Monthly Archives: December 2011

Time to #Occupy my #Holiday

I’m about to go offline  for what will seem like an eternity. Yes, that’s right, I shall part with my laptop for a record breaking 10 days. The last time this (almost) happend was exactly three years ago (although that was for “just” 6.5 days and I did slip online in-between to write a blog post). In fact, only twice have I left my laptop (and the Internet) alone for more than 72 hours since December 2008, i.e., during the past ~1,095 days. Yes, that is indeed a tragic statistic.

In order to truly enjoy complete peace of mind during these precious 12 days, I shall follow the wise ways of the White African, a.k.a. Hash, a.k.a. Erik Hersman. I shall for the first time in a long time set up an automated email reply message with a link to this post. But wait, there’s more. If you’ve found your way here after receiving said automated reply, here’s why (paraphrasing Hash):

Im off-grid on holiday until January 9th. This means that any communica-tions that come in before Jan 9th will be DELETED upon return. I do this for peace of mind on vacation, not because I don’t value what you have to say. No one wants to come back to an inbox of 2000+ messages. If it’s impor-tant, hit me up (resend) after Jan 9th.

Be well and hug someone. I’m about to Occupy my Holiday.

SMS for Violence Prevention: PeaceTXT International Launches in Kenya

[Cross-posted from my post on the Ushahidi blog]

One of the main reasons I’m in Nairobi this month is to launch PeaceTXT International with PopTech, Praekelt Foundation, Sisi ni Amani and several other key partners. PeaceTXT International is a spin-off from the original PeaceTXT project that several of us began working on with CeaseFire Chicago last year. I began thinking about the many possible international applications of the PeaceTXT project during our very first meeting, which is why I am thrilled and honored to be spearheading the first PeaceTXT International pilot project.

The purpose of PeaceTXT is to leverage mobile messaging to catalyze behavior change around peace and conflict issues. In the context of Chicago, the joint project with CeaseFire aims to leverage SMS reminders to interrupt gun violence in marginalized neighborhoods. Several studies in other fields of public health have already shown the massive impact that SMS reminders can have on behavior change, e.g., improving drug adherence behavior among AIDS and TB patients in Africa, Asia and South America.

Our mobile messaging campaign in Chicago builds on another very successful one in the US: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive.” Inspired by this approach, the PeaceTXT Team is looking to launch a friends-don’t-let-friends-get-killed campaign. Focus groups recently conducted with high-risk individuals have resulted in rich content for several dozen reminder messages (see below) that could be disseminated via SMS. Note that CeaseFire has been directly credited for significantly reducing the number of gun-related killings in Chicago over the past 10 years. In other words, they have a successful and proven methodology; one being applied to several other cities and countries worldwide. PeaceTXT simply seeks to scale this success by introducing SMS.

These messages are user-generated in that the content was developed by high-risk individuals themselves—i.e., those most likely to get involved in gun violence. The messages are not limited to reminders. Some also prompt the community to get engaged by responding to various questions. Indeed, the project seeks to crowdsource community solutions to gun violence and thus greater participation. When high-risk individuals were asked how they’d feel if they were to receive these messages on their phones, they had the following to share: “makes me feel like no one is forgetting about me”; “message me once a day to make a difference.”

Given that both forwarding and saving text messages is very common among the population that CeaseFire works with, the team hopes that the text messages will circulate and recycle widely. Note that the project is still in prototype phase but going into implementation mode as of 2012. So we’ll have to wait and see how the project fares and what the initial impact looks like.

In the meantime, PeaceTXT is partnering with Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace) to launch its first international pilot project. Rachel Brown, who spearheads the initiative, first got in touch with me back in the Fall of 2009 whilst finishing her undergraduate studies at Tufts. Rachel was interested in crowdsourcing a peace map of Kenya, which I blogged about here shortly after our first conversation. Since then, Rachel and her team have set up the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani Kenya (SnA-K) to leverage mobile technology for awareness raising and civic engagement with the aim of preventing possible violence during next year’s Presidential Elections.

