Tag Archives: validation

Truth in the Age of Social Media: A Social Computing and Big Data Challenge

I have been writing and blogging about “information forensics” for a while now and thus relished Nieman Report’s must-read study on “Truth in the Age of Social Media.” My applied research has specifically been on the use of social media to support humanitarian crisis response (see the multiple links at the end of this blog post). More specifically, my focus has been on crowdsourcing and automating ways to quantify veracity in the social media space. One of the Research & Development projects I am spearheading at the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) specifically focuses on this hybrid approach. I plan to blog about this research in the near future but for now wanted to share some of the gems in this superb 72-page Nieman Report.

In the opening piece of the report, Craig Silverman writes that “never before in the history of journalism—or society—have more people and organizations been engaged in fact checking and verification. Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource and bring technology to bear in service of verification.” While social media is new, traditional journalistic skills and values are still highly relevant to verification challenges in the social media space. In fact, some argue that “the business of verifying and debunking content from the public relies far more on journalistic hunches than snazzy technology.”

I disagree. This is not an either/or challenge. Social computing can help every-one, not just journalists, develop and test hunches. Indeed, it is imperative that these tools be in the reach of the general public since a “public with the ability to spot a hoax website, verify a tweet, detect a faked photo, and evaluate sources of information is a more informed public. A public more resistant to untruths and so-called rumor bombs.” This public resistance to untruths can itself be moni-tored and modeled to quantify veracity, as this study shows.

David Turner from the BBC writes that “while some call this new specialization in journalism ‘information forensics,’ one does not need to be an IT expert or have special equipment to ask and answer the fundamental questions used to judge whether a scene is staged or not.” No doubt, but as Craig rightly points out, “the complexity of verifying content from myriad sources in various mediums and in real time is one of the great new challenges for the profession.” This is fundamentally a Social Computing, Crowd Computing and Big Data problem. Rumors and falsehoods are treated as bugs or patterns of interference rather than as a feature. The key here is to operate at the aggregate level for statistical purposes and to move beyond the notion of true/false as a dichotomy and to-wards probabilities (think statistical physics). Clustering social media across different media and cross-triangulation using statistical models is one area I find particularly promising.

Furthermore, the fundamental questions used to judge whether or not a scene is staged can be codified. “Old values and skills aren’t still at the core of the discipline.” Indeed, and heuristics based on decades of rich experience in the field of journalism can be coded into social computing algorithms and big data analytics platforms. This doesn’t mean that a fully automated solution should be the goal. The hunch of the expert when combined with the wisdom of the crowd and advanced social computing techniques is far more likely to be effective. As CNN’s Lila King writes, technology may not always be able to “prove if a story is reliable but offers helpful clues.” The quicker we can find those clues, the better.

It is true, as Craig notes, that repressive regimes “create fake videos and images and upload them to YouTube and other websites in the hope that news organizations and the public will find them and take them for real.” It is also true that civil society actors can debunk these falsifications as often I’ve noted in my research. While the report focuses on social media, we must not forget that off-line follow up and investigation is often an option. During the 2010 Egyptian Parliamentary Elections, civil society groups were able to verify 91% of crowd-sourced information in near real time thanks to hyper-local follow up and phone calls. (Incidentally, they worked with a seasoned journalist from Thomson Reuters to design their verification strategies). A similar verification strategy was employed vis-a-vis the atrocities commi-tted in Kyrgyzstan two years ago.

In his chapter on “Detecting Truth in Photos”, Santiago Lyon from the Associated Press (AP) describes the mounting challenges of identifying false or doctored images. “Like other news organizations, we try to verify as best we can that the images portray what they claim to portray. We look for elements that can support authenticity: Does the weather report say that it was sunny at the location that day? Do the shadows fall the right way considering the source of light? Is cloth- ing consistent with what people wear in that region? If we cannot communicate with the videographer or photographer, we will add a disclaimer that says the AP “is unable to independently verify the authenticity, content, location or date of this handout photo/video.”

Santiago and his colleagues are also exploring more automated solutions and believe that “manipulation-detection software will become more sophisticated and useful in the future. This technology, along with robust training and clear guidelines about what is acceptable, will enable media organizations to hold the line against willful image manipulation, thus maintaining their credibility and reputation as purveyors of the truth.”

