Tag Archives: Human

Automatically Classifying Text Messages (SMS) for Disaster Response

Humanitarian organizations like the UN and Red Cross often face a deluge of social media data when disasters strike areas with a large digital footprint. This explains why my team and I have been working on AIDR (Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response), a free and open source platform to automatically classify tweets in real-time. Given that the vast majority of the world’s population does not tweet, we’ve teamed up with UNICEF’s Innovation Team to extend our AIDR platform so users can also automatically classify streaming SMS.

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After the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, the main mobile network operator there (Digicel) offered to sent an SMS to each of their 1.4 million subscribers (at the time) to accelerate our disaster needs assessment efforts. We politely declined since we didn’t have any automated (or even semi-automated way) of analyzing incoming text messages. With AIDR, however, we should (theoretically) be able to classify some 1.8 million SMS’s (and tweets) per hour. Enabling humanitarian organizations to make sense of “Big Data” generated by affected communities is obviously key for two-way communication with said communities during disasters, hence our work at QCRI on “Computing for Good”.

AIDR/SMS applications are certainly not limited to disaster response. In fact, we plan to pilot the AIDR/SMS platform for a public health project with our UNICEF partners in Zambia next month and with other partners in early 2015. While still experimental, I hope the platform will eventually be robust enough for use in response to major disasters; allowing humanitarian organizations to poll affected communities and to make sense of resulting needs in near real-time, for example. Millions of text messages could be automatically classified according to the Cluster System, for example, and the results communicated back to local communities via community radio stations, as described here.

These are still very early days, of course, but I’m typically an eternal optimist, so I hope that our research and pilots do show promising results. Either way, we’ll be sure to share the full outcome of said pilots publicly so that others can benefit from our work and findings. In the meantime, if your organization is interested in piloting and learning with us, then feel free to get in touch.

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Humanitarian Crisis Computing 101

Disaster-affected communities are increasingly becoming “digital” communities. That is, they increasingly use mobile technology & social media to communicate during crises. I often refer to this user-generated content as Big (Crisis) Data. Humanitarian crisis computing seeks to rapidly identify informative, actionable and credible content in this growing stack of real-time information. The challenge is akin to finding the proverbial needle in the haystack since the vast majority of reports posted on social media is often not relevant for humanitarian response. This is largely a result of the demand versus supply problem described here.

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In any event, the few “needles” of information that are relevant, can relay information that is vital and indeed-life saving for relief efforts—both traditional top-down efforts and more bottom-up grassroots efforts. When disaster strikes, we increasingly see social media traffic explode. We know there are important “pins” of relevant information hidden in this growing stack of information but how do we find them in real-time?

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Humanitarian organizations are ill-equipped to managing the deluge of Big Crisis Data. They tend to sift through the stack of information manually, which means they aren’t able to process more than a small volume of information. This is represented by the dotted green line in the picture below. Big Data is often described as filter failure. Our manual filters cannot manage the large volume, velocity and variety of information posted on social media during disasters. So all the information above the dotted line, Big Data, is completely ignored.

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This is where Advanced Computing comes in. Advanced Computing uses Human and Machine Computing to manage Big Data and reduce filter failure, thus allowing humanitarian organizations to process a larger volume, velocity and variety of crisis information in less time. In other words, Advanced Computing helps us push the dotted green line up the information stack.

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In the early days of digital humanitarian response, we used crowdsourcing to search through the haystack of user-generated content posted during disasters. Note that said content can also include text messages (SMS), like in Haiti. Crowd-sourcing crisis information is not as much fun as the picture below would suggest, however. In fact, crowdsourcing crisis information was (and can still be) quite a mess and a big pain in the haystack. Needless to say, crowdsourcing is not the best filter to make sense of Big Crisis Data.

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Recently, digital humanitarians have turned to microtasking crisis information as described here and here. The UK Guardian and Wired have also written about this novel shift from crowdsourcing to microtasking.

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Microtasking basically turns a haystack into little blocks of stacks. Each micro-stack is then processed by one ore more digital humanitarian volunteers. Unlike crowdsourcing, a microtasking approach to filtering crisis information is highly scalable, which is why we recently launched MicroMappers.

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The smaller the micro-stack, the easier the tasks and the faster that they can be carried out by a greater number of volunteers. For example, instead of having 10 people classify 10,000 tweets based on the Cluster System, microtasking makes it very easy for 1,000 people to classify 10 tweets each. The former would take hours while the latter mere minutes. In response to the recent earthquake in Pakistan, some 100 volunteers used MicroMappers to classify 30,000+ tweets in about 30 hours, for example.

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Machine Computing, in contrast, uses natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML) to “quantify” the haystack of user-generated content posted on social media during disasters. This enable us to automatically identify relevant “needles” of information.

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An example of a Machine Learning approach to crisis computing is the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform. Using AIDR, users can teach the platform to automatically identify relevant information from Twitter during disasters. For example, AIDR can be used to automatically identify individual tweets that relay urgent needs from a haystack of millions of tweets.

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The pictures above are taken from the slide deck I put together for a keynote address I recently gave at the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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Digital Humanitarians and The Theory of Crowd Capital

An iRevolution reader very kindly pointed me to this excellent conceptual study: “The Theory of Crowd Capital”. The authors’ observations and insights resonate with me deeply given my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response. Over two years ago, I published this blog post in which I wrote that, “The value of Crisis Mapping may at times have less to do with the actual map and more with the conversations and new collaborative networks catalyzed by launching a Crisis Mapping project. Indeed, this in part explains why the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) exists in the first place.” I was not very familiar with the concept of social capital at the time, but that’s precisely what I was describing. I’ve since written extensively about the very important role that social capital plays in disaster resilience and digital humanitarian response. But I hadn’t taken the obvious next step: “Crowd Capital.”

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John Prpić and Prashant Shukla, the authors of “The Theory of Crowd Capital,” find inspiration in F. A. Hayek, “who in 1945 wrote a seminal work titled: The Use of Knowledge in Society. In this work, Hayek describes dispersed knowledge as:

“The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. […] Every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”

“Crowd Capability,” according to John and Prashant, “is what enables an organization to tap this dispersed knowledge from individuals. More formally, they define Crowd Capability as an “organizational level capability that is defined by the structure, content, and process of an organizations engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals—the Crowd.” From their perspective, “it is this engagement of dispersed knowledge through Crowd Capability efforts that endows organizations with data, information, and knowledge previously unavailable to them; and the internal processing of this, in turn, results in the generation of Crowd Capital within the organization.”

In other words, “when an organization defines the structure, content, and processes of its engagement with the dispersed knowledge of individuals, it has created a Crowd Capability, which in turn, serves to generate Crowd Capital.” And so, the authors contend, a Crowd Capable organization “puts in place the structure, content, and processes to access Hayek’s dispersed knowledge from individuals, each of whom has some informational advantage over the other, and thus forming a Crowd for the organization.” Note that a crowd can “exist inside of an organization, exist external to the organization, or a combination of the latter and the former.”

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The “Structure” component of Crowd Capability connotes “the geographical divisions and functional units within an organization, and the technological means that they employ to engage a Crowd population for the organization.” The structure component of Crowd Capability is always an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. The “Content” of Crowd Capability constitutes “the knowledge, information or data goals that the organization seeks from the population,” while the “Processes” of Crowd Capability are defined as “the internal procedures that the organization will use to organize, filter, and integrate the incoming knowledge, information, and/or data.” The authors observe that in each Crowd Capital case they’ve analyzed , “an organization creates the structure, content, and/or process to engage the knowledge of dispersed individuals through Information Systems.”

Like the other forms of capital, “Crowd Capital requires investments (for example in Crowd Capability), and potentially pays literal or figurative dividends, and hence, is endowed with typical ‘capital-like’ qualities.” But the authors are meticulous when they distinguish Crowd Capital from Intellectual Capital, Human Capital, Social Capital, Political Capital, etc. The main distinguishing factor is that Crowd Capability is strictly an Information-Systems-mediated phenomenon. “This is not to say that Crowd Capability could not be leveraged to create Social Capital for an organization. It likely could, however, Crowd Capability does not require Social Capital to function.”

That said, I would opine that Crowd Capability can function better thanks to Social Capital. Indeed, Social Capital can influence the “structure”, “content” and “processes” integral to Crowd Capability. And so, while the authors argue that  “Crowd Capital can be accrued without such relationship and network concerns” that are typical to Social Capital, I would counter that the presence of Social Capital certainly does not take away Crowd Capability but quite on the contrary builds greater capability. Otherwise, Crowd Capability is little else than the cultivation of cognitive surplus in which crowd workers can never unite. The Matrix comes to mind. So this is where my experience in crowdsourcing digital humanitarian response makes me diverge from the authors’ conceptualization of “Crowd Capital.” Take the Blue Pill to stay in the disenfranchised version of Crowd Capital; or take the Red Pill if you want to build the social capital required to hack the system.

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To be sure, the authors of Crowd Capital Theory point to Google’s ReCaptcha system for book digitization to demonstrate that Crowd Capability does not require a network of relationships for the accrual of Crowd Capital.” While I understand the return on investment to society both in the form of less spam and more digitized books, this mediated information system is authoritarian. One does not have a choice but to comply, unless you’re a hacker, perhaps. This is why I share Jonathan Zittrain’s point about “The future of the Internet and How To Stop It.” Zittrain promotes the notion of a “Generative Technologies,” which he defines as having the ability “to produce unprompted, user-driven change.”

Krisztina Holly makes a related argument in her piece on crowdscaling. “Like crowdsourcing, crowdscaling taps into the energy of people around the world that want to contribute. But while crowdsourcing pulls in ideas and content from outside the organization, crowdscaling grows and scales its impact outward by empowering the success of others.” Crowdscaling is possible when Crowd Capa-bility generates Crowd Capital by the crowd, for the crowd. In contrast, said crowd cannot hack or change a ReCaptcha requirement if they wish to proceed to the page they’re looking for. In The Matrix, Crowd Capital accrues most directly to The Matrix rather than to the human cocoons being farmed for their metrics. In the same vein, Crowd Capital generated by ReCaptcha accrues most directly to Google Inc. In short, ReCaptcha doesn’t even ask the question: “Blue Pill or Red Pill?” So is it only a matter of time until the users that generate the Crowd Capital unite and revolt, as seems to be the case with the lawsuit against CrowdFlower?

I realize that the authors may have intended to take the conversation on Crowd Capital in a different direction. But they do conclude with a number of inter-esting, open-ended questions that suggest various “flavors” of Crowd Capital are possible, and not just the dark one I’ve just described. I for one will absolutely make use of the term Crowd Capital, but will flavor it based on my experience with digital humanitarias, which suggests a different formula: Social Capital + Social Media + Crowdsourcing = Crowd Capital. In short, I choose the Red Pill.

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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)
 

 

Crisis Mapping Syria: Automated Data Mining and Crowdsourced Human Intelligence

The Syria Tracker Crisis Map is without doubt one of the most impressive crisis mapping projects yet. Launched just a few weeks after the protests began one year ago, the crisis map is spearheaded by a just handful of US-based Syrian activists have meticulously and systematically documented 1,529 reports of human rights violations including a total of 11,147 killings. As recently reported in this NewScientist article, “Mapping the Human Cost of Syria’s Uprising,” the crisis map “could be the most accurate estimate yet of the death toll in Syria’s uprising [...].” Their approach? “A combination of automated data mining and crowdsourced human intelligence,” which “could provide a powerful means to assess the human cost of wars and disasters.”

On the data-mining side, Syria Tracker has repurposed the HealthMap platform, which mines thousands of online sources for the purposes of disease detection and then maps the results, “giving public-health officials an easy way to monitor local disease conditions.” The customized version of this platform for Syria Tracker (ST), known as HealthMap Crisis, mines English information sources for evidence of human rights violations, such as killings, torture and detainment. As the ST Team notes, their data mining platform “draws from a broad range of sources to reduce reporting biases.” Between June 2011 and January 2012, for example, the platform collected over 43,o00 news articles and blog posts from almost 2,000 English-based sources from around the world (including some pro-regime sources).

Syria Tracker combines the results of this sophisticated data mining approach with crowdsourced human intelligence, i.e., field-based eye-witness reports shared via webform, email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and voicemail. This naturally presents several important security issues, which explains why the main ST website includes an instructions page detailing security precautions that need to be taken while sub-mitting reports from within Syria. They also link to this practical guide on how to protect your identity and security online and when using mobile phones. The guide is available in both English and Arabic.

Eye-witness reports are subsequently translated, geo-referenced, coded and verified by a group of volunteers who triangulate the information with other sources such as those provided by the HealthMap Crisis platform. They also filter the reports and remove dupli-cates. Reports that have a low con-fidence level vis-a-vis veracity are also removed. Volunteers use a dig-up or vote-up/vote-down feature to “score” the veracity of eye-witness reports. Using this approach, the ST Team and their volunteers have been able to verify almost 90% of the documented killings mapped on their platform thanks to video and/or photographic evidence. They have also been able to associate specific names to about 88% of those reported killed by Syrian forces since the uprising began.

Depending on the levels of violence in Syria, the turn-around time for a report to be mapped on Syria Tracker is between 1-3 days. The team also produces weekly situation reports based on the data they’ve collected along with detailed graphical analysis. KML files that can be uploaded and viewed using Google Earth are also made available on a regular basis. These provide “a more precisely geo-located tally of deaths per location.”

In sum, Syria Tracker is very much breaking new ground vis-a-vis crisis mapping. They’re combining automated data mining technology with crowdsourced eye-witness reports from Syria. In addition, they’ve been doing this for a year, which makes the project the longest running crisis maps I’ve seen in a hostile environ-ment. Moreover, they’ve been able to sustain these import efforts with just a small team of volunteers. As for the veracity of the collected information, I know of no other public effort that has taken such a meticulous and rigorous approach to documenting the killings in Syria in near real-time. On February 24th, Al-Jazeera posted the following estimates:

Syrian Revolution Coordination Union: 9,073 deaths
Local Coordination Committees: 8,551 deaths
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: 5,581 deaths

At the time, Syria Tracker had a total of 7,901 documented killings associated with specific names, dates and locations. While some duplicate reports may remain, the team argues that “missing records are a much bigger source of error.” Indeed, They believe that “the higher estimates are more likely, even if one chooses to disregard those reports that came in on some of the most violent days where names were not always recorded.”

The Syria Crisis Map itself has been viewed by visitors from 136 countries around the world and 2,018 cities—with the top 3 cities being Damascus, Washington DC and, interestingly, Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. The witnessing has thus been truly global and collective. When the Syrian regime falls, “the data may help sub-sequent governments hold him and other senior leaders to account,” writes the New Scientist. This was one of the principle motivations behind the launch of the Ushahidi platform in Kenya over four years ago. Syria Tracker is powered by Ushahidi’s cloud-based platform, Crowdmap. Finally, we know for a fact that the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Amnesty International (AI) closely followed the Libya Crisis Map last year.

Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent [...] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law [...].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness’”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

Combining Crowdsourced Satellite Imagery Analysis with Crisis Reporting: An Update on Syria

Members of the the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) Satellite Team are currently tagging the location of hundreds of Syrian tanks and other heavy mili-tary equipment on the Tomnod micro-tasking platform using very recent high-resolution satellite imagery provided by Digital Globe.

We’re focusing our efforts on the following three key cities in Syria as per the request of Amnesty International USA’s (AI-USA) Science for Human Rights Program.

For more background information on the project, please see the following links:

To recap, the purpose of this experimental pilot project is to determine whether satellite imagery analysis can be crowdsourced and triangulated to provide data that might help AI-USA corroborate numerous reports of human rights abuses they have been collecting from a multitude of other sources over the past few months. The point is to use the satellite tagging in combination with other data, not in isolation.
 
To this end, I’ve recommended that we take it one step further. The Syria Tracker Crowdmap has been operations for months. Why not launch an Ushahidiplatform that combines the triangulated features from the crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis with crowdsourced crisis reports from multiple sources?

The satellite imagery analyzed by the SBTF was taken in early September. We could grab the August and September crisis data from Syria Tracker and turn the satellite imagery analysis data into layers. For example, the “Military tag” which includes large military equipment like tanks and artillery could be uploaded to Ushahidi as a KML file. This would allow AI-USA and others to cross-reference their own reports, with those on Syria Tracker and then also place that analysis into context vis-a-vis the location of military equipment, large crowds and check-points over the same time period.

The advantage of adding these layers to an Ushahidi platform is that they could be updated and compared over time. For example, we could compare the location of Syrian tanks versus on-the-ground reports of shelling for the month of August, September, October, etc. Perhaps we could even track the repositioning of  some military equipment if we repeated this crowdsourcing initiative more frequently. Incidentally, President Eisenhower proposed this idea to the UN during the Cold War, see here.

In any case, this initiative is still very much experimental and there’s lots to learn. The SBTF Tech Team headed by Nigel McNie is looking to make the above integration happen, which I’m super excited about. I’d love to see closer integration with satellite imagery analysis data in future Ushahidi deployments that crowdsource crisis reporting from the field. Incidentally, we could scale this feature tagging approach to include hundreds if not thousands of volunteers.

In other news, my SBTF colleague Shadrock Roberts and I had a very positive conference call with UNHCR this week. The SBTF will be partnering with HCR on an official project to tag the location of informal shelters in the Afgooye corridor in the near future. Unlike our trial run from several weeks ago, we will have a far more developed and detailed rule-set & feature-key thanks to some very useful information that our colleagues at HCR have just shared with us. We’ll be adding the triangulated features from the imagery analysis to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi platform. We hope to run this project in October and possibly again in January so HCR can do some simple change detection using Ushahidi.

In parallel, we’re hoping to partner with the Joint Research Center (JRC), which has developed automated methods for shelter detection. Comparing crowdsourced feature tagging with an automated approach would provide yet more information to UNHCR to corroborate their assessments.