Tag Archives: Violence

Humanitarian UAV/Drones in Conflict Zones: Fears, Concerns and Opportunities

My research team and I at the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators) have compiled a list of fears and concerns expressed by humanitarians and others on the use of UAVs in humanitarian settings. To do this, we closely reviewed well over 50 different documents, reports, articles, etc., on humanitarian UAVs as part of this applied research project. The motivation behind this research is to better understand the different and overlapping concerns that humanitarian organizations have over the use of non-lethal drones in crises, particularly crises mired by violent conflict.

Resarch Table

The results of this research are available in this open & editable spreadsheet and summarized in the table above. We identified a total of 9 different categories of concerns and tallied the unique instances in which these appear in the official humanitarian reports, articles, papers, studies, etc., that we reviewed. The top 3 concerns are: Military Association, Data Privacy and Consent. We very much welcome feedback, so feel free to get in touch via the comments section below and/or add additional content directly to the spreadsheet. This research will feed into an upcoming workshop that my colleague Kristin Sandvik (on the Advisory Board of UAViators) and I are looking to organize in the Spring of 2015. The workshop will address the most pressing issues around the use of civilian UAVs in conflict zones.

I tend to believe that UAV initiatives like the Syria Airlift Project (video above) can play a positive role in conflict settings. In fact, I wrote about this exact use of UAVs back in 2008 for PeaceWork Magazine (scroll down) and referred to previous (conventional) humanitarian airlift examples from the Berlin Airlift in the 1940′s to the Biafran Airlift in the 1960′s as a basis for remotely piloted aircraft systems. As such, I suggested that UAVs could be used in Burma at the time to transport relief supplies in response to the complex emergency. While fraught with risks, these risks can at times be managed when approached with care, integrity and professionalism, especially if a people-centered, community-based approach is taken, which prioritizes both safety and direct empowerment.

While some humanitarians may be categorically against any and all uses of non-lethal UAVs in conflict zones regardless of the circumstances, the fact is that their opinions won’t prevent affected communities and others from using UAVs anyway. More and more individuals will have access to cheaper and cheaper UAVs in the months and years ahead. As a UN colleague noted with respect to the Syria Airlift Project, initiatives like these may well be a sign of things to come. This sentiment is also shared by my colleague Jules Frost at World Vision. See her recent piece entitled: “Eyes in the Sky are Inevitable: UAVs and Humanitarian Response.”

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Acknowledgements: Many thanks to my research assistants Peter Mosur and Jus Mackinnon for taking the lead in this research.

See also:

  • On UAVs for Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention [link]
  • The Use of Drones for Nonviolent Civil Resistance [link]
  • Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish [link]

Big Data: Sensing and Shaping Emerging Conflicts

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and US Institute of Peace (USIP) co-organized a fascinating workshop on “Sensing & Shaping Emerging Conflicts” in November 2012. I had the pleasure of speaking at this workshop, the objective of which was to “identify major opportunities and impediments to providing better real-time information to actors directly involved in situations that could lead to deadly violence.” We explored “several scenarios of potential violence drawn from recent country cases,” and “considered a set of technologies, applications and strategies that have been particularly useful—or could be, if better adapted for conflict prevention.” 

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The workshop report was finally published this week. If you don’t have time to leaf through the 40+page study, then the following highlights may be of interest. One of the main themes to emerge was the promise of machine learning (ML), a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI). These approaches “continue to develop and be applied in un-anticipated ways, [...] the pressure from the peacebuilding community directed at technology developers to apply these new technologies to the cause of peace could have tremendous benefits.” On a personal note, this is one of the main reasons I joined the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI); namely to apply the Institute’s expertise in ML and AI to the cause of peace, development and disaster relief.

