Tag Archives: Human Rights

Crowdsourcing for Human Rights Monitoring: Challenges and Opportunities for Information Collection & Verification

This new book, Human Rights and Information Communication Technologies: Trends and Consequences of Use, promises to be a valuable resource to both practitioners and academics interested in leveraging new information & communication technologies (ICTs) in the context of human rights work. I had the distinct pleasure of co-authoring a chapter for this book with my good colleague and friend Jessica Heinzelman. We focused specifically on the use of crowdsourcing and ICTs for information collection and verification. Below is the Abstract & Introduction for our chapter.

Abstract

Accurate information is a foundational element of human rights work. Collecting and presenting factual evidence of violations is critical to the success of advocacy activities and the reputation of organizations reporting on abuses. To ensure credibility, human rights monitoring has historically been conducted through highly controlled organizational structures that face mounting challenges in terms of capacity, cost and access. The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide new opportunities to overcome some of these challenges through crowdsourcing. At the same time, however, crowdsourcing raises new challenges of verification and information overload that have made human rights professionals skeptical of their utility. This chapter explores whether the efficiencies gained through an open call for monitoring and reporting abuses provides a net gain for human rights monitoring and analyzes the opportunities and challenges that new and traditional methods pose for verifying crowdsourced human rights reporting.

Introduction

Accurate information is a foundational element of human rights work. Collecting and presenting factual evidence of violations is critical to the success of advocacy activities and the reputation of organizations reporting on abuses. To ensure credibility, human rights monitoring has historically been conducted through highly controlled organizational structures that face mounting challenges in terms of capacity, cost and access.

The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) may provide new opportunities to overcome some of these challenges. For example, ICTs make it easier to engage large networks of unofficial volunteer monitors to crowdsource the monitoring of human rights abuses. Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, defining it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (Howe, 2009). Applying this concept to human rights monitoring, Molly Land (2009) asserts that, “given the limited resources available to fund human rights advocacy…amateur involvement in human rights activities has the potential to have a significant impact on the field” (p. 2). That said, she warns that professionalization in human rights monitoring “has arisen not because of an inherent desire to control the process, but rather as a practical response to the demands of reporting – namely, the need to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in the report” (Land, 2009, p. 3).

Because “accuracy is the human rights monitor’s ultimate weapon” and the advocate’s “ability to influence governments and public opinion is based on the accuracy of their information,” the risk of inaccurate information may trump any advantages gained through crowdsourcing (Codesria & Amnesty International, 2000, p. 32). To this end, the question facing human rights organizations that wish to leverage the power of the crowd is “whether [crowdsourced reports] can accomplish the same [accurate] result without a centralized hierarchy” (Land, 2009). The answer to this question depends on whether reliable verification techniques exist so organizations can use crowdsourced information in a way that does not jeopardize their credibility or compromise established standards. While many human rights practitioners (and indeed humanitarians) still seem to be allergic to the term crowdsourcing, further investigation reveals that established human rights organizations already use crowdsourcing and verification techniques to validate crowdsourced information and that there is great potential in the field for new methods of information collection and verification.

This chapter analyzes the opportunities and challenges that new and traditional methods pose for verifying crowdsourced human rights reporting. The first section reviews current methods for verification in human rights monitoring. The second section outlines existing methods used to collect and validate crowdsourced human rights information. Section three explores the practical opportunities that crowdsourcing offers relative to traditional methods. The fourth section outlines critiques and solutions for crowdsourcing reliable information. The final section proposes areas for future research.

The book is available for purchase here. Warning: you won’t like the price but at least they’re taking an iTunes approach, allowing readers to purchase single chapters if they prefer. Either way, Jess and I were not paid for our contribution.

For more information on how to verify crowdsourced information, please visit the following links:

  • Information Forensics: Five Case Studies on How to Verify Crowdsourced Information from Social Media (Link)
  • How to Verify and Counter Rumors in Social Media (Link)
  • Social Media and Life Cycle of Rumors during Crises (Link)
  • Truthiness as Probability: Moving Beyond the True or False Dichotomy when Verifying Social Media (Link)
  • Crowdsourcing Versus Putin (Link)
 

 

Accurate Crowdsourcing for Human Rights

This is a short video of the presentation I will be giving at the Leir Conference on The Next Generation of Human Rights. My talk focuses on the use of digital technologies to leverage the crowdsourcing and crowdfeeding of human rights information. I draw on Ushahidi’s Swift River initiative to describe how crowdsourced information can be auto-validated.

