Tag Archives: Sudan

Traditional vs. Crowdsourced Election Monitoring: Which Has More Impact?

Max Grömping makes a significant contribution to the theory and discourse of crowdsourced election monitoring in his excellent study: “Many Eyes of Any Kind? Comparing Traditional and Crowdsourced Monitoring and their Contribu-tion to Democracy” (PDF). This 25-page study is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. That said, Max paints a false argument when he writes: “It is believed that this new methodology almost magically improves the quality of elections [...].” Perhaps tellingly, he does not reveal who exactly believes in this false magic. Nor does he cite who subscribes to the view that  “[...] crowdsourced citizen reporting is expected to have significant added value for election observation—and by extension for democracy.”

My doctoral dissertation focused on the topic of crowdsourced election observa-tion in countries under repressive rule. At no point in my research or during interviews with activists did I come across this kind of superficial mindset or opinion. In fact, my comparative analysis of crowdsourced election observation showed that the impact of these initiatives was at best minimal vis-a-vis electoral accountability—particularly in the Sudan. That said, my conclusions do align with Max’s principle findings: “the added value of crowdsourcing lies mainly in the strengthening of civil society via a widened public sphere and the accumulation of social capital with less clear effects on vertical and horizontal accountability.”

This is huge! Traditional monitoring campaigns don’t strengthen civil society or the public sphere. Traditional monitoring teams are typically composed of inter-national observers and thus do not build social capital domestically. At times, traditional election monitoring programs may even lead to more violence, as this recent study revealed. But the point is not to polarize the debate. This is not an either/or argument but rather a both/and issue. Traditional and crowdsourced election observation efforts can absolutely complement each other precisely because they each have a different comparative advantage. Max concurs: “If the crowdsourced project is integrated with traditional monitoring from the very beginning and thus serves as an additional component within the established methodology of an Election Monitoring Organization, the effect on incentive structures of political parties and governments should be amplified. It would then include the best of both worlds: timeliness, visualization and wisdom of the crowd as well as a vetted methodology and legitimacy.”

Recall Jürgen Habermas and his treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” Why is this important? Because crowdsourced election observation projects can potentially bolster this public sphere and create local ownership. Furthermore, these efforts can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Habermas. Furthermore, my colleague Phil Howard has convincingly demonstrated that a large active online civil society is a key causal factor vis-a-vis political transitions towards more democratic rule. This is key because the use of crowdsourcing and crowd-mapping technologies often requires some technical training, which can expand the online civil society that Phil describes and render that society more active (as occurred in Egypt during the 2010 Parliamentary Elections—see  dissertation).

The problem? There is very little empirical research on crowdsourced election observation projects let alone assessments of their impact. Then again, these efforts at crowdsourcing are only a few years old and many do’ers in this space are still learning how to be more effective through trial and error. Incidentally, it is worth noting that there has also been very little empirical analysis on the impact of traditional monitoring efforts: “Further quantitative testing of the outlined mechanisms is definitely necessary to establish a convincing argument that election monitoring has positive effects on democracy.”

In the second half of his important study, Max does an excellent job articulating the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourced election observation. For example, he observes that many crowdsourced initiatives appear to be spon-taneous rather than planned. Therein lies part of the problem. As demonstrated in my dissertation, spontaneous crowdsourced election observation projects are highly unlikely to strengthen civil society let alone build any kind of social capital. Furthermore, in order to solicit a maximum number of citizen-generated election reports, a considerable amount of upfront effort on election awareness raising and education needs to take place in addition to partnership outreach not to mention a highly effective media strategy.

All of this requires deliberate, calculated planning and preparation (key to an effective civil society), which explains why Egyptian activists were relatively more successful in their crowdsourced election observation efforts compared to their counterparts in the Sudan (see dissertation). This is why I’m particularly skeptical of Max’s language on the “spontaneous mechanism of protection against electoral fraud or other abuses.” That said, he does emphasize that “all this is of course contingent on citizens being informed about the project and also the project’s relevance in the eyes of the media.”

