Tag Archives: Protests

Drones for Good: Technology, Social Movements and The State

Discussions surrounding use of drones, or UAVs, have typically “centered on their use by governments, often for the purpose of surveillance and warfare.” But as colleague Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick rightly notes in his new study, “[t]his focus on the state’s use obscures the opportunity for civil society actors, including social movements, to make use of these technologies.” Austin thus seeks to high-light civil society uses, “ranging from art to digital disruption.” The latter is what I am particularly interested given my previous writings on the use of non-lethal UAVs for civil resistance and for peacebuilding.

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When I began writing my doctoral dissertation some 7 years ago, scholars and activists were particularly interested in measuring the impact of mobile phones on social movements and civil resistance. Today, civil society is also turning to UAVs as evidenced during the recent protests in Hong Kong, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine and Ferguson. “This innovation represents a technological shift in scale for citizen journalists, human rights advocates, and social movement actors,” writes Austin. “As such, it requires a sophisticated assessment of the ethical issues and policy terrain surrounding its use.”

The most disruptive aspect of today’s small, personal UAVs, “is the fundamental break between the camera and the street level. […] The most memorable photographs of violent conflict, social protest and natural disasters have almost all been taken by a person present on the ground. […] UAVs relocate the boundary between what is public and what is private, because camera-equipped UAVs more the line of sight from the street to the air. This simple shift effectively pushes public space from the sidewalk to the stairwell, courtyard, rooftop, and so forth.” As Austin rightly concludes, “‘Open air’ and ‘free space’ are no longer as ‘open’ or ‘free’ as they once were. They are instead now occupied or vulnerable to occupation.” The use of the words “occupied” and “occupation” here is indeed intentional. Austin also makes another crucial point: UAVs  represent a type of innovation that is a “hallmark of asymmetrical warfare.”

One of my favorite books, Wasp, illustrates this asymmetry perfectly; as does the Syria Air Lift project. The latter seeks to fly swarms of UAVs to deliver aid to civilians caught in conflict zones. Little surprise, then, that the State is clamping down on civil society uses of UAVs. At times, they even shoot the UAVs down, as evidenced when “police in Istanbul shot down a camera-equipped UAV while it was monitoring large anti-government protests […].” Authorities would not be shooting down UAVs if they did not pose some form of (real or imagined) threat. And even when they pose no direct threat, UAVs are clearly annoying enough to react to (like a wasp or annoying mosquito). Annoyance is a key tactic in civil guerrilla warfare and civil resistance.


Austin goes on to propose a “broad framework to guide a range of non-state and non-commercial actor uses of drones.” This framework is comprised of the following 6 principles:

1. Subsidiarity: decision-making and problem solving should occur at the lowest and least sophisticated level possible. I take this to mean that decisions surrounding the use of drones should be taken at the local level (implying local ownership) and that drones should “only be used to address situations for which there is not a less sophisticated, invasive, or novel use.”

2. Physical and material security: self-explanatory – “care must be taken so that these devices do not collide with people or with one another.”

3. Do no harm: emphasizes a “rights-based approach as found in the development and humanitarian aid communities. “The principle is one of proportionality, in which the question to be answered is, ‘Are the risks of using UAVs in a given humanitarian setting outweighed by the expected benefits?'”

4. Public interest: also self-explanatory but “especially sensitive to the importance of investigative journalism that holds to account the powerful and well-resourced, despite attempts by established interests to discredit these efforts.” Public interest should also include the interests of the local community.

5. Privacy: straightforward issue but not easily resolved: “creating a [privacy] framework that applies in all circumstances is nearly impossible in an era in which digital privacy appears to be a mirage […].

6. Data protection: of paramount importance. Aerial footage of protests can be used by governments to “create a database of known activists.” As such, “[c]ontext specific protocols must ensure the security of data, thereby protecting against physical or digital theft or corruption.”

Are there other principles that should factor into the “Drones for Good” frame-work? If so, what are they? I’ll also be asking these questions in Dubai this week where I’m speaking at the Drones for Good Festival.

Global Heat Map of Protests in 2013

My colleague Kalev Leetaru recently launched GDELT (Global Data on Events, Location and Tone), which includes over 250 million events ranging from riots and protests to diplomatic exchanges and peace appeals. The data is based on dozens of news sources such as AFP, AP, BBC, UPI, Washington Post, New York Times and all national & international news from Google News. Given the recent wave of protests in Cairo and Istanbul, a collaborator of Kalev’s, John Beieler, just produced this digital dynamic map of protests events thus far in 2013. John left out the US because “it was a shining beacon of protest activity that distracted from the other parts of the map.” Click on the maps below to enlarge & zoom in.