SnA-K currently manages a ~10,000 member SMS subscriber list in Baba Dogo and Korogocho, Kamukunji and Narok. SnA-K’s SMS campaigns focus on voter education, community cohesion and rumor prevention. What SnA-K needs, how-ever, is the scalable SMS broadcasting technology, the type of focus that PeaceTXT brought to CeaseFire Chicago and the unique response methodology developed by the CeaseFire team. So I reached out to Rachel early on during the work in Chicago to let her know about PeaceTXT and to gain insights from her projects in Kenya. We set up regular conference calls throughout the year to keep each other informed of our respective progress and findings.

Soon enough, PopTech’s delightful Leetha Filderman asked me to put together a pitch for international applications of PeaceTXT’s work, an initiative I have “code-named” PeaceTXT International. I was absolutely thrilled when she shared the good news at PopTech 2011 that our donor, the Rita Allen Foundation, had provided us with additional funding, some of which could go towards an international pilot project. Naturally, Sisi ni Amani was a perfect fit.

So we organized a half-day brainstorming session at the iHub last week to chart the way forward on PeaceTXT Kenya. For example, what is the key behavioral change variable (like friendship in Chicago) that is most likely to succeed in Kenya? As for interrupting violence, how can the CeaseFire methodology be customized for the SnA-K context? Finally, what kind of SMS broadcasting technology do we need to have in place to provide maximum flexibility and scalability earlier rather than later? Answering these questions and implementing scalable solutions essentially forms the basis of the partnership between SnA-K and PeaceTXT (which also includes Mobile:Medic & Revolution Messaging). We have some exciting leads on next steps and will be sure to blog about them as we move forward to get feedback from the wider community.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and the emotions that these stories generate. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform relationships and communities. We believe the PeaceTXT model can be applied to catalyze behavior  change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues at the community level by amplifying new narratives via SMS. There is considerable potential here and still much to learn, which is why I’m thrilled to be working with SnA, PopTech & partners on launching our first international pilot project: PeaceTXT Kenya.

Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map: #SomaliaSpeaks

Somalia has been steadily slipping from global media attention over the past few months. The large scale crisis is no longer making headline news, which means that advocacy and lobbying groups are finding it increasingly difficult to place pressure on policymakers and humanitarian organizations to scale their intervention in the Horn of Africa. I recently discussed this issue with Al-jazeera’s Social Media Team whilst in Doha and pitched a project to them which has just gone live this hour.

The joint project combines the efforts of multiple partners including Al-Jazeera, Ushahidi, Souktel, Crowdflower, the African Diaspora Institute and the wider Somali Diaspora. The basis of my pitch to Al-jazeera was to let ordinary Somalis speak for themselves by using SMS to crowdsource their opinions on the unfolding crisis. My colleagues at Al-jazeera liked the idea and their editorial team proposed the following question:

Al Jazeera wants to know: how has the conflict of the last few months affected your life? Please include the name of your hometown in your response. Thank you!

So I reached out to my good friend Jacob Korenblum at Souktel. He and I had been discussing different ways we might combine our respective technologies to help in Somalia. Souktel has been working in Somalia and providing various SMS based solutions to several organizations. Jacob had previously mentioned that his team had a 50,000+ member SMS subscriber list. This proved to be key. Earlier this week, the Souktel team sent out the above question in Somali to about 5,000 of their subscribers. An effort was made to try and select geographically disbursed areas.

