Category Archives: Early Warning

Using Ushahidi Data to Study the Micro-Dynamics of Violent Conflict

The field of conflict analysis has long been handicapped by the country-year straightjacket. This is beginning to change thanks to the increasing availability of subnational and sub-annual conflict data. In the past, one was limited to macro-level data, such as the number of casualties resulting from violent conflict in a given county and year. Today, datasets such as the Armed Conflict Location Event Data (ACLED) provide considerably more temporal and spatial resolution. Another example is this quantitative study: “The Micro-dynamics of Reciprocity in an Asymmetric Conflict: Hamas, Israel, and the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict,” authored by by NYU PhD Candidate Thomas Zeitzoff.

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I’ve done some work on conflict event-data and reciprocity analysis in the past (such as this study of Afghanistan), but Thomas is really breaking new ground here with the hourly temporal resolution of the conflict analysis, which was made possible by Al-Jazeera’s War on Gaza project powered by the Ushahidi platform.

ABSTRACT

The Gaza Conflict (2008-2009) between Hamas and Israel was de fined the participants’ strategic use of force. Critics of Israel point to the large number of Palestinian casualties compared to Israelis killed as evidence of a disproportionate Israeli response. I investigate Israeli and Hamas response patterns by constructing a unique data set of hourly conflict intensity scores from new social media and news source over the nearly 600 hours of the conflict. Using vector autoregression techniques (VAR), I fi nd that Israel responds about twice as intensely to a Hamas escalation as Hamas responds to an Israeli escalation. Furthermore, I find that both Hamas’ and Israel’s response patterns change once the ground invasion begins and after the UN Security Council votes. (Study available as PDF here).

As Thomas notes, “Ushahidi worked with Al-Jazeera to track events on the ground in Gaza via SMS messages, email, or the web. Events were then sent in by reporters and civilians through the platform and put into a Twitter feed entitled AJGaza, which gave the event a time stamp. By cross-checking with other sources such as Reuters, the UN, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, I was able see that the time stamp was usually within a few minutes of event occurrence.”

Key Highlights from the study:

  • Hamas’ cumulative response intensity to an Israeli escalation decreases (by about 17 percent) after the ground invasion begins. Conversely, Israel’s cumulative response intensity after the invasion increases by about three fold.
  • Both Hamas and Israel’s cumulative response drop after the UN Security Council vote on January 8th, 2009 for an immediate cease-fi re, but Israel’s drops more than Hamas (about 30 percent to 20 percent decrease).
  • For the period covering the whole conflict, Hamas would react (on average) to a “surprise” 1 event (15 minute interval) of Israeli misinformation/psy-ops with the equivalent of 1 extra incident of mortar re/endangering civilians.
  • Before the invasion, Hamas would respond to a 1 hour shock of targeted air strikes with 3 incidents of endangering civilians. Comparatively, after the invasion, Hamas would only respond to that same Israeli shock with 3 incidents of psychological warfare.
  • The results con firm my hypotheses that Israel’s reactions were more dependent upon Hamas and that these responses were contextually dependent.
  • Wikipedia’s Timeline of the 2008-2009 Gaza Conflict was particularly helpful in sourcing and targeting events that might have diverging reports (i.e. controversial).

[An earlier version of this blog post appeared on my Early Warning blog]

The Mathematics of War: On Earthquakes and Conflicts

A conversation with my colleague Sinan Aral at PopTech 2011 reminded me of some earlier research I had carried out on the mathematics of war. So this is a good time to share some of the findings from this research. The story begins some 60 years ago, when British physicist Lewis Fry Richardson found that international wars follow what is called a power law distribution. A power law distribution relates the frequency and “magnitude” of events. For example, the Richter scale, relates the size of earthquakes to their frequency. Richardson found that the frequency of international wars and the number of causalities each produced followed a power law.

More recently, my colleague Erik-Lars Cederman sought to explain Richardson’s findings in his 2003 peer-reviewed publication “Modeling the Size of Wars: From Billiard Balls to Sandpiles.” However, Lars used an invalid statistical technique to test for power law distributions. In 2005, I began collaborating with Pro-fessors Neil Johnson and Michael Spagat on related research after I came across their fascinating co-authored study that tested casualty distributions in new wars (internal conflicts) for power laws. Though he was not a co-author on the 2005 study, my colleague Sean Gourely presented this research at TED in 2009.

In any case, I invited Michael to present his research at The Fletcher School in the Fall of 2005 to generate interest here. Shortly after, I suggested to Michael that we test whether conflict events, in addition to casualties, followed a power law distribution. I had access to an otherwise proprietary dataset on conflict events that spanned a longer time period than the casualty datasets that he and Neils were working off. I also suggested we try to test whether casualties from natural disasters follow a power law distribution.

We chose to pursue the latter first and I submitted an abstract to the 2006 American Political Science Association (APSA) conference to present our findings. Soon after, I was accepted to the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Systems Summer Institute for PhD students and took the opportunity to pursue my original research in testing conflict events for power law distributions with my colleague Dr. Ryan Woodard.