David Turner’s piece on the BBC’s User-Generated Content (UGC) Hub is also full of gems. “The golden rule, say Hub veterans, is to get on the phone whoever has posted the material. Even the process of setting up the conversation can speak volumes about the source’s credibility: unless sources are activists living in a dictatorship who must remain anonymous.” This was one of the strategies used by Egyptians during the 2010 Parliamentary Elections. Interestingly, many of the anecdotes that David and Santiago share involve members of the “crowd” letting them know that certain information they’ve posted is in fact wrong. Technology could facilitate this process by distributing the challenge of collective debunking in a far more agile and rapid way using machine learning.

This may explain why David expects the field of “information forensics” to becoming industrialized. “By that, he means that some procedures are likely to be carried out simultaneously at the click of an icon. He also expects that technological improvements will make the automated checking of photos more effective. Useful online tools for this are Google’s advanced picture search or TinEye, which look for images similar to the photo copied into the search function.” In addition, the BBC’s UGC Hub uses Google Earth to “confirm that the features of the alleged location match the photo.” But these new technologies should not and won’t be limited to verifying content in only one media but rather across media. Multi-media verification is the way to go.

Journalists like David Turner often (and rightly) note that “being right is more important than being first.” But in humanitarian crises, information is the most perishable of commodities, and being last vis-a-vis information sharing can actual do harm. Indeed, bad information can have far-reaching negative con-sequences, but so can no information. This tradeoff must be weighed carefully in the context of verifying crowdsourced crisis information.

Mark Little’s chapter on “Finding the Wisdom in the Crowd” describes the approach that Storyful takes to verification. “At Storyful, we thinking a com-bination of automation and human skills provides the broadest solution.” Amen. Mark and his team use the phrase “human algorithm” to describe their approach (I use the term Crowd Computing). In age when every news event creates a community, “authority has been replaced by authenticity as the currency of social journalism.” Many of Storyful’s tactics for vetting authenticity are the same we use in crisis mapping when we seek to validate crowdsourced crisis information. These combine the common sense of an investigative journalist with advanced digital literacy.

In her chapter, “Taking on the Rumor Mill,” Katherine Lee rights that a “disaster is ready-made for social media tools, which provide the immediacy needed for reporting breaking news.” She describes the use of these tools during and after the tornado hat hit Alabama in April 2011. What I found particularly interesting was her news team’s decision to “log to probe some of the more persistent rumors, tracking where they might have originated and talking with officials to get the facts. The format fit the nature of the story well. Tracking the rumors, with their ever-changing details, in print would have been slow and awkward, and the blog allowed us to update quickly.” In addition, the blog format “gave readers a space to weigh in with their own evidence, which proved very useful.”

The remaining chapters in the Nieman Report are equally interesting but do not focus on “information forensics” per se. I look forward to sharing more on QCRI’s project on quantifying veracity in the near future as our objective is to learn from experts such as those cited above and codify their experience so we can leverage the latest breakthroughs in social computing and big data analytics to facilitate the verification and validation of crowdsourced social media content. It is worth emphasizing that these codified heuristics cannot and must not remain static, nor can the underlying algorithms become hardwired. More on this in a future post. In the meantime, the following links may be of interest:

  • Information Forensics: Five Case Studies on How to Verify Crowdsourced Information from Social Media (Link)
  • How to Verify and Counter Rumors in Social Media (Link)
  • Data Mining to Verify Crowdsourced Information in Syria (Link)
  • Analyzing the Veracity of Tweets During a Crisis (Link)
  • Crowdsourcing for Human Rights: Challenges and Opportunities for Information Collection & Verification (Link)
  • Truthiness as Probability: Moving Beyond the True or False Dichotomy when Verifying Social Media (Link)
  • The Crowdsourcing Detective: Crisis, Deception and Intrigue in the Twittersphere (Link)
  • Crowdsourcing Versus Putin (Link)
  • Wiki on Truthiness resources (Link)
  • My TEDx Talk: From Photosynth to ALLsynth (Link)
  • Social Media and Life Cycle of Rumors during Crises (Link)
  • Wag the Dog, or How Falsifying Crowdsourced Data Can Be a Pain (Link)

Crowdsourcing for Human Rights Monitoring: Challenges and Opportunities for Information Collection & Verification

This new book, Human Rights and Information Communication Technologies: Trends and Consequences of Use, promises to be a valuable resource to both practitioners and academics interested in leveraging new information & communication technologies (ICTs) in the context of human rights work. I had the distinct pleasure of co-authoring a chapter for this book with my good colleague and friend Jessica Heinzelman. We focused specifically on the use of crowdsourcing and ICTs for information collection and verification. Below is the Abstract & Introduction for our chapter.