“As an example of the capabilities of new technologies, Rafal Rohozinski, principal with the SecDev Group, described a sensing exercise focused on Syria. Using social media analytics, his group has been able to identify the locations of ceasefire violations or regime deployments within 5 to 15 minutes of their occurrence. This information could then be passed to UN monitors and enable their swift response. In this way, rapid deductive cycles made possible through technology can contribute to rapid inductive cycles in which short-term predictions have meaningful results for actors on the ground. Further analyses of these events and other data also made it possible to capture patterns not seen through social media analytics. For example, any time regime forces moved to a particular area, infrastructure such as communications, electricity, or water would degrade, partly because the forces turned off utilities, a normal practice, and partly because the movement of heavy equipment through urban areas caused electricity systems go down. The electrical grid is connected to the Internet, so monitoring of Internet connections provided immediate warnings of force movements.”

This kind of analysis may not be possible in many other contexts. To be sure, the challenge of the “Digital Divide” is particularly pronounced vis-a-vis the potential use of Big Data for sensing and shaping emerging conflicts. That said, my colleague Duncan Watts “clarified that inequality in communications technology is substantially smaller than other forms of inequality, such as access to health care, clean water, transportation, or education, and may even help reduce some of these other forms of inequality. Innovation will almost always accrue first to the wealthier parts of the world, he said, but inequality is less striking in communications than in other areas.” By 2015, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa will have more people with mobile network access than with electricity at home.

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My colleague Chris Spence from NDI also presented at the workshop. He noted the importance of sensing the positive and not just the negative during an election. “In elections you want to focus as much on the positive as you do on the negative and tell a story that really does convey to the public what’s actually going on and not just a … biased sample of negative reports.” Chris also highlighted that “one problem with election monitoring is that analysts still typically work with the software tools they used in the days of manual reporting rather than the Web-based tools now available. There’s an opportunity that we’ve been trying to solve, and we welcome help.” Building on our expertise in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, my QCRI colleagues and I want to develop classifiers that automatically categorize large volumes of crowdsourced election reports. So I’m exploring this further with Chris & NDI. Check out the Artificial Intelligence for Monitoring Elections (AIME) project for more information.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the day-long workshop was the very clear distinction made between warning and response. As colleague Sanjana Hattotuwa cautioned: “It’s an open question whether some things are better left unsaid and buried literally and metaphorically.”  Duncan added that, “The most important question is what to do with information once it has been gathered.” Indeed, “Simply giving people more information doesn’t necessarily lead to a better outcome, although some-times it does.” My colleague Dennis King summed it up very nicely, “Political will is not an icon on your computer screen… Generating political will is the missing factor in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.”

In other words, “the peacebuilding community often lacks actionable strategies to convert sensing into shaping,” as colleague Fred Tipson rightly noted. Libbie Prescott, who served as strategic advisor to the US Secretary of State and participated in the workshop, added: “Policymakers have preexisting agendas, and just presenting them with data does not guarantee a response.” As my colleague Peter Walker wrote in a book chapter published way back in 1992, “There is little point in investing in warning systems if one then ignores the warnings!” To be clear, “early warning should not be an end in itself; it is only a tool for preparedness, prevention and mitigation with regard to disasters, emergencies and conflict situations, whether short or long term ones. [...] The real issue is not detecting the developing situation, but reacting to it.”

Now Fast froward to 2013: OCHA just published this groundbreaking report confirming that “early warning signals for the Horn of Africa famine in 2011 did not produce sufficient action in time, leading to thousands of avoidable deaths. Similarly, related research has shown that the 2010 Pakistan floods were predictable.” As DfID notes in this 2012 strategy document, “Even when good data is available, it is not always used to inform decisions. There are a number of reasons for this, including data not being available in the right format, not widely dispersed, not easily accessible by users, not being transmitted through training and poor information management. Also, data may arrive too late to be able to influence decision-making in real time operations or may not be valued by actors who are more focused on immediate action” (DfID)So how do we reconcile all this with Fred’s critical point: “The focus needs to be on how to assist the people involved to avoid the worst consequences of potential deadly violence.”

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The fact of the matter is that this warning-response gap in the field of conflict prevention is over 20 years old. I have written extensively about the warning-response problem here (PDF) and here (PDF), for example. So this challenge is hardly a new one, which explains why a number of innovative and promising solutions have been put forward of the years, e..g, the decentralization of conflict early warning and response. As my colleague David Nyheim wrote five years ago:

A state-centric focus in conflict management does not reflect an understanding of the role played by civil society organisations in situations where the state has failed. An external, interventionist, and state-centric approach in early warning fuels disjointed and top down responses in situations that require integrated and multilevel action.” He added: “Micro-level responses to violent conflict by ‘third generation early warning systems’ are an exciting development in the field that should be encouraged further. These kinds of responses save lives.”

