Monthly Archives: June 2008

Global Voices and Conflict Early Warning

I’d like to follow up on my previous blog, “Global Voices and Humanitarian Action,” and focus specifically on the link between bloggers at Global Voices and the field of conflict early warning/response.

Early warning signals appear most clearly to those immediately around the disputants. “One cannot solely rely on the statistics produced by leading international development agencies” to monitor potential for conflict escalation (1). In fact, “according to 1994 World Bank data, Rwanda was the most egalitarian country among all low-income and middle-income countries in the world” (2). To this end, more micro level analysis is needed to capture “The View from Below,” i.e.,  the underlying web of complex political, social and economic networks. In addition, “if we are to make a difference for the majority of the people who suffer the horrible effects of civil wars, we ought to also focus our research on how ordinary people adjust their lives to cope with the constraints and opportunities brought about by civil war” (3).

But most conventional conflict early warning systems generate “macro level analysis and policy prescriptions that are generally based on a snapshot rather than a dynamic view of the changing situations on the ground” (4). In fact, the majority of references to conflict early warning are to top-down, inter-governmental  early warning systems with limited (if any) links to local communities. The field of conflict early warning is therefore shifting towards a more bottom-up approach, stressing the need for something like an indigenous “local information network” to get a better glimpse of “the view from below”. For sure, “a democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warning and resolution” (5).

Enter Global Voices:

At a time when the international English-language media ignores many things that are important to large numbers of the world’s citizens, Global Voices aims to redress some of the inequities in media attention by leveraging the power of citizens’ media. We’re using a wide variety of technologies – weblogs, podcasts, photos, video, wikis, tags, aggregators and online chats – to call attention to conversations and points of view that we hope will help shed new light on the nature of our interconnected world.

This is precisely what the FAST early warning project at Swisspeace attempted to do. FAST drew on “Local Information Networks” (LINs) of field monitors to code event-data as reported by the local news media. These would then be aggregated and visualized as a time series to determine whether any patterns of conflict escalation could be identified. The process, however, was tedious and hierarchical. Field monitors were not included in the analysis (which was done only in Bern, Switzerland), nor were they included in galvanazing response or even formulating response options.

Long-distance expertise and “analytical capacity alone will never be sufficient for generating effective response,”  since “to have significance operationally, analysis cannot simply be factual but also has to address the issue of perception (e.g., perceived needs, values and symbols); Indeed, prevent[ing] violent conflict requires not merely identifying causes and testing policy instruments but building a political movement” since “the framework for response is inherently political, and the task of advocacy for such response cannot be separated from the analytical tasks of warning” (6).  These form part of the lessons recently learned in the field of conflict early warning.

Global Voices is a far more effective local information and response network than FAST ever was. FAST’s organizational structure was hierarchical, compared to the decentralized nature of the Global Voices network. Bloggers at Global Voices are directly linked to local social and political networks. They have their ears to the ground. They are some of the first to know when “Something is not right,” as Kenyan blogger Daudi remarked on the morning December 30th, 2007 in Nairobi. As more of the irregularities of the voting surfaced, bloggers quickly found themselves as citizen reporters, using twitter, photoblogging and other tools to document and respond to the escalating violence. Ethan Zuckerman writes,

Daudi argues that Kenya was especially prepared to cover the situation due to the richness and maturity of the blogosphere. There are at least 800 Kenyan bloggers, who are both fiercely independent and tightly linked together. “If you build a new Kenyan blog, if you put it into the webring, you’ll have a thousand viewers the first day.” Many of these bloggers were anxious to cover the elections. Daudi tells us he was out on the streets at 6am, photographing lines and polling places; other bloggers were out at 3am. Some bloggers were actually standing for election, others were embedded with foreign diplomats, visiting polling sites as election monitors.

FAST’s field monitors were limited in the technologies there were provided with. Bloggers, on the contrary, make use of all social media and Web 2.0 tools available. They are the new citizen field monitors. Unlike the local information networks at FAST and are conventional conflict early warning systems, they are not paid informants. They volunteer their time because they are dedicated to a more  transparent and democratic society. They are engaged and have a direct stake in peace. Why have we in the conflict prevention community not paid more attention to the rich information these bloggers provide? Why are we not subscribing to Global Voices? Why are we not using our sophisticated natural language parsers to quantity subtle changes in bloggers’ opinions and perceptions in real time?