The APSA paper, presented in August 2006, was entitled “Natural Disasters, Casualties and Power Laws:  A Comparative Analysis with Armed Conflict” (PDF). Here is the paper’s abstract and findings:

Power-law relationships, relating events with magnitudes to their frequency, are common in natural disasters and violent conflict. Compared to many statistical distributions, power laws drop off more gradually, i.e. they have “fat tails”. Existing studies on natural disaster power laws are mostly confined to physical measurements, e.g., the Richter scale, and seldom cover casualty distributions. Drawing on the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) International Disaster Database, 1980 to 2005, we find strong evidence for power laws in casualty distributions for all disasters combined, both globally and by continent except for North America and non-EU Europe. This finding is timely and gives useful guidance for disaster preparedness and response since natural catastrophes are increasing in frequency and affecting larger numbers of people.  We also find that the slopes of the disaster casualty power laws are much smaller than those for modern wars and terrorism, raising an open question of how to explain the differences. We show that many standard risk quantification methods fail in the case of natural disasters.

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Dr. Woodard and I presented our research on power laws and conflict events at SFI in June 2006. We produced a paper in August of that year entitled “Concerning Critical Correlations in Conflict, Cooperation and Casualties” (PDF). As the title implies, we also tested whether cooperative events followed a power law. As far as I know, we were the first to test conflict events not to mention cooperative events for power laws. In addition, we looked at conflict/cooperation (C/C) events in Western countries.

The abstract and some findings are included below:

Knowing that the number of casualties of war are distributed as a power law and given a rich data set of conflict and cooperation (C/C) events, we ask: Are there correlations among C/C events? Is there a correlation between C/C events and war casualties? Can C/C data be used as proxy for (potentially) less reliable casualty data? Can C/C data be used in conflict early warning systems? To begin to answer these questions we analyze the distribution of C/C event data for the period 1990–2004 in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Switzerland, UK and USA. We find that the distributions of individual C/C event types scale as power laws, but only over approximately a single decade, leaving open the possibility of a more appropriate fit (for which we have not yet tested). However, the average exponent of the power law (2.5) is the same as that found in recent studies of casualties of war. We find low levels of correlations between C/C events in Iraq and Afghanistan but not in the other countries studied. We find that the distribution of the sum of all conflict or cooperation events scales exponentially. Finally, we find low levels of correlations between a two year time series of casualties in Afghanistan and the corresponding conflict events.

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I’m looking to discuss all this further with Sinan and learning more about his fascinating area of research.

Detecting Emerging Conflicts with Web Mining and Crisis Mapping

My colleague Christopher Ahlberg, CEO of Recorded Future, recently got in touch to share some exciting news. We had discussed our shared interests a while back at Harvard University. It was clear then that his ideas and existing technologies were very closely aligned to those we were pursuing with Ushahidi’s Swift River platform. I’m thrilled that he has been able to accomplish a lot since we last spoke. His exciting update is captured in this excellent co-authored study entitled “Detecting Emergent Conflicts Through Web Mining and Visualization” which is available here as a PDF.

The study combines almost all of my core interests: crisis mapping, conflict early warning, conflict analysis, digital activism, pattern recognition, natural language processing, machine learning, data visualization, etc. The study describes a semi-automatic system which automatically collects information from pre-specified sources and then applies linguistic analysis to user-specified extract events and entities, i.e., structured data for quantitative analysis.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) and event-data extraction applied to crisis monitoring and analysis is of course nothing new. Back in 2004-2005, I worked for a company that was at the cutting edge of this field vis-a-vis conflict early warning. (The company subsequently joined the Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (ICEWS) consortium supported by DARPA). Just a year later, Larry Brilliant told TED 2006 how the Global Public Health Information Net-work (GPHIN) had leveraged NLP and machine learning to detect an outbreak of SARS 3 months before the WHO. I blogged about this, Global Incident Map, European Media Monitor (EMM), HavariaHealthMap and Crimson Hexagon back in 2008. Most recently, my colleague Kalev Leetaru showed how applying NLP to historical data could have predicted the Arab Spring. Each of these initiatives represents an important effort in leveraging NLP and machine learning for early detection of events of interest.

The RecordedFuture system works as follows. A user first selects a set of data sources (websites, RSS feeds, etc) and determines the rate at which to update the data. Next, the user chooses one or several existing “extractors” to find specific entities and events (or constructs a new type). Finally, a taxonomy is selected to specify exactly how the data is to be grouped. The data is then automatically harvested and passed through a linguistics analyzer which extracts useful information such as event types, names, dates, and places. Finally, the reports are clustered and visualized on a crisis map, in this case using an Ushahidi platform. This allows for all kinds of other datasets to be imported, compared and analyzed, such as high resolution satellite imagery and crowdsourced data.

A key feature of the RecordedFuture system is that extracts and estimates the time for the event described rather than the publication time of the newspaper article parsed, for example. As such, the harvested data can include both historic and future events.