Heat Map Protests


Egypt Protests



As Kalev notes, “Right now its just a [temporally] static map, it was done as a pilot just to see what it would look like in the first place, but the ultimate goal would be to do realtime updates, we just need to find someone with the interest and time to do this.” Any readers want to take up the challenge? Having a live map of protests (including US data) with “slow motion replay” functionality could be quite insightful given current upheavals. In the meantime, other stunning visualizations of the GDELT data are available here.

And to think that the quantitative analysis section of my doctoral dissertation was an econometric analysis of protest data coded at the country-year level based on just one news source, Reuters. I wonder if/how my findings would change with GDELT’s data. Anyone looking for a dissertation topic?


Crisis Mapping the End of Sudan’s Dictatorship?

Anyone following the twitter hashtag #SudanRevolts in recent days must be stunned by the shocking lack of coverage in the mainstream media. The protests have been escalating since June 17 when female students at the University of Khartoum began demonstrating against the regime’s austerity measures, which are increasing the prices of basic commodities and removing fuel subsidies. The dissent has quickly spread to other universities and communities.

There’s no doubt that Sudan’s dictator is in trouble. He faces international economic sanctions and a mounting US$2.5 billion budget deficit following the secession of South Sudan last year. What’s more, he is also “fighting expensive, devastating, and unpopular wars in Darfur (in the west), Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan, and the Nuba Mountains (on the border with South Sudan)” (UN Dispatch). So what next?

Enter Sudan Change Now, a Sudanese political movement with a clear mandate: peaceful but total democratic change. They seek to “defeat the present power of darkness using all necessary tools of peace resistance to achieve political stability and social peace.” The movement is thus “working on creating a common front that incorporates all victims of the current regime to ensure a unified and effective course of action to overthrow it.” Here are some important videos they have captured of the protests.

According to GlobalVoices, “The Sudanese online community believe that media coverage was an integral part of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and are therefore demanding the same for Sudan.” The political movement Sudan Change Now is thus turning to crisis mapping to cast more light on the civil resistance efforts in the Sudan:


The crisis map includes over 50 individual reports (all added in the past 24 hours) ranging from female protestors confronting armed guards to Sudanese security forces using tear gas to break up demonstrations. There are also reports of detained activists and journalists. These reports come from twitter while more recent incidents are sourced from the little mainstream media coverage that currently exists. The live map is being updated several times a day.

As my colleague Carol Gallo reminds us, “The University of Khartoum was also the birthplace of the movement that led to the overthrow of the military government in 1964.” Symbols and anniversaries are important features of civil resistance. For example, Sudan’s current ruling party came to power on June 30th, 1989. So protestors including those with Sudan Change Now are gearing up for some major demonstrations this Wednesday.

This is not the first crisis map of protests in Khartoum. In January 2011, activists launched this crisis map. I hope that protestors engaged in current civil resistance efforts take note of the lessons learned from last year’s #Jan30 demonstrations. For my doctoral dissertation, I compared the use of crisis maps by Egyptian and Sudanese activists in 2010. If I had to boil down the findings into three key words, these would be: unity, preparedness, creativity.

Unity is absolutely instrumental in civil resistance. As for preparedness, nothing should be left to chance. Prepare and plan the sequence of civil resistance efforts (along with likely reactions) and remember that protests come at the end. The ground-work must first be laid with other civil resistance tactics and thence escalated. Finally, creativity is essential, so here are some tactics that may provide some ideas. They include both traditional tactics and technology-enabled ones like digital crisis maps.

NB: I understand that the security risks of using the Ushahidi mapping platform have been indirectly communicated to the activists.

Detecting Emerging Conflicts with Web Mining and Crisis Mapping

My colleague Christopher Ahlberg, CEO of Recorded Future, recently got in touch to share some exciting news. We had discussed our shared interests a while back at Harvard University. It was clear then that his ideas and existing technologies were very closely aligned to those we were pursuing with Ushahidi’s Swift River platform. I’m thrilled that he has been able to accomplish a lot since we last spoke. His exciting update is captured in this excellent co-authored study entitled “Detecting Emergent Conflicts Through Web Mining and Visualization” which is available here as a PDF.