Abstract

Accurate information is a foundational element of human rights work. Collecting and presenting factual evidence of violations is critical to the success of advocacy activities and the reputation of organizations reporting on abuses. To ensure credibility, human rights monitoring has historically been conducted through highly controlled organizational structures that face mounting challenges in terms of capacity, cost and access. The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) provide new opportunities to overcome some of these challenges through crowdsourcing. At the same time, however, crowdsourcing raises new challenges of verification and information overload that have made human rights professionals skeptical of their utility. This chapter explores whether the efficiencies gained through an open call for monitoring and reporting abuses provides a net gain for human rights monitoring and analyzes the opportunities and challenges that new and traditional methods pose for verifying crowdsourced human rights reporting.

Introduction

Accurate information is a foundational element of human rights work. Collecting and presenting factual evidence of violations is critical to the success of advocacy activities and the reputation of organizations reporting on abuses. To ensure credibility, human rights monitoring has historically been conducted through highly controlled organizational structures that face mounting challenges in terms of capacity, cost and access.

The proliferation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) may provide new opportunities to overcome some of these challenges. For example, ICTs make it easier to engage large networks of unofficial volunteer monitors to crowdsource the monitoring of human rights abuses. Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, defining it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (Howe, 2009). Applying this concept to human rights monitoring, Molly Land (2009) asserts that, “given the limited resources available to fund human rights advocacy…amateur involvement in human rights activities has the potential to have a significant impact on the field” (p. 2). That said, she warns that professionalization in human rights monitoring “has arisen not because of an inherent desire to control the process, but rather as a practical response to the demands of reporting – namely, the need to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in the report” (Land, 2009, p. 3).

Because “accuracy is the human rights monitor’s ultimate weapon” and the advocate’s “ability to influence governments and public opinion is based on the accuracy of their information,” the risk of inaccurate information may trump any advantages gained through crowdsourcing (Codesria & Amnesty International, 2000, p. 32). To this end, the question facing human rights organizations that wish to leverage the power of the crowd is “whether [crowdsourced reports] can accomplish the same [accurate] result without a centralized hierarchy” (Land, 2009). The answer to this question depends on whether reliable verification techniques exist so organizations can use crowdsourced information in a way that does not jeopardize their credibility or compromise established standards. While many human rights practitioners (and indeed humanitarians) still seem to be allergic to the term crowdsourcing, further investigation reveals that established human rights organizations already use crowdsourcing and verification techniques to validate crowdsourced information and that there is great potential in the field for new methods of information collection and verification.

This chapter analyzes the opportunities and challenges that new and traditional methods pose for verifying crowdsourced human rights reporting. The first section reviews current methods for verification in human rights monitoring. The second section outlines existing methods used to collect and validate crowdsourced human rights information. Section three explores the practical opportunities that crowdsourcing offers relative to traditional methods. The fourth section outlines critiques and solutions for crowdsourcing reliable information. The final section proposes areas for future research.

The book is available for purchase here. Warning: you won’t like the price but at least they’re taking an iTunes approach, allowing readers to purchase single chapters if they prefer. Either way, Jess and I were not paid for our contribution.

For more information on how to verify crowdsourced information, please visit the following links:

  • Information Forensics: Five Case Studies on How to Verify Crowdsourced Information from Social Media (Link)
  • How to Verify and Counter Rumors in Social Media (Link)
  • Social Media and Life Cycle of Rumors during Crises (Link)
  • Truthiness as Probability: Moving Beyond the True or False Dichotomy when Verifying Social Media (Link)
  • Crowdsourcing Versus Putin (Link)
 

 

Truthiness as Probability: Moving Beyond the True or False Dichotomy when Verifying Social Media

I asked the following question at the Berkman Center’s recent Symposium on Truthiness in Digital Media: “Should we think of truthiness in terms of probabili-ties rather than use a True or False dichotomy?” The wording here is important. The word “truthiness” already suggests a subjective fuzziness around the term. Expressing truthiness as probabilities provides more contextual information than does a binary true or false answer.

