Tag Archives: Egypt

Building Egypt 2.0: When Institutions Fail, Crowdsourcing Surges

I recently presented at Where 2.0 and had the chance to catch Adel Youssef’s excellent talk on “How Location Based Services is Used to Build Egypt 2.0.” He shared some important gems on digital activism. For example, while Facebook allowed Egyptians to “like” a protest event or say they were headed to the streets, check-in’s were a more powerful way to recruit others because they let your friends know that you were actively in the location and actually protesting. In other words, activists were not checking into a place per se, but rather creating an event and checking into that to encourage people to participate in said event.

Adel also shared some interesting insights on how location-aware mobile tech-nologies are being used to build a new Egypt. “After the revolution, the police force just disappeared, there is no police; and there is no traffic control. But this drove more crowdsourced traffic control, crowdsourced police, crowdsourced services. And this has been happening in the last year alone. Crowdsourcing revolution. But not a revolution to overthrow a tyrant but a revolution to build a developed country. [...] People going to clean the streets, planting trees, repainting the streets. And they are feeling ownership of their campaign.”

Adel shared several other crowdsourcing initiatives in his talk, from OneYad (matching volunteers) and Zabatak (monitoring corruption) to EntaFeen (check-in’s for good), Bey2Ollak and Wasalny (both addressing the problem of road traffic). I’m excited by all this innovation happening elsewhere than Silicon Valley and hope these platforms will go mainstream beyond the region in the near future. Indeed, I just signed up for the OneYad beta because I really think this kind of tool could be used in the West.

Adel: “We see a lot of crowdsourced networks built after the revolution because we need to build the country and we want to do this bottom-up, want to do it by the people, you want to empower the people.” The point, for Adel, is to go “from social networking to social working” and thus fill the gaps in services that institutions are failing to provide. This reminded me of Tunisian Ambassador Mohamed Salah Tekaya’s remarks last year: “During the Arab Spring, we have seen the power of Twitter and Facebook… Now we need to use the power of LinkedIn.”

Crowdsourcing Humanitarian Convoys in Libya

Many activists in Egypt donated food and medical supplies to support the Libyan revolution in early 2011. As a result, volunteers set up and coordinated humanitarian convoys from major Egyptian cities to Tripoli. But these convoys faced two major problems. First, volunteers needed to know where the convoys were in order to communicate this to Libyan revolutionists so they could wait for the fleet at the border and escort them to Tripoli. Second, because these volunteers were headed into a war zone, their friends and family wanted to keep track of them to make sure they were safe. The solution? IntaFeen.com.

Inta feen? means “where are you?” in Arabic and IntaFeen.com is a mobile check-in service like Foursquare but localized for the Arab World. Convoy drivers used IntaFeen to check-in at different stops along the way to Tripoli to provide regular updates on the situation. This is how volunteers back in Egypt who coordinated the convoy kept track of their progress and communicated updates in real-time to their Libyan counterparts. Volunteers who went along with the convoys also used IntaFeen and their check-in’s would also get posted on Twitter and Facebook, allowing families and friends in Egypt to track their whereabouts.

Al Amain Road is a highway between Alexandria and Tripoli. These tweets and check-in’s acted as a DIY fleet management system for volunteers and activists.

The use of IntaFeen combined with Facebook and Twitter also created an interesting side-effect in terms of social media marketing to promote activism. The sharing of these updates within and across various social networks galvanized more Egyptians to volunteer their time and resulted in more convoys.

I wonder whether these activists knew about another crowdsourced volunteer project taking place at exactly the same time in support of the UN’s humanitarian relief operations: Libya Crisis Map. Much of the content added to the map was sourced from social media. Could the #LibyaConvoy project have benefited from the real-time situational awareness provided by the Libya Crisis Map?

Will we see more convergence between volunteer-run crisis maps and volunteer-run humanitarian response in the near future?

Big thanks to Adel Youssef from IntaFeen.com who spoke about this fascinating project (and Ushahidi) at Where 2.0 this week. More information on #Libya Convoy is available here. See also my earlier blog posts on the use of check-in’s for activism and disaster response.

