Tag Archives: blogs

Behind the Scenes: The Digital Operations Center of the American Red Cross

The Digital Operations Center at the American Red Cross is an important and exciting development. I recently sat down with Wendy Harman to learn more about the initiative and to exchange some lessons learned in this new world of digital  humanitarians. One common challenge in emergency response is scaling. The American Red Cross cannot be everywhere at the same time—and that includes being on social media. More than 4,000 tweets reference the Red Cross on an average day, a figure that skyrockets during disasters. And when crises strike, so does Big Data. The Digital Operations Center is one response to this scaling challenge.

Sponsored by Dell, the Center uses customized software produced by Radian 6 to monitor and analyze social media in real-time. The Center itself sits three people who have access to six customized screens that relate relevant information drawn from various social media channels. The first screen below depicts some of key topical areas that the Red Cross monitors, e.g., references to the American Red Cross, Storms in 2012, and Delivery Services.

Circle sizes in the first screen depict the volume of references related to that topic area. The color coding (red, green and beige) relates to sentiment analysis (beige being neutral). The dashboard with the “speed dials” right underneath the first screen provides more details on the sentiment analysis.

Lets take a closer look at the circles from the first screen. The dots “orbiting” the central icon relate to the categories of key words that the Radian 6 platform parses. You can click on these orbiting dots to “drill down” and view the individual key words that make up that specific category. This circles screen gets updated in near real-time and draws on data from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and blogs. (Note that the distance between the orbiting dots and the center does not represent anything).

An operations center would of course not be complete without a map, so the Red Cross uses two screens to visualize different data on two heat maps. The one below depicts references made on social media platforms vis-a-vis storms that have occurred during the past 3 days.

The screen below the map highlights the bio’s of 50 individual twitter users who have made references to the storms. All this data gets generated from the “Engagement Console” pictured below. The purpose of this web-based tool, which looks a lot like Tweetdeck, is to enable the Red Cross to customize the specific types of information they’re looking form, and to respond accordingly.

Lets look at the Consul more closely. In the Workflow section on the left, users decide what types of tags they’re looking for and can also filter by priority level. They can also specify the type of sentiment they’re looking, e.g., negative feelings vis-a-vis a particular issue. In addition, they can take certain actions in response to each information item. For example, they can reply to a tweet, a Facebook status update, or a blog post; and they can do this directly from the engagement consul. Based on the license that the Red Cross users, up to 25 of their team members can access the Consul and collaborate in real-time when processing the various tweets and Facebook updates.

The Consul also allows users to create customized timelines, charts and wordl graphics to better understand trends changing over time in the social media space. To fully leverage this social media monitoring platform, Wendy and team are also launching a digital volunteers program. The goal is for these volunteers to eventually become the prime users of the Radian platform and to filter the bulk of relevant information in the social media space. This would considerably lighten the load for existing staff. In other words, the volunteer program would help the American Red Cross scale in the social media world we live in.

Wendy plans to set up a dedicated 2-hour training for individuals who want to volunteer online in support of the Digital Operations Center. These trainings will be carried out via Webex and will also be available to existing Red Cross staff.

As  argued in this previous blog post, the launch of this Digital Operations Center is further evidence that the humanitarian space is ready for innovation and that some technology companies are starting to think about how their solutions might be applied for humanitarian purposes. Indeed, it was Dell that first approached the Red Cross with an expressed interest in contributing to the organization’s efforts in disaster response. The initiative also demonstrates that combining automated natural language processing solutions with a digital volunteer net-work seems to be a winning strategy, at least for now.

After listening to Wendy describe the various tools she and her colleagues use as part of the Operations Center, I began to wonder whether these types of tools will eventually become free and easy enough for one person to be her very own operations center. I suppose only time will tell. Until then, I look forward to following the Center’s progress and hope it inspires other emergency response organizations to adopt similar solutions.