In sum, the RecordedFuture system is composed of the following five features as described in the study:

1. Harvesting: a process in which text documents are retrieved from various sources and stored in the database. The documents are stored for long-term if permitted by terms of use and IPR legislation, otherwise they are only stored temporarily for the needed analysis.

2. Linguistic analysis: the process in which the retrieved texts are analyzed in order to extract entities, events, time and location, etc. In contrast to other components, the linguistic analysis is language dependent.

3. Refinement: additional information can be obtained in this process by synonym detection, ontology analysis, and sentiment analysis.

4. Data analysis: application of statistical and AI-based models such as Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) and Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) to generate predictions about the future and detect anomalies in the data.

5. User experience: a web interface for ordinary users to interact with, and an API for interfacing to other systems.

The authors ran a pilot that “manually” integrated the RecordedFuture system with the Ushahidi platform. The result is depicted in the figure below. In the future, the authors plan to automate the creation of reports on the Ushahidi platform via the RecordedFuture system. Intriguingly, the authors chose to focus on protest events to demo their Ushahidi-coupled system. Why is this intriguing? Because my dissertation analyzed whether access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are statistically significant predictors of protest events in repressive states. Moreover, the protest data I used in my econometric analysis came from an automated NLP algorithm that parsed Reuters Newswires.

Using RecordedFuture, the authors extracted some 6,000 protest event-data for Quarter 1 of 2011. These events were identified and harvested using a “trained protest extractor” constructed using the system’s event extractor frame-work. Note that many of the 6,000 events are duplicates because they are the same events but reported by different forces. Not surprisingly, Christopher and team plan to develop a duplicate detection algorithm that will also double as a triangulation & veracity scoring feature. I would be particularly interested to see them do this kind of triangulation and validation of crowdsourced data on the fly.

Below are the protest events picked up by RecordedFuture for both Tunisia and Egypt. From these two figures, it is possible to see how the Tunisian protests preceded those in Egypt.

The authors argue that if the platform had been set up earlier this year, a user would have seen the sudden rise in the number of protests in Egypt. However, the authors acknowledge that their data is a function of media interest and attention—the same issue I had with my dissertation. One way to overcome this challenge might be by complementing the harvested reports with crowdsourced data from social media and Crowdmap.

In the future, the authors plan to have the system auto-detect major changes in trends and to add support for the analysis of media in languages beyond English. They also plan to test the reliability and accuracy of their conflict early warning algorithm by comparing their forecasts of historical data with existing conflict data sets. I have several ideas of my own about next steps and look forward to speaking with Christopher’s team about ways to collaborate.

Real Time LRA Crisis Map Tracks Mass Atrocities in Central Africa

My colleagues at Resolve and Invisible Children have just launched their very impressive Crisis Map of LRA Attacks in Central Africa. The LRA, or Lord’s Resistance Army, is a brutal rebel group responsible for widespread mass atrocities, most of which go completely unreported because the killings and kidnappings happen in remote areas. This crisis map has been a long time in the making so I want to sincerely congratulate Michael Poffenberger, Sean Poole, Adam Finck, Kenneth Transier and the entire team for the stellar job they’ve done with this project. The LRA Crisis Tracker is an  important milestone for the fields of crisis mapping and early warning.

The Crisis Tracker team did an excellent job putting together a detailed code book (PDF) for this crisis map, a critical piece of any crisis mapping and conflict early warning project that is all too-often ignored or rushed by most. The reports mapped on Crisis Tracker come from Invisible Children’s local Early Warning Radio Network, UN agencies and local NGOs. Invisible Children’s radio network also provides local communities with the ability to receive warnings of LRA activity and alert local security forces to LRA violence.

When I sat down with Resolve’s Kenneth Transier earlier this month, he noted that the majority of the reports depicted on their LRA crisis map represent new and original information. He also noted that they currently have 22 months of solid data, with historical and real-time data entry on-going. You can download the data here. Note that the public version of this data does not include the most sensitive information for security reasons.

The Crisis Tracker team also provide monthly and quarterly security briefs, analyzing the latest data they’ve collected for trends and patterns. This project is by far the most accurate, up-to-date and comprehensive source of information on LRA atrocities, which the partners hope will improve efforts to protect vulnerable communities in the region. Indeed, the team has joined forces with a number of community-run protection organizations in Central Africa who hope to benefit from the team’s regular crisis reports.

The project is also innovative because of the technology being used. Michael got in touch about a year ago to learn more about the Ushahidi platform and after a series of conversations decided that they needed more features than were currently available from Ushahidi, especially on the data visualization side. So I put them in touch with my colleagues at Development Seed. Ultimately, the team partnered with a company called Digitaria which used the backend of a Sales-force platform and a customized content management system to publish the in-formation to the crisis map. This an important contribution to the field of crisis mapping and I do hope that Digitaria share their technology with other groups. Indeed, the fact that new crisis mapping technologies are surfacing is a healthy sign that the field is maturing and evolving.

