Tag Archives: Burma

Latest Findings on Disaster Resilience: From Burma to California via the Rockefeller Foundation

I’ve long been interested in disaster resilience particularly when considered through the lens of self-organization. To be sure, the capacity to self-organize is an important feature of resilient societies. So what facilitates self-organization? There are several factors, of course, but the two I’m most interested in are social capital and communication technologies. My interest in disaster resilience also explains why one of our Social Innovation Tracks at QCRI is specifically focused on resilience. So I’m always on the lookout for new research on resilience. The purpose of this blog post is to summarize the latest insights.

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This new report (PDF) on Burma assesses the influence of social capital on disaster resilience. More specifically, the report focuses on the influence of bonding, bridging and linking social capital on disaster resilience in remote rural communities in the Ayerwaddy Region of Myanmar. Bonding capital refers to ties that are shared between individuals with common characteristics characteristics such as religion or ethnicity. Bridging capital relates to ties that connect individuals with those outside their immediate communities. These ties could be the result of shared geographical space, for example. Linking capital refers to vertical links between a community and individuals or groups outside said community. The relationship between a village and the government or a donor and recipients, for example.

As the report notes, “a balance of bonding, bridging and linking capitals is important of social and economic stability as well as resilience. It will also play a large role in a community’s ability to reduce their risk of disaster and cope with external shocks as they play a role in resource management, sustainable livelihoods and coping strategies.” In fact, “social capital can be a substitute for a lack of government intervention in disaster planning, early warning and recovery.” The study also notes that “rural communities tend to have stronger social capital due to their geographical distance from government and decision-making structures necessitating them being more self-sufficient.”

Results of the study reveal that villages in the region are “mutually supportive, have strong bonding capital and reasonably strong bridging capital […].” This mutual support “plays a part in reducing vulnerability to disasters in these communities.” Indeed, “the strong bonding capital found in the villages not only mobilizes communities to assist each other in recovering from disasters and building community coping mechanisms, but is also vital for disaster risk reduction and knowledge and information sharing. However, the linking capital of villages is “limited and this is an issue when it comes to coping with larger scale problems such as disasters.”


Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a low-income neighborhood is  building a culture of disaster preparedness founded on social capital. “No one had to die [during Hurricane Katrina]. No one had to even lose their home. It was all a cascading series of really bad decisions, bad planning, and corrupted social capital,” says Homsey, San Francisco’s director of neighborhood resiliency who spearheads the city’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network (NEN). The Network takes a different approach to disaster preparedness—it is reflective, not prescriptive. The group also works to “strengthen the relationships between governments and the community, nonprofits and other agencies [linking capital]. They make sure those relationships are full of trust and reciprocity between those that want to help and those that need help.” In short, they act as a local Match.com for disaster preparedness and response.

Providence Baptist Church of San Francisco is unusual because unlike most other American churches, this one has a line item for disaster preparedness. Hodge, who administrates the church, takes issue with the government’s disaster plan for San Francisco. “That plan is to evacuate the city. Our plan is to stay in the city. We aren’t going anywhere. We know that if we work together before a major catastrophe, we will be able to work together during a major catastrophe.” This explains why he’s teaming up with the Neighborhood Network (NEN) which will “activate immediately after an event. It will be entirely staffed and managed by the community, for the community. It will be a hyper-local, problem-solving platform where people can come with immediate issues they need collective support for,” such as “evacuations, medical care or water delivery.”

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Their early work has focused on “making plans to protect the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents: its seniors and the disabled.” Many of these residents have thus received “kits that include a sealable plastic bag to stock with prescription medication, cash, phone numbers for family and friends. They also have door-hangers to help speed up search-and-rescue efforts (above pics).

Lastly, colleagues at the Rockefeller Foundation have just released their long-awaited City Resilience Framework after several months of extensive fieldwork, research and workshops in six cities: Cali, Columbia; Concepción, Chile; New Orleans, USA; Cape Town, South Africa; Surat, India; and Semarang, Indonesia. “The primary purpose of the fieldwork was to understand what contributes to resilience in cities, and how resilience is understood from the perspective of different city stakeholder groups in different contexts. The results are depicted in the graphic below, which figures the 12 categories identified by Rockefeller and team (in yellow).

City Resilience Framework

These 12 categories are important because “one must be able to relate resilience to other properties that one has some means of ascertaining, through observation.” The four categories that I’m most interested in observing are:

Collective identity and mutual support: this is observed as active community engagement, strong social networks and social integration. Sub-indicators include community and civic participation, social relationships and networks, local identity and culture and integrated communities.

Empowered stakeholders: this is underpinned by education for all, and relies on access to up-to-date information and knowledge to enable people and organizations to take appropriate action. Sub-indicators include risk monitoring & alerts and communication between government & citizens.

Reliable communications and mobility: this is enabled by diverse and affordable multi-modal transport systems and information and communication technology (ICT) networks, and contingency planning. Sub-indicators include emergency communication services.

Effective leadership and management: this relates to government, business and civil society and is recognizable in trusted individuals, multi-stakeholder consultation, and evidence-based decision-making. Sub-indicators include emergency capacity and coordination.

How am I interested in observing these drivers of resilience? Via social media. Why? Because that source of information is 1) available in real-time; 2) enables two-way communication; and 3) remains largely unexplored vis-a-vis disaster resilience. Whether or not social media can be used as a reliable proxy to measure resilience is still very much a  research question at this point—meaning more research is required to determine whether social media can indeed serve as a proxy for city resilience.