Digital Activism, Epidemiology and Old Spice: Why Faster is Indeed Different

The following thoughts were inspired by one of Zeynep Tufekci’s recent posts entitled “Faster is Different” on her Technosociology blog. Zeynep argues “against the misconception that acceleration in the information cycle means would simply mean same things will happen as would have before, but merely at a more rapid pace. So, you can’t just say, hey, people communicated before, it was just slower. That is wrong. Faster is different.”

I think she’s spot on and the reason why goes to the heart of complex systems behavior and network science. “Combined with the reshaping of networks of connectivity from one/few-to-one/few (interpersonal) and one-to-many (broadcast) into many-to-many, we encounter qualitatively different dynamics,” writes Zeynep. In a very neat move, she draws upon “epidemiology and quarantine models to explain why resource-constrained actors, states, can deal with slower diffusion of protests using ‘whack-a-protest’ method whereas they can be overwhelmed by simultaneous and multi-channel uprisings which spread rapidly and ‘virally.’ (Think of it as a modified disease/contagion model).” She then uses the “unsuccessful Gafsa protests in 2008 in Tunisia and the successful Sidi Bouzid uprising in Tunisia in 2010 to illustrate the point.”

I love the use of epidemiology and quarantine models to demonstrate why faster is indeed different. One of the complex systems lectures we had when I was at the Sante Fe Institute (SFI) focused on explaining why epidemics are so unpredictable. It was a real treat to have Duncan Watts himself present his latest research on this question. Back in 1998, he and Steven Strogatz wrote a seminal paper presenting the mathematical theory of the small world phenomenon. One of Duncan’s principle area of research has been information contagion and for his presentation at SFI, he explained that, amazingly, mathematical  epidemiology currently has no way to answer how big a novel outbreak of an infectious disease will get.

I won’t go into the details of traditional mathematical epidemiology and the Standard (SIR) Model but suffice it to say that the main factor thought to determine the spread of an epidemic was the “Basic Reproduction Number”, i.e., the average number of newly infected individuals by a single infected individual in a susceptible population. However, the following epidemics, while differing dramatically in size, all have more or less the same Basic Reproduction Number.

Standard models also imply that outbreaks are “bi-modal” but empirical research clearly shows that epidemics tend to be “multi-modal.” Real epidemics are also resurgent with several peaks interspersed with lulls. So the result is unpredictability: Multi-modal size distributions imply that any given outbreak of the same disease can have dramatically different outcomes while Resurgence implies that even epidemics which seem to be burning out can regenerate themselves by invading new populations.

To this end, there has been a rapid growth in “network epidemiology” over the past 20 years. Studies in network epidemiology suggest that the size of an epidemic depends on Mobility: the expected number of infected individuals “escaping” a local context; and Range: the typical distance traveled.” Of course, the “Basic Reproduction Number” still matters, and has to be greater than 1 as a necessary condition for an epidemic in the first place. However, when this figure is greater than 1, the value itself tells us very little about size or duration. Epidemic size tends to depend instead on mobility and range, although the latter appears to be more influential. To this end, simply restricting the range of travel of infected individuals may be an effective strategy.

There are, however, some important differences in terms of network models being compared here. The critical feature of biological disease in contrast with information spread is that individuals need to be co-located. But recall when during the recent Egyptian revolution the regime had cut off access to the Internet and blocked cell phone use. How did people get their news? The good old fashioned way, by getting out in the streets and speaking in person, i.e., by co-locating. Still, information can be contagious regardless of co-location. This is where Old Spice comes in vis-a-vis their hugely effective marking campaign in 2010 where their popular ads on YouTube went viral and had a significant impact on sales of the deodorant, i.e., massive offline action. Clearly, information can lead to a contagion effect. This is the “information cascade” that Dan Drezner and others refer to in the context of digital activism in repressive environments.