The answer? Because the conflict early warning field is still in the middle ages when it comes to the use of emerging information communication technologies. A comprehensive OECD report (PDF) on existing operational early warning systems concluded in May 2008 that “most inter-governmental and non-governmental systems […] have not gone beyond the use of email and websites for dissemination, and communication technology for data collection.”

In addition, as the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) recently reported in a “Review of Conflict Prediction Models and Systems,” one the most significant findings from the study is that a “small pool of [academic] experts dominate the field.” Both these factors are antithetical to the observation made by Rupesinghe exactly 20 years ago (!) vis-a-vis conflict early warning and response systems: “a democratic flow of information is the first condition for a democratic and open system of warning and resolution.” Stress on democratic and flow. It is high time we in the humanitarian community pay more attention to Global Voices.

Global Voices and Humanitarian Action

What a treat, I’ve been in the beautiful city of Budapest for a week to participate in both the 2-day Berkman Center conference on Internet and Democracy as well the 3-day Global Voices 2008 Summit. Out of some 200+ participants I was one of three with active links to the humanitarian community. My other two colleagues were Sameer Padania of The Hub at Witness and Ivan Sigal from USIP. There should have been more but three is a start.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that there really is something to the hunch I’ve had over the past year. Namely that the various “fields” of activist blogging a la Global Voices, nonviolent action, humanitarian technology, conflict prevention and crisis response are not as distinct as one might think.

Take Ushahidi, for example, which was developed by several bloggers following Kenya’s elections in December 2007. The field of conflict early warning/response is increasingly shifting towards crisis mapping, which is in effect what Ushahidi is. I find this convergence of interests from different areas of expertise particularly exciting.

Indeed, I’ve been working since June 2007 (one year now) on a crisis mapping tool called the “Humanitarian Sensor Web” (or HSW) to facilitate dynamic, real-time mapping of humanitarian infrastructure and crisis-related events. The Sensor Web includes SMS and we too are looking at using Jott to allow for voice-to-text data collection.

Erik Hersman and I had a particularly fruitful day-long brainstorming session in April 2008. He was interested in the lessons learned and best practices from the humanitarian side while I wanted to learn more about the technical aspect of crisis mapping. The conflict early warning community has had to address the challenges of information collection, data validation (quality control), indicator development and frameworks, data analysis, field-based security of monitors, etc.

I think we have a lot to offer and a lot to learn from the activist blogging community. They are often closer to the ground than some of us in the humanitarian community are. They have their ears to the ground, are part of a local  social and information network, provide critical information when the mainstream media becomes unreliable or inaccessible in times of conflict, and have shown time and time again that they can mobilize a movement for action. Isn’t that what conflict prevention is about?

This is part of a broader conversation that we will be having with other colleagues at an upcoming workshop in Boston hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), where I am a doctoral research fellow. The workshop will explore, amongst other issues, the application of information communication technology for conflict early warning, crisis mapping and humanitarian response. Sameer from Witness will be joining us, as well colleagues from Microsoft‘s Humanitarian Information Systems Group, the Geotechnology and Human Rights project at AAAS, the Eyes on Darfur project at Amnesty International (AI), the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), and many more (we’ll be about 20 in all).

I’ll be sure to share all that I have learned from participating in the Global Voices summit during the HHI workshop. It is time we bridge our respective fields of practice and exchange best practices.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Voices Summit: My Concluding Thoughts (wow!)

The 2008 Global Summit in Budapest was one of the most extraordinary conferences I’ve been to … and I’ve been to almost 40 conferences in the past four years alone. What’s the big deal (and it is a Big Deal)?  This community embodies the values they speak about: the members of this community are open, inclusive, transparent, engaging, respectful, mindful, diverse, committed, innovative, energetic, proactive, creative, responsible, serious, humble, fun and humorous. Is that all? Not even close, read on, if you will.

When I first walked into the conference room on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but notice that I was definitely not one of the younger conference participants but I was definitely (and embarrassingly) the most overdressed. The average age of participants over the past three days couldn’t have been more than 30.  One participant was a high school student from Germany; another was from Colombia. This was inspiring (I for one was not attending international conferences as a high school student, let alone as an undergraduate student!). There were no suits, no ties and no dull gray colors. Instead, there were shorts, flip flops, t-shirts and the occasional pair of slacks. Needless to say, the informality was highly refreshing. Just like not all heroes wear capes, not all amazing people wear suites–in fact, 99.9% don’t!