This explains why Sanjana is right when he emphasizes that “Technology needs to be democratized [...], made available at the lowest possible grassroots level and not used just by elites. Both sensing and shaping need to include all people, not just those who are inherently in a position to use technology.” Furthermore, Fred is spot on when he says that “Technology can serve civil disobedience and civil mobilization [...] as a component of broader strategies for political change. It can help people organize and mobilize around particular goals. It can spread a vision of society that contests the visions of authoritarian.”

In sum, As Barnett Rubin wrote in his excellent book (2002) Blood on the Doorstep: The Politics of Preventive Action, “prevent[ing] violent conflict requires not merely identifying causes and testing policy instruments but building a political movement.” Hence this 2008 paper (PDF) in which I explain in detail how to promote and facilitate technology-enabled civil resistance as a form of conflict early response and violence prevention.

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See Also:

  • Big Data for Conflict Prevention [Link]

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since Wars Begin in Minds of Men


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cross-posted on PopTech blog.

Marketing Peace using SMS Mobile Advertising: A New Approach to Conflict Prevention

I was just in Kenya working on the next phase of the PeaceTXT project with my colleague Rachel Brown from Sisi ni Amani. I’m finally getting to implement an approach to conflict early warning and early response that I have been advocating for since 2006. I came close in 2008 whilst working on a conflict early and response project in Timor-Leste. But I wasn’t in Dili long enough to see the project through and the country’s limited mobile phone coverage presented an important obstacle. Long story short, I’ve been advocating for a people-centered and preparedness-based approach to conflict early warning systems for half a decade and am finally implementing one with PeaceTXT.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and the emotions that these stories generate. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform relationships and communities. The purpose of PeaceTXT is to leverage mobile messaging (SMS) to market peace in strategic ways and thereby generate alternative narratives. SMS reminders have been particularly effective in catalyzing behavior change in several important public health projects. In addition, marketing to the “Bottom of the Pyramid” is increasingly big business and getting more sophisticated. We believe that lessons learned from these sectors can be combined and applied to catalyze behavior  change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues by amplifying new narratives using timely and strategically targeted SMS campaigns.

Last year, Sisi ni Amani sent the following SMS to 10,000 subscribers across Kenya: A good leader initiates and encourages peace and development among all people and is not tribal. “In a nation divided along ethnic lines, where a winner-takes-all mindset fuels rampant corruption and political violence, changing perceptions of good leadership is a daunting endeavor. And yet, according to post-campaign data, 90 percent of respondents said they changed their understanding of ‘what makes a good leader’ in response to the organization’s messaging. As one respondent commented: ‘I used to think a good leader is one who has the most votes, but now I know a good leader is one who thinks of the people who voted for him, not himself’” (NextBillion Blog Post).

PeaceTXT is about marketing peace using mobile advertising by leveraging user-generated content for said text messages. We’re in the business of selling peace for free by countering other narratives that tend to incite violent behavior. Preparedness is core to the PeaceTXT model. To be sure, local mobile-based advertising is hardly reactive or random. Indeed, billions of dollars go into marketing campaigns for a reason. To this end, we’re busy developing an agile SMS protocol that will allow us to send pre-determined customized text messages to specific groups (demographics) in targeted locations within minutes of an incident occurring. The content for said text messages will come from local communities themselves.

The next step is for Rachel and her team to organize and hold several local focus groups in July to begin generating appropriate content for text messages to de-escalate and/or counter police-community tensions, rumors and insecurity. I’ll be back in Kenya in August to review this user-generated content so we can add the text messages to our SMS protocol and customized SMS platform. I’m thrilled and can’t wait to work on this next phase.