Here’s a copy of the agenda (PDF) along with more details. This Leir Conference aims to bring together world-leading human rights practitioners, advocates, and funders for discussions in an intimate setting. Three panels will be convened, with a focus on audience discussion with the panelists. The topics will include:

  1. Trends in Combating Human Rights Abuses;
  2. Human Rights 2.0: The Next Generation of Human Rights Organizations;
  3. Challenges and Opportunities of  Technology for Human Rights.

I will be on presenting on the third panel together with colleagues from Witness.org and The Diarna Project. For more details on the larger subject of my presentation, please see this blog post on peer-producing human rights.

The desired results of this conference are to allow participants to improve advocacy, funding, or operations through collaborative efforts and shared ideas in a natural setting.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Peer Producing Human Rights

Molly Land at New York Law School has written an excellent paper on peer producing human rights, which will appear in the Alberta Law Review, 2009. This is one of the best pieces of research that I have come across on the topic. I highly recommend reading her article when published.

Molly considers Wikipedia, YouTube and Witness.org in her excellent research but somewhat surprisingly does not reference Ushahidi. I thus summarize her main points below and draw on the case study of Ushahidi—particularly Swift River—to compare and contrast her analysis with my own research and experience.

Introduction

Funding for human rights monitoring and advocacy is particularly limited, which is why “amateur involvement in human rights activities has the potential to have a significant impact on the field.” At the same time, Molly recognizes that peer producing human rights may “present as many problems as it solves.”

Human rights reporting is the most professionalized activity of human rights organizations. This professionalization exists “not because of an inherent desire to control the process, but rather as a practical response to the demands of reporting-namely, the need to ensure accuracy of the information contained in the report.” The question is whether peer-produced human rights reporting can achieve the same degree of accuracy without a comparable centralized hierarchy.

Accurate documentation of human rights abuses is very important for building up a reputation as a credible human rights organization. Accuracy is also important to counter challenges by repressive regimes that question the validity of certain human rights reports. Moreover, “inaccurate reporting risks injury not only to the organization’s credibility and influence but also to those whose behalf the organization advocates.”

Control vs Participation

A successful model for peer producing human rights monitoring would represent an important leap forward in the human rights community. Such a model would enable us to process a lot more information in a timelier manner and would also “increase the extent to which ordinary individuals connect to human rights issues, thus fostering the ability of the movement to mobilize broad constituencies and influence public opinion in support of human rights.”

Increased participation is often associated with an increased risk of inaccuracy. In fact, “even the perception of unreliability can be enough to provide [...] a basis for critiquing the information as invalid.” Clearly, ensuring the trustworthiness of information in any peer-reviewed project is a continuing challenge.

Wikipedia uses corrective editing as the primary mechanism to evaluate the accuracy of crowdsourced information. Molly argues that this may not work well in the human rights context because direct observation, interviews and interpretation are central to human rights research.

To this end, “if the researcher contributes this information to a collaboratively-edited report, other contributors will be unable to verify the statements because they do not have access to either the witness’s statement or the information that led the researcher to conclude it was reliable.” Even if they were able to verify statements, much of human rights reporting is interpretive, which means that even experienced human rights professionals disagree about interpretive conclusions.

Models for Peer Production

Molly presents three potential models to outline how human rights reporting and advocacy might be democratized. The first two models focus on secondary and primary information respectively, while the third proposes certification by local NGOs. Molly outlines the advantages and challenges that each model presents. Below is a summary with my critiques. I do not address the third model because as noted by Molly it is not entirely participatory.

Model 1. This approach would limit peer-production to collecting, synthesizing and verifying secondary information. Examples include “portals or spin-offs of existing portals, such as Wikipedia,” which could “allow participants to write about human rights issues but require them to rely only on sources that are verifiable [...].” Accuracy challenges could be handled in the same way that Wikipedia does; namely through a “combination of collaborative editing and policies; all versions of the page are saved and it is easy for editors who notice gaming or vandalism to revert to the earlier version.”