I don’t think that being informed is enough, however. An effective campaign not only seeks to inform but to catalyze behavior change, no small task. Still Max is right to point out that a crowdsourced election observation project can “encou-rage citizens to actively engage with this information, to either dispute it, confirm it, or at least register its existence.” To this end, recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In sum, Max argues that “the public sphere widens because this engagement, which takes place in the context of the local all over the country, is now taken to a wider audience by the means of mapping and real-time reporting.” And so, “even if crowdsourced reports are not acted upon, the very engagement of citizens in the endeavor to directly make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable widens the public sphere considerably.”

Crowdsourcing efforts are fraught with important and very real challenges, as is already well known. Reliability of crowdsourced information, risk of hate speech spread via uncontrolled reports, limited evidence of impact, concerns over security and privacy of citizen reporters, etc. That said, it is important to note that this “field” is evolving and many in this space are actively looking for solutions to these challenges. During the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Egypt, the U-Shahid project was able to verify over 90% of the crowdsourced reports. The “field” of information forensics is becoming more sophisticated and variants to crowdsourcing such as bounded crowdsourcing and crowdseeding are not only being proposed but actually implemented.

The concern over unconfirmed reports going viral has little to do with crowd-sourcing. Moreover, the vast majority of crowdsourced election observation initiatives I have studied moderate all content before publication. Concerns over security and privacy are issues not limited to crowdsourced election observation and speak to a broader challenge. There are already several key initiatives underway in the humanitarian and crisis mapping community to address these important challenges. And lest we forget, there are few empirical studies that demonstrate the impact of traditional monitoring efforts in the first place.

In conclusion, traditional monitors are sometimes barred from observing an election. In the past, there have been few to no alternatives to this predicament. Today, crowdsourced efforts are sure to swell up. Furthermore, in the event that traditional monitors conclude that an election was stolen, there’s little they can do to catalyze a local social movement to place pressure on the thieves. This is where crowdsourced election observation efforts could have an important contribution. To quote Max: “instead of being fearful of the ‘uncontrollable crowd’ and criticizing the drawbacks of crowdsourcing, [...] governments would be well-advised to embrace new social media. Citizens [...] will use new techno-logies and new channels for information-sharing anyway, whether endorsed by their governments or not. So, governments might as well engage with ICTs and crowdsourcing proactively.”

Big thanks to Max for this very valuable contribution to the discourse and to my colleague Tiago Peixoto for flagging this important study.

Evolution in Live Mapping: The 2012 Egyptian Presidential Elections

My doctoral dissertation compared the use of live mapping technology in Egypt and the Sudan during 2010. That year was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in those two countries. So it is particularly interesting to see the technology used again in both countries in 2012. Sudanese activists are currently using the platform to map #SudanRevolts while Egyptian colleagues have just used the tool to monitor the recent elections in their country.

Analyzing the evolution of live mapping technology use in non-permissive environments ought to make for a very interesting piece of research (any takers?). In the case of Egypt, one could compare the use of the same technology and methods before and after the fall of Mubarak. In 2010, the project was called U-Shahid. This year, the initiative was branded as the “Egypt Elections Project.”

According to my colleagues in Cairo who managed the interactive map, “more than 15 trainers and 75 coordinators were trained to work in the ‘operation room’ supporting 2200 trained observers scattered all over Egypt. More than 17,000 reports, up to 25000 short messages were sent by the observers and shown on Ushahid’s interactive map. Although most reports received shown a minimum amount of serious violations, and most of them were indicating the success of the electoral process, our biggest joy was being able to monitor freely and to report the whole process with full transparency.”

Contrast this situation with how Egyptian activists struggled to keep their Ushahidi project alive under Mubarak in 2010. Last week, the team behind the current live map was actually interviewed by state television (picture above), which was formerly controlled by the old regime. Interestingly, the actual map is no longer the centerpiece of the project when compared to the U-Shahid deploy-ment. The team has included and integrated a lot more rich multimedia content in addition to data, statistics and trends analysis. Moreover, there appears to be a shift towards bounded crowdsourcing rather than open crowd-sourcing as far as election mapping projects go.

These two live mapping projects in Egypt and the Sudan are also getting relatively more traction than those in 2010. Some 17,000 reports were mapped in this year’s election project compared to 2,700 two years ago. Apparently, “millions of users logged into the [Egypt Project Elections] site to check the outcome of the electoral process,” compared to some 40,000 two years ago. Sudanese activists in Khartoum also appear to be far better organized and more agile at leverage social media channels to garner support for their movement than in 2010. Perhaps some of the hard lessons from those resistance efforts were learned.