When we set out to design the SwiftRiver platform some three years ago, it was already clear to me then that the veracity of crowdsourced information ought to be scored in terms of probabilities. For example, what is the probability that the content of a Tweet referring to the Russian elections is actually true? Why use probabilities? Because it is particularly challenging to instantaneously verify crowdsourced information in the real-time social media world we live in.

There is a common tendency to assume that all unverified information is false until proven otherwise. This is too simplistic, however. We need a fuzzy logic approach to truthiness:

“In contrast with traditional logic theory, where binary sets have two-valued logic: true or false, fuzzy logic variables may have a truth value that ranges in degree between 0 and 1. Fuzzy logic has been extended to handle the concept of partial truth, where the truth value may range between completely true and completely false.”

The majority of user-generated content is unverified at time of birth. (Does said data deserve the “original sin” of being labeled as false, unworthy, until prove otherwise? To digress further, unverified content could be said to have a distinct wave function that enables said data to be both true and false until observed. The act of observation starts the collapse of said wave function. To the astute observer, yes, I’m riffing off Shroedinger’s Cat, and was also pondering how to weave in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as an analogy; think of a piece of information characterized by a “probability cloud” of truthiness).

I believe the hard sciences have much to offer in this respect. Why don’t we have error margins for truthiness? Why not take a weather forecast approach to information truthiness in social media? What if we had a truthiness forecast understanding full well that weather forecasts are not always correct? The fact that a 70% chance of rain is forecasted doesn’t prevent us from acting and using that forecast to inform our decision-making. If we applied binary logic to weather forecasts, we’d be left with either a 100% chance of rain or 100% chance of sun. Such weather forecasts would be at best suspect if not wrong rather frequently.

In any case, instead of dismissing content generated in real-time because it is not immediately verifiable, we can draw on Information Forensics to begin assessing the potential validity of said content. Tactics from information forensics can help us create a score card of heuristics to express truthiness in terms of probabilities. (I call this advanced media literacy). There are indeed several factors that one can weigh, e.g., the identity of the messenger relaying the content, the source of the content, the wording of said content, the time of day the information was shared, the geographical proximity of the source to the event being reported, etc.

These weights need not be static as they are largely subjective and temporal; after all, truth is socially constructed and dynamic. So while a “wisdom of the crowds” approach alone may not always be well-suited to generating these weights, perhaps integrating the hunch of the expert coupled with machine learning algorithms (based on lessons learned in information forensics) could result more useful decision-support tools for truthiness forecasting (or rather “backcasting”).

In sum, thinking of truthiness strictly in terms of true and false prevents us from “complexifying” a scalar variable into a vector (a wave function), which in turn limits our ability to develop new intervention strategies. We need new conceptual frameworks to reflect the complexity and ambiguity of user-generated content:

 

Information Forensics: Five Case Studies on How to Verify Crowdsourced Information from Social Media

My 20+ page study on verifying crowdsourced information is now publicly available here as a PDF and here as an open Google Doc for comments. I very much welcome constructive feedback from iRevolution readers so I can improve the piece before it gets published in an edited book next year.

Abstract

False information can cost lives. But no information can also cost lives, especially in a crisis zone. Indeed, information is perishable so the potential value of information must be weighed against the urgency of the situation. Correct information that arrives too late is useless. Crowdsourced information can provide rapid situational awareness, especially when added to a live crisis map. But information in the social media space may not be reliable or immediately verifiable. This may explain why humanitarian (and news) organizations are often reluctant to leverage crowdsourced crisis maps. Many believe that verifying crowdsourced information is either too challenging or impossible. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that concrete strategies do exist for the verification of geo-referenced crowdsourced social media information. The study first provides a brief introduction to crisis mapping and argues that crowdsourcing is simply non-probability sampling. Next, five case studies comprising various efforts to verify social media are analyzed to demonstrate how different verification strategies work. The five case studies are: Andy Carvin and Twitter; Kyrgyzstan and Skype; BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub; the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF); and U-Shahid in Egypt. The final section concludes the study with specific recommendations.

Update: See also this link and my other posts on Information Forensics.