Roundtable: Human Rights and Technology

I was recently invited by USAID to participate in a closed meeting with global activists promoting human rights. The roundtable was described to me as follows:

We are having a high-level event in Washington and we are hoping you can participate. It will be very small, with only 2025 people, and we are seeking someone who can speak to best practices and the future of human rights blogging at an awards ceremony honoring international human rights bloggers. Either Secretary of State Rice or Administrator Fore of USAID will be in attendance.

The organizers wanted an independent academic and avid blogger with a good understanding of human rights monitoring and digital activism. I accepted the invitation since the roundtable would be an opportunity to brainstorm about the challenges and opportunities of blogging for political activism and human rights advocacy.

I was initially not going to blog about this event given some of the sensitivities involved, but as it turns out President Bush had a public meeting with the activist bloggers right before our roundtable (which is why we started almost an hour late). The White House meeting was covered by Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. The organizers of the roundtable thus encouraged me to blog about the event (although I still have some reservations about the public nature of all this).


The roundtable was attended by the above activist bloggers (now residents of the US) and several representatives from USAID, the State Department, the National Security Council (NSC) and Department of Defense (DOD). Clearly, I was the only non-USG, non-dissident blogger around the table, which made sense since I was invited to provide an independent perspective to the conversation. Consider this blog post as an extension of that invitation.

After some formal introductions, we were each given about five minutes to present our perspectives on the issue of human rights and blogging. Only ten minutes were available for Q&A. Here are some of my personal, independent reactions, to the roundtable:

  • I was surprised how often Russia was referred to as the Soviet Union;
  • The introductory remarks placed too much faith in technology as the solution. There was little discussion about tactics and overall strategy;
  • The reference to the platform developed by the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media (C4)  to enable activists to communicate securely and anonymously was not entirely accurate. First, the project is being designed for reporters, not activists, and second, the platform has not  been built yet;
  • One of the blogger activists said that US rhetoric vis-a-vis the support of human rights was less helpful than direct action, i.e., applying pressure via leverage of trade, etc;
  • Another activist said that his network does not want US material or financial support, only moral support;
  • The blogger from Iran (now living in the US), noted that the regime was spending some $60 million to try and control the proliferation of jokes sent by SMS that makes fun of the president and ruling officials;
  • When a USG official asked about the use of mobile phones for political activism, one blogger replied that the best way to help repressive regimes is to use mobile phones. I echoed his concerns by pointing out that mobile phones can be a liability because (1) they can be tracked, i.e., geo-located; (2) encrypted SMS is still not the standard; (3) address books are not encrypted or easily deletable which means that confiscated mobile phones can place hundreds in danger.

The meeting was cut short because it started late, so there was actually little time for brainstorming. Below are my (independent) concerns about the meeting and the future of human rights and political activism. They may not jive with the US Government’s take on these issues, but then again, I know that they wanted someone independent in the room to get as many different perspectives on the topic of human rights and technology. For this, the organizers have my utmost respect.

  • I don’t think that the US Government should be publicly meeting with human rights bloggers, especially the leading dissident, political activist bloggers because this makes life more difficult and more dangerous for the majority of citizen journalists and digital activists still living in repressive regimes; note that the invited bloggers all live in the US;
  • While repressive regimes need no excuse to crack down on bloggers/journalists, they often do using accusation of ties to the US government when in fact there are none. So why make it any easier for them to do so by having dissident bloggers who live in the US pose with President Bush?
  • Some argue that most activists feel their best hope for any nominal protection is to be as public as possible about their high-level meetings. But these activists already live in the US, they have already been granted asylum and therefore are not in as much danger as their colleagues still living under repressive rule. So while the bloggers who met with President Bush won’t be arrested since they live in the US, my concern is for those dissident bloggers who are risking their lives every day to influence change in their own countries;
  • Dissident bloggers tend to be political activists and/or former reporters. They are not tech savvy. In fact, when I asked a blogger sitting next to me at the meeting for their email address, they gave me a yahoo email address. This particular blogger was the only one in the group who still lives in their original country to which they were returning to the following day. I told the blogger that I would not be emaling them on that address and that they should set up a hushmail address as soon as possible;
  • Activist bloggers are in dire need of training in digital activism so that they can ensure both personal and data security; I was truly shocked about the yahoo email address;
  • Echoing what fellow bloggers have told me in the past, not everyone blogs. Bloggers are not the only voice of the people. Speaking out is only part of the problem; more of a challenge is being heard. This presents a catch-22 since a successful activist blogger who manages to be heard will usually present themselves as a target by the regime.