This learning factor is key and relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on “Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747.” Question is: do repressive regimes learn faster or do social movements operate with more agile feedback loops? Indeed, perhaps the technology variable doesn’t matter the most. As I explained to Newsweek a while back, “It is the organiza-tional structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.” In the case of Egypt and Sudan today, there’s no doubt that activists in both countries are better organized while the technologies themselves haven’t actually changed much since 2010. But better organization is a necessary, not sufficient, condition to catalyze positive social change and indirect forms of democracy.

Pierre Rosanvallon (2008) indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable during (and in between) elections, and independent of their results.

“The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment.”

Live maps and crowdsourcing can be used to monitor and publicize the behavior of politicians. The capacity to mobilize resistance and bring officials to judgment may require a different set of strategies and technologies, however. Those who don’t realize this often leave behind a cemetery of dead maps.

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:

https://sudanchangenow2012.crowdmap.com

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.

How to Use Facebook if You Are a Repressive Regime

As it happens, the main country case studies for my dissertation are Egypt and the Sudan. I’ll have to write a whole lot more given the unprecedented events that have taken place in both countries since January 25th. As many iRevolution readers know, my dissertation analyzes how access to new information and communication technologies changes the balance of power between repressive regimes and popular resistance movements. This means I’m paying close attention to how these regimes leverage tools like Facebook.

The purpose of this blog post is not to help repressive regimes use Facebook better, but rather to warn activists about the risks they face when using Facebook. Granted, many activists already know about these risks, but those I’ve been in touch with over the past few weeks simply had no idea. So what follows is a brief account of how repressive regimes in North Africa have recently used Facebook to further their own ends. I also include some specific steps that activists might take to be safer—that said, I’m no expert and would very much welcome feedback so I can pass this on to colleagues.

We’ve seen how Facebook was used in Tunisia, Egypt and the Sudan to schedule and organize the recent protests. What we’ve also seen, however, is sophistication and learning on the part of repressive regimes—this is nothing new and perfectly expected with plenty of precedents. The government in Tunis was able to hack into every single Facebook account before the company intervened. In Egypt, the police used Facebook to track down protesters’ names before rounding them up. Again, this is nothing new and certainly not unprecedented. What is new, however, is how Sudan’s President Bashir leveraged Facebook to crack down on recent protests.

The Sudanese government reportedly set up a Facebook group calling for protests on a given date at a specific place. Thousands of activists promptly subscribed to this group. The government then deliberately changed the time of the protests on the day of to create confusion and stationed police at the rendez-vous point where they promptly arrested several dozen protestors in one swoop. There are also credible reports that many of those arrested were then tortured to reveal their Facebook (and email) passwords.

And that’s not all. Earlier this week, Bashir called on his supporters to use Facebook to push back against his opposition. According to this article from the Sudan Tribune, the state’s official news agency also “cited Bashir as instructing authorities to pay more attention towards extending electricity to the countryside so that the younger citizens can use computers and internet to combat opposition through social networking sites such as Facebook.”

So what are activists to do? If they use false names, they run the risk of getting their accounts shut down without warning. Using a false identity won’t prevent you from falling for the kind of mouse trap that the Bashir government set with their fabricated Facebook page. Using https won’t help either with this kind of trap and I understand that some regimes can block https access anyway. So what to do if you are in a precarious situation with a sophisticated repressive regime on your back and if, like 99% of the world’s population, you are not an expert in computer security?

1. Back-up your Facebook account: Account –> Account Settings –> Download your information –> Learn more. Click on the Download button.

2. Remove all sensitive content from your Facebook page including links to activist friends, but keep your real name and profile picture. Why? So if you do get arrested and are forced to give up your password, you actually have something to give to your aggressors and remain credible during the interrogation.

3. Create a new Facebook account with a false name, email address and no picture and minimize incriminating content. Yes, I realize this may get you shut down by Facebook but is that as bad as getting tortured?

4. Create an account on Crabgrass. This social networking platform is reportedly more secure and can be used anonymously. A number of activists have apparently switched from Facebook to Crabgrass.