Drones for Human Rights: Brilliant or Foolish? (Updated)

My colleague Mark Hanis recently co-authored this Op-Ed in the New York Times advocating for the use of drones in human rights monitoring, particularly in Syria. The Op-Ed has provoked quite the debate on a number of list-serves like CrisisMappers, and several blog posts have been published on the question. I’ve long been interested this topic, which is why I included a section on drones in this official UN Foundation Report on “New Technologies in Emergen-cies and Conflicts: The Role of Information and Social Networks.” I also blogged about the World Food Program’s (WFP) use of drones some four years ago.

Some critics have made some good points vis-a-vis the limitation of drones for human rights surveillance. But some have also twisted the Op-Ed’s language and arguments. The types of drones or UAVs that an NGO might be able to purchase would not have the advanced technology required to capture the identify of perpetrators, according this critic. But at no point do Mark and his co-author, Andrew Sniderman, actually argue that drones should be used to document the identity of those committing human rights violations. Rather, “A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood.” And what if a consortium of NGOs do receive substantial funding to acquire a high-end drone for human rights surveillance purposes? Moreover, as drones become cheaper and smaller, using them to capture the identity of perpetrators will become increasingly possible.

This same critic notes quite rightly that humanitarian drones would “not have been able to monitor any mistreatment of Mandela in his cell on Robben Island. Nor will they be able to monitor torture in Syrian detention facilities.” Indeed, but again, nowhere in the Op-Ed do the authors claim that drones could serve this purpose. So this is again a counter-argument to an argument that was never made in the first place. (This critic seems to enjoy this kind of debating tactic).

As the authors fully acknowledge, the use of humanitarian drones would “violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws.” Some are concerned that this would “cause the Syrian government to even further escalate its military response.” If this is really the argument made against the use of drones, then this would beg the following question: should existing interventions in Syria also be vetoed since they too risk provoking the regime? This argument almost seeks to make a case for non-interference and non-intervention. The argument also supposes that the Syrian regime actually needs an excuse to escalate the slaughter of civilians.

This is a clear case where the regime has clearly and repeatedly violated the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle and has thus given up any legitimate claim to territorial sovereignty. “In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders” (NYT Op-Ed). And yet, one critic still argues that using drones in Syria would “set an unfortunate precedent [...] that human rights organizations are willing to violate international law [...].” According to R2P, Syria’s claim to sovereignty expired almost a year ago.

Granted, R2P is an international norm, not (yet) international law, but as the authors of the Op-Ed acknowledge, this type of intervention “isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?” Besides, to assume that human rights organizations have never violated laws in the past would be naive at best. Human rights organizations often smuggle information and/or people across borders, I know this for a fact.

As for the argument that using drones “could make even traditional human rights monitoring in repressive countries more difficult,” this is certainly true, as is any other type of intervention and use of technology, like digital cameras, Twitter, blogging, satellite imagery, etc. This same critic quotes another who points to surface-to-air misslies as being a regime’s obvious antidote to human rights drones. Indeed, such cases have been reported in Sri Lanka, as I learned back in 2005 from a colleague based in Colombo. Providing a regime with non-human targets is preferable to them using live ammunition on children. Regimes can also destroy mobile phones, digital cameras, etc. So does that mean human rights activists should refrain from using these technologies as well?

More from the critic: “cell phones can go more places than drones. Most people own one, and two year olds can use iPads. Cell phones can take photos that identify who is wearing what uniform and beating which protesters.” Indeed, the Op-Ed does not make any claims to the contrary. Cell phones may be able to go to more places than drones, but can they do so “unmanned“?  Can cell phones take pictures of uniforms up close and personal with zero risk to the cell phone owner? The observers of the recent Arab League Mission were not free to move around as they pleased, which is one reason why the Op-Ed makes the case for humanitarian drones. Still, the critic points out that she could attach a cell phone to a weather balloon and thus create a mini-drone. For sure, DIY drones are becoming more and more popular given the new technologies available and the lower costs; as is balloon mapping. Nothing in the Op-Ed suggests that the authors would rule out these solutions.

