Tag Archives: kenya

How to Counter Rumors and Prevent Violence Using UAVs

The Sentinel Project recently launched their Human Security UAV program in Kenya’s violence-prone Tana Delta to directly support Una Hakika (“Are You Sure”). Hakika is an information service that serves to “counteract malicious misinformation [disinformation] which has been the trigger for recent outbreaks of violence in the region.” While the Tana Delta is one of Kenya’s least developed areas, both “mobile phone and internet usage is still surprisingly high.” At the same time, misinformation has “played a significant role in causing fear, distrust and hatred between communities” because the Tana Delta is perhaps parado-xically also an “information-starved environment in which most people still rely on word-of-mouth to get news about the world around them.”


In other words, there are no objective, authoritative sources of information per se, so Una Hakika (“Are You Sure”) seeks to be the first accurate, neutral and reliable source of information. Una Hakika is powered by a dedicated toll-free SMS short code and an engaged, trusted network of volunteer ambassadors. When the team receives a rumor verification request via SMS, they proceed to verify the rumor and report the findings back (via SMS) to the community. This process involves “gathering a lot of information from various different sources and trying to make sense of it […]. That’s where WikiRumours comes in as our purpose-built software for managing the Una Hakika workflow.”


A year after implementing the project, the Sentinel team carried out a series of focus groups to assess impact The findings are particularly encouraging. In a way, the Sentinel team has formalized and stream-lined the organic verification process I describe here: How To Use Technology To Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan. So where do UAVs come in?

The Sentinel team recently introduced the use of UAVs to support Una Hakika’s verification efforts and will be expanding the program to include a small fleet of multi-rotor and fixed wing platforms. Before piloting this new technology, the team carried out research to better understand local perceptions around UAVs (also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems, UAS):

“Common public opinion concerns in places like Europe and North America relate to the invasion of privacy, misuse by government or law enforcement, a related concern about an overbearing security state, and fears of an aviation disaster. Concerns found among residents of the Tana Delta revolve around practical issues such as whether the UAS-mounted camera would be powerful enough to be useful, how far such systems can operate, whether they are hampered by weather, how quickly a drone can be deployed in an emergency, and who will be in physical possession of the system.”

“For the most part, they [local residents] are genuinely curious, have a plethora of questions about the implementation of UAS in their communities, and are enthusiastic about the many possibilities. This genuine technological optimism makes the Tana Delta a likely site for one of the first programs of its kind. The Sentinel Project is conducting its UAS operations with the policy of ‘progress through caution,’ which seeks to engage communities within the proposed deployment while offering complete transparency and involvement but always emphasizing exposure to (and demonstration of) systems in the field with the people who have the potential to benefit from these initiatives. This approach has been extremely well received & has already resulted in improvements to implementation.”

While Una Hakika’s verification network includes hundreds of volunteer ambassadors, they can’t be everywhere at the same time. As the Sentinel team mentioned during one of our recent conversations, there are some places that simply can’t be reached by foot reliably. In addition, the UAVs can operate both day and night; wandering around at night can be dangerous for Una Hakika’s verification ambassadors. The Sentinel team thus plans to add InfraRed, thermal imaging capabilities to the UAVs. The core of the program will be to use UAVs to set up perimeter security areas around threatened communities. In addition, the program can address other vectors which have led to recent violence: using the UAVs to help find lost (potentially stolen) cattle, track crop health, and monitor contested land use. The team mentioned that the UAVs could also be used to support search and rescue efforts during periods of drought and floods.


Lastly, they’ve started discussing the use of UAVs for payload transportation. For example, UAVs could deliver medical supplies to remote villages that have been attacked. After all, the World Health Organization (WHO) is already using UAVs for this purpose. With each of these applications, the Sentinel team clearly emphasizes that the primary users and operators of the UAVs must be the local staff in the region. “We believe that successful technology driven programs must not only act as tools to serve these communities but also allow community members to have direct involvement in their use”.