“Under normal circumstances,” Zeynep writes, “autocratic regimes need to lock up only a few people at a time, as people cannot easily rise up all at once. Thus, governments can readily fight slow epidemics, which spread through word-of-mouth (one-to-one), by the selective use of force (a quarantine). No country, however, can jail a significant fraction of their population rising up; the only alternative is excessive violence. Thus, social media can destabilize the situation in unpopular autocracies: rather than relatively low-level and constant repression, regimes face the choice between crumbling in the face of simultaneous protests from many quarters and massive use of force.”
For me, the key lesson from mathematical epidemiology is that predicting when an epidemic will go “viral” and thus the size of this epidemic is particularly challenging. In the case of digital activism, the figures for Mobility and Range are even more accentuated than the analogous equivalent for biological systems. Given the ubiquity of information communication networks thanks to the proliferation of social media, Mobility has virtually no limit and nor does Range. That accounts for the speed of “infection” that may ultimately mean the reversal of an information cascade. This unpredictability is why, as Zeynep puts it, “faster is different.” This is also why regimes like that of Mubarak’s and Al-Assad’s try to quarantine information communication and why doing so completely is very difficult, perhaps impossible.
Obviously, offline action that leads to more purchases of Old Spice versus offline action that spurs mass protests in Tahrir Square are two very different scenarios. The former may only require weak ties while the latter, due to high-risk actions, may require strong ties. But there are many civil resistance tactics that can be considered as micro-contributions and hence don’t involve relatively high risk to carry out. So communication can still change behavior which may then catalyze high-risk action, especially if said communication comes from someone you know within your own social network. This is one of the keys to effective marketing and advertising strategies. You’re more likely to consider taking offline action if one of your friends or family members do even if there are some risks involved. This is where the “infection” is most likely to take place. These infections can spur low-risk actions at first, which can synchronize “micro-motives” that lead to more risky “macro-behavior” and thus reversals in information cascades.

Identifying Strategic Protest Routes for Civil Resistance: An Analysis of Optimal Approaches to Tahrir Square

My colleague Jessica recently won the Tufts GIS Poster Expo with her excellent poster on civil resistance. She used GIS data to analyze optimal approaches to Tahrir Square in Cairo. According to Jessica, many previous efforts to occupy the square had failed. So Egyptian activists spent two weeks brainstorming the best strategies to approach Tahrir Square.

Out of curiosity, Jessica began to wonder whether the use of GIS data and spatial analysis might shed some light on possible protest routes. She began her analysis by  identifying three critical strategic elements for a successful protest route:

“1) Gathering points where demonstrators initiate protests; 2) two types of routes—protest collection areas of high population density through which protesters walk to collect additional supporters and protest approach routes on major streets that accommodate large groups that are more difficult to disperse; and 3) convergence points where smaller groups of protester merge to increase strength in order to approach the destination.”

For her analysis, Jessica took gathering points and convergence points into consideration. For example, many Egyptian activist met at Mosques. So she selected optimal Mosques based on their distance to police stations (the farther the better) and high road density area “as a proxy for population density.” In terms of convergence points, smaller groups of protestors converged on major roads and intersections. The criteria that Jessica used to select these points were: distance to Tahrir Square, high density of road junctions and open space to allow for large group movement. She also took into account protest route collection areas. These tend to be “densely populated and encourage residents to join, increasing participation.” So Jessica selected these based on high road density and most direct route to Tahrir Square using major roads.

Overlaying the data and using GIS analysis on each strategic element yields the following optimal routes to Tahrir:

Jessica writes that “the results of this project demonstrate that GIS tools can be used for plotting strategic routes for protest using criteria that can change based on the unique geospatial environment. In Cairo, the optimal gathering points, strategic routes and convergence points are not always located in an obvious path (i.e. optimal mosques located in areas with low road density or convergence points without gathering points in the close proximity). The map does, however, provide protest organizers with some basic instruction on where to start, what direction to head and where to converge for the final approach.”