How to Verify Social Media Content: Some Tips and Tricks on Information Forensics

Update: I have authored a 20+ page paper on verifying social media content based on 5 case studies. Please see this blog post for a copy.

I get this question all the time: “How do you verify social media data?” This question drives many of the conversations on crowdsourcing and crisis mapping these days. It’s high time that we start compiling our tips and tricks into an online how-to-guide so that we don’t have to start from square one every time the question comes up. We need to build and accumulate our shared knowledge in information forensics. So here is the Google Doc version of this blog post, please feel free to add your best practices and ask others to contribute. Feel free to also add links to other studies on verifying social media content.

If every source we monitored in the social media space was known and trusted, then the need for verification would not be as pronounced. In other words, it is the plethora and virtual anonymity of sources that makes us skeptical of the content they deliver. The process of verifying  social media data thus requires a two-step process: the authentication of the source as reliable and the triangulation of the content as valid. If we can authenticate the source and find it trustworthy, this may be sufficient to trust the content and mark is a verified depending on context. If source authentication is difficult to ascertain, then we need to triangulate the content itself.

Lets unpack these two processes—authentication and triangulation—and apply them to Twitter since the most pressing challenges regarding social media verification have to do with eyewitness, user-generated content. The first step is to try and determine whether the source is trustworthy. Here are some tips on how to do this:

  • Bio on Twitter: Does the source provide a name, picture, bio and any  links to their own blog, identity, professional occupation, etc., on their page? If there’s a name, does searching for this name on Google provide any further clues to the person’s identity? Perhaps a Facebook page, a professional email address, a LinkedIn profile?
  • Number of Tweets: Is this a new Twitter handle with only a few tweets? If so, this makes authentication more difficult. Arasmus notes that “the more recent, the less reliable and the more likely it is to be an account intended to spread disinformation.” In general, the longer the Twitter handle has been around and the more Tweets linked to this handle, the better. This gives a digital trace, a history of prior evidence that can be scrutinized for evidence of political bias, misinformation, etc. Arasmus specifies: “What are the tweets like? Does the person qualify his/her reports? Are they intelligible? Is the person given to exaggeration and inconsistencies?”
  • Number of followers: Does the source have a large following? If there are only a few, are any of the followers know and credible sources? Also, how many lists has this Twitter hanlde been added to?
  • Number following: How many Twitter users does the Twitter handle follow? Are these known and credible sources?
  • Retweets: What type of content does the Twitter handle retweet? Does the Twitter handle in question get retweeted by known and credible sources?
  • Location: Can the source’s geographic location be ascertained? If so, are they nearby the unfolding events? One way to try and find out by proxy is to examine during which periods of the day/night the source tweets the most. This may provide an indication as to the person’s time zone.
  • Timing: Does the source appear to be tweeting in near real-time? Or are there considerable delays? Does anything appear unusual about the timing of the person’s tweets?
  • Social authentication: If you’re still unsure about the source’s reliability, use your own social network–Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn–to find out if anyone in your network know about the source’s reliability.
  • Media authentication: Is the source quoted by trusted media outlines whether this be in the mainstream or social media space?
  • Engage the source: Tweet them back and ask them for further information. NPR’s Andy Carvin has employed this technique particularly well. For example, you can tweet back and ask for the source of the report and for any available pictures, videos, etc. Place the burden of proof on the source.

These are some of the tips that come to mind for source authentication. For more thoughts on this process, see my previous blog post “Passing the I’m-Not-Gaddafi-Test: Authenticating Identity During Crisis Mapping Operations.” If you some tips of your own not listed here, please do add them to the Google Doc—they don’t need to be limited to Twitter either.

Now, lets say that we’ve gone through list above and find the evidence inconclusive. We thus move to try and triangulate the content. Here are some tips on how to do this:

  • Triangulation: Are other sources on Twitter or elsewhere reporting on the event you are investigating? As Arasmus notes, “remain skeptical about the reports that you receive. Look for multiple reports from different unconnected sources.” The more independent witnesses you can get information from the better and the less critical the need for identity authentication.
  • Origins: If the user reporting an event is not necessarily the original source, can the original source be identified and authenticated? In particular, if the original source is found, does the time/date of the original report make sense given the situation?
  • Social authentication: Ask members of your own social network whether the tweet you are investigating is being reported by other sources. Ask them how unusual the event reporting is to get a sense of how likely it is to have happened in the first place. Andy Carvin’s followers, for example, “help him translate, triangulate, and track down key information. They enable remarkable acts of crowdsourced verification [...] but he must always tell himself to check and challenge what he is told.”
  • Language: Andy Carvin notes that tweets that sound too official, using official language like “breaking news”, “urgent”, “confirmed” etc. need to be scrutinized. “When he sees these terms used, Carvin often replies and asks for additional details, for pictures and video. Or he will quote the tweet and add a simple one word question to the front of the message: Source?” The BBC’s UGC (user-generated content) Hub in London also verifies whether the vocabulary, slang, accents are correct for the location that a source might claim to be reporting from.
  • Pictures: If the twitter handle shares photographic “evidence”, does the photo provide any clues about the location where it was taken based on buildings, signs, cars, etc., in the background? The BBC’s UGC Hub checks weaponry against those know for the given country and also looks for shadows to determine the possible time of day that a picture was taken. In addition, they examine weather reports to “confirm that the conditions shown fit with the claimed date and time.” These same tips can be applied to Tweets that share video footage.
  • Follow up: If you have contacts in the geographic area of interest, then you could ask them to follow up directly/in-person to confirm the validity of the report. Obviously this is not always possible, particularly in conflict zones. Still, there is increasing anecdotal evidence that this strategy is being used by various media organizations and human rights groups. One particularly striking example comes from Kyrgyzstan where  a Skype group with hundreds of users across the country were able disprove and counter rumors at a breathtaking pace. See this blog post for more details. See my blog post on “How to Use Technology to Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan.”

These are just a handful of tips and tricks come to mind. The number of bullet points above clearly shows we are not completely powerless when verifying social media data. There are several strategies available. The main challenge, as the BBC points out, is that this type of information forensics “can take anything from seconds [...] to hours, as we hunt for clues and confirmation.” See for example my earlier post on “The Crowdsourcing Detective: Crisis, Deception and Intrigue in the Twitterspehere” which highlights some challenges but also new opportunities.

One of Storyful‘s comparative strengths when it comes to real-time news curation is the growing list of authenticated users it follows. This represents more of a bounded (but certainly not static) approach.  As noted in my previous blog post on “Seeking the Trustworthy Tweet,” following a bounded model presents some obvious advantages. This explains by the BBC recommends “maintaining lists of previously verified material [and sources] to act as a reference for colleagues covering the stories.” This strategy is also employed by the Verification Team of the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF).

In sum, I still stand by my earlier blog post entitled “Wag the Dog: How Falsifying Crowdsourced Data can be a Pain.” I also continue to stand by my opinion that some data–even if not immediately verifiable—is better than no data. Also, it’s important to recognize that  we have in some occasions seen social media prove to be self-correcting, as I blogged about here. Finally, we know that information is often perishable in times of crises. By this I mean that crisis data often has a “use-by date” after which, it no longer matters whether said information is true or not. So speed is often vital. This is why semi-automated platforms like SwiftRiver that aim to filter and triangulate social media content can be helpful.

Passing the I’m-Not-Gaddafi Test: Authenticating Identity During Crisis Mapping Operations

I’ve found myself telling this story so often in response to various questions that it really should be a blog post. The story begins with the launch of the Libya Crisis Map a few months ago at the request of the UN. After the first 10 days of deploying the live map, the UN asked us to continue for another two weeks. When I write “us” here, I mean the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), which is designed for short-term rapid crisis mapping support, not long term deploy-ments. So we needed to recruit additional volunteers to continue mapping the Libya crisis. And this is where the I’m-not-Gaddafi test comes in.

To do our live crisis mapping work, SBTF volunteers generally need password access to whatever mapping platform we happen to be using. This has typically been the Ushahidi platform. Giving out passwords to several dozen volunteers in almost as many countries requires trust. Password access means one could start sabotaging the platform, e.g., deleting reports, creating fake ones, etc. So when we began recruiting 200+ new volunteers to sustain our crisis mapping efforts in Libya, we needed a way to vet these new recruits, particularly since we were dealing with a political conflict. So we set up an I’m-not-Gaddafi test by using this Google Form:

So we placed the burden of proof on our (very patient) volunteers. Here’s a quick summary of the key items we used in our “grading” to authenticate volunteers’ identity:

Email address: Professional or academic email addresses were preferred and received a more favorable “score”.