The two central limitations of this approach are that (1) the model would be limited to a subset of available information restricted to online or print media; and (2) even limiting the subset of information might be insufficient to ensure reliability. To this end, this model might be best used to complement, not substitute, existing fact-finding efforts.

Model 2. This approach would limit the peer-production of human rights report to those with first-hand knowledge. While Molly doesn’t reference Ushahidi in her research, she does mention the possibility of using a website that would allow witnesses to report human rights abuses that they saw or experienced. Molly argues that this first-hand information on human rights violations could be particularly useful for human rights organizations that seek to “augment their capacity to collect primary information.”

This model still presents accuracy problems, however. “There would be no way to verify the information contributed and it would be easy for individuals to manipulate the system.” I don’t agree. The statement: “there would be no way to verify the information” is an exaggeration. There multiple methods that could be employed to determine the probability that the contributed information is reliable, which is the motivation behind our Swift River project at Ushahidi, which seeks to use crowdsourcing to filter human rights information.

Since Swift River deserves an entire blog post to itself, I won’t describe the project. I’d just like to mention that the Ushahidi team just spent two days brainstorming creative ways that crowdsourced information could be verified. Stay tuned for more on Swift River.

We can still address Molly’s concerns without reference to Ushahidi’s Swift River.

Individuals who wanted to spread false allegations about a particular government or group, or to falsely refute such allegations, might make multiple entries (which would therefore corroborate each other) regarding a specific incident. Once picked up by other sources, such allegations ‘may take on a life of their own.’ NGOs using such information may feel compelled to verify this information, thus undermining some of the advantages that might otherwise be provided by peer production.

Unlike Molly, I don’t see the challenge of crowdsourced human rights data as first and foremost a problem of accuracy but rather volume. Accuracy, in many instances, is a function of how many data points exist in our dataset.

To be sure, more crowdsourced information can provide an ideal basis for triangulation and validation of peer produced human rights reporting-particularly if we embrace multimedia in addition to simply text. In addition, more information allows us to use probability analysis to determine the potential reliability of incoming reports. This would not undermine the advantages of peer-production.

Of course, this method also faces some challenges since the success of triangulating crowdsourced human rights reports is dependent on volume. I’m not suggesting this is a perfect fix, but I do argue that this method will become increasingly tenable since we are only going to see more user-generated content, not less. For more on crowdsourcing and data validation, please see my previous posts here.

Molly is concerned that a website allowing peer-production based on primary information may “become nothing more than an opinion site.” However, a crowdsourcing platform like Ushahidi is not an efficient platform for interactive opinion sharing. Witnesses simply report on events, when they took place and where. Unlike blogs, the platform does not provide a way for users to comment on individual reports.

Capacity Building

Molly does raise an excellent point vis-à-vis the second model, however. The challenges of accuracy and opinion competition might be resolved by “shifting the purpose for which the information is used from identifying violations to capacity building.” As we all know, “most policy makers and members of the political elite know the facts already; what they want to know is what they should do about them.”

To this end, “the purpose of reporting in the context of capacity building is not to establish what happened, but rather to collect information about particular problems and generate solutions. As a result, the information collected is more often in the form of opinion testimony from key informants rather than the kind of primary material that needs to be verified for accuracy.”

This means that the peer produced reporting does not “purport to represent a kind of verifiable ‘truth’ about the existence or non-existence of a particular set of facts,” so the issue of “accuracy is somewhat less acute.” Molly suggests that accuracy might be further improved by “requiring participants to register and identify themselves when they post information,” which would “help minimize the risk of manipulation of the system.” Moreover, this would allow participants to view each other’s contributions and enable a contributor to build a reputation for credible contributions.

However, Molly points out that these potential solutions don’t change the fact that only those with Internet access would be able to contribute human right reports, which could “introduce significant bias considering that most victims and eyewitnesses of human rights violations are members of vulnerable populations with limited, if any, such access.” I agree with this general observation, but I’m surprised that Molly doesn’t reference the use of mobile phones (and other mobile technologies) as a way to collect testimony from individuals without access to the Internet or in inaccessible areas.

Finally, Molly is concerned that Model 2 by itself “lacks the deep participation that can help mobilize ordinary individuals to become involved in human rights advocacy.” This is increasingly problematic since “traditional  ‘naming and shaming’ may, by itself, be increasingly less effective in its ability to achieve changes state conduct regarding human rights.” So Molly rightly encourages the human rights community to “investigate ways to mobilize the public to become involved in human rights advocacy.”

