Tag Archives: Imagery

A List of Completely Wrong Assumptions About Technology Use in Emerging Economies

I’ve spent the past week at the iLab in Liberia and got what I came for: an updated reality check on the limitations of technology adoption in developing countries. Below are some of the assumptions that I took for granted. They’re perfectly obvious in hindsight and I’m annoyed at myself for not having realized their obviousness sooner. I’d be very interested in hearing from others about these and reading their lists. This need not be limited to one particular sector like ICT for Development (ICT4D) or Mobile Health (mHealth). Many of these assumptions have repercussions across multiple disciplines.

The following examples come from conversations with my colleague Kate Cummings who directs Ushahidi Liberia and the iLab here in Monrovia. She and her truly outstanding team—Kpetermeni Siakor, Carter Draper, Luther Jeke and Anthony Kamah—spearheaded a number of excellent training workshops over the past few days. At one point we began discussing the reasons for the limited use of SMS in Liberia. There are the usual and obvious reasons. But the one hurdle I had not expected to hear was Nokia’s predictive text functionality. This feature is incredibly helpful since the mobile phone basically guesses which words you’re trying to write so you don’t have to type every single letter.

But as soon as she pointed out how confusing this can be, I immediately understood what she meant. If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

In one of the training workshops we just had, I was explaining what Walking Papers was about and how it might be useful in Liberia. So I showed the example below and continued talking. But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

Kate went on to explain that this kind of picture is what you would see if you were flying high like a bird. That was the way I should have introduced the image but I had taken it completely for granted that satellite imagery was self-explanatory when it simply isn’t. In further conversations with Kate, she explained that they too had made that assumption early on when trying to introduce the in’s and out’s of the Ushahidi platform. They quickly realized that they had to rethink their approach and decided to provide introductory courses on Google Maps instead.

More wrong assumptions revealed themselves during the workshpos. For example, the “+” and “-” markers on Google Map are not intuitive either nor is the concept of zooming in and out. How are you supposed to understand that pressing these buttons still shows the same map but at a different scale and not an entirely different picture instead? Again, when I took a moment to think about this, I realized how completely confusing that could be. And again I kicked myself. But contrast this to an entirely different setting, San Francisco, where some friends recently told me how their five year old went up to a framed picture in their living room and started pinching at it with his fingers, the exact same gestures one would use on an iPhone to zoom in and out of a picture. “Broken, broken” is all the five year old said after that disappointing experience.

The final example actually comes from Haiti where my colleague Chrissy Martin is one of the main drivers behind the Digicel Group’s mobile banking efforts in the country. There were of course a number of expected challenges on the road to launching Haiti’s first successful mobile banking service, TchoTcho Mobile. The hurdle that I had not expected, however, had to do with the pin code. To use the service, you would enter your own personal pin number on your mobile phone in order to access your account. Seems perfectly straight forward. But it really isn’t.

The concept of a pin number is one that many of us take completely for granted. But the idea is often foreign to many would-be users of mobile banking services and not just in Haiti. Think about it: all one has to do to access all my money is to simply enter four numbers on my phone. That does genuinely sound crazy to me at a certain level. Granted, if you guess the pin wrong three times, the phone gets blocked and you have to call TchoTcho’s customer service. But still, I can understand the initial hesitation that many users had. When I asked Chrissy how they overcame the hurdle, her answer was simply this: training. It takes time for users to begin trusting a completely new technology.

So those are some of the assumptions I’ve gotten wrong. I’d be grateful if readers could share theirs as there must be plenty of other assumptions I’m making which don’t fit reality. Incidentally, I realize that emerging economies vary widely in technology diffusion and adoption—not to mention sub-nationally as well. This is why having the iLab in Liberia is so important. Identifying which assumptions are wrong in more challenging environments is really important if our goal is to use technology to help contribute meaningfully to a community’s empowerment, development and independence.

Crisis Mapping by Fire: Satellite Imagery Analysis of Kenya’s Election Violence

My brother Brice just sent me a very interesting study that combines satellite imagery and field reporting to analyze Kenya’s 2008 election violence. The peer-reviewed piece is entitled “Violence and Exodus in Kenya’s Rift Valley, 2008: Predictable and Preventable?” and was pub- lished in the Journal of East African Studies.

Given the use of satellites to monitor the referendum in Sudan, this blog post reviews the methodology and insights gained from the Kenya analysis. I’ll do this by providing key excerpts from the study along with my own commentary. This case study is of particularly interest to me since I was in Kenya the time and because that was when the first Ushahidi platform was launched. For more information on the use of satellite imagery to document human rights abuses, I highly recommend Amnesty International’s Science for Human Rights Explorer.

I wasn’t aware how much scrambling for information was going on in the humanitarian community:

“Over the first days, and then weeks following the December election, information about the outbreak and extent of violence was fragmented and difficult to access. Even those tasked with responding most rapidly to violence and displacement faced problems in interpreting information that was frequently distorted by rumour and misinformation.”

Interesting to know that humanitarians were facing some of the same challenges as crowdsourcing presents. Would using SwiftRiver have made a difference to try and assess the validity of the information they were collecting?

“In the early days of January 2007, UN agencies and other humanitarian bodies had numerous sources reporting that tens of thousands of people had been displaced and dozens killed across the country, yet details on the extent, location, and chronology of the violence were hard to establish, making it difficult for these agencies to plan an effective response.”

Note the need for location and time-stamped information. Would drawing on reports from the Ushahidi platform have helped? See my co-authored study on Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence. That said, this was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in Kenya so the reports may not have been of the highest quality.

“The Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS), for example, implemented the election contingency plan it had put in place prior to the December polls, but staff could not confirm reports of violence, and could not deliver essential food and relief items to those people displaced by the fighting because of roadblocks mounted by protestors. Even after carrying out a helicopter assessment mission on 1 January 2008, the KRCS still found it difficult to present an overall picture of the location and timing of the violence.”

So UN agencies in Kenya turned to satellite imagery.

“In response to the challenges facing them in January 2007, UN agencies in Kenya asked UNOSAT to produce a series of maps showing the likely location of election-related violence in the west of the country. UNOSAT has a variety of satellite imaging data available to them, but one tool used to map conflict situations is data on active fires. Fire plays an important role in forcing people from their homes and terrorizing local populations, so the location of active burn sites in a conflict zone offers a reasonable indicator of where violence and displacement is occurring.”

“Indeed, upon examining available fire data from Kenya for 27 December to 3 January, staff at UNOSAT noticed unusual patterns of fires on tea plantations—areas where fire is never normally employed for agricultural management. They then carried out further analysis, and created maps of areas where, according to a chronological and spatial evaluation of the fire data, it was ‘probable that a majority of detected fires are directly or indirectly linked to the civil unrest’.”

“The result was five maps covering a portion of Rift Valley Province from Nakuru to Kitale, as well as the eastern edges of Nyanza and Western Provinces. Map 1 provides an aggregate view of all active fire locations from 27 December 2007 to 3 January 2008.”

“Maps 2-5 show fires on specific days during that period. Each of the diamonds on the maps represents an area of a square kilometre that contained an active fire location at the time a satellite passed overhead. Fires generally have to cover an area of about fifty square metres to be noticed by this technology, though intensity can affect this. The colouring in the background, on the other hand, is a function of the relative clustering of active fire locations—purely a tool to direct the map-reader and not an indication of fire intensity.”

“Apart from demonstrating the geographical dimensions of the arson and conflict occurring in the area, the maps also begin to provide a general chronology of events into which more specific accounts from witness testimonies and other sources can be integrated. UNOSAT’s four chronological maps (Maps 2-5) cover the majority of the eight day period: 27-28 December, 29-30 December, 1 January, and 2!3 January, and provide powerful visuals of how events unfolded.”

“It is important to bear in mind that gaps in data collection occurred on 31 December and 2 January, and that satellite imagery captures what is happening in a particular fraction of a second—data acquisition times generally occurred around 10:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 11 p.m. Kenyan local time. Bearing this in mind, it is possible using the maps to begin to understand the broad pattern of the escalation of the violence over the period.”

The authors of the study point out some limitations:

“These maps are visually compelling, but we should note that they ‘hide’ important dimensions of the violence—on a map all fires look the same. Violence in urban areas, for instance, differed markedly from that in rural areas, and these maps do not represent this difference. Another example is how little these maps reveal about the increasingly serious situation in Mt Elgon.”

This limitation is inherent to static maps, not so for live crisis maps that are interactive and dynamic.

“The mark of a single fire in the southern part of the district included on two of the maps does not stand out from the other fire locations. However, we know from other sources that violence in Mt Elgon continued to increase in severity after the elections. If violence was occurring on the Chebyuk land settlement schemes on Mt Elgon at this time, then it did not involve fires of sufficient magnitude to be detected by this satellite technology.”

“The mapping of fires can therefore tell us only part of the story. Cohesive explanations of specific situations can only begin to emerge if we triangulate the evidence provided by the maps with other kinds of information. This research is continuing, but at this stage we can offer a preliminary analysis that highlights several significant points:

  • Even before the first wave of violence in the Rift Valley was sparked by the announcement of the presidential poll result on 30 December 2007, conflict had already broken out in some areas over the two days between the closure of the polls and the announcement of the presidential result. This correlates with evidence in media and human rights reports that some majimboist activists planned violence after the election regardless of the outcome of the vote.
  • Over the hours following Kivuitu’s announcement of Kibaki’s victory, violence broke out in several different locations across the province, some of this undoubtedly a spontaneous reaction to the alleged ‘theft’ of the election, and targeted against persons associated with the PNU and its allies. However, many other attacks were evidently planned and orchestrated. Kikuyu-settled areas of Eldoret were ablaze within two hours of Kibaki’s re-election, armed Kalenjin men arriving in lorries to carry out the attacks. These assaults were not confined to ‘aliens’, but included attacks upon properties owned by ex-president Moi and his close Kalenjin associates, including Nicholas Biwott, whose KANU party had made an electoral pact with PNU.
  • The locations of this first major wave of violence in the first week of January show a clear spatial pattern: the outbreaks were invariably in places where non-indigenous populations were living. The targets of this violence were predominantly Kikuyu and Kisii communities, who were identified as PNU supporters. Though many attacks were murderous, the main purpose was to ‘chase away’ the victims. By 6 January, the Kenya Red Cross estimated a national figure of 211,000 persons internally displaced in violence since 30 December, the vast majority of these being within Rift Valley.
  • The violence accordingly coalesced in two types of location: the first was larger and smaller towns, where populations are ethnically more mixed and where businesses are concentrated—for example the rapid upsurge of conflict in and around Eldoret. The second was on rural settlement schemes, where land has been purchased or leased by farmers from a wide range of ethnic groups—for example, Burnt Forest, Ndalat, and the Molo area of Nakuru District. The settlement schemes at Burnt Forest, the scene of dreadful violence in the 1990s, were completely cut off by road barricades by the morning of 1 January, impeding the work of relief agencies, in what was clearly an organized and coordinated assault.”

This study clearly shows the added value of combining satellite imagery analysis with reporting from the ground. This analysis was all carried out retroactively, however. To this end, lets hope that the Satellite Sentinel Project, which I blogged about here, and Sudan Vote Monitor, which uses the Ushahidi platform, will be sharing information to allow for near real-time integrated analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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