Tag Archives: Mobile Phones

New Media, Accuracy and Balance of Power in Crises

I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests  that took place in 2007.


Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”

Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.’” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that [...] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”

However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.

Time Lines out of Sync

Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”

New Media and Accuracy

I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”

“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.

There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.

In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.

Low Tech Power

Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”


During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”

The Question

This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Part 6: Mobile Technologies and Collaborative Analytics

This is Part 6 of 7 of the highlights from “Illuminating the Path: The Research and Development Agenda for Visual Analytics.” Please see this post for an introduction to the study and access to the other 6 parts.

Mobile Technologies

The National Visual Analytics Center (NVAC) study recognizes that “mobile technologies will play a role in visual analytics, especially to users at the front line of homeland security.” To this end, researchers must “devise new methods to best employ these technologies and provide a means to allow data to scale between high-resolution displays in command and control centers to field-deployable displays.”

Collaborative Analytics

While collaborative platforms from wiki’s to Google docs allow many individuals to work collaboratively, these functionalities rarely feature in crisis mapping platforms. And yet, humanitarian crises (just like homeland security challenges) are so complex that they cannot be addressed by individuals working in silos.

On the contrary, crisis analysis, civilian protection and humanitarian response efforts are “sufficiently large scale and important that they must be addressed through the coordinated action of multiple groups of people, often with different backgrounds working in disparate locations with differing information.”

In other words, “the issue of human scalability plays a critical role, as systems must support the communications needs of these groups of people working together across space and time, in high-stress and time-sensitive environments, to make critical decisions.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM)

I first blogged about Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) back in October 2008 and several times since. The purpose of this post to put together the big picture. What do I mean by MCM? Why is it important? And how would I like to see MCM evolve?

Classical MCM

When I coined the term Mobile Crisis Mapping last October, I wrote that MCM was the next logical step in the field of crisis mapping. One month later, at the first Crisis Mappers Meeting, I emphasized the need to think of maps as communication tools and once again referred to MCM. In my posts on the Crisis Mapping Conference Proposal and A Brief History of Crisis Mapping, I referred to MCM but only in passing.

More recently, I noted the MCM component of the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping (TRMA) project in the Sudan and referred to two projects presented at the ICTD2009 conference in Doha—one on quality of data collected using mobile phones and the second on a community-based mapping iniative called Folksomaps.

So what is Mobile Crisis Mapping? The most obvious answer is that MCM is the collection of georeferenced crisis information using peer to peer (P2P) mobile technology. Related to MCM are the challenges of data validation, communication security and so on.

Extending MCM

But there’s more. P2P communication is bi-directional, e.g., two-way SMS broadcasting. This means that MCM is also about the ability of the end-user in the field being to query a crisis map using an SMS and/or voice-based interface. Therein lies the combined value of MCM: collection and query.

The Folksomaps case study comes closest to what I have in mind. The project uses binary operators to categorize relationships between objects mapped to render queries possible. For instance, ‘is towards left of’ could be characterized as <Libya, Egypt>.

The methodology draws on the Web Ontology Language (OWL) to model the categorical characteristics of an object (e.g., direction, proximity, etc), and thence infer new relationships not explicitly specified by users of the system. In other words, Folksomaps provides an ontology of locations.

Once this ontology is created, the map can actually be queried at a distance. That’s what I consider to be the truly innovative and unique aspect of MCM. The potential added value is huge, and James BonTempo describes exactly how huge MCM could be in his superb presentation on extending FrontlineSMS.

An initiative related to Folksomaps and very much in line with my thinking about MCM is Cartagen. This project uses string-based geocoding (e.g. “map Bhagalpur, India”) to allow users in the field to produce and search their own maps by using the most basic of mobile phones. “This widens participation to 4 billion cell phone users worldwide, as well as to rural regions outside the reach of the internet. Geographic mapping with text messages has applications in disaster response and health care.”

MCM Scenario

The query functionality is thus key to Mobile Crisis Mapping. One should be able to “mobile-query” a crisis map by SMS or voice.

If I’m interfacing with an Ushahidi deployment in the Sudan, I should be able to send an SMS to find out where, relative to my location, an IDP camp is located; or where the closest airfield is, etc. Query results can be texted back to the mobile phone and the user can forward that result to others. I should also be able to call up a designated number and walk through a simple Interactive Voice Response (IVR) interface to get the same answer.