In my opinion, peer produced advocacy faces the same challenges as traditional human rights advocacy. It is therefore important that the human rights community adopt a more tactical approach to human rights monitoring. At Ushahidi, for example, we’re working to add a “subscribe-to-alerts” feature, which will allow anyone to receive SMS alerts for specific locations.

P2P Human Rights

The point is to improve the situational awareness of those who find themselves at risk so they can get out of harm’s way and not become another human rights statistic. For more on tactical human rights, please see my previous blog post.

Human rights organizations that are engaged in intervening to prevent human rights violations would also benefit from subscribing to Ushahidi. More importantly, the average person on the street would have the option of intervening as well. I, for one, am optimistic about the possibility of P2P human rights protection.

Patrick Philippe Meier

A Brief History of Crisis Mapping (Updated)

Introduction

One of the donors I’m in contact with about the proposed crisis mapping conference wisely recommended I add a big-picture background to crisis mapping. This blog post is my first pass at providing a brief history of the field. In a way, this is a combined summary of several other posts I have written on this blog over the past 12 months plus my latest thoughts on crisis mapping.

Evidently, this account of history is very much influenced by my own experience so I may have unintentionally missed a few relevant crisis mapping projects. Note that by crisis  I refer specifically to armed conflict and human rights violations. As usual, I welcome any feedback and comments you may have so I can improve my blog posts.

From GIS to Neogeography: 2003-2005

The field of dynamic crisis mapping is new and rapidly changing. The three core drivers of this change are the increasingly available and accessible of (1) open-source, dynamic mapping tools; (2) mobile data collection technologies; and lastly (3) the development of new methodologies.

Some experts at the cutting-edge of this change call the results “Neogeography,” which is essentially about “people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset.” The revolution in applications for user-generated content and mobile technology provides the basis for widely distributed information collection and crowdsourcing—a term coined by Wired less than three years ago. The unprecedented rise in citizen journalism is stark evidence of this revolution. New methodologies for conflict trends analysis increasingly take spatial and/or inter-annual dynamics into account and thereby reveal conflict patterns that otherwise remain hidden when using traditional methodologies.

Until recently, traditional mapping tools were expensive and highly technical geographic information systems (GIS), proprietary software that required extensive training to produce static maps.

In terms of information collection, trained experts traditionally collected conflict and human rights data and documented these using hard-copy survey forms, which typically became proprietary once completed. Scholars began coding conflict event-data but data sharing was the exception rather than the rule.

With respect to methodologies, the quantitative study of conflict trends was virtually devoid of techniques that took spatial dynamics into account because conflict data at the time was largely macro-level data constrained by the “country-year straightjacket.”

That is, conflict data was limited to the country-level and rarely updated more than once a year, which explains why methodologies did not seek to analyze sub-national and inter-annual variations for patterns of conflict and human rights abuses. In addition, scholars in the political sciences were more interested in identifying when conflict as likely to occur as opposed to where. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, please see my paper from 2006  “On Scale and Complexity in Conflict Analysis” (PDF).

Neogeography is Born: 2005

The pivotal year for dynamic crisis mapping was 2005. This is the year that Google rolled out Google Earth. The application marks an important milestone in Neogeography because the free, user-friendly platform drastically reduced the cost of dynamic and interactive mapping—cost in terms of both availability and accessibility. Microsoft has since launched Virual Earth to compete with Google Earth and other  potential contenders.

Interest in dynamic crisis mapping did exist prior to the availability of Google Earth. This is evidenced by the dynamic mapping initiatives I took at Swisspeace in 2003. I proposed that the organization use GIS tools to visualize, animate and analyze the geo-referenced conflict event-data collected by local Swisspeace field monitors in conflict-ridden countries—a project called FAST. In a 2003 proposal, I defined dynamic crisis maps as follows:

FAST Maps are interactive geographic information systems that enable users of leading agencies to depict a multitude of complex interdependent indicators on a user-friendly and accessible two-dimensional map. […] Users have the option of selecting among a host of single and composite events and event types to investigate linkages [between events]. Events and event types can be superimposed and visualized through time using FAST Map’s animation feature. This enables users to go beyond studying a static picture of linkages to a more realistic dynamic visualization.