We’ve since received well over 2,000 text message replies and counting. In order to translate and geolocate these messages, I got in touch my colleagues Vaughn Hester and Lukas Biewald at Crowdflower in San Francisco. Crowdflower uses micro-tasking solutions to process and structure data flows. They were very keen to help and thanks to their support my Ushahidi colleagues Rob Baker and Linda Kamau were able to customize this Crowdflower plugin to translate, categorize and geo-locate incoming text messages:

 

They also wrote additional software so that text messages from Souktel could be automatically forwarded to the Crowdflower plugin which would then automatically push the processed SMS’s to a live Ushahidi map hosted by Al-jazeera. While the software development was moving forward, I connected  with colleagues from the Somali American Student Association who expressed an interest in supporting this project. Thanks to them and other members of the Somali Diaspora, hundreds of Somali voices were translated and shared on Al-jazeera’s public Ushahidi map of Somalia within days. But we still need lots of help. So if you speak Somali and English, then simply follow this link.

I wanted this project to serve as a two-way conversation, however, not just a one-way information flow from Somalia to the world. Every report  that gets mapped on an Ushahidi platform is linked to public discussion forum where readers can respond and share their views on said report. So I suggested that Al-jazeera invite their viewers/readers to comment on the text messages directly. The next step will be for Al-jazeera’s editorial team to select some of the most compelling and interesting comments and to text these back to the senders of the original text messages in Somalia. This two-way flow of information can be iterated and scaled given that the technologies and workflows are already in place.

In sum, the purpose of this project is to catalyze global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then this project  invites Somalis speak to the world themselves. The project highlights  these voices on a live, public map for the world to bear witness and engage in a global conversation with people of Somalia, a conversation in which Somalis and the Diaspora are themselves at the centerfold. It is my sincere hope that advocacy and lobby group will be able to leverage the content generated by this project to redouble their efforts in response to the escalating crisis in Somalia.

I very much hope to see this type of approach used again in Somalia and elsewhere. It is fully inline with the motivations that inspired the launch of the first Ushahidi platform almost 4 years ago today: collective witnessing. Indeed, I am often reminded of what my friend Anand Giridharadas of the New York Times wrote last year vis-a-vis Ushahidi. To paraphrase:

They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time:

“I was here, and this is what happened to me”?

 Use #SomaliaSpeaks to witness the project on Twitter.

I want to specifically thank the following individuals who put an incredible amount of time and effort (most pro bono) to make this project happen: Robert Baker, Linda Kamau, Michael Moszczynski, Katie Highet, Jacob Korenblum, Vaughn Hester, Mohammed Dini, Hamza Haadoow, Andrew Jawitz and of course the excellent Al Jazeera team in Doha. Thank you all for going above and beyond to make this happen. 

Why Bounded Crowdsourcing is Important for Crisis Mapping and Beyond

I coined the term “bounded crowdsourcing” a couple years back to distinguish the approach from other methodologies for information collection. As tends to happen, some Muggles (in the humanitarian community) ridiculed the term. They freaked out about the semantics instead of trying to understand the under-lying concept. It’s not their fault though, they’ve never been to Hogwarts and have never taken Crowdsourcery 101 (joke!).

Open crowdsourcing or “unbounded crowdsourcing” refers to the collection of information with no intentional constraints. Anyone who hears about an effort to crowdsource information can participate. This definition is inline with the original description put forward by Jeff Howe: outsourcing a task to a generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

In contrast, the point of “bounded crowdsourcing” is to start with a small number of trusted individuals and to have these individuals invite say 3 additional individuals to join the project–individuals who they fully trust and can vouch for. After joining and working on the project, these individuals in turn invite 3 additional people they fully trust. And so on and so forth at an exponential rate if desired. Just like crowdsourcing is nothing new in the field of statistics, neither is “bounded crowdsourcing”; it’s analog being snowball sampling.

In snowball sampling, a number of individuals are identified who meet certain criteria but unlike purposive sampling they are asked to recommend others who also meet this same criteria—thus expanding the network of participants. Although these “bounded” methods are unlikely to produce representative samples, they are more likely to produce trustworthy information. In addition, there are times when it may be the best—or indeed only—method available. Incidentally, a recent study that analyzed various field research methodologies for conflict environments concluded that snowball sampling was the most effective method (Cohen and Arieli 2011).