In the meantime, I’m speaking with Michael about next steps on the conflict early warning and especially response side. This project has the potential to become a successful people-centered conflict early response initiative as long as the team focuses seriously on conflict preparedness and implement an number of other best practices from fourth generation conflict early warning systems.

This project is definitely worth keeping an eye on. I’ve invited Crisis Tracker to present at the 2011 International Conference of Crisis Mappers in Geneva in November (ICCM 2011). I do hope they’ll be able to participate. In the meantime, you can follow the team and their updates via twitter at @crisistracker. The Crisis Tracker iPhone and iPad apps and should be out soon.

Crowdsourcing and Crisis Mapping World War I

I came across some interesting finds at the National Air and Space Museum this weekend. The World War One (WWI) exhibit had this large, back-lit crisis map:

Now, war maps are nothing new. In this previous blog post, I noted that, “In 1668, Louis XIV of France commissioned three-dimensional scale models of eastern border towns, so that his generals in Paris and Versailles could plan realistic maneuvers. [...] As late as World War II, the French government guarded them as military secrets with the highest security classification” (see picture). What struck me about the crisis map of WWI was the text above the title:

“To satisfy the public’s desire for information about the war, newspapers published war maps that provided the locations and military capabilities of the warring nations. This map, published at the outbreak of hostilities illustrates the British view of the war’s global scope.” I’m intrigued by this find and wonder how often these maps were updated and what sources were used. Would public opinion at the time have differed had live crowdsourced crisis maps existed?

Towards the end of the WWI exhibit, I came across this sign, originally posted near the entrances of the London Underground. The warning relates to hostile German aircraft that had begun to bomb London in early 1915. On September 8, a Zepellin raid on the city cause more than half a million pounds of damage.

What stuck me about this warning were the following instructions: “In the event of a hostile aircraft being seen in country districts, the nearest Naval, Military or Police Authorities should, if possible, be advised immediately by Telephone of the time of appearance, the direction of flight, and whether the aircraft is an Airship or an Aeroplane.” Crowdsourcing early warnings of WWI attacks.

Know of other interesting examples of crowsourcing during the first (or second) world war? If so, please feel free to share in the comments section below, I’d love to compile more examples.

Why Geo-Fencing Will Revolutionize Crisis Mapping

A “geo-fence” is a virtual perimeter for a real-world geographic area—a virtually fenced off geographic location. Geo-fences can take any shape. They can also be user-generated thanks to custom-digitized geo-fencing options. Combine geo-fencing with a dynamic alerts feature and you’ve got yourself the next evolution of live mapping technologies for crisis mapping. Indeed, the ability to customize automated geo-fenced alerts is going to revolutionize the way we use crisis maps.

Several live mapping technologies like Ushahidi already have a very basic geo-fenced alerts feature. Lets say I am interested in the town of Dhuusamareeb in Somalia. I can point my cursor to that location, specify the radius of interest around this point and then subscribe to receive email and/or SMS updates for any new reports that get mapped within this area. If I’m particularly interested in food security, then I can instead subscribe to receive alerts only when reports tagged with the category “food security” is mapped within this area. This allows end users to define for themselves the type of granular information they need—a demand-based solution as opposed to a supply-side (spam-side?) solution.

But this feature is old news. There’s only so much use one can get from a simple subscribe-to-alerts feature. We need to bring more spatial and temporal geo-fencing solutions to crisis mapping. For example, I should be able to geo-fence different parts of a refugee camp and customize the automated alerts feature such that a 10% increase over a 24-hour period in the number of reports tagged with certain categories and geo-located within specified geo-fences sends an email and/or SMS to the appropriate teams in charge.

The variables that ought to be customizable by the user include the individual geo-fences, the time period over which a percentage change threshold is specified (eg., 1 hour, 4 hours, 24 hours, 2 days, 1 week etc.), the actual percentage change (eg., 5%, 20%, 80% etc) and the type of categories (eg., food security, health access, etc). In addition to percentages, users should be able to specify basic report counts, e.g., notify me when at least 20 reports have been mapped within this section of the refugee camp.

This kind of automated, customized geo-fencing threshold alerts feature has many, many applications, from public health, to conflict early warning, to disaster response, etc. Combining this type of geo-fenced alerts feature with check-in’s will make crisis mapping a lot more compelling for decision support. One could customize specific actions depending on where/when check-in’s take place and any additional content (eg., status update) included in the check-in. See my previous blog post on “Check-In’s with a Purpose: Applications for Disaster Response.”

These actions could include emails, SMS, twitter alerts, etc., to specific individuals with pre-determined content based on the parameters of a check-in. Actions could also be “physical” actions, not just information communication. For example, a certain type of customized geo-fenced alert, depending on where/when it happens, could execute a program that turns on a water pump, changes the temperature of a fridge storing vaccines, etc.

We need to make live mapping technologies more relevant for real-time decision support and I believe that geo-fencing is an important step to that affect.

p.s. Naturally, GIGO (garbage-in, garbage-out) still applies. That is, if the data is of poor quality or not existant, adding automated geo-fencing alerts is not going to improve decision-making. But that’s the case for any data processing feature. So my colleague Brian Herbert and I are in the process of adding geo-fenced alerts features to the Ushahidi platform.