Unlike the majority of conference circles I’ve frequented, participants at Global Voices were open, welcoming and humble. While introducing myself over the past three days, I must have repeated at least a dozen times that I am new to the field. At no point was I made to feel that I had less to contribute. There was no arrogance, no ego, no power trips. This was also the most international conference I’ve been to, the diversity was simply astounding: Belarus, Japan, Egypt, Pakistan, Kenya, Morocco, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore, Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Bangladesh, China, Bolivia, Madagascar, Colombia, Venezuela, Canada, France, Brazil, India, US, UK, Australia, Thailand, Germany and several more!

A few points that I wanted to make sure I captured from the final day:

  • We need a code of ethics for bloggers (me: and a code of conduct). What’s stopping us from doing so?! Lets do it!
  • Blog, blog, blog, about anything of interest to you, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Blog away. You define the crisis. You determine what’s important. Blogging changes definitions.
  • The Internet does not erode social links, does not make us individuals, does not undermine communities. Quite the opposite!
  • You don’t need hardware or software to engage in an SMS campaign, just forward your texts to your immediate social circle.
  • The space that Global Voices operates in overlaps with a number of other fields, like peacebuilding, conflict prevention, conflict management, nonviolent action and conflict early warning/response. See my blogs on Global Voices and Conflict Early Warning, as well as Global Voice and Humanitarian Action, for more information.

I conclusion, I wanted to add a point on complex systems. The Internet, and the information society, the global network of social nodes and connections, is becoming more complex. This complexity adds to diversity and balance. Most people, most of the time, in most places are nonviolent. Social extremes are by definition minorities. Global Voices are more informed and moderate. Giving a voice to these Global Voices online is likely to diminish the impact of extremists. How do we find these voices in the symphony of the superhighway? We need to make quanta of information more indexable and more searchable. Tag, tag, tag away. Only then will locality, diversity, opportunity be made more visible. See my blog on complex systems and conflict resolution for more information on the added value of a bottom-up approach.

So why is this one of the most important efforts one could possible engage in? Because “Seeing Like a State” has led to some of the greatest catastrophes we have witnessed in human history. Some excerpts from one of my favorite books:

  • Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms or analysis, and it is not at all surprising that the abstractions of state officials should have reflected the paramount fiscal interests of their employer.
  • Just as a merchant who, not knowing what conditions her ships will face at sea, send out scores of vessels with different designs, weights, sails, and navigational aids stands a better chance of having much of her fleet make it to port, while a merchant who stakes everything on a single ship design and size runs a higher risk of losing everything, forest biodiversity acts like an insurance policy.
  • If the natural world, however shaped by human use, it is too unwieldy in its, “raw” form for administrative manipulation, so to are the actual social patterns of human interaction with natural bureaucratically indigestible in their raw forms.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Voices Summit: When the World Listens

The final panel of the summit included presentations on several phenomenal projects including the following two:

  • Blank Noise Project: A blog put together by women in India to blog about “eve-teasing” or rather sexual harassment in the street. The women created a movement offline that impacted the mainstream media.
  • Ushahidi Project: Many are already familiar with this project and we’re all looking forward to upcoming innovations. For example, Ushahidi 2.0 will be downloadable.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Voices Summit: When Biases meet Biases

This panel focuses specifically on China (and the issue of Tibet) to explore what can be done to encourage dialogue in times of heated disagreement. The reason there was so much dispute in what went on in Tibet is because the international media could not report what was going on. There was widespread misinformation and accusations based on distorted information. What we saw in the Blogosphere was a polarization between bloggers in the West and in China. There was little compassion on either side for people’s views on either side of the issue, as depicted by the difference in connectivity between communication during the  run up to the Chinese Olympics and the 2004 Athens Olympics in the maps below created by Dave.

Dave says “I’ve argued, citing the words of the Dalai Lama himself, that if you

1) Believe in democratic principles and free speech
2) You believe the Internet is a tool for unfettered global communication
3) There’s something in China (or any other country) that bothers you

Then you ought to put some energy into communicating directly with Chinese netizens about the problem. For years now I’ve seen alot of Chinese netizens discussions be completely ignored or simply missed by English-speaking netizens, who too often think that Chinese netizens are all completely brainwashed. Well, guess what? Some of them think you are too. Instead of dismissing each other as fools, how about we try to talk? So I say, Tweet Back! Tweet in English, alot of Chinese people know some. If you know Chinese… what are you waiting for? I’ve been translating alot of Chinese tweets on Tibet this weekend, and alot of them break the stereotype of the frothing nationalist Chinese blogger. These are Chinese people who adopt alot of Web 2.0 applications alot of the time, they aren’t just blowhards in chat rooms. Some are journalists, professionals and students.”

CNN and Western media wrongly described Nepalese policemen beating Tibetans as Chinese, which was not the only mistake made in Western media coverage. This prompted Jin Rao, a 23-year-old Chinese student, to launch an Anti-CNN website, which documented all of CNN’s numerous reporting errors on the coverage using screen shots and on-line videos. Grassroots media has developed very quickly over the past 6-years in China, largely in response to the absence of a professional media in the country.

Ethan Zuckerman made a particularly interesting point (as he always does). Referring to the Obama campaign and the Reverend Wright issue. Wright is obviously a traditional civil rights activist who regularly reminds his audience that African Americans in the US remain marginalized and discriminated. This upset a large number of white communities in the US. But the point is that Wright was not speaking to this audience. In the past, the audience was more easily defined and captures. These days there are multiple audiences, including intendend and unintended audiences. This shift will continue to provoke controversies and “disproportional” reactions from unintended readers.

At the same time, we need to be able to continue talking differently about certain topics to different  groups of people. This allows for different perspectives and variety of views. There will be friction, but the question is how we can channel this tension in a productive manner. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have a history of inconsistencies. Rebecca MacKinnon, the other co-founder of Global Voices, also noted the importance of politics and history. Some communities and societies are more steeped in past (even distant) history. Others less so, and still others simply unaware of the context and where people are coming from. The question is what bloggers can do to correct for this?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Voices Summit: The Wired Electorate in Emerging Democracies

This panel included activists from Kenya, Armenia, Iran and Venezuela to discuss the following question: is citizen media having an actual impact on democracies in transitions?

  • Yarane Baran is a pro reformist association of bloggers in Iran. They update their blogs twice a week but only have about 50 visitors per week.
  • In Armenia, the Blogosphere became polarized around the recent elections. While the elections were pronounced fair on the day of the elections, YouTube videos appeared later that day revealing serious irregularities in the voting. The government proceeded in banning all print media but left blogs completely untouched. The government took note but didn’t move to block the blogs. Instead, the President had his own blog set up to address issues and respond to questions. Another video subsequently posted on YouTube showed policemen shooting at a crowd. This forced the police to respond publically on national television. 3G mobile technology is definitely going to play an important role in future elections in Armenia. The President (or rather his spokesperson) has recently asked bloggers for a meeting. For more information, see Onnik Krikorian’s blog here.

  • In Venezuela the problem is not about freedom of speech but rather freedom of communication. People at home do not talk about politics, they do not have confidence to discuss the issues, and therefore you do not have a sense of community. People are also tired of talking politics since nothing changes, much. Only 20% of the population have acess to the Internet. When elections happen, it’s like a national sport. Elections3D is a website set up to centralize blog posts, photos and videos about the elections. They also used SMS an Twitter for fast discourse. They used SMS to send text messages to more than 2,000 people in less than a minute. Luis Diaz concluded his presentation on Venezuela with some lessons learned: tagging is effecient, and needs exhaustive and universal keywords to be found by the greater public; blogs are the nerve center, but the richest platform is the diversity; the blogosphere is subjective and this is important since it contains the political rainbow in a nation withou diaologue. Luis showed a picture of an indigenous Colombian, in the middle of the rainforest, using his mobile phone. “This is important, this the future,” he said with an applause from the participants.

  • Kenya’s Daudi Were gave a presentation on the Kenya elections. Before the elections there were SMS campaigns mainly used to intimidate people to switch sides. There was an “Obama effect”; Kenyans looked to the US and drew on the same tactics by using social media websites, Facebook, etc. During the election day, bloggers were out in force, blogging all day, taking pictures of the process, it was a formidable turnout. “The Kenyan bloggers really blogged the election,” Daudi proudly recounted. Some bloggers were embedded with officials from various embassies in Nairobi.Some challenges included limited bandwidth. There is only 10% Internet penetration in Kenya, but radio

“But then things changed and the situation turned. We could tell immediately that something was not right. Bloggers started reporting strange things going on. When the violence started and spread, people started to use different tools to keep up with the fast changing situation. Twitter started being used. We thought some of these tools were just for teenagers but we quickly came to appreciate their importance.”

“Some challenges: Bloggers in the blogosphere began raising funds online to purchase machetes. This is a problem: who guards the guards? Also, only 10% of Kenyans have access to the Internet but 95% of the population have access to radios. So many radio broadcasters had access to the Internet and therefore began to read out blog entries.

“Some lessons learned: The importance of having a global network is imperative; gives you support, lets you know you are not alone, and helps you keep a perspective on the local events. Citizen media was able to operate in almost real time. As bloggers, we need to protect our reputation, it’s all we have and we must do everything to keep our integrity. We need to admit our mistakes when we are wrong and stay away from non-constructive arguments. You do not have to be ‘on the inside’ to be significant. Finally, bloggers are not aliens. If society is divided, bloggers will be divided. We are part of society.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Global Voices Summit: Web 2.0 Goes Worldwide

Activists from Colombia, Kenya, Bolivia and Madagascar kicked off the first panel of the day. The panelists described the organizations and/or projects they are working on or recently created. For a video trailer on  the projects, please click here.

Repacted is a youth that uses community theatre to educate other youths in Nakuru, Kenya. Skits are performed in prisons and IDP camps. The group trains youths to perform their own skits. Collins Odor, who is behind the initiative now has a blog, which you can visit here. When we asked him how we could help, he said having someone come to Nakuru to volunteer and train them on IT for a week or two would be very useful. Also, sponsoring performances would be very helpful. So please contact him!

“The ability to speak out is directly related to happiness,” says Catalina Restrepo, who is closely engaged in the HiperBarrio’ project. Catalina may be young, but she is an absolutely formidable woman.

The project began as two separate proposals both from Medellín, Colombia. Juliana Rincón and Jorge Montoya proposed to organize a series of new media training workshops in collaboration with an outreach initiative of Medellín’s public library system. Álvaro Ramírez wanted to host a blogging workshop in the working class neighborhood of La Loma de San Javier. In the end, both project decided to work together and form the HiperBarrio outreach collective.

Mialy Andriamanjara of FOKO Madagascar presented her project.

FOKO wants to help Madagascar by bringing the world’s attention to Malagasy people. When often biodiversity and lemurs are in the spotlight, FOKO wants to focus on the Malagasy people and make them a crucial factor in their unique and threatened environment. FOKO’s goal is to help the Malagasy people improve their quality of life without destroying the Forest while taking into account biodiversity.

FOKO has opened 150 blogs in just 10 months. A small stipend is offered to bloggers who have their stories published in the country’s national newspapers. They’ve held the first reading of the ‘Vagina Monologues’ in Malagasy, with the help of Malagasy female bloggers. Kids in Madagascar have realized they have something interesting to say and now they know how. The group is hoping to set up their own Internet cafe to facilitate their work and promote the crafts of Malagasy woman.

The final speaker, Cristina Quisbert, presented her project Voces Bolivianas in Bolivia.

Bolivia is a deeply divided country, where the differences are accentuated. But well known Bolivian bloggers Mario Duran, Hugo Miranda, and Eduardo Ávila believe that improved communication can lead to greater understanding. The pilot program of Voces Bolivianas took place at a cyber-cafe in the city of El Alto between September 22 and November 10. They are now continuing their citizen media workshops in Santa Cruz, El Alto, and other locations throughout the country.

Cristina launched her blog in English to write about indigenous peoples and to write about events in El Alto. There are few people blogging about indigenous topics and few indigenous women are blogging. She is also uploading her own videos and her own pictures. In this way, she seeks to make people and people visible. Some of the more challenging moments occur when Cristina faces technical difficulties. She also gets

Patrick Philippe Meier