I introduced the concept of bounded crowdsourcing to the field of crisis mapping in response to concerns over the reliability of crowd sourced information. One excellent real world case study of bounded crowdsourcing for crisis response is this remarkable example from Kyrgyzstan. The “boundary” in bounded crowd-sourcing is dynamic and can grow exponentially very quickly. Participants may not all know each other (just like in open crowdsourcing) so in some ways they become a crowd but one bounded by an invite-only criteria.

I have since recommended this approach to several groups using the Ushahidi platform, like the #OWS movement. The statistical method known as snowball sampling is decades old. So I’m not introducing a new technique, simply applying a conventional approach from statistics to the field of crisis mapping and calling it bounded to distinguish the methodology from regular crowdsourcing efforts. What is different and exciting about combining snowball sampling with crowd-sourcing is that a far larger group can be sampled, a lot more quickly and also more cost-effectively given today’s real-time, free social networking platforms.

Crowdsourcing vs Putin: “Mapping Dots is a Disease on the Map of Russia”

I chose to focus my dissertation research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during elections in repressive states. Why? Because the contentious relationship between state and society during elections is accentuated and the stakes are generally higher than periods in-between elections. To be sure, elections provide momentary opportunities for democratic change. Moreover, the impact of ICTs on competitive events such as contentious elections may be more observable than the impact on state-society relations during the regular calendar year.  In other words, the use of ICTs during election periods may shed some light on whether said technologies empower coercive regimes at the expense of civil society or vice versa.

This was certainly the case this past week in Russia as a result of the above crowdsourced election-violations map, which was used to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election viola-tions that span the following categories:

While this map is not powered by the Ushahidi platform (contrary to this claim), the many similarities suggest that the project was inspired by the earlier nation-wide use of the Ushahidi platform in 2010, namely the Russia Fires Help Map. In fact, the major initiator of the Violations Map attended a presentation on Ushahidi and Help Map in Boston earlier this year.

The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country’s only independent election monitoring organization and Gazeta.ru, Russia’s leading Internet newspaper. This promotional banner for the map was initially displayed on Gazeta.ru’s website but was subsequently taken down by the Editor in Chief who cited commercial reasons for the action: “Right now we have such a period that this advertisement place is needed for commercial advertisement. But we’re still partners with Golos.”

The deputy editor from Gazeta who had curated the map resigned in protest: “After it became evident that the Violation Map ‘no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website’, [the deputy editor said,]  it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work. Despite Gazeta.ru’s withdrawal from the project, the Violation Map found another partner, “Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly).”

My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).

As is well know, Golos is funded by both American and European organizations. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of Golos, as recently quoted in the Washington Post:

“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.

“As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain,” he added. “First, because Judas is not the most respected of biblical characters among our people. And, second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”

As expected by many, hackers took down the Golos website along with the Election-Violations Map. (The Sudanese government did the same last year when independent Sudanese civil society groups used the Ushahidi platform to monitor the country’s first presidential elections in two decades). Incidentally, Slon.ru seems to have evaded the take-down. In any case, the blocking of websites is just one very easy tactic available to hackers and repressive regimes. Take this other tactic, for example:

According to a Russian-speaking colleague of mine (who also pointed me to this pro-Kremlin activist video), the woman says that “mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia.” The video shows her calling the Map’s dedicated number to report a false message (she gives a location that doesn’t exist) and subsequently fills out a false report online. In other words, this is an instructional video on how to submit false information to a crowdsourcing platform. A fully translated transcript of the video is available here.

This same colleague informed me that one of Russia’s State Television Channels subsequently broadcast a program in which it accused those behind the Violations Map of making false claims about the falsification of reports, accusing the “Maptivists” of using an American tool in efforts against the Russian ruling party. In addition, the head of Russia’s Election Committee submitted a complaint against the map to the court, which resulted in the organizers receiving a $1,000 fine (30,0000 Rubles).