The Quest for a Disaster Early Warning System (1988)

I assign this short report (PDF) by Kumar Rupesinghe as required reading in my courses and professional seminars on conflict early warning and crisis mapping. This paper could be published today—20 years later—and still be considered forward looking. I highly recommend reading the report along with Rupesinghe’s new edited book on Third Generation Early Warning Systems, which I reviewed in detail here.

I stumbled across this report while working for Norway’s Former Secretary of State at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) in 2006. Rupesinghe was also a research fellow at PRIO and I found the worn-down report hidden away in the Institute’s library. I carefully scanned the report and have been disseminating it as widely as possible ever since.

The excerpts below are the main highlights of the report. While some of these may seem obvious, keep in mind that Rupesinghe was writing this in 1988—well before the field of conflict early warning became formalized.

I realize there are numerous excerpts below but this just reflects how important I think this piece is.

  • It is crucial for the viability and credibility of developing information and communication systems to discuss ways in which the information can be used. Information is useful if acted upon, and when the information so produced provides choices of action to policy makers as well as to the victims to the victims of the impending disasters.
  • Discussions on ‘early warning’ systems would remain academic if information systems are developed which bear little relationship to social policy or social action.
  • Important to the discussion of early warnings are some of the issues related to the demand for a ‘new information order’. Here we have to raise the entire question of who controls information. Generally, discussions relating to early warning systems emanate from the North, and particularly in environments, which can handle large amounts of information. Little attention is paid, however, to the victims of disasters, or to the competence of local NGOs to strengthen their own capacity to handle information, to evaluate and control their own environment.
  • Akira Onishi suggests a highly sophisticated information system, since in the fields of present day technology, particularly in the astounding developments of computers in the 1980s, extraordinary sophisticated handling of information has become possible both in software and hardware systems. Onishi suggests this field of research as been stimulated by the progress made in global modeling.
  • The distinction between a ‘natural’ and a ‘social’ disaster has also been challenged, particularly by those who have witnessed the recent famines in Africa:

The causes of the African crises are increasingly perceived as man made, or they are at least attributed to human activities more than to natural phenomena. Such terms as ‘man made’ and ‘natural disasters’ widely used to distinguish two categories in the past disaster jargon, are of little relevance or may even be misleading. It is now understood that some of the major interlinked factors behind the growing disaster problem in Africa are man made.”

  • Within the discussion on restraining military technology and redeeming modern science and technology for the good of humanity, Marek Thee has proposed that research and development be subjected to national and international scrutiny. Further, he writes:

National and international technological assessment bodies can be established to serve as a kind of ‘watch and early warning system’ against military excesses. Such concurrent international measures may not be easily achieved. But, if we have the political will informed by human rationality and a comprehension of the scientific-technological global interdependence, reinforced by an awakened public opinion, the barriers for change are not insurmountable.

  • Although billions of dollars have been invested in developing sophisticated data banks and early warnings, we have to note that even the most expensive systems have shown a striking inability to forecast political events.

‘Quite simply, the record has been terrible, despite all the technological improvements of the last twenty years. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, the Yom Kippur war, and the Argentine take over of the Falklands all caught the American government by surprise.’

  • A specific proposal for [a United Nations] early warning system was made by the Speial Rapporteur, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan in his report on Massive Exodus and Human Rights to the UN Human Rights Commission on December 1981. In his study, Sadruddin Aga Khan drew attention to the increase in the phenomenon of mass exodus:

‘which is becoming a tragically permanent feature of our times, … The problem is to become more serious with time unless imaginative and concrete measures are urgently taken to contain, if not avert, situations of mass exodus. … It is however my considered opinion that if we are to succeed in any measure to spare future generations the spectre of millions of uprooted peoples, more is required than reports and resolutions, however pertinent and useful they may be.’