She does also acknowledge some of the limitations of the study owing to lack of high-resolution spatial data. I would add temporal data since civil resistance is fluid and changes, which requires rapid adaptation and re-strategizing. If her analysis could be combined with real time information coming from crowdsourced data such as U-Shahid, then I think this could be quite powerful.

For more on the civil resistance tactics used in Egypt during the revolution, please see this blog post.

How Egyptian Activists Kept Their Ushahidi Project Alive Under Mubarak

This is my second blog post on the U-Shahid project in Egypt. The first one analyzed 2,000+ reports mapped on the Ushahidi platform during the country’s recent Parliamentary Elections. Egypt is one of my dissertation case studies and in this blog post I summarize some initial findings based on a series of interviews I had several Egyptian activists who were part of the U-Shahid project.

The Egyptian government began asking questions about U-Shahid well before the project was even launched. They found out about the project by tapping phone lines and emails. Once the project was launched, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior continued to shadow the project in several ways. They requested copies of all meeting agendas and a list of names for everyone who was trained on the Ushahidi platform, for example.

In order to remain operational, the Egyptian activists spearheading the U-Shahid project said that they “stressed the technical aspect of the project, and remained fully open and transparent about our work. We gave Egyptian National Security a dedicated username and password [to access the Ushahidi platform], one that we could control and monitor [their actions]. This gave them a false sense of control, we could restore anything they deleted.” That said, one activist recounted how “there were attempts by the government to overload our website with many fake reports […] but we were on it and we were able to delete them. This happened a minute or two every three hours or so, attacks, overload, but eventually they gave up.”

When asked why the regime had not shut down the platform given the potential threat that U-Shahid represented, one blogger explained that “many of the activists who began using Ushahidi had many followers on Facebook and Twitter, they also had the attention of the international media, which could create unwanted attention on the regime’s actions.” This same blogger also noted that many of the activists who collaborated on the U-Shahid project were “connected with people in the US Congress, directors of international human rights NGOs, and so on.” Perhaps the Mubarak Regime was concerned that cracking down on the U-Shahid project would backfire.

In any case, the activists “did a lot of scenario building, considered many ‘what if’ situations. The fact that we were so well prepared is why they [the regime] could not touch us. We tried to connect all the data on Facebook and Twitter so that if they closed our Ushahidi map, we would move to a new domain name and let all our followers know. We also had a large database of SMS numbers, which would allow us to text our followers with information on the new website. Finally, we had a fully trained team in Lebanon ready to take over the project if we were completely shut down.”

“We were well prepared,” added another blogger, “we knew they could not arrest all of us on the day of the election, and just in case, we trained a group in Lebanon who could take over all operations if we were stopped.” According to one activist, “using this mapping technology provided a way to collect and recruit a lot of activists, and not just any activists, but more effective ones. This actually created a headache for the regime because a growing number of digital activists became interested in using the Ushahidi platform.” Another interviewee added that the technology acted as a “magnet” for activists. One activist also remarked that “they [the government] don’t understand how we work; we can learn very fast but the government has many rules and processes, they have to write up reports, submit them for approval, and allocate funding to acquire technology. But for us, we don’t need permission. If we want to use Tor, we simply use Tor.”

Another explained that their project’s credibility came from the realization by many that they were simply focused on “getting the facts out without agenda. We were both transparent and moderate, with no political or party affiliation, and we emphasized that our goal was to try and make the election process transparent.” In sum, said another activist, “we let people decide for themselves whether the content mapped on Ushahidi was good or not.” Another activist argued that the use of the Ushahidi platform “created more transparency around the elections, allowing easier access than in any previous election.” More specifically, “in previous elections and before the existence of Ushahidi, many NGOs made reports of election irregularities, but these were rarely shared publicly with policy maker or even with other NGOs. And even after the elections had taken place, it was very difficult to access these repots. But the Ushahidi [platform] is open and online, allowing anyone to access any of the information mapped in near real-time.”