In closing, I don’t think the White House should be publicly supporting dissident bloggers. Instead, the USG should be promoting human rights and principles of free speech in general. If the USG wants some policy guidance on this, I would refer them to the general approach taken by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). In particular, I would consider learning from the successful US policy regarding the support of the Otpor student movement against Milosevic.

Again, I realize my views may not align with the USG officials who participated in the roundtable, but again, I was invited specifically to provide an independent perspective and to blog about it, which, to their credit, is an important element of policy making—diversity of opinions, that is. I look forward to contributing more of my thoughts in any future meetings.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: The Politics of Blogging

This is the final round of panels organized by the Politics 2.0 conference in London. The title of one presentation in particular caught my interest: “Web 2.0 and Political Conflict: Can News Blogs Strengthen Democracy through Conflict Prevention?” by Maria Touri at the University of Leicester.

Blogs provide an alternative source of news and some scholars argue that they democratize the news media system by enabling individuals to establish an online presence and to involve themselves in networked expression of opinion knowledge. To citizens, some  can effectively emerge from the spectating audience as a player and a maker of meaning. Can citizen journalists contribute to conflict prevention?

Touri draws on three components of framing to explore her research question: news framing, procedural framing and substantive framing. News framing addresses the selection/exclusion and salience of information. News stories become a platform for framing contests where political actors compete by sponsoring their preferred meanings. Blogs can therefore be a source of power. This is mediated by the cultural congruence of the frames and media-government power relations. Procedural framing is the process and politics of decision-making. In other others, procedural framing determines which aspect of specific event is being emphasized. Substantive framing is the vehicle by which decisions are justified.

Touri argues that these framing processes can combine to raise the domestic costs of conflict and war. Will perpetual blogs lead to Kant’s notion of perpetual peace? I think this remains to be seen.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Keynote Speakers

I am in London this week blogging live from Politics 2.0: An International Conference.

The conference kicked off with two Keynote speakers:

  • Robin Mansell: Head of Department of Media and Communications at LSE and co-Director of PhD program;
  • Helen Margetts: Professor of Society and Internet at the Oll.

Looking at the other keynote speakers lined up for the rest of the conference, it’s really refreshing to have panels that are far more gender balanced than the majority of conferences I’ve been to.

Professor Mansell introduce her presentation on “The Light and Dark Side of Web 2.0” but asking what Marx would say about the social web. User-generated contend means that the user/citizen is now co-producer, and co-owner of the means of production. The flip side, however, is that the information generated is less trustworthy and risk avoidance more prevalent among participants.

Professor Mansell also noted that historically, shifts in power have been partial and often local, in their consequences; we should expect the same in the Web 2.0 age. Scarce resources in this age include data/information management capabilities and time. In other words, actors seek control of difficult to replicate assets. In conclusion, Professor Mansell emphasized the need for further empirical. When asked what areas needed the most intention, she replied that the impact of Web 2.0 on human rights had the most pressing need for empirical study. To this send, see my blog entries on Human Rights 2.0 here and here.

I need to run to the next panel on social network analysis of blogospheres but just wanted to note one of Professor Margetts concluding points: “Ignore young people at your own peril.” This point is worth emphasizing since those adopting the latest distributed, decentralized and mobile ICTs are young people. Given that quantitative studies in the political science literature on civil wars argue that youth bulges potentially increase both opportunities and motives for political violence. Will the increasingly rapid diffusion of ICTs dampen this potentiality? Will the ICTs mediate tensions towards more nonviolent action?

Patrick Philippe Meier