I just managed to dig up old documents from 2003 and found the interface I had designed for FAST Maps using the template at the time for Swisspeace’s website.

fast-map1

fast-map2

However, GIS software was (and still is) prohibitively expensive and highly technical. To this end, Swisspeace was not compelled to make the necessary investments in 2004 to develop the first crisis mapping platform for producing dynamic crisis maps using geo-referenced conflict data. In hindsight, this was the right decision since Google Earth was rolled out the following year.

Enter PRIO and GROW-net: 2006-2007

With the arrival of Google Earth, a variety of dynamic crisis maps quickly emerged. In fact, one if not the first application of Google Earth for crisis mapping was carried out in 2006 by Jen Ziemke and I. We independently used Google Earth and newly available data from the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) to visualize conflict data over time and space. (Note that both Jen and I were researchers at PRIO between 2006-2007).

Jen used Google Earth to explain the dynamics and spatio-temporal variation in violence during the Angolan war. To do this, she first coded nearly 10,000 battle and massacre events as reported in the Portuguese press that took place over a 40 year period.

Meanwhile, I produced additional dynamic crisis maps of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for PRIO and of the Colombian civil war for the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CARC) in Bogota. At the time, researchers in Oslo and Bogota used proprietary GIS software to produce static maps (PDF) of their newly geo-referenced conflict data. PRIO eventually used Google Earth but only to publicize the novelty of their new geo-referenced historical conflict datasets.

Since then, PRIO has continued to play an important role in analyzing the spatial dynamics of armed conflict by applying new quantitative methodologies. Together with universities in Europe, the Institute formed the Geographic Representations of War-net (GROW-net) in 2006, with the goal of “uncovering the causal mechanisms that generate civil violence within relevant historical and geographical and historical configurations.” In 2007, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), a member of GROW-net, produced dynamic crisis maps using Google Earth for a project called WarViews.

Crisis Mapping Evolves: 2007-2008

More recently, Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM), real-time and automated information collection mechanisms using natural language processing (NLP) have been developed for the automated and dynamic mapping of disaster and health-related events. Examples of such platforms include the Global Disaster Alert and Crisis System (GDACS), CrisisWire, Havaria and HealthMap. Similar platforms have been developed for  automated mapping of other news events, such as Global Incident Map, BuzzTracker, Development Seed’s Managing the News, and the Joint Research Center’s European Media Monitor.

Equally recent is the development of Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM), mobile crowdsourcing platforms designed for the dynamic mapping of conflict and human rights data as exemplified by Ushahidi (with FrontLineSMS) and the Humanitarian Sensor Web (SensorWeb).

Another important development around this time is the practice of participatory GIS preceded by the recognition that social maps and conflict maps can empower local communities and be used for conflict resolution. Like maps of natural disasters and environmental degradation, these can be developed and discussed at the community level to engage conversation and joint decision-making. This is a critical component since one of the goals of crisis mapping is to empower individuals to take better decisions.

HHI’s Crisis Mapping Project: 2007-2009

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) is currently playing a pivotal role in crafting the new field of dynamic crisis mapping. Coordinated by Jennifer Leaning and myself, HHI is completing a two-year applied research project on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. This project comprised a critical and comprehensive evaluation of the field and the documentation of lessons learned, best practices as well as alternative and innovative approaches to crisis mapping and early warning.

HHI also acts as an incubator for new projects and  supported the conceptual development of new crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi and the SensorWeb. In addition, HHI produced the first comparative and dynamic crisis map of Kenya by drawing on reports from the mainstream media, citizen journalists and Ushahidi to analyze spatial and temporal patterns of conflict events and communication flows during a crisis.

HHI’s Sets a Research Agenda: 2009

HHI has articulated an action-oriented research agenda for the future of crisis mapping based on the findings from the two-year crisis mapping project. This research agenda can be categorized into the following three areas, which were coined by HHI:

  1. Crisis Map Sourcing
  2. Mobile Crisis Mapping
  3. Crisis Mapping Analytics

1) Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS) seeks to further research on the challenge of visualizing disparate sets of data ranging from structural and dynamic data to automated and mobile crisis mapping data. The challenge of CMS is to develop appropriate methods and best practices for mashing data from Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools and Mobile Crisis Mapping platforms (see below) to add value to Crisis Mapping Analytics (also below).