Once these basic search queries are made available, more complex, nested queries can be developed—again, see James BonTempo’s presentation to get a sense of the tremendous potential of MCM.

The reason I see MCM as the next logical step in the field of crisis mapping is because more individuals have access to mobile phones in humanitarian crises than a computer connected to the Web. In short, the point of Mobile Crisis Mapping is to bring Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) to the mobile phone.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Video Introduction to Crisis Mapping

I’ve given many presentations on crisis mapping over the past two years but these were never filmed. So I decided to create this video presentation with narration in order to share my findings more widely and hopefully get a lot of feedback in the process. The presentation is not meant to be exhaustive although the video does run to about 30 minutes.

The topics covered in this presentation include:

  • Crisis Map Sourcing – information collection;
  • Mobile Crisis Mapping – mobile technology;
  • Crisis Mapping Visualization – data visualization;
  • Crisis Mapping Analysis – spatial analysis.

The presentation references several blog posts of mine in addition to several operational projects to illustrate the main concepts behind crisis mapping. The individual blog posts featured in the presentation are listed below:

This research is the product of a 2-year grant provided by Humanity United  (HU) to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning, where I am a doctoral fellow.

I look forward to any questions/suggestions you may have on the video primer!

Patrick Philippe Meier

Folksomaps: Gold Standard for Community Mapping

There were a number of mapping-related papers, posters and demo’s at ICTD2009. One paper in particular caught my intention given the topic’s direct relevance to my ongoing consulting work with the UN’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan and the upcoming ecosystem project in Liberia with Ushahidi and Humanity United.


Entitled “Folksomaps – Towards Community Intelligent Maps for Developing Regions,” the paper outlines a community-driven approach for creating maps by drawing on “Web 2.0 principles” and “Semantic Web technologies” but without having to rely entirely on a web-based interface. Indeed, Folksomaps “makes use of web and voice applications to provide access to its services.”

I particularly value the authors’ aim to “provide map-based services that represent user’s intuitive way of finding locations and directions in developing regions.” This is an approach that definitely resonates with me. Indeed, it is our responsibility to adapt and customize our community-based mapping tools to meet the needs, habits and symbology of the end user; not the other way around.

I highly recommend this paper (or summary below) to anyone doing work in the crisis mapping field. In fact, I consider it required reading. The paper is co-authored by Arun Kumar, Dipanjan Chakraborty, Himanshu Chauhan, Sheetal Agarwal and Nitendra Rajput of IBM India Research Lab in New Delhi.


Vast rural areas of developing countries do not have detailed maps or mapping tools. Rural populations are generally semi-literate, low-income and non-tech savvy. They are hardly like to have access to neogeography platforms like Google Earth. Moreover, the lack of electricity access and Internet connection also complicates the situation.

We also know that cities, towns and villages in developing countries “typically do not have well structured naming of streets, roads and houses,” which means “key landmarks become very important in specifying locations and directions.”

Drawing on these insights, the authors seek to tap the collective efforts of local communities to populate, maintain and access content for their own benefit—an approach I have described as crowdfeeding.

Surveys of Tech and Non-Tech Users

The study is centered on end-user needs, which is rather refreshing. The authors carried out a series of surveys to be better understand the profiles of end-users, e.g., tech and non-tech users.

The first survey sought to identify answers to the following questions:

  • How do people find out points of interest?
  • How do much people rely on maps versus people on the streets?
  • How do people provide local information to other people?
  • Whether people are interested in consuming and feeding information for a community-driven map system?

The results are listed in the table below:


Non-tech savvy users did not use maps to find information about locations and only 36% of these users required precise information. In addition, 75% of non-tech respondents preferred the choice of a phone-based interface, which really drives home the need for what I have coined “Mobile Crisis Mapping” or MCM.

Tech-users also rely primarily on others (as opposed to maps) for location related information. The authors associate this result with the lack of signboards in countries like India. “Many a times, the maps do not contain fine-grained information in the first place.”

Most tech-users responded that a phone-based location and direction finding system in addition to a web-based interface. Almost 80% expressed interest in “contributing to the service by uploading content either over the phone or though a web-based portal.”

The second survey sought to identify how tech and non-tech users express directions and local information. For example:

  • How do you give directions to people on the road or to friends?
  • How do you describe proximity of a landmark to another one?
  • How do you describe distance? Kilometers or using time-to-travel?