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD student at LSE, argues that the Russian government’s nervous reaction to the crowdsourced map and its attempt to delegitimize and limit its presence in cyberspace is clear proof of the project’s impact. Gregory goes on to write that the crowdsourced map is an interim product, not a finished product, which serves as a diagnostic system in which individuals are the sensors. He also argues that crowdsourcing mirrors the reliability of society and thus claims that if there is low confidence in the reliability of crowdsourced information, this is a diagnosis of society and not the crowdsourcing tool itself.

Alexey Sidorenko concludes with the following: “The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring. Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. […] none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now. This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.”

My dissertation research asked the following question: Do New ICTs Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society? In the case of Russia’s Parliamentary Elections, it would seem so. So my next question is this: If Help Map inspired this week’s Election Violations Map, then what will the latter inspire now that many more have been exposed to the power of crowdsourcing and live maps? Stay tuned for the next round of Crowdsourcing vs. Putin.

Why Architecture and Calendars Are Trojan Horses for Repressive Regimes

The simple thought first occurred to me while visiting Serbia earlier this year. As I walked in front of the country’s parliament, I recalled Steve York’s docu-mentary, “Bringing Down a Dictator.” In one particular scene, a large crowd assembles in front of the Serbian parliament chanting for the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic. Soon after, they storm the building and find thousands of election ballots rigged in the despot’s favor. I then thought of Tahrir Square and how more than a million protestors had assembled there to demand that Hosni Mubarak step down. There was one obvious place for protestors to assemble in Cairo during the recent revolts. The word Tahrir means “liberation” in Arabic. That’s what I call free advertising and framing par excellence.

These scenes play out over and over across the history of revolutions and popular resistance movements. In many ways, state architecture that is meant to project power and authority can just as easily be magnets and mobilization mechanisms for popular dissent; a hardware hack turned against it’s coders. A Trojan Horse of sorts in the computing sense of the word.

So not only was the hardware vulnerable to attack in Cairo, but the software—and indeed the name of the main variable, Tahrir—was also susceptible to “political hacking”. These factors help synchronize shared awareness and purpose in resistance movements. There’s not much that repressive regimes can do about massive hardware vulnerabilities. Yes, they can block off Tahrir for a certain period of time but the square won’t disappear. Besides, regimes require the hardware to project symbols of legitimacy and order. So these must stay but be secured by the army. The latter must also preempt any disorder. So more soldiers need to be deployed, especially around sensitive dates such as anniversaries of revolutions, massacres, independent movements etc. These politically sensitive days need not be confined to local events either. They can include dates for international events in contemporary world history.

A colleague of mine recently returned from China where he was doing research for a really interesting book he’s writing on subverting authoritarian control. He relayed how the calendar in China is getting more crowded with sensitive dates. Each date requires the state to deploy at times considerable resources to preempt or quickly put down any unrest. He described how the vast majority of people assembled at a recent protest in Beijing were actually undercover police officers in plain clothes. This is not immediately obvious when watching the news on television. The undercover officers inadvertently make the turnout look far bigger than it actually is.

As authoritarian regimes increase their efforts to control public spaces, they may require more time and resources to do so–a classic civil resistance strategy. They may sometimes resort to absurd measures like in Belarus. According to a Polish colleague of mine, the regime there has gone so far as to outlaw “doing nothing” in public venues. Previously, activists would simply assemble in numbers in specific places but do nothing—just to prove a point. The regime’s attempt to crack down on “doing nothing” makes it look foolish and susceptible to political jokes, a potent weapon in civil resistance. More here on subversive strategies.

The importance of public spaces like Tahrir in Cairo are even more evident when you look at a city like Alexandria. According to my colleague Katherine Maher, one of the main challenges for activists in Alex has been the lack of a central place for mass gathering. In fact, the lack of such hardware means that the “activism software” needs to run differently: activists in Alex are looking to organize marches instead of mass sit-ins, for example. More here on civil resistance strategies and tactics used by Egyptian activists.

Know of other “hardware” hacks? I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thank you!