So what impact might the use of drones for human rights have? This is another entirely separate but equally important question. What kinds of documented human rights violations (and on from what types of media) might have the greatest chance prompting individuals and policy makers to act? As this critic asks, “What is the point of diminishing marginal returns on ‘bearing witness’”? And as the previous critic argues, “plenty of graphic images and videos from Syria have been captured and made public. Most are taken by digital cameras and cell phones in close quarters or indoors. None have caused the outrage and response Hanis and Sniderman seek.”

I beg to differ on this last point. Many of us have been outraged by the images captured and shared by activists on Twitter, Facebook , etc; so have human rights organizations and policy makers, including members of the UN Security Council and the Arab League. How to translate this outrage into actual response, how-ever, is an entirely different and separate challenge; one that is no less important. Mark and Andrew do not argue or pretend that surveillance imagery captured by  drones would be a silver bullet to resolving the political inertia on Syria. Indeed: “as with any intelligence-gathering process, surveillance missions necessarily operate in a political, rather than neutral space.”

In my mind, a combination of efforts is required—call it a networked, ecosystem approach. Naturally, whether such a combination (with drones in the mix) makes sense will depend on the context and the situation. Using drones will not always make sense, the cost-benefit analysis may differ considerably depending on the use-case and also over time. From the perspective of civil resistance and non-violent action, the use of drones makes sense. It gives the regime another issue to deal with and requires them to allocate time and resources accordingly. In fact, even if human rights activists had access to the cheapest drones that do not have the ability to take pictures, flying these over Syrian airspace would likely get the attention of the regime.

The result? This would “force” the regime to deal with something new and hopefully draw their fire away from civilians, even if momentarily. At the very least, it would use up some of their military ammunitions. More importantly, there’s also a plausible psychological effect here: no one likes mosquitos buzzing around their heads. It’s annoying and frustrating. Harassing repressive regimes can certainly have negative consequences. But they are part and parcel of civil resistance tactics. In certain circumstances, these risks may be worth taking, especially if those who decide to use drones for these purposes are Syrian activists themselves or operating under the direction of these activists. Either way, the duty to bear witness remains and is recognized internationally.

From a financial cost-benefit perspective, there’s no doubt that “the comparative advantage on technological platforms lies with foreign governments, rather than the NGO community,” as this critic points out. But foreign governments do not readily make their imagery public for the purposes of advocacy. This would likely place unwanted pressure on them to react if they publicly shared the extent of the evidence they had on the atrocities being committed in Syria and elsewhere.

Update 1: An iRevolution reader commenting on another blog post just shared this news that the US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, used his Facebook page to post “declassified US imagery of Syrian military attacks against civilians in the besieged city of Homs.” The US State Department explained that “Our intent here is to obviously expose the ruthlessness of the brutality of this regime and its overwhelming predominant advantage and the horrible kind of weaponry that it is deploying against its people.”

The news article adds that “Moscow and Beijing are also part of the intended audience for these images following their veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution backing Arab League action against President Assad.” In the context of my blog post above, one could argue that the USG could have made this type of information public 6 months ago in order to expose the brutality of the regime? And that a humanitarian drone might have exposed this earlier? In any case, this is a very interesting development. And as one colleague noted, “this proves point that images of atrocities are leveraged to build political pressure.”

Update 2: I wrote this follow-up post on the use of drones for civil resistance.

SMS for Violence Prevention: PeaceTXT International Launches in Kenya

[Cross-posted from my post on the Ushahidi blog]

One of the main reasons I’m in Nairobi this month is to launch PeaceTXT International with PopTech, Praekelt Foundation, Sisi ni Amani and several other key partners. PeaceTXT International is a spin-off from the original PeaceTXT project that several of us began working on with CeaseFire Chicago last year. I began thinking about the many possible international applications of the PeaceTXT project during our very first meeting, which is why I am thrilled and honored to be spearheading the first PeaceTXT International pilot project.

The purpose of PeaceTXT is to leverage mobile messaging to catalyze behavior change around peace and conflict issues. In the context of Chicago, the joint project with CeaseFire aims to leverage SMS reminders to interrupt gun violence in marginalized neighborhoods. Several studies in other fields of public health have already shown the massive impact that SMS reminders can have on behavior change, e.g., improving drug adherence behavior among AIDS and TB patients in Africa, Asia and South America.