The results are listed in the table below:


The majority of non-tech savvy participants said they make use of landmarks when giving directions. “They use names of big roads […] and use ‘near to’, ‘adjacent to’, ‘opposite to’ relations with respect to visible and popular landmarks […].” Almost 40% of responders said they use time only to describe the distance between any two locations.

Tech-savvy participants almost always use both time and kilometers as a measure to represent distance. Only 10% or so of participants used kilometers only to represent distance.

The Technology

The following characteristics highlight the design choices that differentiate Folksomaps from established notions of map systems:

  • Relies on user generated content rather than data populated by professionals;
  • Strives for spatial integrity in the logical sense and does not consider spatial integrity in the physical sense as essential (which is a defining feature of social maps);
  • Does not consider visual representation as essential, which is important considering the fact that a large segment of users in developing countries do not have access to Internet (hence my own emphasis on mobile crisis mapping);
  • Is non-static and intelligent in the sense that it infers new information from what is entered by the users.
  • User input is not verified by the system and it is possible that pieces of incorrect information in the knowledgebase may be present at different points of time. Folksomaps adopts the Wiki model and allows all users to add, edit and remove content freely while keeping maps up-to-date.

Conceptual Design

Folksomaps uses “landmark” as the basic unit in the mapping knowledgebase model while “location” represents more coarse-grained geographical areas such as a village, city or country. The model then seeks to capture a few key logical characteristics of locations such as direction, distance, proximity and reachability and layer.

The latter constitutes the granularity of the geographic area that a location represents. “The notion of direction and distance from a location is interpreted with respect to the layer that the location represents. In other words, direction and distance could be viewed as binary operator over locations of the same level. For instance, ‘is towards left of ’ would be appropriate if the location pair being considered is <Libya, Egypt>,” but not if the pair is <Nairobi, India>.

The knowledgebase makes use of two modules, the Web Ontology Language (OWL) and a graph database, to represent and store the above concepts. The Semantic Web language OWL is used to model the categorical characteristics of a landmark (e.g., direction, proximity, etc), and thence infer new relationships not explicitly specified by users of the system. In other words, OWL provides an ontology of locations.

The graph database is used represent distance (numerical relationships) between landmarks. “The locations are represented by nodes and the edges between two nodes of the graph are labeled with the distance between the corresponding locations.” Given the insights gained from user surveys, precise distances and directions are not integral components of community-based maps.

The two modules are used to generate answers to queries submitted by users.

User Interaction

The authors rightly recognize that the user interface design is critical to the success of community-based mapping projects. To be sure, users of may be illiterate, or semi-illiterate and not very tech-savvy. Furthermore, users will tend to query the map system when they need it most, e.g., “when they are stuck on the road looking for directions […] and would be pressed for time.” This very much holds true for crisis mapping as well.

Users can perform three main tasks with the system: “find place”, “trace path” and “add info.” In addition, some or all users may be granted the right to edit or remove entries from the knowledgebase. The Folksomaps system can also be bootstrapped from existing databases to populate instances of location types. “Two such sources of data in the absence of a full-fledged Geographical Information System (GIS) come from the Telecom Industry and the Postal Department.”


How the users interface with the system to carry out these tasks will depend on how tech-savvy or literate they are and what type of access they have to information and communication technologies.

Folksomaps thus provides three types of interface: web-based, voice-based and SMS-based. Each interface allows the user to query and update the database. The web-based interface was developed using Java Server Pages (JSP) while the voice-based interface uses JSPs and VoiceXML.


I am particularly interested in the voice-based interface. The authors point to previous studies that suggest a voice-based interaction works well with users who are illiterate or semi-illiterate and who cannot afford to have high-end devices but can use ordinary low-end phones.


I will share this with the Ushahidi development team with the hopes that they will consider adding a voice-based interface for the platform later this year. To be sure, could be very interesting to integrate Freedom Fone’s work in this area.

Insights from User Studies

The authors conducted user studies to verify the benefit and acceptability of Folksomaps. Tech-savvy used the web-based interface while non-tech savvy participants used the voice-based interface. The results are shown in the two tables below.


Several important insights surfaced from the results of the user studies. For example, an important insight gained from the non-tech user feedback was “the sense of security that they would get with such a system. […] Even though asking for travel directions from strangers on the street is an option, it exposes the enquirer to criminal elements […].”

Another insight gain was the fact that many non-tech savvy participants were willing to pay for the call even a small premium over normal charges as they saw value to having this information available to them at all times.” That said, the majority of participants “preferred the advertisement model where an advertisement played in the beginning of the call pays for the entire call.”

Interestingly, almost all participants preferred the voice-based interface over SMS even though the former led to a number of speech recognition errors. The reason being that “many people are either not comfortable using SMS or not comfortable using a mobile phone itself.”

There were also interesting insights on the issue of accuracy from the perspective of non-tech savvy participants. Most participants asked for full accuracy and only a handful were tolerant of minor mistakes. “In fact, one of the main reasons for preferring a voice call over asking people for directions was to avoid wrong directions.”

This need for high accuracy is driven by the fact that most people use public transportation, walk or use a bicycle to reach their destination, which means the cost of incorrect information is large compared to someone who owns a car.

This is an important insight since the authors had first assumed that tolerance for incorrect information was higher. They also learned that meta information is as important to non-tech savvy users as the landmarks themselves. For instance, low-income participants were more interested in knowing the modes of available transportation, timetables and bus route numbers than the road route from a source to a destination.


In terms of insights from tech-savvy participants, they did not ask for fine-grained directions all the time. “They were fight with getting high level directions involving major landmarks.” In addition, the need for accuracy was not as strong as for the non-tech savvy respondents and they preferred the content from the queries sent to them via SMS so they could store it for future access, “pointing out that it is easy to forget the directions if you just hear it.”

Some tech-savvy participants also suggested that the directions provided by Folksomaps should “take into consideration the amount of knowledge the subject already has about the area, i.e., it should be personalized based upon user profile. Other participants mentioned that “frequent changes in road plans due to constructions should be captured by such a system—thus making it more usable than just getting directions.”


In sum, the user interface of Folksomaps needs to be “rich and adaptive to the information needs of the user […].” To be sure, given user preference towards “voice-based interface over SMS, designing an efficient user-friendly voice-based user interface […].” In addition, “dynamic and real-time information augmented with traditional services like finding directions and locations would certainly add value to Folksomaps.” Furthermore, the authors recognize that Folksomaps can “certainly benefit from user interface designs,” and “multi-model front ends.”

Finally, the user surveys suggest “the community is very receptive towards the concept of a community-driven map,” so it is important that the TRMA project in the Sudan and the ecosystem Liberia project build on the insights and lessons learned provided in this study.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Improving Quality of Data Collected by Mobile Phones

The ICTD2009 conference in Doha, Qatar, had some excellent tech demo’s. I had the opportunity to interview Kuang Chen, a PhD student with UC Berkeley’s computer science department about his work on improving data quality using dynamic forms and machine learning.

I’m particularly interested in this area of research since ensuring data quality continues to be a real challenge in the fields of conflict early warning and crisis mapping. So I always look for alternative and creative approaches that address this challenge. I include below the abstract for Kuang’s project (which includes 5 other team members) and a short 2-minute interview.


“Organizations in developing regions want to efficiently collect digital data, but standard data gathering practices from the developed world are often inappropriate. Traditional techniques for form design and data quality are expensive and labour-intensive. We propose a new data-driven approach to form design, execution (filling) and quality assurance. We demonstrate USHER, an end-to-end system that automatically generates data entry forms that enforce and maintain data quality constraints during execution. The system features a probabilistic engine that drives form-user interactions to encourage correct answers.”

In my previous post on data quality evaluation, I pointed to a study that suggests mobile-based data entry has significantly higher error rates. The study shows that a voice call to a human operator results in superior data quality—no doubt due to the human operator double-checking the respondent’s input verbally.  USHER’s ability to dynamically adjust the user interface (form layout and data entry widgets) is one approach to provide some context-specific data-driven user feedback that is currently lacking in mobile forms, as an automated proxy of a human data entry person on the other end of the line.


This is my first video so many thanks to Erik Hersman for his tips on video editing! And many thanks to Kuang for the interview.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Evaluating Accuracy of Data Collection on Mobile Phones

The importance of data validation is unquestioned but few empirical studies seek to assess the possible errors incurred during mobile data collection. Authors Somani Patnaik, Emma Brunskill and William Thies thus carried out what is possibly the first quantitative evaluation  (PDF) of data entry accuracy on mobile phones in resource-constrained environments. They just presented their findings at ICTD 2009.

Mobile devices have become an increasingly important tool for information collection. Hence, for example, my interest in pushing forward the idea of Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM). While studies on data accuracy exist for personal digital assistants (PDAs), there are very few that focus on mobile phones. This new study thus evaluates three user interfaces for information collection: 1) Electronic forms; 2) SMS and 3) voice.