The study combines almost all of my core interests: crisis mapping, conflict early warning, conflict analysis, digital activism, pattern recognition, natural language processing, machine learning, data visualization, etc. The study describes a semi-automatic system which automatically collects information from pre-specified sources and then applies linguistic analysis to user-specified extract events and entities, i.e., structured data for quantitative analysis.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) and event-data extraction applied to crisis monitoring and analysis is of course nothing new. Back in 2004-2005, I worked for a company that was at the cutting edge of this field vis-a-vis conflict early warning. (The company subsequently joined the Integrated Conflict Early Warning System (ICEWS) consortium supported by DARPA). Just a year later, Larry Brilliant told TED 2006 how the Global Public Health Information Net-work (GPHIN) had leveraged NLP and machine learning to detect an outbreak of SARS 3 months before the WHO. I blogged about this, Global Incident Map, European Media Monitor (EMM), HavariaHealthMap and Crimson Hexagon back in 2008. Most recently, my colleague Kalev Leetaru showed how applying NLP to historical data could have predicted the Arab Spring. Each of these initiatives represents an important effort in leveraging NLP and machine learning for early detection of events of interest.

The RecordedFuture system works as follows. A user first selects a set of data sources (websites, RSS feeds, etc) and determines the rate at which to update the data. Next, the user chooses one or several existing “extractors” to find specific entities and events (or constructs a new type). Finally, a taxonomy is selected to specify exactly how the data is to be grouped. The data is then automatically harvested and passed through a linguistics analyzer which extracts useful information such as event types, names, dates, and places. Finally, the reports are clustered and visualized on a crisis map, in this case using an Ushahidi platform. This allows for all kinds of other datasets to be imported, compared and analyzed, such as high resolution satellite imagery and crowdsourced data.

A key feature of the RecordedFuture system is that extracts and estimates the time for the event described rather than the publication time of the newspaper article parsed, for example. As such, the harvested data can include both historic and future events.

In sum, the RecordedFuture system is composed of the following five features as described in the study:

1. Harvesting: a process in which text documents are retrieved from various sources and stored in the database. The documents are stored for long-term if permitted by terms of use and IPR legislation, otherwise they are only stored temporarily for the needed analysis.

2. Linguistic analysis: the process in which the retrieved texts are analyzed in order to extract entities, events, time and location, etc. In contrast to other components, the linguistic analysis is language dependent.

3. Refinement: additional information can be obtained in this process by synonym detection, ontology analysis, and sentiment analysis.

4. Data analysis: application of statistical and AI-based models such as Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) and Artificial Neural Networks (ANNs) to generate predictions about the future and detect anomalies in the data.

5. User experience: a web interface for ordinary users to interact with, and an API for interfacing to other systems.

The authors ran a pilot that “manually” integrated the RecordedFuture system with the Ushahidi platform. The result is depicted in the figure below. In the future, the authors plan to automate the creation of reports on the Ushahidi platform via the RecordedFuture system. Intriguingly, the authors chose to focus on protest events to demo their Ushahidi-coupled system. Why is this intriguing? Because my dissertation analyzed whether access to new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are statistically significant predictors of protest events in repressive states. Moreover, the protest data I used in my econometric analysis came from an automated NLP algorithm that parsed Reuters Newswires.

Using RecordedFuture, the authors extracted some 6,000 protest event-data for Quarter 1 of 2011. These events were identified and harvested using a “trained protest extractor” constructed using the system’s event extractor frame-work. Note that many of the 6,000 events are duplicates because they are the same events but reported by different forces. Not surprisingly, Christopher and team plan to develop a duplicate detection algorithm that will also double as a triangulation & veracity scoring feature. I would be particularly interested to see them do this kind of triangulation and validation of crowdsourced data on the fly.

Below are the protest events picked up by RecordedFuture for both Tunisia and Egypt. From these two figures, it is possible to see how the Tunisian protests preceded those in Egypt.

The authors argue that if the platform had been set up earlier this year, a user would have seen the sudden rise in the number of protests in Egypt. However, the authors acknowledge that their data is a function of media interest and attention—the same issue I had with my dissertation. One way to overcome this challenge might be by complementing the harvested reports with crowdsourced data from social media and Crowdmap.

In the future, the authors plan to have the system auto-detect major changes in trends and to add support for the analysis of media in languages beyond English. They also plan to test the reliability and accuracy of their conflict early warning algorithm by comparing their forecasts of historical data with existing conflict data sets. I have several ideas of my own about next steps and look forward to speaking with Christopher’s team about ways to collaborate.