Our mobile messaging campaign in Chicago builds on another very successful one in the US: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive.” Inspired by this approach, the PeaceTXT Team is looking to launch a friends-don’t-let-friends-get-killed campaign. Focus groups recently conducted with high-risk individuals have resulted in rich content for several dozen reminder messages (see below) that could be disseminated via SMS. Note that CeaseFire has been directly credited for significantly reducing the number of gun-related killings in Chicago over the past 10 years. In other words, they have a successful and proven methodology; one being applied to several other cities and countries worldwide. PeaceTXT simply seeks to scale this success by introducing SMS.

These messages are user-generated in that the content was developed by high-risk individuals themselves—i.e., those most likely to get involved in gun violence. The messages are not limited to reminders. Some also prompt the community to get engaged by responding to various questions. Indeed, the project seeks to crowdsource community solutions to gun violence and thus greater participation. When high-risk individuals were asked how they’d feel if they were to receive these messages on their phones, they had the following to share: “makes me feel like no one is forgetting about me”; “message me once a day to make a difference.”

Given that both forwarding and saving text messages is very common among the population that CeaseFire works with, the team hopes that the text messages will circulate and recycle widely. Note that the project is still in prototype phase but going into implementation mode as of 2012. So we’ll have to wait and see how the project fares and what the initial impact looks like.

In the meantime, PeaceTXT is partnering with Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace) to launch its first international pilot project. Rachel Brown, who spearheads the initiative, first got in touch with me back in the Fall of 2009 whilst finishing her undergraduate studies at Tufts. Rachel was interested in crowdsourcing a peace map of Kenya, which I blogged about here shortly after our first conversation. Since then, Rachel and her team have set up the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani Kenya (SnA-K) to leverage mobile technology for awareness raising and civic engagement with the aim of preventing possible violence during next year’s Presidential Elections.

SnA-K currently manages a ~10,000 member SMS subscriber list in Baba Dogo and Korogocho, Kamukunji and Narok. SnA-K’s SMS campaigns focus on voter education, community cohesion and rumor prevention. What SnA-K needs, how-ever, is the scalable SMS broadcasting technology, the type of focus that PeaceTXT brought to CeaseFire Chicago and the unique response methodology developed by the CeaseFire team. So I reached out to Rachel early on during the work in Chicago to let her know about PeaceTXT and to gain insights from her projects in Kenya. We set up regular conference calls throughout the year to keep each other informed of our respective progress and findings.

Soon enough, PopTech’s delightful Leetha Filderman asked me to put together a pitch for international applications of PeaceTXT’s work, an initiative I have “code-named” PeaceTXT International. I was absolutely thrilled when she shared the good news at PopTech 2011 that our donor, the Rita Allen Foundation, had provided us with additional funding, some of which could go towards an international pilot project. Naturally, Sisi ni Amani was a perfect fit.

So we organized a half-day brainstorming session at the iHub last week to chart the way forward on PeaceTXT Kenya. For example, what is the key behavioral change variable (like friendship in Chicago) that is most likely to succeed in Kenya? As for interrupting violence, how can the CeaseFire methodology be customized for the SnA-K context? Finally, what kind of SMS broadcasting technology do we need to have in place to provide maximum flexibility and scalability earlier rather than later? Answering these questions and implementing scalable solutions essentially forms the basis of the partnership between SnA-K and PeaceTXT (which also includes Mobile:Medic & Revolution Messaging). We have some exciting leads on next steps and will be sure to blog about them as we move forward to get feedback from the wider community.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell themselves and the emotions that these stories generate. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform relationships and communities. We believe the PeaceTXT model can be applied to catalyze behavior  change vis-a-vis peace and conflict issues at the community level by amplifying new narratives via SMS. There is considerable potential here and still much to learn, which is why I’m thrilled to be working with SnA, PopTech & partners on launching our first international pilot project: PeaceTXT Kenya.