6. If you can do all of the above while using Tor, more power to you. Tor allows you to browse the web anonymously, and this is really important when doing the above. So I highly recommend taking the time to download and install Tor before you do any of the other steps above.

5. Try to validate the authenticity of a Facebook group that calls for a protest (or any in-person event for that matter) before going to said protest. As the Sudan case shows, governments may increasingly use this tactic to arrest activists and thwart demonstrations.

6. Remember that your activist friends may have had their Facebook accounts compromised. So when you receive a Facebook message or a note on your wall from a friend about meeting up in person, try to validate the account user’s identity before meeting in person.

If you have additional recommendations on how to use Facebook safely, or other examples of how repressive regimes have leveraged Facebook, please do add them in the comments section below for others to read and learn. Thank you.

Facebook https is now live for Sudan

A very big thank you to the team at Facebook for allowing users in the Sudan to access Facebook securely. Instead of using the regular http:// access to the site, using https:// means that your connection is securely encrypted. This prevents malicious users from spying on your account and seeing your password, for example. This is why all online banking websites use https, as does Google with gmail. Tunisia in many ways set the precedent. Read this excellent account on the inside story of how Facebook responded to Tunisian hacks.

As we have seen in many situations, Facebook is often used by activists to schedule and coordinate mass action. This is equally true of the Sudan, with this Jan30 Facebook group, which now has over 17,000 members. However, in my recent Skype conversations with a number of Sudanese activists, I’ve realized that many of them didn’t know that the Tunisian government (for example) had been able to hack into Facebook accounts. While using https is not a complete panacea, it definitely is a step in the right direction re communicating securely in repressive environments. I’ve also encouraged colleagues to switch to using Hushmail for email communication.

So for colleagues in the Sudan, to set up https:// access, go to “My Account” then “Settings” and then “Account Security.” Here’s the equivalent in the Arabic interface:

You should click on “Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible” and also on “Send me an email” that way you get sent an automated email when a new computer or mobile phone logs into your account. If you have any questions, feel free to add them in the comments section of this blog.

Here are some other steps you can take to use Facebook more securely:

1. Do not share sensitive info on FB
2. User passphrases instead of passwords
3. Change you name, or at least do not provide your full name on FB*
4. Do not use a picture of yourself for your FB profile picture
5. Logout of FB when not using the site

* Use this with caution as it violates FB’s terms of service and if someone is targeting you, they can report you to FB. Also do not give FB your identification if asked (@JillianYork).

Again, using https and following these five steps is no guarantee that your account won’t be hacked, but it maximizes your chances of using Facebook more safely. If you have any security tips to share, please add them in the comments section of this blog post.

A big thank you once again to Facebook. I emailed them (via another colleague) with my concerns regarding Sudanese activists and they responded in a just a matter of hours. Facebook is also in the process of rolling this https option out for all their users worldwide.

Civil Resistance: Early Lessons Learned from Sudan’s #Jan30

Sudanese activists in Khartoum have shared early reflections on how they can improve their efforts. These lessons are applicable to others engaged in civil resistance and are therefore shared below.

Source 1:

There was insufficient clear communication leading up to the first protest, which led to the first mistake since NCP members were able to fake a delay of the event which mean that we lost a considerable number of our protesters.

The timing of the protest was also off.  You can not except an average Sudanese citizen to protest on the 30th of January after he just got his salary. The satisfaction of that will cover up the feeling of injustices and humiliation. So if a date is set up, it should be the 15th, 16th or 17th (the depression days in the Sudanese dictionary). Also, we can not except protesters to participate in something like this at 11:00am or 11:30am when every body is either in the middle of their job or on the way to it.

And we forget the main factor: the youth. Most of them are students that constrained with lecture attendance sheets: the Sudanese universities are very extreme in that matter since 2005 and students are failed out of class by teachers for skipping more than 25% of lectures, which means they would need to repeat the course or the whole year). So the time should change to 2:00pm or 2:30pm.

In the matter of using Facebook as our only connection yes we can recruit youth and talk to them about the problem that they are facing but in order to transfer from Facebook to the Sudanese reality you need a prepared arena, i.e., at least 50% of the city residents need to know what you will do before you do it. So I suggest more communication with the public before a month at least from the event and this needs creativity and persuasiveness.