  • A recent report of the United Nations that the UN’s own capacity to deliver is its existing commitments is seriously at stake. The report suggests that ‘today’s structure is both too top heavy and too complex.’ Further, ‘its present organizational structure is too fragmented’, and ‘without enlarging secretariat functions’, a ‘leaner Secretariat will enhance productivity and improve efficiency.’
  • In many cases, the problem has not been one of insufficient information about probable crises, but that the specialized [UN] agencies or the secretariat lack the mandate or the authority to act on the information.
  • The United Nations alone would not be in a position to assist in the building of adequate information systems, without the participation of a range of NGOs. This is particularly relevant for developing countries, who themselves can be involved in an active partnership in the exchange of information.
  • What is increasingly realized is that the NGO community in general has a profound role to play in early warnings, monitoring, providing immediate relief, and finding creative ways of resolving conflicts. […] NGOs, particularly in the Third World, and the media, can play a crucial role in early warnings, sounding the alarm in cases of emergency.
  • Most of the discussions with regard to early warning systems have emanated from a concern with the early prediction and reporting of events which could lead to social disasters. […] However, these systems have been developed in advanced environments where the intention is to gather data so as to predict events in distant places. This leads to a division of labor between those who predict and those predicted upon. And this in turn tends to draw attention only to those efforts which continue to reinforce existing unequal distribution of information.
  • A democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warnings and resolution. However, ‘information’ is a highly explosive and political issues, especially in the Third World. Many countries have elaborate laws to prevent people from gaining access to information, or censorship laws which prevent people from reporting on what actually happens in a society.
  • Thus, efforts must be made to strengthen the capacity and competence of Third World NGOs to communicate locally and internationally so as to create a democratic global communication system. An information system of the monolithic type developed by the superpowers cannot be encouraged as far as the NGOs are concerned.
  • [There is a] wealth of knowledge available within the local societies [hence the] importance of finding ways of tapping this wealth of information [and] of involving the local societies and integrating their work, so as to build local competence in monitoring and evaluating, their own experiences.
  • […] NGOs, both international and national, will have a vital role to play in the development of a global, decentralized early warning system. They now need the capacity to build information systems, and to provide the basis for rapid information exchange. In general, NGOs will have to confront the monopolization of information with a demand for the democratic access to information technology. Further, the working conditions of most NGOs and NGO networks, especially in developing countries, remain difficult.
  • Increasingly, bureaucracies are exhibiting their incapacity to manage the complexities of our global village. And today the alternative structures most likely to succeed these bureaucracies are rapidly emerging. The most common term for these structures is ‘networks’. They tend to be decentralized, where policies tend to be flexible and fluid, where staff relations are not monolithic and hierarchical, where the structure tends to be polycentric rather than monocentric.
  • NGOs lack systematization and standardization of information. Each small NGO uses its own methods often based around their previous normal systems. Thus, NGOs have to build competence in standardization of information and cataloguing procedures, to facilitate exchange of data and easy retrieval.  HURIDOCS, Human Rights Information and Documentation System, ahs been established on this basis as a network to assist information sharing and usage.
  • Low cost computers provide opportunities for information recording and retrieval and for the development of data bases in highly specialized areas. Once electronic mail becomes cheaper than the conventional post, every NGO will be able to do cheap mass mailings in a fraction of the present time.
  • With regard to the use of satellite technology, there is a strong case for involving grass roots movements and international NGOs alike in the learning process about satellites as well as radio communication. The aim would be to ensure adequate access to the airwaves for the non-governmental sector as a whole and guarantee the democratization of satellite communication.
  • In this discussion of communications and information for early warnings, we have stressed the need to strengthen the capacity and the competence in the South to store, retrieve, and analyze their own information. […] Here Northern NGOs and donors have an important role to play.

Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management

“Mobile Technologies for Conflict Management: Online Dispute Resolution, Governance, Participation” is the title of a new book edited by Marta Poblet. I recently met Marta in Vienna, Austria during the UN Expert Meeting on Croudsource Mapping organized by UN SPIDER. I’m excited that her book has just launched. The chapters are is divided into 3 sections: Disruptive Applications of Mobile Technologies; Towards a Mobile ODR; and Mobile Technologies: New Challenges for Governance, Privacy and Security.

The book includes chapters by several colleagues of mine like Mike Best on “Mobile Phones in Conflict Stressed Environments”, Ken Banks on “Appropriate Mobile Technologies,” Oscar Salazar and Jorge Soto on “How to Crowdsource Election Monitoring in 30 Days,” Jacok Korenblum and Bieta Andemariam on “How Souktel Uses SMS Technology to Empower and Aid in Conflict-Affected Communities,” and Emily Jacobi on “Burma: A Modern Anomaly.”

My colleagues Jessica Heinzelman, Rachel Brown and myself also contributed one of the chapters. I include the introduction below.

I had long wanted to collaborate on a peer-reviewed chapter in which I could combine my earlier study of conflict resolution theory with my experience in conflict early warning and crisis mapping. See also this earlier blog post on “Crowdsourcing for Peace Mapping.”  I’ve been a big fan of Will Ury’s approach ever since coming across his work while at Columbia University back in 2003. Little did I know then that I’d be co-authoring this book chapter with two new stellar colleagues. Rachel has taken much of this thinking and applied it to the real world in her phenomenal project called Sisi ni Amni, or “We Are Peace.” You can follow them on Twitter. Jessica now serves on their Advisory Board.

Crisis Mapping Libya: This is No Haiti (Updated)

Update: Public version of Libya Crisis Map now available:

http://libyacrisismap.net

We activated the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) on March 1st and quickly launched a Crisis Map of Libya to support humanitarian preparedness opera-tions. This is the largest deployment of the Task Force since it was formed at the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping in Boston (ICCM 2010). Task Force partners include CrisisMappers, CrisisCommons, Humanity Road, ICT4Peace, Open Street Map and MapAction. The Task Force currently has trained 166 volunteers. I’m amazed at how far we’ve come since the response to the Haiti earthquake.

