Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Survey on Repression vs Liberation: Does Technology Make a Difference?

I’m getting started on the second half of my dissertation research. This will comprise a series of semi-structured interviews with individuals who are knowledgeable about the impact of information and communication technologies in four countries under authoritarian rule. These countries include: Burma, Iran, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

I’ll be looking to interview at least 10 individuals per country case study. That means a total of 40 interviews between now and December. I also want to interview an additional 10 individuals who are not necessarily experts in one country per se but are particularly well informed about the overall subject matter. These 50 individuals will represent a mix of political activists, digital activists, technologists and academics who are either from the countries in question or experts on these countries.

I’d be most grateful for suggestions on which 50 individuals you might recommend touching base with. I already have a list about of about 30 but would like to compare this with reader suggestions. Please email me at patrick @ irevolution dot net. Obviously, I’m aware of the sensitivities around interviewing those colleagues who may be based in the countries in question. I will of course take appropriate precautions based on guidance from digital security professionals. Interviewees will remain anonymous in my own notes and these notes will be destroyed following my write-up which will be devoid of specific details and personal identifiers. Obviously, anyone I approach (directly or indirectly) can turn down the interview request.

I’d also be very interested in getting feedback on the survey questions I propose to ask. The ultimate question I want to answer is whether access to new ICTs empowers coercive regimes at the expense of resistance movements or vice-versa? The associated set of questions  below are based on a conceptual framework grounded on a comprehensive literature review. While these have already been approved by my dissertation chair, I’m keen to get a crowdsourced opinion. Feel free to add your thoughts on the comments section below or email them to me if you prefer.  Note that I will use more conversational language when posing the questions below. Thank you very much.

Mobilizing Structures
1. Are more individuals participating in social resistance? Why/why not? If so, how and is this changing?
2. Is the resistance becoming more contentious? Why/why not?
3. Are resistance movements better organized? Why/why not?

Opportunity Structures
Do social resistance groups have more or less access to the political system? Why/why not?
5. Is state control of information communication increasing opportunity costs? Why/why not?

Digital Activism
6. How have resistance groups used ICTs to organize and mobilize? If so, how?
7. Have ICTs been critical to the success of social resistance activities? Why/why not?
8. How have state officials used ICTs to control resistance groups?
9. Have ICTs been critical to the success of controlling resistance activities? Why/why not? And if so, how?
10. Would you characterize the competition between coercive states and social movements as a game of cat-and-mouse? Why/why not? If so, who do you think is winning and why?

New Dataset Represents Breakthrough for Crisis Mapping Analysis

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) has just released the latest version of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED), which I blogged about last year here. The new peer-reviewed paper on this latest release is available here and you can watch ACLED’s presentation at the 2009 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2009) right here. The unit of analysis for ACLED is “an individual event that occurred at a given location.”

This new version has geo-referenced data for 50 unstable countries from 1997 through to 2010. The real breakthrough here is not just the scope of geographical coverage but more importantly how incredibly up to date the data is. I’m excited about this because it is rare that academic datasets can actually inform policy or operational response in a timely way. Academic datasets are generally outdated.

PRIO’s updated dataset codes the “actions of rebels, governments, and militias within unstable states, specifying the exact location and date of battle events, transfers of military control, headquarter establishment, civilian violence, and rioting.” As the authors note, the dataset’s “disaggregation of civil war and transnational violent events allow for research on local level factors and the dynamics of civil and communal conflict.”

Indeed, “micro-level datasets allow researchers to rigorously test sub-national hypotheses and to generate new causal arguments that cannot be studied with country-year or static conflict-zone data.” The authors identify four distinctive advantages of disaggregating local conflict event-data:

  1. Data can be aggregated to any desired level for analysis;
  2. The types of conflict events (e.g. battles or civilian violence) can be analyzed separately or in tandem;
  3. The actors within a conflict can be grouped or analyzed separately;
  4. The dynamics of national or regional war clusters can be addressed together.

The academic paper that discusses this new release of ACLED doesn’t go into much geospatial analysis but the dataset will no doubt catalyze many  analytical studies in the near future. One preliminary finding, however, shows that using country-level data can lead to biased results when studying conflict dynamics. “The average percentage of area covered by civil war from the data sample is approximately 48%, but the average amount of territory with repeated fighting is considerably smaller at 15%. Further, most conflicts initially start out as very local phenomena.”

The Best Part of ICCM 2010, Not.

I facilitated a self-organized session on launching a Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force  at the Annual Meeting of Crisis Mappers. I blogged about this idea before the International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010). Talk about a mistake and a missed opportunity.

I had clearly mentioned in my blog post and in my opening remarks that I was going to experiment with a model to set up a more formal volunteer network using the Ushahidi platform because that’s the tool I know best and because the bulk of this network already exists; because that’s what I can guarantee and take responsibility for getting  done—and not just talk about endlessly saying  wouldn’t it be nice if… At no point did I suggest that the other technology groups could not do the same. On the contrary, I invited them to step up to the plate and do the same, to take responsibility; take ownership.

The reaction from our humanitarian colleagues was largely positive with some important constructive advice. Not so with one of the technology groups present. The response from this group was that we couldn’t be the first to focus on preparedness more actively because of perception issues, i.e., that the Standby Force would be synonymous with Ushahidi and thence favored by UN colleagues who would adopt the platform instead of the other technology platforms.

My response? I immediately apologized for my faux-pas and promptly proposed not to call this initiative the Crisis Mappers Task Force. I vouched to be more explicit that the standby volunteer group I’m personally working to set up with a few colleagues would first and foremost be a network trained on the Ushahidi platform and surrounding ecosystem, e.g., OpenStreetMap, Google Earth, etc.  because that’s what we’re good at. And as one of my colleagues who has trained more volunteer Crisis Mappers than anyone else said, “When I’m training volunteers it is never only on the Ushahidi platform, we have to use several other important platforms to make all this work.”

After this comment, I once again invited this other tech group (and everyone else present) to strengthen our initiative by setting up a joint standby network in collaboration with ours. I clearly said we would happily share our lessons learned on the volunteer model we are testing. No one has a monopoly on preparedness!

But that wasn’t good enough for this tech group. They also said we couldn’t go ahead and recruit, formalize and train a volunteer network on the Ushahidi platform because they would miss out on consulting opportunities and funding. Note: at no point did I ever suggest that this volunteer network would request funding or that we have a monopoly over the volunteer network we are recruiting. Again, the point was/is to use Ushahidi to experiment and test a standby model for volunteer engagement. Indeed, any other tech group is more than welcome to train the volunteers we’re recruiting on their own platforms.  Indeed, if someone else had proposed a Standby Volunteer Network dedicated to crisis mapping before me, I would have joined theirs immediately and offered to train their network tomorrow.

But did this technology group step up to the plate and offer to train the volunteers we’re recruiting? No. Were they pro-active and did they take the opportunity to join and strengthen the initiative? No. Did they make any commitment whatsoever? No, they just did not want us to move forward and implement a core principle of disaster response: preparedness. I have little patience with this kind of positioning and jockeying. Needless to say, I don’t think our humanitarian colleagues were particularly impressed either.

So where does this leave us? Where we started: my colleagues are pressing forward to formalize a standby volunteer network around the Ushahidi platform, which again does not prevent other groups from doing the same and/or joining the initiative. This network of Ushahidi users largely exists already, we’re simply formalizing it so we can be better prepared. We absolutely want the volunteers we recruit to be conversant with the rich ecosystem of different humanitarian technologies that are of interest to them.

I don’t know how much more clear of a signal I can possibly send: please join us and help us strengthen this network.

If this particular tech group I’m referring to doesn’t step up to the plate and instead chooses to criticize others who take initiative, then they ought to know that the real perception issue here is this: humanitarian colleagues  and others  who were present at the session will perceive this particular tech group as being insincere about disaster preparedness.

The UN’s Global Survey of Early Warning Systems commissioned by the former UN Secretary General and carried about by the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) defines the purpose of people-centered early warning systems as follows:

To empower individuals and communities threatened by hazards to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner so as to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment, and loss of livelihoods.

I was at the Third International Conference on Early Warning (EWC3) in 2006 where this report was first presented publicly. The key to effective people-centered early warning systems is preparedness. We want to empower an online community to use a wide mix of Crisis Mapping tools to act in sufficient time and in an appropriate manner (with guidance from the humanitarian community) to reduce the possibility of personal injury, loss of life, damage to property and the environment and loss of livelihoods for those threatened by hazards.

If I could train volunteers on 5 different platforms, I would. But I can’t because I’m not an expert on the other platforms and I already have a full time job (and then some). That’s why I took the initiative to organize the pre-conference Crisis Mapping Training Session at ICCM 2010. If we had had more space, time and timely funding, I would have organized an all day training on a dozen platforms and would happily do so on a regular basis. So I’m trying to play my role in this but I will absolutely not take responsibility for others who don’t step up and act  but instead complain because my colleagues and I are choosing to act.

No one has a monopoly on preparedness.

My Introductory Remarks at ICCM 2010

Below is the “speech” I gave to open the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping (ICCM 2010) in Boston on October 1, 2010.


Welcome the 2010 International Conference on Crisis Mapping! This is truly a remarkable turnout, thank you for making the time to join us today. We had expected some 200 participants to show up, but we got double. If you’re new to the Crisis Mappers Network, welcome to the team! It’s really great to have you and we very much look forward to your contributions. If you were with us for last year’s conference, it’s wonderful to have you back after what has certainly been a defining year for Crisis Mapping.

Indeed, the Crisis Mappers Network has grown substantially since we last met. We now have close to 1,000 members in over 30 countries. There are more than 100 organizations represented in this auditorium today. The Crisis Mappers website itself has been accessed from no fewer than 104 countries. The purpose of this international network is to catalyze communication, collaboration and partnerships between members. Our mission is to advance the study and practice of Crisis Mapping worldwide. We do this by organizing the annual International Conference on Crisis Mapping, which brings together high level policymakers, seasoned humanitarian and human rights practitioners, the technology community including both private sector and nonprofit groups, and the academic, research community.

We also pursue our mission by providing our members with an active social networking platform,, where they can blog, engage in discussion forums, watch a unique set of video presentations on crisis mapping projects and contribute to regular webinars. In addition, the Crisis Mappers Network provides an active list-serve for members to communicate and collaborate, especially during crises.

Indeed, this list-serve, the Crisis Mappers Google Group, played a pivotal role in the hours, days and weeks following the earthquake in Haiti. Members of the Network exchanged thousands of emails on this list-serve, sharing critical information ranging from satellite imagery and GIS data to contact lists for key organizations and personnel, important logistics data, locations of IDP camps, and so on. I highly recommend reading this study conducted by my colleague Jen Ziemke which provides hundreds upon hundreds of detailed examples on exactly how members of this network collaborated in the response.

The disaster response to Haiti was indeed unprecedented in a number of ways. One was the number of technology platforms deployed (many from scratch) in the wake of the disaster. Another distinctive element was the volunteer network that sprung into action on a range of projects in collaboration with members of the Crisis Mappers Network. In fact, hundreds of students from this University, The Fletcher School plus undergraduate students, were actively involved in the response. And many of them are here with us in this auditorium today.

In addition, we know that some 2,000 volunteers in about 40 countries were also engaged in the Crisis Mapping efforts, many of them from the Haitian Diaspora. None of these volunteers were ever physically in Haiti but they were still an important part of the operational response thanks to the open collaborative networks they created and the free, open source mapping technologies they used.

The unprecedented nature of this response represents an important opportunity.  At the same time, because many aspects of the response to Haiti were unprecedented, this also means they were necessarily reactive, ad hoc and unprepared. Yet the response nevertheless demonstrated a clear potential. It is now up to the members of this network to grab the opportunity that exists and turn this potential into actuality. The political will is there on all sides to collaborate and learn from each other. The technology community is becoming a more important actor in both the humanitarian and human rights space. The volunteer networks are not new per se but the collaboration between dedicated volunteers and the technology community has certainly created a number of new opportunities for disaster response and beyond.

So the question now is, how do we take these informal, distributed and ad hoc networks and allow them to interface effectively and in a timely way with structured humanitarian organizations? Some colleagues and I believe that one way to do so is by setting up a Standby Crisis Mappers Task Force composed of skilled and experienced volunteers and humanitarian professionals who have been engaged in previous Crisis Mapping operations. We hope that other professional volunteer communities like some friends at CrisisCommons who are interested in mapping will help us to strengthen this initiative.

Now, it is important to remember that Haiti was and remains an outlier. We were indeed very lucky in that information security and government oversight played a limited role. It truly was an open effort. Contrast this to the challenges of crisis mapping in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma, Liberia or the Sudan. It is these challenges that we must also address at this International Conference on Crisis Mapping. So as we plan for the future, we can and should be inspired by Haiti but we must be careful not to use the response to Haiti as the only model for crisis mapping. Indeed, the title of this year’s conference is Haiti and Beyond.

And this is why senior representatives of many important humanitarian organizations are here today because they want to engage the new opportunities that do exist and they understand the challenges that necessarily come with exploring new territory. Key members of the technology community are also here because they too want to engage and learn how to become more effective and reliable partners in the humanitarian space. Seasoned humanitarian and human rights practitioners are also in the auditorium, and many of them participated in yesterday’s Crisis Mapping Training Session because they recognize the value of expanding their own skill set to leverage the new technologies that are coming online.

Some of the key volunteers from the responses to Haiti, Chile and Pakistan are also here because they are committed to formalizing and professionalizing their role in this more multipolar system. And guess what? A number of these volunteers were already planning to pursue a career in the humanitarian space before Haiti. And others, who weren’t planning to beforehand, are now inspired to pursue a career path in this sector. So these volunteer networks are looking to the humanitarian community for mentorship and guidance.

Finally, the research community and media are both here today as well because they are looking for ways to bring this innovation and inspiration back into the classroom and to a broader audience.

So I think you’ll agree with me when I say that we have many of the right people here in the room today to catalyze the new collaboration and partnerships that will enable all of us to be more adaptive and effective actors in the humanitarian space. Indeed, the opportunity is well within our grasp.

And this opportunity would clearly not be possible were it not for every single one of you choosing to be present here in this auditorium right now. So thank you once again for your time and for joining us. You are the conference. And this opportunity would certainly not be possible without the tremendous sponsorship support that the Crisis Mappers Network has received for this annual Conference on Crisis Mapping. Let me then take this opportunity to thank our following friends: Humanity United, the Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the US Institute of Peace, ESRI, Google, the Hitachi Center at the Fletcher School, Ushahidi, the World Bank, the Human Security Institute at the Fletcher School, the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University, the GIS Center at Tufts University and last but not least, GeoTime. So if you see any of our friends during the breaks today, please do take a moment to thank them in person.

Like last year, the co-organizing institutions for the Crisis Mapping Conference are the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and John Carrol University. Many, many thanks indeed to both. I would also like to thank Jen Ziemke, my fellow co-organizer for the conference. This conference series would not exist had Jen not actually suggested the idea 3 years ago. So Jen, thank you very much for a brilliant idea! Finally, I want to express my huge gratitude to all our phenomenal volunteers who have once again gone above and beyond to save the day. You all know who you are, thank you very very much.

And now on with the show! We have a very interesting series of presentations lined up for you this morning and afternoon. We’ll kick off shortly with the first session of Ignite Talks. These talks are 5 minutes a piece with 20 powerpoint slides that automatically forward every 15 seconds. And there’s no stopping! This should definitely be very entertaining or a complete mess. The first session will focus primarily on Haiti and then shift to broader issues. The second session of Ignite Talks, which are scheduled for this afternoon, will look at the opportunities and challenges of crisis mapping beyond Haiti.

In between these Ignite sessions, we will have plenty of breaks for you to network with each other and engage the speakers in person.

We will also have some special remarks from UN Assistant Secretary General Dr. Choi who is the first Chief Information Technology Officer for the United Nations Secretariat. Our Keynote speaker this year is Mr. Kurt Jean-Charles, the CEO of Solutions, a Haitian software company that was directly involved in the disaster response following the earthquake. My colleague Jen Ziemke will introduce both of our distinguished guests more formally before their presentations.

Finally, we have an exciting display of projects and technologies for you at this year’s Technology and Analysis Fair which will kick off this afternoon following the second session of Ignite Talks. This will be a great opportunity for us to learn more about new crisis mapping technologies and projects.

If you plan to Tweet and/or blog about the presentations today, please do and please use the hashtag “ICCM10” And feel free to use the website to publish or cross post your blog posts, to chat live about the presentations, and so on.

Thanks very much for listening.