Source 2:

… I met two friends and went up the road towards the presidential place at the end of the street. There was massive policemen presence and young people wandering around. I knew that they were confused about where the demonstration would begin. People did not know who were with them and who were against them. When we got closer to cross of Baladiya street with Qasar, people were running away, we kept moving and we saw people in plain clothes with policemen beating four persons, they were about 20 policemen and those  people in plain clothes, armed with stick and pipe, beating very hard those four persons, on chest, head and arms. This scene discouraged people to demonstrate, and of course that was the message security forces were trying to send.

Source 3:

We were very much predictable to the NCP members, we shouldn’t underestimate them in that matter we are dealing with people who have experience in destroying events like this cause the Sudanese didn’t change their ways in that matter since 1985 when they where the one’s who applied them with the rest of the parties… I have many thoughts about how we could work this event out. We also need someone from Egypt to tell us more about organizing and monitoring then we can readjust it to fit Sudan case.

There are some good resources (in Arabic) for activists in the Sudan and the Arab World (please contact me if you’d like copies):

  • Nonviolent Struggle – 50 Crucial Points.
  • Twitter for Activism.

There is also a Crowdmap on the protests in Khartoum which activists are contributing to.

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.

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.

UN Sudan Information Management Working (Group)

I’m back in the Sudan to continue my work with the UNDP’s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project. UN agencies typically suffer from what a colleague calls “Data Hugging Disorder (DHD),” i.e., they rarely share data. This is generally the rule, not the exception.

UN Exception

There is an exception, however: the recently established UN’s Information Management Working Group (IMWG) in the Sudan. The general goal of the IMWG is to “facilitate the development of a coherent information management approach for the UN Agencies and INGOs in Sudan in close cooperation with local authorities and institutions.”

More specifically, the IMWG seeks to:

  1. Support and advise the UNDAF Technical Working Groups and Work Plan sectors in the accessing and utilization of available data for improved development planning and programming;
  2. Develop/advise on the development of, a Sudan-specific tool, or set of tools, to support decentralized information-sharing and common GIS mapping, in such a way that it will be consistent with the DevInfo system development, and can eventually be adopted/integrated as a standard plug-in for the same.

To accomplish these goals, the IMWG will collectively assume a number of responsibilities including the following:

  • Agree on  information sharing protocols, including modalities of shared information update;
  • Review current information management mechanisms to have a coherent approach.

The core members of the working group include: IOM, WHO, FAO, UNICEF, UNHCR, UNPFA, WFP, OCHA and UNDP.

Information Sharing Protocol

These members recently signed and endorsed an “Information Sharing Protocol”. The protocol sets out the preconditions, the responsibilities and the rights of the IMWG members for sharing, updating and accessing the data of the information providers.

With this protocol, each member commits to sharing specific datasets, in specific formats and at specific intervals. The data provided is classified as either public access or classified accessed. The latter is further disaggregated into three categories:

  1. UN partners only;
  2. IMWG members only;
  3. [Agency/group] only.

There is also a restricted access category, which is granted on a case-by-case basis only.

UNDP/TRMA’s Role

UNDP’s role (via TRMA) in the IMWG is to technically support the administration of the information-sharing between IMWG members. More specifically, UNDP will provide ongoing technical support for the development and upgrading of the IMWG database tool in accoardance with the needs of the Working Group.

In addition, UNDP’s role is to receive data updates, to update the IMWG tool and to circulate data according to classification of access as determined by individual contributing agencies. Would a more seemless information sharing approach might work; one in which UNDP does not have to be the repository of the data let alone manually update the information?

In any case, the very existence of a UN Information Management Working Group in the Sudan suggests that Data Hugging Disorders (DHDs) can be cured.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis in Sudan

Massively informative.

That’s how I would describe my past 10 days with the UNDP‘s Threat and Risk Mapping Analysis (TRMA) project in the Sudan. The team here is doing some of the most exciting work I’ve seen in the field of crisis mapping. Truly pioneering. I can’t think of  a better project to apply the past two years of work I have done with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Crisis Mapping and Early Warning Program.