Crisis mapping Libya is definitely no Haiti, for many reasons. The first is that unlike Haiti, we didn’t have to recruit crisis mapping volunteers from scratch. We didn’t have to spend a third of our time training volunteers. We didn’t have to develop new work flows and protocols from thin air. All we had to do was activate the Standby Task Force and everyone knew what to do, like set up dedicated Skype chats (communicating via email is too slow in these scenarios, networked communication is the way to go). Our volunteer CrisisMappers had already been trained and had even participated in an official UN crisis simulation exercise with OCHA in Colombia a few months earlier.

The second reason why this is no Haiti is because the request for activation of the Standby Task Force to provide live crisis mapping support came directly from the UN OCHA’s Information Management unit in Geneva. This was not the case in Haiti since there was no precedent for the crisis mapping efforts we launched at the time. We did not have buy in from the humanitarian community and the latter was reluctant to draw on anything other than official sources of information. Crowdsourcing and social media were unchartered territories. OCHA also reached out to CrisisCommons and OpenStreetMap and we are all working together more closely than ever before.

Contrast this to the case of Libya this week which saw an established humanitarian organization specifically request a volunteer technical community for a live map of reports generated from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and mainstream media sources. Seriously, I have never been more impressed by the humanitarian community than I am today. The pro-active approach they have taken and their constructive engagement is absolutely remarkable. This is truly spectacular and the group deserve very high praise.

From the official annoucement:

OCHA, UNOSAT and NetHope have been collaborating with the Volunteer Technical Community (VTC) specifically including the CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, Open Street Map, and the Google Crisis Response Team over the past week. The CrisisMappers Standby Task Force has been undertaking a mapping of social media and new reports from within Libya and along the borders at the request of OCHA.  As well, the Task Force is aiding in the collection and mapping of 3W information for the response. UNOSAT is kindly hosting the Common Operational Datasets to be used during the emergency (http://www.unitar.org/unosat/libya). Interaction with these groups is being coordinated by OCHA’s Information Services Section. Focal Point: Andrej Verity [verity@un.org].

The third reason this is no Haiti is because we are creating a live map of a hostile situation still unfolding. Haiti provided a permissive environment, politically and geographically. Libya couldn’t be more different. We experienced the serious challenges of crisis mapping a hostile environment when we created a crisis map of Khartoum at the request of local Sudanese activists. This was a stressful deployment but one that was able to provide an important window into what was happening in Khartoum.

In the case of Libya, our humanitarian partner requested that the crisis map be password protected. We intend to make the map public after this phase of the humanitarian operations is over. In the meantime, the screenshots below provide a good picture of what the platform looks like. In the first 48 hours since the activation of the Task Force, over 220 individual reports have been mapped, many including pictures and some with video footage.

We also pulled in the data from the Google Map created by @Arasmus to complement our own live mapping:

None of the above would be possible without such a dedicated network of skilled crisis mapping volunteers. They are truly outstanding and a testament to what civic engagement can do online from thousands of miles away. There’s no doubt that our approach can still be improved. But there’s equally no doubt that all the learning we did in Haiti, Chile and Pakistan went beyond just recommendations but were actually  put into practice in a big way thanks to the Task Force.

The Task Force has over 160 volunteers from 18 different countries. Do you want to become one of those crisis mappers? If so, please send an email to join@standbytaskforce.com and we’ll train you on how to become a real pro in crisis mapping.

Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

Update: Heglig Crisis 2012, Border Clashes 2012, Invasion of Abyei 2012

The Satellite Sentinel Project has hired private satellites to monitor troop movements around the oil-rich region of Abyei during the upcoming Sudanese referendum and prevent war. The images and analysis will be made public on the Project’s website. George Clooney, who catalyzed this joint initiative between Google, UNOSAT, the Enough Project, Trellon and my colleagues at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), calls this the anti-genocide paparazzi:

“We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum.”

The group hopes that they can deter war crimes by observing troop buildups and troop movements in advance. If successful, the project would accomplish an idea first proposed more than half-a-century ago  by US President Dwight Eisenhower during a US-Soviet Summit in Paris at the height of the Cold War. Eisenhower announced his plan to “submit to the United Nations a proposal for the creation of a United Nations aerial surveillance to detect preparations for attack.” Interestingly, Eisenhower had crafted this idea five years earlier as part of his Open Skies Proposal, which actually became a treaty in 2002:

“The Treaty establishes a regime of unarmed aerial observation flights over the entire territory of its participants. The Treaty is designed to enhance mutual understanding and confidence by giving all participants, regardless of size, a direct role in gathering information about military forces and activities of concern to them. Open Skies is one of the most wide-ranging international efforts to date to promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities.”

If you want to find out more about Eisenhower’s efforts, please see my blog post on the subject here.

So there is some precedence for what Clooney is trying to pull off. But how is the Sentinel project likely to fare as a non-state effort? Looking at other non-state actors who have already operationalized Eisenhower’s ideas may provide some insights. Take Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” initiative, which “leverages the power of high- resolution satellite imagery to provide unim- peachable evidence of the atrocities being committed in Darfur–enabling action by private citizens, policy makers and international courts.”

