps (Maps 2-5) cover the majority of the eight day period: 27-28 December, 29-30 December, 1 January, and 2!3 January, and provide powerful visuals of how events unfolded.”

“It is important to bear in mind that gaps in data collection occurred on 31 December and 2 January, and that satellite imagery captures what is happening in a particular fraction of a second—data acquisition times generally occurred around 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 11 p.m. Kenyan local time. Bearing this in mind, it is possible using the maps to begin to understand the broad pattern of the escalation of the violence over the period.”

The authors of the study point out some limitations:

“These maps are visually compelling, but we should note that they ‘hide’ important dimensions of the violence—on a map all fires look the same. Violence in urban areas, for instance, differed markedly from that in rural areas, and these maps do not represent this difference. Another example is how little these maps reveal about the increasingly serious situation in Mt Elgon.”

This limitation is inherent to static maps, not so for live crisis maps that are interactive and dynamic.

“The mark of a single fire in the southern part of the district included on two of the maps does not stand out from the other fire locations. However, we know from other sources that violence in Mt Elgon continued to increase in severity after the elections. If violence was occurring on the Chebyuk land settlement schemes on Mt Elgon at this time, then it did not involve fires of sufficient magnitude to be detected by this satellite technology.”

“The mapping of fires can therefore tell us only part of the story. Cohesive explanations of specific situations can only begin to emerge if we triangulate the evidence provided by the maps with other kinds of information. This research is continuing, but at this stage we can offer a preliminary analysis that highlights several significant points:

  • Even before the first wave of violence in the Rift Valley was sparked by the announcement of the presidential poll result on 30 December 2007, conflict had already broken out in some areas over the two days between the closure of the polls and the announcement of the presidential result. This correlates with evidence in media and human rights reports that some majimboist activists planned violence after the election regardless of the outcome of the vote.
  • Over the hours following Kivuitu’s announcement of Kibaki’s victory, violence broke out in several different locations across the province, some of this undoubtedly a spontaneous reaction to the alleged ‘theft’ of the election, and targeted against persons associated with the PNU and its allies. However, many other attacks were evidently planned and orchestrated. Kikuyu-settled areas of Eldoret were ablaze within two hours of Kibaki’s re-election, armed Kalenjin men arriving in lorries to carry out the attacks. These assaults were not confined to ‘aliens’, but included attacks upon properties owned by ex-president Moi and his close Kalenjin associates, including Nicholas Biwott, whose KANU party had made an electoral pact with PNU.
  • The locations of this first major wave of violence in the first week of January show a clear spatial pattern: the outbreaks were invariably in places where non-indigenous populations were living. The targets of this violence were predominantly Kikuyu and Kisii communities, who were identified as PNU supporters. Though many attacks were murderous, the main purpose was to ‘chase away’ the victims. By 6 January, the Kenya Red Cross estimated a national figure of 211,000 persons internally displaced in violence since 30 December, the vast majority of these being within Rift Valley.
  • The violence accordingly coalesced in two types of location: the first was larger and smaller towns, where populations are ethnically more mixed and where businesses are concentrated—for example the rapid upsurge of conflict in and around Eldoret. The second was on rural settlement schemes, where land has been purchased or leased by farmers from a wide range of ethnic groups—for example, Burnt Forest, Ndalat, and the Molo area of Nakuru District. The settlement schemes at Burnt Forest, the scene of dreadful violence in the 1990s, were completely cut off by road barricades by the morning of 1 January, impeding the work of relief agencies, in what was clearly an organized and coordinated assault.”

This study clearly shows the added value of combining satellite imagery analysis with reporting from the ground. This analysis was all carried out retroactively, however. To this end, lets hope that the Satellite Sentinel Project, which I blogged about here, and Sudan Vote Monitor, which uses the Ushahidi platform, will be sharing information to allow for near real-time integrated analysis.

New Publications on Haiti, Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping

Two new publications that may be of interest to iRevolution readers:

MIT’s Journal, Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization just released a special edition focused on Haiti which includes lead articles by President Bill Clinton and Digicel’s CEO Denis O’Brien. My colleague Ida Norheim-Hagtun and I were invited to contribute the following piece: Crowdsourcing for Crisis Mapping in Haiti. The edition also includes articles by Mark Summer from Inveneo and my colleague Josh Nesbit from Medic:Mobile.

The SAIS Review of International Affairs recently published a special edition on the cyber challenge threats and opportunities in a networked world, which includes an opening article on Internet Freedom by Alec Ross. My colleague Robert Munro and I were invited to submit write the following piece: The Unprecedented Role of SMS in Disaster Response, which focuses specifically on Haiti. Colleagues from Havard University’s Berkman Center also had a piece on Political Change in the Digital Age, which I reviewed here.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like copies of the articles on Haiti. In the meantime, here is a must-read for everyone working in Haiti: “Foreign Friends, Leave January 12th to Haitians.”