The results of the study indicate the following associated error rates:

  • Electronic forms = 4.2%
  • SMS = 4.5%
  • Voice = 0.45%

For compartive purposes and context, note that error rates using PDAs have generally been less than 2%. These figures represent the fraction of questions that were answered incorrectly. However, since “each patient interaction consisted of eleven questions, the probability of error somewhere in a patient report is much higher. For both electronic forms and SMS, 10 out of 26 reports (38%) contained an error; for voice, only 1 out of 20 reports (5%) contained an error (which was due to operator transcription).

I do hope that the results of this study prompt many others to carry out similar investigations.  I think we need a lot more studies like this one but with a larger survey sample (N) and across multiple sectors (this study drew on just 13 healthworkers).

The UN Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project I’m working on in the Sudan right now will be doing a study on data collection accuracy using mobile phones when they roll out their program later this month. The idea is to introduce mobile phones in a number of localities and not in neighboring ones. The team will then compare the data quality of both samples.

I look forward to sharing the results.

Patrick Philippe Meier

ICT for Development Highlights

Credit: http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1403/623843568_7fa3c0cbe9.jpg?v=0

For a moment there, during the 8-hour drive from Kassala back to Khartoum, I thought Doha was going to be a miss. My passport was still being processed by the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and my flight to Doha was leaving in a matter of hours. I began resigning myself to the likelihood that I would miss ICT4D 2009. But thanks to the incredible team at IOM, not only did I get my passport back, but I got a one-year, mulitple re-entry visa as well.

I had almost convinced myself that missing ICT4D would ok. How wrong I would have been. When the quality of poster presentations and demo’s at a conference rival the panels and presentation, you know that you’re in for a treat. As the title of this posts suggest, I’m just going to point out a few highlights here and there.


  • Onno Purbo gave a great presentation on wokbolic, a  cost saving wi-fi receiver  antenna made in Indonesia using a wok. The wokbolic has as 4km range, costs $5-$10/month. Great hack.


  • Kentaro Toyama with Microsoft Research India (MSR India) made the point that all development is paternalistic and that we should stop fretting about this since development will by definition be paternalistic. I’m not convinced. Partnership is possible without paternalism.
  • Ken Banks noted the work of QuestionBox, which I found very interesting. I’d be interested to know how they remain sustainable, a point made by another colleague of mine at DigiActive.
  • Other interesting comments by various panelists included (and I paraphrase): “Contact books and status are more important than having an email address”; “Many people still think of mobile phones as devices one holds to the ear… How do we show that phones can also be used to view and edit content?”

Demo’s & Posters

I wish I could write more about the demo’s and posters below but these short notes and few pictures will have to do for now.


  • Analyzing Statistical Relationships between Global Indicators through Visualization:


  • Numeric Paper Forms for NGOs:


  • Uses of Mobile Phones in Post-Conflict Liberia:


  • Improving Data Quality with Dynamic Forms


  • Open Source Data Collection Tools:


Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy in Burma

My colleagues Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky from Digital Democracy gave an excellent guest lecture yesterday. They presented their findings from their Burma project to undergraduate students in my digital democracy course co-taught with Josh Goldstein. There excellent slides are available on Slideshare here.

Mark and Emily began their presentation with a reference George Orwell who served in Burma as a military officer. It is striking that every Burmese who has read Orwell claims the author wrote not one but three books on Burma: Burmese DaysAnimal Farm and 1984.

Here are just a few insights from the two-hour presentation that I found particularly interesting:

  • Based on 90+ surveys carried out, Mark and Emily found that young Burmese who had access to the Internet were more likely to identify themselves as activists.
  • The Bangladeshi cell phone network extends well into Burma so activists can use phones from Bangladesh to relay information.
  • Monks have access to the Internet and to mobile phones because the Junta provided them the technology as part of alms giving.

Mark and Emily shared some fascinating anecdotes on digital activism in Burma based on their field research. Some are somewhat sensitive and not blog-able but others are less so yet equally eye opening. For example, Mark recounts a visit to a Burmese refugee camp along the Bangladeshi-Burma border:

I had five minutes of idle time and so decided to check my Facebook page using my mobile phone. I was soon approached by one of the refugees who looked on curiously. Before I could explain, the person enquired, “Do you wiki?” I was stunned as he pulled out a much fancier phone and proceeded to show me his favorite Wikipedia pages which were on fancy sports cars.

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.


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]


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