The Mathematics of War: On Earthquakes and Conflicts

A conversation with my colleague Sinan Aral at PopTech 2011 reminded me of some earlier research I had carried out on the mathematics of war. So this is a good time to share some of the findings from this research. The story begins some 60 years ago, when British physicist Lewis Fry Richardson found that international wars follow what is called a power law distribution. A power law distribution relates the frequency and “magnitude” of events. For example, the Richter scale, relates the size of earthquakes to their frequency. Richardson found that the frequency of international wars and the number of causalities each produced followed a power law.

More recently, my colleague Erik-Lars Cederman sought to explain Richardson’s findings in his 2003 peer-reviewed publication “Modeling the Size of Wars: From Billiard Balls to Sandpiles.” However, Lars used an invalid statistical technique to test for power law distributions. In 2005, I began collaborating with Pro-fessors Neil Johnson and Michael Spagat on related research after I came across their fascinating co-authored study that tested casualty distributions in new wars (internal conflicts) for power laws. Though he was not a co-author on the 2005 study, my colleague Sean Gourely presented this research at TED in 2009.

In any case, I invited Michael to present his research at The Fletcher School in the Fall of 2005 to generate interest here. Shortly after, I suggested to Michael that we test whether conflict events, in addition to casualties, followed a power law distribution. I had access to an otherwise proprietary dataset on conflict events that spanned a longer time period than the casualty datasets that he and Neils were working off. I also suggested we try to test whether casualties from natural disasters follow a power law distribution.

We chose to pursue the latter first and I submitted an abstract to the 2006 American Political Science Association (APSA) conference to present our findings. Soon after, I was accepted to the Santa Fe Institute’s Complex Systems Summer Institute for PhD students and took the opportunity to pursue my original research in testing conflict events for power law distributions with my colleague Dr. Ryan Woodard.

The APSA paper, presented in August 2006, was entitled “Natural Disasters, Casualties and Power Laws:  A Comparative Analysis with Armed Conflict” (PDF). Here is the paper’s abstract and findings:

Power-law relationships, relating events with magnitudes to their frequency, are common in natural disasters and violent conflict. Compared to many statistical distributions, power laws drop off more gradually, i.e. they have “fat tails”. Existing studies on natural disaster power laws are mostly confined to physical measurements, e.g., the Richter scale, and seldom cover casualty distributions. Drawing on the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) International Disaster Database, 1980 to 2005, we find strong evidence for power laws in casualty distributions for all disasters combined, both globally and by continent except for North America and non-EU Europe. This finding is timely and gives useful guidance for disaster preparedness and response since natural catastrophes are increasing in frequency and affecting larger numbers of people.  We also find that the slopes of the disaster casualty power laws are much smaller than those for modern wars and terrorism, raising an open question of how to explain the differences. We show that many standard risk quantification methods fail in the case of natural disasters.

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Dr. Woodard and I presented our research on power laws and conflict events at SFI in June 2006. We produced a paper in August of that year entitled “Concerning Critical Correlations in Conflict, Cooperation and Casualties” (PDF). As the title implies, we also tested whether cooperative events followed a power law. As far as I know, we were the first to test conflict events not to mention cooperative events for power laws. In addition, we looked at conflict/cooperation (C/C) events in Western countries.

The abstract and some findings are included below:

Knowing that the number of casualties of war are distributed as a power law and given a rich data set of conflict and cooperation (C/C) events, we ask: Are there correlations among C/C events? Is there a correlation between C/C events and war casualties? Can C/C data be used as proxy for (potentially) less reliable casualty data? Can C/C data be used in conflict early warning systems? To begin to answer these questions we analyze the distribution of C/C event data for the period 1990–2004 in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Switzerland, UK and USA. We find that the distributions of individual C/C event types scale as power laws, but only over approximately a single decade, leaving open the possibility of a more appropriate fit (for which we have not yet tested). However, the average exponent of the power law (2.5) is the same as that found in recent studies of casualties of war. We find low levels of correlations between C/C events in Iraq and Afghanistan but not in the other countries studied. We find that the distribution of the sum of all conflict or cooperation events scales exponentially. Finally, we find low levels of correlations between a two year time series of casualties in Afghanistan and the corresponding conflict events.

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I’m looking to discuss all this further with Sinan and learning more about his fascinating area of research.