According to Amnesty, the project “broke new ground in protecting human rights by allowing people around the world to literally ‘watch over’ and protect twelve intact, but highly vulnerable, villages using commercially available satellite imagery.” The imagery also enabled Amnesty to capture the movement of Janjaweed forces. Amnesty claims that their project has had a deterrence effect. Apparently, the villages monitored by the project have not been attacked while neighboring ones have. That said, at least two of the monitored villages were removed from the site after reported attacks.

Still Amnesty argues that there have been notable changes in decisions made by the Bashir government since “Eyes on Darfur” went live. They also note that the government of Chad cited their as one of the reasons they accepted UN peacekeepers along their border.

In my blog post on Eisenhower’s UN surveillance speech I asked whether the UN would ever be allowed to monitor and detect preparations for attack using satellite imagery. I now have my answer given that UNOSAT is involved in the Sentinel Project which plans to “deter the resumption of war between North and South Sudan” by providing an “early warning system to deter mass atrocities by focusing world attention and generating rapid responses on human rights and human security concerns” (Sentinel). But will these efforts really create an effective deterrence-based “Global Panopticon”?

French philosopher Michel Foucault has famously written on the role of surveillance as an instrument of power. “He cites the example of Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon,’ an architectural model for a prison enabling a single guard, located in a central tower, to watch all of the inmates in their cells.  The ‘major effect of the Panopticon,’ writes Foucault, is ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.'”

According to Foucault, the Panopticon renders power both “visible and unverifiable”: Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is being spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. But potential perpetrators of the violence in the Sudan do not actually see the  outline of the satellites flying overhead. They are not being directly harassed by high-powered “cameras” stuck into their faces by the anti-genocide paparazzi. So the power is not directly visible in the traditional sense. But who exactly is the inmate in or connected to Abyei in the first place?

There are multiple groups in the area with different agendas that don’t necessarily tie back to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The Arab Misseriya tribe has thus far remained north during this dry season to avert confrontation with the Ngok Dinka in the Southern part of Abyei. These nomadic tribes typically carry Kalashnikovs to guard their cattle. So distinguishing these nomads from armed groups prepared to raid and burn down villages is a challenge especially when dealing with satellite imagery. Using UAV’s may be more useful and cheaper. (Note that monitoring the location and movement of cattle could be insightful because cattle issues are political in the area).

If armed groups who intend to burn down villages are the intended inmates, do they even know or care about the Satellite Sentinel Project? The ICC has already struggled to connect the chain of command back to the Sudanese government. Besides, the expected turn-around time to develop the satellite imagery is between eight to twenty-four hours. Getting armed men on a truck and raiding a village or two doesn’t take more than a few hours. So the crimes may already have been committed by the time the pictures come in. And if more heavy military machinery like tanks are rolled in, well, one doesn’t need satellite imagery to detect those.

As scholars of the panopticon have noted, the successful use of surveillance has to be coupled with the threat of punishment for deviant acts. So putting aside the issue of who the intended inmates are, the question for the Sentinel Project is whether threats of punishment are perceived by inmates as sufficiently real enough for the deterrence to work. In international relations theory, “deterrence is a strategy by which governments threaten an immense retaliation if attacked, such that aggressors are deterred if they do not wish to suffer great damage as a result of an aggressive action.”

This means that official state actors need to step up and publicly pledge to carry out the necessary punishment if the satellite imagery collected by Sentinel provides evidence of wrong-doing. The ICC should make it crystal clear to all inmates (whoever they are) that evidence from the satellite imagery will be used for prosecution (and that they should care). There also need to be armed guards in  “the tower” who are proximate enough to be deployed and have the political will to use force if necessary. Or will the anti-genocide paparazzi’s many eyes be sufficient to keep the peace? It’s worth remembering that the Hollywood paparazzi haven’t exactly turned movie stars into alter boys or girls. But then again, they’d probably get away with a whole lot more without the paparazzi.

US spy satellites have no doubt monitored conflict-prone areas in the past but this  hasn’t necessarily deterred major crimes against humanity as far as I know. Of course, the imagery collected has remained classified, which means the general public hasn’t been able to lobby their governments and the international community to act based on this information and shared awareness.

The Sentinel Project’s open source approach changes this calculus. It may not deter the actual perpetrators, but the shared awareness created thanks to the open data will make it more difficult for those who can prevent the violence to look the other way. So the Satellite Sentinel Project may be more about keeping our own governments accountable to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) than deterring actors in the Sudan from committing further crimes.

How will we know if Clooney succeeds? I’m not quite sure. But I do know that the Sentinel Project is a step in the right direction. More evidence is always more compelling than less evidence. And more public evidence is even better. I have no doubt therefore that Eisenhower would back this Open Skies project.

p.s. It is worth noting that the satellite imagery of Sri Lankan forces attacking civilians in 2009 were dismissed as fake by the Colombo government even though the imagery analysis was produced by UNOSAT.