2) The purpose of setting an applied-research agenda for Mobile Crisis Mapping, or MCM, is to recognize that the future of distributed information collection and crowdsourcing will be increasingly driven by mobile technologies and new information ecosystems. This presents the crisis mapping community with a host of pressing challenges ranging from data validation and manipulation to data security.

These hurdles need to be addressed directly by the crisis mapping community so that new and creative solutions can be applied earlier rather than later. If the persistent problem of data quality is not adequately resolved, then policy makers may question the reliability of crisis mapping for conflict prevention, rapid response and the documentation of human rights violations. Worse still, inaccurate data may put lives at risk.

3) Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) is the third critical area of research set by HHI. CMA is becoming increasingly important given the unprecedented volume of geo-referenced data that is rapidly becoming available. Existing academic platforms like WarViews and operational MCM platforms like Ushahidi do not include features that allow practitioners, scholars and the public to query the data and to visually analyze and identify the underlying spatial dynamics of the conflict and human rights data. This is largely true of Automated Crisis Mapping (ACM) tools as well.

In other words, new and informative metrics are need to be developed to identify patterns in human rights abuses and violent conflict both retrospectively and in real-time. In addition, existing techniques from spatial econometrics need to be rendered more accessible to non-statisticians and built into existing dynamic crisis mapping platforms.

Conclusion

Jen Ziemke and I thus conclude that the most pressing need in the field of crisis mapping is to bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners who self-identify as crisis mappers. This is the most pressing issue because bridging that divide will enable the field of crisis mapping to effectively and efficiently move forward by pursuing the three research agendas set out by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).

We think this is key to moving the crisis-mapping field into more mainstream humanitarian and human rights work—i.e., operational response. But doing so first requires that leading crisis mapping scholars and practitioners proactively bridge the existing gap. This is the core goal of the crisis mapping conference that we propose to organize.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Tactics in Human Rights

I’ve been wanting to read “New Tactics in Human Rights: A Resource for Practitioners” for a while and finally found the time on the flight back from Geneva. I would definitely recommend reading New Tactics (PDF). The report combines some of my main interests: nonviolent civil resistance, tactical early warning and response, civilian protection, preparedness, technology and complex systems.

I really appreciate the group’s serious focus on tactics since most human rights organizations seem to focus more on grand strategy and advocacy—and this at the expense of tactics.

Tactical innovation is critical to the successful implementation of human rights around the globe. By expanding our thinking both tactically and strategically, the human rights community has the opportunity to be more effective.

There is often a pattern to human rights abuses—they occur in predictable places under predictable circumstances. Recognizing those patterns and disrupting them can be key to protecting human rights.

While intervention tactics are often associated with protest and resistance, some of the most dramatic successes in ending human rights abuses have resulted from negotiation and persuasion.

The report includes numerous tactics and operational examples. I summarize 5 below. I also include a brief note on self-protection and a brief conclusion.

Serbia

Tactic: Protecting arrested demonstrators by protesting outside police stations where they are being detained. This tactic was employed by the anti-Milosevic student resistance movement, Otpor, in Serbia.

Otpor put substantial time and effort into building a strong, extensive and loyal network that could be mobilized quickly. Extensive planning outlined who would call whom and exactly what each person was to do after the arrests, so that the second demonstration would follow the arrests almost instantaneously. Most contact information for the network was stored on individual members’ mobile phones, so that the police could not seize or destroy the information.

West Bank

Tactic: maintaining a physical presence at the site of potential abuse to monitor and prevent human rights violations. Machsom Watch in the West Bank uses the presence of Israeli women to protect Palestinians passing through Israeli checkpoints to ensure their rights are respected.

Monitors who witness abuses make detailed reports and publish them on their website. They invite journalists, politicians and others to join them at the checkpoints. And they wear tags that read in Arabic “No to the checkpoints!” This show of support is heartening to many Palestinians, who may not have a positive image of Israelis.

Northern Ireland

Tactic: using mobile phones to create a network of communication that can stop violence before it escalates. Like any conflict, there are people on both sides who want to prevent the escalation of violence. So the Interaction Belfast group identified leaders in each community who want to prevent violence and provided them with needed information.