Twitter handle: The great thing about Twitter is you can read through weeks’ worth of someone’s Twitter stream. I personally used this feature several times to determine whether any political tweets revealed a pro-Gaddafi attitude.

Facebook page: Given that posing as someone else or a fictitious person on Facebook violates their terms of service, having the link to an applicant’s Facebook page was considered a plus.

LinkedIn profile: This was a particularly useful piece of evidence given that the majority of people on LinkedIn are professionals.

Personal/Professional blog or website: This was also a great to way to authenticate an individual’s identity. We also encouraged applicants to share links to anything they had published which was available online.

For every application, we had two or more of us from the core team go through the responses. In order to sign off a new volunteer as vetted, two people had to write down “Yes” with their name. We would give priority to the most complete applications. I would say that 80% of the 200+ applications we received were able to be signed off on without requiring additional information. We did follow ups via email for the remaining 20%, the majority of whom provided us with extra info that enabled us to validate their identity. One individual even sent us a copy of his official ID. There may have been a handful who didn’t reply to our requests for additional information.

This entire vetting process appears to have worked, but it was extremely laborious and time-consuming. I personally spent hours and hours going through more than 100 applications. We definitely need to come up with a different system in the future. So I’ve been exploring some possible solutions—such as social authentication—with a number of groups and I hope to provide an update next month which will make all our lives a lot easier, not to mention give us more dedicated mapping time. There’s also the need to improve the Ushahidi platform to make it more like Wikipedia, i.e., where contributions can be tracked and logged. I think combining both approaches—identity authentication and tracking—may be the way to go.

How To Use Technology To Counter Rumors During Crises: Anecdotes from Kyrgyzstan

I just completed a short field mission to Kyrgyzstan with UN colleagues and I’m already looking forward to the next mission. Flipping through several dozen pages of my handwritten notes just now explains why: example after example of the astute resourcefulness and creative uses of information and communication technologies in Kyrgyzstan is inspiring. I learned heaps.

For example, one challenge that local groups faced during periods of ethnic tension and violent conflict last year was the spread of rumors, particularly via SMS. These deliberate rumors ranged from humanitarian aid being poisoned to cross border attacks carried out by a particular ethnic group. But many civil society groups were able to verify these rumors in near real-time using Skype.

When word of the conflict spread, the director of one such groups got online and invited her friends and colleagues to a dedicate Skype chat group. Within two hours, some 2,000 people across the country had joined the chat group with more knocking but the group had reached the maximum capacity allowed by Skype. (They subsequently migrated to a web-based platform to continue the real-time filtering of information from around the country).

The Skype chat was abuzz with people sharing and validating information in near real-time. When someone got wind of a rumor, they’d simply jump on Skype and ask if anyone could verify. This method proved incredibly effective. Why? Because members of this Skype group constituted a relevant, trusted and geographically distributed network. A person would only add a colleague or two to the chat if they knew who this individual was, could vouch for them and believed that they had—or could have—important information to contribute given their location and/or contacts. (This reminded me of Gmail back in the day when you only had a certain number of invites, so one tended to chose carefully how to “spend” those invites).

The degrees of separation needed to verify a rumor was close to one. In the case of the supposed border attack, one member of the chat group had a contact with the army unit guarding the border crossing in question. They called them on their cell phone and confirmed within minutes that no attack was taking place. As for the rumor about the poisoned humanitarian aid, another member of the chat found the original phone numbers from which these false SMS’s were being sent. They called a personal contact at one of the telecommunication companies and asked whether the owners of these phones were in fact texting from the place where the aid was reportedly poisoned; they weren’t. Meanwhile, another member of the chat group had himself investigated the rumor in person and confirmed that the text messages were false.

This Skype detective network proved an effective method for the early detection and response to rumors. Once a rumor was identified as such, 2,000 people could share that information with their own networks within minutes. In addition, members of this Skype group were able to ping their media contacts and have the word spread even further. In at least two cases and in two different cities, telecommunication companies also collaborated by sending out broadcast SMS to notify subscribers about the false rumors.

I wonder if this model can be further improved on and replicated. Any thoughts from iRevolution readers would be most welcome.