Still it is really challenging to fully assess the potential political impact (if any) the U-Shahid project had–something the activists are very aware of. One can only investigate so much for so long. One activist noted that “next time we use the Ushahidi platform, this year for the presidential elections, we will be sure to track the reports submitted to the judicial courts and compare them with those we collect. We also plan to better advertise our project with lawyers and political candidates so that they can use our reports including videos and photos in court and for trials.”

What I’m particularly pleased about in addition all the learning that has taken place is the fact that the U-Shahid project spawned off a number of *copy cats during the elections and new maps are being launched almost every other month in Egypt now. The project also increased the number of Egyptian who participated in directly monitoring their own elections. Lastly, I’m excited that the Egyptians who spearheaded the U-Shahid project are now training activists in Tunisia and other Arab countries. They have acquired a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in using the platform in authoritarian environments, and now they’re sharing all this hard-won expertise.

There’s a lot more to share from the interviews, and I hope to do so in future posts. I also plan to blog about the findings from my case study of the Sudan.


Analyzing U-Shahid’s Election Monitoring Reports from Egypt

I’m excited to be nearing the completion of my dissertation research. As regular iRevolution readers will know, the second part of my dissertation is a qualitative and comparative analysis of the use of the Ushahidi platform in both Egypt and the Sudan. As part of this research, I am carrying out some content analysis of the reports mapped on U-Shahid and SudanVoteMonitor. The purpose of this blog post is to share my preliminary analysis of the 2,700 election monitoring reports published on U-Shahid during Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections in November & December 2010.

All of U-Shahid‘s reports are available in this Excel file. The reports were originally submitted in Arabic, so I’ve had them translated into English for my research. While I’ve spent a few hours combing through these reports, I’m sure that I didn’t pick up on all the interesting ones, so if any iRev readers do go through the data, I’d super grateful if you could let me know about any other interesting tid-bits you uncover.

Before I get to the content analysis, I should note that the Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC)—the Egyptian group based in Cairo that launched the U-Shahid project—used both crowdsourcing and “blogger-sourcing.” That is, the group trained some 130 bloggers and activists in five key cities around Egypt to monitor the elections and report their observations in real-time on the live map they set up. For the crowdsourced reports, DISC worked with a seasoned journalist from Thomson-Reuters to set up verification guidelines that allowed them to validate the vast majority of such reports.

My content analysis of the reports focused primarily on those that seemed to shed the most transparency on the elections and electoral campaigns. To this end, the analysis sought to pick up any trends or recurring patterns in the U-Shahid reports. The topics most frequently addressed in the reports included bribes for buying off votes, police closing off roads leading to polling centers, the destruction and falsification of election ballets, evidence of violence in specific locations, the closing of polling centers before the official time and blocking local election observers from entering polling centers.

What is perhaps most striking about the reports, however, are how specific they are and not only in terms of location, e.g., polling center. For example, reports that document the buying of votes often include the amount paid for the vote. This figure varied from 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $3) to 300 Egyptian Pounds (around $50). As to be expected, perhaps, the price increased through the election period, with one report citing that the bribe price at one location had gone from 40 Pounds to 100 over night.

Another report submitted on December 5, 2010 was even more specific: “Buying out votes in Al Manshiaya Province as following: 7:30[am] price of voter was 100 pound […]. At 12[pm] the price of voter was 250 pound, at 3 pm the price was 200 pound, at 5 pm the price was 300 pound for half an hour, and at 6 pm the price was 30 pound.” Another report revealed “bribe-fixing” by noting that votes ranged from 100-150 Pounds as a result of a “coalition between delegates to reduce the price in Ghirbal, Alexandria.” Other reports documented non-financial bribes, including mobile phones, food, gas and even “sex stimulators”, “Viagra” and “Tramadol tablets”.

Additional incidents mapped on the Ushahidi platform included reports of deliberate power cuts to prevent people from voting. As a result, one voter complained in “Al Saaida Zaniab election center: we could not find my name in voters lists, despite I voted in the same committee. Nobody helped to find my name on list because the electricity cut out.” In general, voters also complained about the lack of phosphoric ink for voting and the fact that they were not asked for their IDs to vote.