Crisis Mapping Sudan: Protest Map of Khartoum

Unlike the many maps of the #Jan25 protests in neighboring Egypt there is but this one map for the #Jan30 protests taking place in the Sudan and Khartoum in particular. The map was requested by Sudanese colleagues in Khartoum who in their own words wanted a public map for the world to see what is happening in their own country.

Some 70 individual reports have been mapped thus far. These capture a range of incidents including the following:

  • Police use gas bombs against medical students [View Report]
  • Peaceful gatherings and demonstrations [View1 View2]
  • Sudanese security harassing foreign journalists [View1 View2]
  • Picture of police beating protesters on Palace Street [View]
  • Videos of protest in Khartoum [View]

While all eyes of the media are on Egypt, few are sharing the developments in the Sudan. This makes the Sudan map even more important. As Philip Howard has found in his comprehensive new study on “The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam,” the presence of a comparatively active online civil society appears to be one of the key ingredients for democratic transition. Compared to the online civil society in Egypt, the one in the Sudan is far smaller. But activists in Khartoum have reached out to digital activists outside the country for support. And this joint effort has  resulted in more than just a map.

Sudanese contacts have been sharing relevant information via email  and Skype throughout the day, some of which is mapped, and some which is included in the News section of the map. In addition, digital activists have provided training on Twitter and have set up a Flickr account for the Sudanese activists (at their request). See this DigiActive guide on how to use Twitter for activism, also available in Arabic (PDF).

The group has also been trying hard to set up a local FrontlineSMS number for activists to text their reports directly to the map. The first phone they tried didn’t work, so they’re looking to use a GSM modem in the coming days. (Update: an international number has been set up). Once a number is set up, the activists want to share it widely, including the 16,000+ members of the Jan30 Facebook group. Local activists hope this will help them overcome some of the coordination challenges that cropped up today when there was confusion over where and when the demonstrations were meant to take place. This resulted in smaller dispersed protests instead of mass action. You can read more on first hand accounts of this in the News section which includes an email written by Sudanese activist about what they saw today.

Despite the constraints in organization, activists still took to the streets but did face higher risks by being in smaller more dispersed groups. I’m hoping they’ll be able to regroup and plan their future protests in such a way that there is less confusion. The activists do have a full copy of the mass action strategy guide used by Egyptian protesters this week. This may serve them well if they can circulate it widely in the country.

Crisis Mapping Egypt: Collection of Protest Maps (Updated)

The CrisisMappers Twitter feed has shared a number of maps depicting the ongoing protests in Egypt. Here is a collection of them. Do let me know if we’re missing any. To learn more about crisis mapping, read this blog post: What is Crisis Mapping? and join www.CrisisMappers.net. For a protest map of the demonstrations in Khartoum, Sudan, see this link.

Update: The Cairo-based Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC) has launched the Ushahidi map below. DISC has previously used the platform to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections last November and December  (see this post for more info).

Update: These Twitter maps Hypercities provide another way to visualize the event unfolding across the country.

Update: Storyful has this Google Map of the protests in downtown Cairo:

Update: OpenEgypt, an independent group of volunteers have set up the Open Egypt Crowdmap below:

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) has put up this Jan 25th CrowdMap:

The company ESRI has produced the following Web Map of Egypt:

The New York Times has also put this protest map together:

Finally, the LA Times has this map up on their website:

Maptivism: Live Tactical Mapping for Protest Swarming

My colleague Adeel Khamisa from GeoTime kindly shared this news story on how student protesters created a live tactical map to outwit police in London during yesterday’s demonstrations.

Check out these real time updates:

The students also caught the following picture:

The map depicts the tactics employed by the students:

The limits of using Google Maps

As I looked closer at the map, it occurred to me how much this resembles a computer game with moving characters. The strategy employed by the police can be discerned by the pattern below.

But I doubt that students were able to update their Google map in real-time directly from their mobile phones, let alone via SMS, Twitter, Smartphone App, camera phone or Facebook. Nor can they subscribe to alerts and receive them directly via an automated email or SMS. Indeed, it appears they were using Google Forms to “crowdsource” information and this Twitter account to disseminate important updates.

This is why I got in touch with the group and recommended that they think of using Crowdmap (free and open source):

Or GroundCrew (partially free, not open source):

See the following links for more info on Maptivism: