I sense a little bit of history repeating, and not the good kind. About ten years ago, I was deeply involved in the field of conflict early warning and response. Eventually, I realized that the systems we were designing and implementing excluded at-risk communities even though the rhetoric had me believe they were instrumented to protect them. The truth is that these information systems were purely extractive and ultimately did little else than fill the pockets of academics who were hired as consultants to develop these early warning systems.
The prevailing belief amongst these academics was (and still is) that large datasets and advanced quantitative methodologies can predict the escalation of political tensions and thus impede violence. To be sure, “these systems have been developed in advanced environments where the intention is to gather data so as to predict events in distant places. This leads to a division of labor between those who ‘predict’ and those ‘predicted’ upon” (Cited Meier 2008, PDF).
Those who predict assume their sophisticated remote sensing systems will enable them to forecast and thus prevent impending conflict. Those predicted upon don’t even know these systems exist. The sum result? Conflict early warning systems have failed miserably at forecasting anything, let alone catalyzing preventive action or empowering local communities to get out of harm’s way. Conflict prevention is inherently political, and “political will is not an icon on your computer screen” (Cited in Meier 2013).
In Toward a Rational Society (1970), the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas describes “the colonization of the public sphere through the use of instrumental technical rationality. In this sphere, complex social problems are reduced to technical questions, effectively removing the plurality of contending perspectives” (Cited in Meier 2006, PDF). This instrumentalization of society depoliticized complex social problems like conflict and resilience into terms that are susceptible to technical solutions formulated by external experts. The participation of local communities thus becomes totally unnecessary to produce and deliver these technical solutions. To be sure, the colonization of the public sphere crowds out both local knowledge and participation.
We run this risk of repeating these mistakes with respect the discourse on community resilience. While we speak of community resilience, we gravitate towards the instrumentalization of communities using Big Data, which is largely conceived as a technical challenge of real-time data sensing and optimization. This external, top-down approach bars local participation. The depoliticization of resilience also hides the fact that “every act of measurement is an act marked by the play of powerful relations” (Cited Meier 2013b). To make matters worse, these measurements are almost always taken without the subjects knowing, let alone their consent. And so we create the division between those who sense and those sensed upon, thereby fully excluding the latter, all in the name of building community resilience.
Acknowledgements: I raised the question “Resilience for whom?” during the PopTech and Rockefeller Foundation workshop on “Big Data & Community Resilience.” I am thus grateful to the organizers and fellows for informing my thinking and the motivation for this post.
35 million missed calls.
That’s the number of calls that 75-year old social justice leader Anna Hazare received from people across India who supported his efforts to fight corruption. Two weeks earlier, he had invited India to join his movement by making “missed calls” to a local number. Missed calls, known as beeping or flashing, are calls that are intentionally dropped after ringing. The advantage of making missed call is that neither the caller or recipient is charged. This tactic is particularly common in emerging economies to avoid paying for air time or SMS. To build on this pioneering work, Anna and his team are developing a mobile petition tool called Crowdring, which turns a free “missed call” into a signature on a petition.
Communicating with disaster-affected communities is key for effective disaster response. Crowdring could be used to poll disaster affected communities. The service could also be used in combination with local community radio stations. The latter would broadcast a series of yes or no questions; ringing once would signify yes, twice would mean no. Some questions that come to mind:
- Do you have enough drinking water?
- Are humanitarian organizations doing a good job?
- Is someone in your household displaying symptoms of cholera?
By receiving these calls, humanitarians would automatically be able to create a database of phone numbers with associated poll results. This means they could text them right back for more information or to arrange an in person meeting. You can learn more about Crowdring in this short video below.
My colleague Samia Kallidis is launching a brilliant self-help app to facilitate community-based disaster recovery efforts. Samia is an MFA Candidate at the School of Visual Arts in New York. While her work on this peer-to-peer app began as part of her thesis, she has since been accepted to the NEA Studio Incubator Program to make her app a reality. NEA provides venture capital to help innovative entrepreneurs build transformational initiatives around the world. So huge congrats to Samia on this outstanding accomplishment. I was already hooked back in February when she presented her project at NYU and am even more excited now. Indeed, there are exciting synergies with the MatchApp project I’m working on with QCRI and MIT-CSAIL , which is why we’re happily exploring ways to collaborate & complement our respective initiatives.
Samia’s app is aptly called Jointly and carries the tag line: “More Recovery, Less Red Tape.” In her February presentation, Samia made many very compelling arguments for a self-help approach to disaster response based on her field research and interviews she conducted following Hurricane Sandy. She rightly noted that many needs that arise during the days, weeks and months following a disaster do not require the attention of expert disaster response professionals—in fact these responders may not have the necessary skills to match the needs that frequently arise after a disaster (assuming said responders even stay the course). Samia also remarked that solving little challenges and addressing the little needs that surface post-disaster can make the biggest differences. Hence Jointly. In her own words:
“Jointly is a decentralized mobile application that helps communities self-organize disaster relief without relying on bureaucratic organizations. By directly connecting disaster victims with volunteers, Jointly allows individuals to request help through services and donations, and to find skilled volunteers who are available to fulfill those needs. This minimizes waste of resources, reduces duplication of services, and significantly shortens recovery time for individuals and communities.”
Samia kindly shared the above video and screenshots of Jointly below.
I’m thrilled to see Jointly move forward and am excited to be collaborating with Samia on the Jointly and MatchApp connection. We certainly share the same goal: to help people help themselves. Indeed, increasing this capacity for self-organization builds resilience. These connection technologies and apps provide for more rapid and efficient self-help actions in times of need. This doesn’t mean that professional disaster response organizations are obsolete—quite on the contrary, in fact. Organizations like the American Red Cross can feed relevant service delivery data to the apps so that affected communities also know where, when and how to access these. In Jointly, official resources will be geo-tagged and updated live in the “Resources” part of the app.
You can contact Samia directly at: email@example.com should you be interested in learning more or collaborating with her.