Reports also documented harassment and violence by thugs, often against Muslim Brotherhood candidates, the use of Quran verses in election speeches and the use of mini buses at polling centers to bus in people from the National Party. For example, one reported noted that “Oil Minister Samir Fahmy who is National nominee for Al Nassr City for Peoples Council uses his power to mobilize employees to vote for him. The employees used the companies buses carrying the nominee’ pictures to go to the election centers.” Several hundred reports included pictures and videos, some clearly documenting obvious election fraud. In contrast, however, there were also several reports that documented calm, “everything is ok” around certain voting centers.

In a future blog post, I’ll share the main findings from my interviews with the key Egyptian activists who were behind the U-Shahid project. In the meantime, if you choose to look through the election monitoring reports, please do let me know if you find anything else of interest, thank you!

Civil Resistance Tactics Used in Egypt’s Revolution #Jan25

It’s easy to overlook the importance of civil resistance savviness when talking about the protests that forced the hand of power in Egypt. The media placed Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on center stage as if actors in their own right. What struck me most, however, was how well-trained and disciplined the movement was. I believe this had a pivotal impact on the outcome of the protests. Identifying the specific tactics and strategies used in Egypt is important to balance the focus on technology. It is equally important to explain how the popular resistance acquired those skills so others might do the same.

Above is the first page of a 26-page how-to guide circulated in both hard- and electronic-copy during the first wave of protests in Egypt. The document was translated into English by The Atlantic and outlines a number of critical points central to civil resistance, including very specific demands on the Mubarak regime; concrete goals for the popular resistance and tactical steps to achieve these stated goals. The guide also provided tips on what protection gear to wear and how to engage the police with the use of spray paint.

Ahmed Salah, one of the co-founders of the April 6th movement,  later recounted how they mobilized protesters:

Starting in the alleys was not a random decision. It makes tactical and strategic sense regardless of the technology used to coordinate this. Starting small and away from the main protests is a safe way to pool protesters together. It’s also about creating an iterative approach to a “strength in numbers” dynamic. As more people crowd the smaller the streets, this gives a sense of momentum and confidence. Starting in alley ways localizes the initiative. People are likely neighbors and join because they see their friend or sister out in the street. This tactic figured as a drawing in the 26-page guide:

The guide also stressed the need to remain peaceful and not engage in sabotage. The discipline of remaining non-violent is instrumental in civil resistance. Engaging in violence provides government forces with the excuse they’re looking for to clamp down on protesters and delegitimize them in a public way. The guide also recommends that activists try to win over the police and army instead of attacking them. The protesters behind this guide were clearly well trained and knew what they were doing. They even provided several Google Earth screen shots of different parts of the city to recommend tactical moves:

See my blog post on Maps, Activism and Technology: Check-in’s with a Purpose for more on the above picture.

Activists thus took deliberate and informed actions and used technology to synchronize those actions. How did the popular movement become this sophisticated? Young Egyptians had lots of practice. From the Kefeya movement of 2004, the elections of 2005 (and 2010), the April 6 movement of 2008 and the Khaled Said campaign of 2010. They learned from each confrontation and adapted their tactics and strategies accordingly.  They reached out to others such as Otpor in Serbia for training and guidance. The Serbs met with Egyptian groups and  “shared their own hard-won experience, as well as fundamental lessons of popular nonviolent resistance,” according to this article in The Atlantic.  And they took inspiration from the writings of Gene Sharp.

The New York Times recently published an article on Sharp and Egypt entitled: “Shy US Intellectual Created Playbook Used in Revolution”. I have already blogged about Sharp’s work here and here so won’t repeat myself other than to conclude with this: protesting intelligently increases the chances of success. Protesting unprepared and spontaneously will not work, as I have written in this blog post regarding the Sudan protests. Repressive regimes are getting smart. It is important that resistance movements be smarter and better prepared.

The above tactics and strategies are but a sub-set of those used in Egypt. If you have other examples, please share them with readers by adding them in the comments section below. Thank you.