During events that are likely to cause violence [...] the network plans ahead to monitor key areas. Volunteers recognize that they are able to intervene most effectively in cases of ‘recreational violence’— youth seeking excitement or responding to rumors [...].

When volunteers see or hear of crowds gathering [in potential areas of conflict], or hear of rumors of violence about to occur on the other side, they call their counterparts [...]. Volunteers calm crowds on their own sides before the incidents become violent. Since the program began, the phone network has both prevented violence and provided communities on both sides of the interface with more accurate information when violence does occur.

Turkey

Tactic: creating a single mass expression of protest based on a simple activity that citizens can safely carry out in their own homes. This tactic was used by the “Campaign of Darkness for Light” in Turkey, which mobilized some 30 million people to flick their lights on and to protest against government corruption.

With many citiznes afraid to participate in political action, organizations needed a tactic of low personal risk that would overcome the sense of isolation that comes with fear.

Organizers initially proposed that citizens turn off their lights for one minute each night.  [...]. By the second week, communities began to improvise, initiating different street actions, including banging post and pans. By the time organizers halted the action, the campaign had gone on for more than a month.

Burundi

Tactic: Using the power of the media to send targetted messages to people in a position to end abuses. In this example, journalists in Burundi used radio broadcasts to persuade key leaders to end human rights abuses occurring in hospitals. They secretely interviewed detainees and broadcast their testimonies. “The broadcasts included messages targetted to specific groups and invididuals who had the power to fix the situations.”

Self-Protection

Unfortunately, the report’s 2-page section on “Self-Care: Caring for Your Most Valuable Resource,” is not as well developed as the others. The report could have drawn more extensively from civil resistance training and digital activism. There is also much to be learned from survivor testimonies and security training manuals from field based UN-agencies operating in places like Somalia.

Conclusion

That aside, I think the New Tactics group is doing some of the most exciting research in thiearea of tactics for civilian protection for communities at risk. I highly recommend spending time on their website and browsing through the rich materials they provide.

Patrick Philippe Meier

HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”

Introduction

Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:

aaas1

There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.

Zimbabwe

Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.

aaas2

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:

aaas3

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Burma

The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.

aaas41

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.

aaas5

Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

Limitations

Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.

Conclusion

Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Panel on ICTs, Human Rights, Activism and Resistance

I just chaired a very productive panel at the International Studies Association (ISA) on the impact of ICTs on human rights, political activism and resistance.

ISApanel

The panel featured the following presentations:

  • Lucía Liste Muñoz and Indra de Soysa onThe Blog vs Big Brother: Information and Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.
  • Fabien Miard on “Call for Power? Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Patrick Meier on “iRevolutions: The Impact of ICTs on Protest Frequency in Repressive Contexts.” [slideshare]

Presentations

I’ve already blogged about each of the papers individually (see links above) so what follows are points from some of the presentations that I found particularly interesting. I also include the superb feedback that our discussant Professor Dan Drezner from The Fletcher School provided along with a summary of the productive Q&A session we had.

  • Muñoz and de Soysa: Their results show that Internet access leads to increasing respect of human rights by governments. This is true of both democracies and authoritarian regimes.
  • Joshua Goldstein: The role that Safaricom (a private telecommunications company) had in seeking to prevent and/or mitigate the election violence is unprecedented. Not only did the company refuse switch of the SMS network as per the government’s request, the company also sent out broadcast SMS to call on restraint and civic behavior.

Feedback to Panelists

Dan Drezner provided the following feedback:

  • The papers were definitely panel material as they all address important issues related to ICTs that overlap in very interesting ways. So overall, this was great set of papers and presentations, and panelists ought to make sure they read and learn from each others’ papers.
  • Most of the large-N papers blatantly seek to identify a positive correlation between ICT and human rights, political activism, digital resistance, etc. A less biased way to approach the research would be to formulate the question as follows: “How do ICTs benefit the State?”
  • Patrick should expand his set of countries beyond the 22 countries.
  • The dynamic between states and society vis-a-vis repression and circumvention may be an evolutionary one based on learning behavior.
  • The papers should treat ICTs not as independent variables but as an interactive variable with factors such as unemployment. In other words, the question should be: to what extent does ICT interact with other variables that we know ought to trigger protests?
  • The studies should separate anti-foreign protests from anti-government protests.
  • The large-N analyses should include more control variables such as dummy varibales for elections and wars.
  • The studies should also seek to assess the relationship between ICTs and the magnitude of protests and not only the frequency of protests.
  • The papers do not take into account the role of the Diaspora in helping to mobilize, organize and coordinate protests.

Response to Feedback

Here I only respond the feedback relevant to my paper and presentation:

  • On the bias towards finding a statistical relationship and expanding the number of countries in my study, I disagreed with Professor Drezner. I specifically chose the 22 countries in my dataset because the regimes in these countries are actively using ICTs to censor, repress, monitor and block information. So if anything, the cards are stacked against resistance movements when it comes to these countries. Hence my not planning to expand the dataset to include additional countries. Professor Drezner agreed on both points.
  • I completely agree on the evolutionary dynamic, which I described in my dissertation proposal and which explains why I often refer to the dynamic as a cyber game of cat-and-mouse.
  • I’m not entirely sold on treating ICTs as an interactive variable but will explore this nonetheless.
  • Agreed on the suggestion that anti-foreign protests be treated seperately since these protests are often organized by repressive regimes.
  • I fully agree on adding more control variables including elections, wars and population.
  • I concur with the point made about the magnitude of protests but this information is hard to come by. More importantly, however, the dataset I’m using is based on Reuters newswires and the reason I’m using this data is because Reuters is highly unlikely to report on low-level protests but rather on protests that have a national impact. So the dataset serves as a filter for large-scale protests and hence magnitude.
  • Very good point about the diaspora.

Q&A Session

We had an excellent set of questions from the audience which prompted a rich conversation around the following topics:

  • Repressive regimes learning from one another about how to use ICTs for censorship, repression, monitoring, etc. and resistance movement learning from each other.
  • The side to first acquire and apply new technology generally gets a head start, but this prompts the other side, e.g., the State to catch up and regain the upper hand.
  • Who are the users of these technologies? Demographics, gender, age, etc, should be important factors in the study of ICTs, State and society.
  • One member of the audience was a policy maker with the British government and  wanted to know what role Western governments should  play vis-a-vis digital activism.
  • The issue of civil resistance and the intersection with digital activism came up repeatedly in the discussion. Understanding one without the other is increasingly meaningless.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach [...] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. [...] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[...] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach [...] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. [...] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[...] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: New ICTs Increase Government Respect for Human Rights

As mentioned in my previous post, I am chairing a panel I organized on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights”

at the ISA conference in New York next week. The panel will figure four presenters (including myself). I’ll blog about the papers one at a time in the lead up to Tuesday’s panel.

Introduction

The first presentation by Lucia Munoz and Indra de Soysa will address the impact of information communication technologies (ICTs) on government respect for human rights. Their large-N quantitative study is particularly interesting because they seek to determine whether old and new technologies have differential impact on the respect for human rights:

We argue that the question of ICTs and social outcomes must be addressed in terms of whether or not the new technologies are ‘qualitatively’ different from the older technologies.

Data

The study draws on the Political Terror Scale (PTS) and the Physical Integrity Rights Index (CIRI) to measure government respect for human rights. In terms of ICT data, old media is comprised of telephone landlines and television sets (1980-2005) while new media includes Internet subscribers and mobile phone access (1990-2005). This data is taken from the World Telecommunications/ICT Indicators Database. The authors control for the following variables: the level of formal democracy, economic situation, population size, ethnic fractionalization, civil war, oil wealth, legal tradition system and the time trend.

Analysis

Using Ordered Probit Analysis and OLS regression analysis, the authors find “clear evidence suggesting that the effects of internet access are positive, net of several important control variables, such as income and regime type. The older information and communication technology, such as access to TV and mainline telephones, is negative and statistically highly significant. This means that, after controlling for a host of important factors, the old technology lowers rights while the new technology increases respect for human rights.”

Conclusion

These findings are fascinating since the results empirically demonstrate the fundamental difference in impact between old and new technologies. Perhaps this validates the points I made in my debate on Human Rights 2.0 with Sanjana Hattotuwa from ICT4Peace. In any event, I will include these preliminary findings in my panel presentation at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva on:

“New Trends in Human Rights Communications.”

A copy of the paper by Munoz and Indra is available here (PDF). Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts on the two other panel presentations.

Patrick Philippe Meier