TRMA combines all the facets of crisis mapping that I’ve been focusing on since 2007. Namely, crisis map sourcing, (CMS), mobile crisis mapping (MCM), crisis mapping visualization (CMV), crisis mapping analytics (CMA) and crisis mapping platforms (CMP). I’ll be blogging about each of these in more detail later but wanted to provide a sneak previous in the meantime.

Crisis Map Sourcing (CMS)

The team facilitates 2-day focus groups using participatory mapping methods. Participants identify and map the most pressing crisis factors in their immediate vicinity. It’s really quite stunning to see just how much conversation a map can generate. Rich local knowledge.

trma1

What’s more, TRMA conducts these workshops at two levels for each locality (administrative boundaries within a state): the community-level and at the state-level. They can then compare the perceived threats and risks from both points of view. Makes for very interesting comparisons.

trma2

In addition to this consultative approach to crisis map sourcing, TRMA has played a pivotal role in setting up an Information Management Working Group (IMWG) in the Sudan, which includes the UN’s leading field-based agencies.

What is truly extraordinary about this initiative is that each agency has formally signed an information sharing protocol to share their geo-referenced data. TRMA had already been using much of this data but the process until now had always been challenging since it required repeated bilateral efforts. TRMA has also developed a close professional relationship with the Central Bureau of Statistics Office.

Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM)

The team has just partnered with a multinational communications corporation to introduce the use of mobile phones for information collection. I’ll write more about this in the coming weeks. Needless to say, I’m excited. Hopefully it won’t be too late to bring up FrontlineSMS‘s excellent work in this area, as well as Ushahidi‘s.

Crisis Mapping Visualization (CMV)

The team needs some help in this area, but then again, that’s one of the reasons I’m here. Watching first reactions during focus groups when we show participants the large GIS maps of their state is  really very telling. Lots more to write about on this and lots to contribute to TRMA’s work. I don’t yet know which maps can be made public but I’ll do my utmost best to get permission to post one or two in the coming weeks.

Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA)

The team has produced a rich number of different layers of data which can be superimposed to identify visual correlations and otherwise hidden patterns. Perhaps one of the most exciting examples is when the team started drawing fault lines on the maps based on the data collected and their own local area expertise. The team subsequently realized that these fault lines could potential serve as “early warning” markers since a number of conflict incidents subsequently took place along those lines. Like the other crisis mapping components described above, there’s much more to write on this!

Crisis Mapping Platforms (CMP)

TRMA’s GIS team has used ArcGIS but this has been challenging given the US embargo on the Sudan. They therefore developed their own in-house mapping platforms using open-source software. These platforms include the “Threat Mapper” for data entry during (or shortly after) the focus groups and “4Ws” which stands for Who, What, Where and When. The latter tool is operational and will soon be fully developed. 4Ws will actually be used by members of the IMWG to share and visualize their data.

In addition, TRMA makes it’s many maps and layers available by distributing a customized DVD with ArcReader (which is free). Lots more on this in the coming weeks and hopefully some screenshots as well.

Closing the Feedback Loop

I’d like to add with one quick thought, which I will also expand on in the next few weeks. I’ve been in Blue Nile State over the past three days, visiting a number of different local ministries and civil society groups, including the Blue Nile’s Nomadic Union. We distributed dozens of poster-size maps and had at times hour long discussions while pouring over these maps. As I hinted above, the data visualization can be improved. But the question I want to pose at the moment is: how can we develop a manual GIS platform?

While the maps we distributed were of huge interest to our local partners, they were static, as hard-copy maps are bound to be. This got me thinking about possibly using transparencies to overlap different data/thematic layers over a general hard-copy map. I know transparencies can be printed on. I’m just not sure what size they come in or just how expensive they are, but they could start simulating the interactive functionality of ArcReader.

transparency

Even if they’re only available in A4 size, we could distribute binders with literally dozens of transparencies each with a printed layer of data. This would allow community groups to actually start doing some analysis themselves and could be far more compelling than just disseminating poster-size static maps, especially in rural areas. Another idea would be to use transparent folders like those below and hand-draw some of the major layers. Alternatively, there might a type of thin plastic sheet available in the Sudan.

I’m thinking of trying to pilot this at some point. Any thoughts?

folders

Patrick Philippe Meier