As the Sentinel team rightly notes, their approach helps to “counteract the paralysis which arises from the unknowns of a new endeavour when studied in a purely academic setting. The Sentinel Project team believes that a cautious but active strategy of real-world deployments will best demonstrate the value of such programs to governments and global citizens.” This very much resonates with me, which is why I am pleased to serve on the organization’s Advisory Board.

Hashtag Analysis of #Westgate Crisis Tweets

In July 2013, my team and I at QCRI launched this dashboard to analyze hashtags used by Twitter users during crises. Our first case study, which is available here, focused on Hurricane Sandy. Since then, both the UN and Greenpeace have also made use of the dashboard to analyze crisis tweets.


We just uploaded 700,000+ Westgate related tweets to the dashboard. The results are available here and also displayed above. The dashboard is still under development, so we very much welcome feedback on how to improve it for future analysis. You can upload your own tweets to the dashboard if you’d like to test drive the platform.


See also: Forensics Analysis of #Westgate Tweets (Link)

Forensics Analysis of #Westgate Tweets (Updated)

Update 1: Our original Twitter collection of Westgate-related tweets included the following hashtags: #Kenya, #Nairobi #WestgateAttack, #WestagateMall, #WestgatemallAttack, #Westgateshootout & #Westgate. While we overlooked #Westlands and Westlands, we have just fixed the oversight. This explains why the original results below differed from the iHub’s analysis which was based on tweets with the keywords Westgate and Westlands.

Update 2: The list below of first tweets to report the attack has been updated to include tweets referring to Westlands. These are denoted by an asterisk (*). 

I’m carrying out some preliminary “information forensics” research on the 740,000+ tweets posted during the Westgate attack. More specifically, I’m looking for any clues in the hours leading up to the attack that may reveal something out of the ordinary prior to the siege. Other questions I’m hoping to answer: Were any tweets posted during the crisis actionable? Did they add situational awareness? What kind of multimedia content was shared? Which tweets were posted by eyewitnesses? Were any tweets posted by the attackers or their supporters? If so, did these carry tactical information?

Screen Shot 2013-10-03 at 4.20.23 AM

If you have additional suggestions on what else to search for, please feel free to post them in the comments section below, thank you very much. I’ll be working with QCRI research assistants over the next few weeks to dive deeper into the first 24 hours of the attack as reported on Twitter. This research would not be possible where it not for my colleagues at GNIP who very kindly granted me access their platform to download all the tweets. I’ve just reviewed the first hour of tweets (which proved to be highly emotional, as expected). Below are the very first tweets posted about the attack.

[12:38:20 local time]*
gun shots in westlands? wtf??

Weird gunshot like sounds in westlands : (

Explosions and gunfight ongoing in #nairobi 

Something really bad goin on at #Westgate. Gunshots!!!! Everyone’s fled. 

[12:43:17] *
Somewhere behind Westlands? What’s up RT @[username]: Explosions and gunfight ongoing in #nairobi

Are these gunshots at #Westgate? Just heard shooting from the road behind sarit, sounded like it was coming from westgate 

@[username] shoot out at westgate westlands mall. going on for the last 10 min

Heavily armed thugs have taken over #WestGate shopping mall. Al occupants and shoppers are on the floor. Few gunshots heard…more to follow 

did anyone else in westlands hear that? #KOT #Nairobi 

Seems like explosions and small arms fire are coming from Westlands or Gigiri #nairobi 

Gun fight #westgate… @ntvkenya @KTNKenya @citizentvkenya any news… 

Several explosions followed by 10 minutes of running gunfight in Nairobi westlands

Small arms fire is continuing to be exchanged intermittently. #nairobi

Something’s going on around #Westgate #UkayCentre area. Keep away if you can

Gunshots and explosions heard around #Westgate anybody nearby? #Westlands

@KenyaRedCross explosions and gunshots heard near Westgate Mall in Westlands. Fierce shoot out..casualties probable

Shoot to kill order #westgate

See also:

  • We Are Kenya: Global Map of #Westgate Tweets [Link]
  • Did Terrorists Use Twitter to Increase Situational Awareness? [Link]
  • Analyzing Tweets Posted During Mumbai Terrorist Attacks [Link]
  • Web 2.0 Tracks Attacks on Mumbai [Link]


Automatically Classifying Crowdsourced Election Reports

As part of QCRI’s Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) project, I liaised with Kaggle to work with a top notch Data Scientist to carry out a proof of concept study. As I’ve blogged in the past, crowdsourced election monitoring projects are starting to generate “Big Data” which cannot be managed or analyzed manually in real-time. Using the crowdsourced election reporting data recently collected by Uchaguzi during Kenya’s elections, we therefore set out to assess whether one could use machine learning to automatically tag user-generated reports according to topic, such as election-violence. The purpose of this post is to share the preliminary results from this innovative study, which we believe is the first of it’s kind.


The aim of this initial proof-of-concept study was to create a model to classify short messages (crowdsourced election reports) into several predetermined categories. The classification models were developed by applying a machine learning technique called gradient boosting on word features extracted from the text of the election reports along with their titles. Unigrams, bigrams and the number of words in the text and title were considered in the model development. The tf-idf weighting function was used following internal validation of the model.

The results depicted above confirm that classifiers can be developed to automatically classify short election observation reports crowdsourced from the public. The classification was generated by 10-fold cross validation. Our classifier is able to correctly predict whether a report is related to violence with an accuracy of 91%, for example. We can also accurately predict  89% of reports that relate to “Voter Issues” such as registration issues and reports that indicate positive events, “Fine” (86%).

The plan for this Summer and Fall is to replicate this work for other crowdsourced election datasets from Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda. We hope the insights gained from this additional research will reveal which classifiers and/or “super classifiers” are portable across certain countries and election types. Our hypothesis, based on related crisis computing research, is that classifiers for certain types of events will be highly portable. However, we also hypothesize that the application of most classifiers across countries will result in lower accuracy scores. To this end, our Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections platform will allow election monitoring organizations (end users) to create their own classifiers on the fly and thus meet their own information needs.


Big thanks to Nao for his excellent work on this predictive modeling project.

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since Wars Begin in Minds of Men

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” – 
UNESCO Constitution, 1945

Today, in Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men’s behaviors.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell them-selves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As US-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases do. The good news is that we already know how to treat the later: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the “Crowd” is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile adver-tising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages & reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.

To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the twelve months leading up to today’s Presidential Elections, the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi & CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country’s most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.

In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region’s largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO’s mobile reach during today’s elections. And thanks to SNA-K’s customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS’s to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.” 

The partnership with Pop-Tech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and Sisi ni Amani have already had positive impact in the lead up to today’s important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS: 

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 4.34.44 PM 

“Tu dumisha amani!” means “Lets keep the peace!” SNA-K’s local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.

In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 4.37.48 PM 

Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What’s more, they even requested that additional messages to be sent. Sisi ni Amani has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact. Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that “for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya & SNAK partnership is making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!


Cross-posted on PopTech blog.

Evaluating the Impact of SMS on Behavior Change

The purpose of PeaceTXT is to use mobile messaging (SMS) to catalyze behavior change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues for the purposes of violence prevention. You can read more about our pilot project in Kenya here and here. We’re hoping to go live next month with some initial trials. In the meantime, we’ve been busy doing research to develop an appropriate monitoring and evaluation strategy. As is often the case in this new innovative initiatives, we have to look to other fields for insights, which is why my colleague Peter van der Windt recently shared this peer-reviewed study entitled: “Mobile Phone Technologies Improve Adherence to Antiretroviral Treatment in a Resource-Limited Setting: A Randomized Con-trolled Trial of Text Message Reminders.”

The objective of the study was to test the “efficacy of short message service (SMS) reminders on adherence to Antiretroviral Treatment (ART) among patients attending a rural clinic in Kenya.” The authors used a Randomized Control Trial (RCT) of “four SMS reminders interventions with 48 weeks of follow-up.” Over four hundred patients were enrolled in the trial and “randomly assigned to a control group or one of the four intervention groups. Participants in the intervention groups received SMS reminders that were either short or long and sent at a daily or weekly frequency.”

The four different text message interventions were “chosen to address different barriers to adherence such as forgetful- ness and lack of social support. Short messages were meant to serve as a simple reminder to take medications, whereas long messages were meant to provide additional support. Daily messages were close to the frequency of medication usage, whereas weekly messages were meant to avoid the possibility that very frequent text messages would be habituating.” The SMS content was developed after extensive consultation with clinic staff and the messages were “sent at 12 p.m., rather than twice daily (during dosing times) to avoid excess reliance on the accuracy of the SMS  software.”

The results of the subsequent statistical analysis reveal that “53% of participants receiving weekly SMS reminders achieved adherence of at least 90% during the 48 weeks of the study, compared with 40% of participants in the control group. Participants in groups receiving weekly reminders were also significantly less likely to experience treatment interruptions exceeding 48 hours during the 48-week follow-up period than participants in the control group.” Interestingly, “adding words of encouragement in the longer text message reminders was not more effective than either a short reminder or no reminder.” Furthermore, it is worth noting that “weekly reminders improved adherence, whereas daily remin-ders did not. Habituation, or the diminishing of a response to a frequently repeated stimulus, may explain this finding. Daily messages might also have been considered intrusive.”

In sum, “despite SMS outages, phone loss, and a rural population, these results suggest that simple SMS interventions could be an important strategy to sustaining optimal ART response.” In other words, SMS reminders can serve as an important tool to catalyze positive behavior change in resource-limited settings. Several insights from this study are going to be important for us to consider in our PeaceTXT project. So if you know of any other relevant studies we should be paying attention to, then please let us know. Thank you!

Finally, A Decision-Support Platform for SMS Use in Disaster Response

Within weeks of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, I published this blog post entitled “How to Royally Mess Up Disaster Response in Haiti.” A month later, I published another post on “Haiti and the Tyranny of Technology.” I also called for an SMS Code of Conduct as described here. Some of the needs and shortcomings expressed in these blog posts have finally been answered by InfoAsAid‘s excellent Message Library, “an online searchable database of messages that acts as a reference for those wanting to disseminate critical information to affected populations in an emergency.”

“If used in the correct way, the library should help improve communication with crisis-affected populations.” As my colleague Anahi Ayala explains with respect to the disaster response in Haiti,

“One of the main problem that emerged was not only the need to communicate but the need for a coordinated and homogeneous message to be delivered to the affected communities. The problem was posed by the fact that as agencies and organizations were growing in number and size, all of them were trying in different ways to deliver messages to the beneficiaries of aid, with the result of many messages, sometimes contradicting each other, delivered to many people, sometimes not the right receiver for that message.”

This platform can be used for both disaster response and preparedness. In the latter case, preparedness exercises can “Involve communities to identify threats and draft appropriate messages using the message library as a reference.” Organizations can also “Pre-test the messages with different segments of society (consider differences in gender, rural/urban, education levels, age) to ensure comprehension.” In terms of disaster response, the platform can be used to disseminate information on the “scale, nature and impact of the disaster (humanitarian news); Alerts about secondary disasters such as aftershocks, landslides or flooding; Messages about how to stay safe and mitigate risk in the face of anticipated threats.”

At PeaceTXT, we’re taking a very similar approach to SMS messaging. In our case, we are developing an SMS Library specifically for the purposes of changing recipients’ behaviors and perceptions vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues in Kenya. This shift towards a culture of preparedness is really important, both for disaster response and conflict prevention. We are currently organizing a series of focus groups with local communities to develop the content of our SMS Library. We plan to review this content in August for inclusion in the library. I very much look forward to scheduling a conference call between InfoAsAid and PeaceTXT in the coming months to share lessons learned thus far in the development of our respective message libraries.

For more on InfoAsAid’s absolutely critical resource, this short video provides a very good summary, including how sensitive messages are managed and how you can contribute SMS content to this very important service. Some serious thanks and praise are in order for InfoAsAid’s work. I do hope that the team at InfoAsAid will join us at the International Crisis Mappers Conference  (ICCM 2012) to share the latest on their excellent initiatives.