As noted above, one of our Social Innovation research tracks at QCRI is on resilience. So we’re currently reviewing the list of 32 cities that the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project is partnering with to identify which have a relatively large social media footprint. We’ll then select three cities and begin to explore whether collective identity and mutual support can be captured via the social media activity in each city. In other words, we’ll be applying data science & advanced computing—specifically computational social science—to explore whether digital data can shed light on city resilience. Ultimately, we hope our research will support the Rockefeller Foundation’s next phase in their 100 Resilient Cities project: the development of a Resilient City Index.


See also:

  • How to Create Resilience Through Big Data [link]
  • Seven Principles for Big Data & Resilience Projects [link]
  • On Technology and Building Resilient Societies [link]
  • Using Social Media to Predict Disaster Resilience [link]
  • Social Media = Social Capital = Disaster Resilience? [link]
  • Does Social Capital Drive Disaster Resilience? [link]
  • Failing Gracefully in Complex Systems: A Note on Resilience [link]
  • Big Data, Lord of the Rings and Disaster Resilience [link]

New Media, Accuracy and Balance of Power in Crises

I just read Nik Gowing’s book entitled “Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: The New Tyranny of Shifting Information Power in Crises.” The term “Black Swan” refers to sudden onset crises and the title of an excellent book on the topic by Nassim Taleb. “Skyful of Lies,” were the words used by the Burmese junta to dismiss the deluge of digital evidence of the mass pro-democracy protests  that took place in 2007.


Nik packs in some very interesting content in this study, a lot of which is directly relevant to my dissertation research and consulting work. He describes the rise of new media as “having an asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power.”

Indeed, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband labeled this “shifting of power from state to citizen as the new ‘civilian surge.'” To be sure, “that ‘civilian surge’ of growing digital empowerment is forcing an enhanced level of accountability that […] is a ‘real change to democracy’.” As for authoritarian regimes, “the impact of new media technologies has been shown to be as potentially ‘subversive’ as for highly developed democratic states.”

However, Nik recognizes that “the implications for power and policy-makers is not well developed or appreciated.” He adds that “the implications of this new level of empowerment are profound but still, in many ways, unquantifiable.” Hence the purpose and focus of my dissertation.

Time Lines out of Sync

Nik notes that the time lines of media action and institutional reaction are increasingly out of sync. “The information pipelines facilitated by the new media can provide information and revelations within minutes. But the apparatus of government, the military or the corporate world remain conditioned to take hours.”

Take for example, the tube and train bombings in London, 2005. During the first three hours following the incidents, the official government line was that an accidental power surge had caused the catastrophe. Meanwhile, some 1,300 blog posts were written within just 80 minutes of the terrorist attack which pointed to explosive devices as the cause. “The content of the real-time reporting of 20,000 emails, 3,000 text messages, 1,000 digital images and 20 video clips was both dramatic and largely correct.”

New Media and Accuracy

I find the point about accuracy particularly interesting. According to Nik, the repeated warnings that new media and user-generated content (UGC) cannot be trusted “does not seem to apply in a major crisis.”

“Far from it. The accumulated evidence is that the asymmetric torrent of overwhelming ‘amateur’ inputs from the new generators of content produces largely accurate, if personalized, information in real time. It may be imperfect and incomplete as the crisis time line unfolds.

There is also the risk of exaggeration or downright misleading ‘reporting’. But the impact is profound. Internal BBC research discovered that audiences are understanding if errors or exaggerations creep in by way of such information doer material, as long as they are sourced and later corrected.

In addition, the concept of trust can ‘flex’ in a crisis. Trust does not diminish as long as the ongoing levels of doubt or lack of certainty are always made clear. It is about ‘doing your best in [a] world where speed and information are the keys’. But the research concluded that the BBC needed to do more work to analyze the implications of the UGC phenomenon for accuracy, speed, personalization, dialogue and trust. That challenge is the same for all traditional media organizations.

Low Tech Power

Nik describes the onslaught of new media as the low tech empowerment of the media space. During the Burma protests of 2007, “the ad hoc community of risk-taking information doers became empowered. Those undisputed and widely corroborated images swiftly challenged the authority and claims of the regime.”


During the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, both foreign journalists and aid agencies were forbidden from entering the country. But one producer and camera operator from a major news organization “managed to enter the country on tourist visas. Before being arrested and deported they evaded security checks and military intelligence to record vivid video that confirmed the terrible impact and human cost of the cyclone. Hiding in ditches they beamed it out of the country on a new tiny, portable Bgan satellite uplink carried in a hiker’s backpack.”

The Question

This is definitely an example of the “asymmetric, negative impact on the traditional structures of power,” that Nik refers to in his introduction. Question is, how much of a threat does this asymmetry pose to repressive regimes? That is one of the fundamental questions I pose in my dissertation research.

Patrick Philippe Meier

HURIDOCS09: Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights

Lars Bromley from AAAS and I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva. I’ve been following Lars’ project on the use of Geospatial Technologies for Human Rights with great interest over the past two years and have posted several blogs on the topic here, here and here. I’ll be showcasing Lars’ work in the digital democracy course next week since the topic I’ll be leading the discussion on “Human Rights 2.0.”


Lars uses satellite imagery to prove or monitor human rights violations. This includes looking for the follwoing:

  • Housing and infrastructure demolition and destruction;
  • New housing and infrastructure such as resulting from force relocation;
  • Natural resource extraction and defoliation;
  • Mass grave mapping.

There are five operational, high-resolution satellites in orbit. These typically have resolutions that range from 50 centimeters to one meter. Their positions can be tracked online via JSatTrak:


There are three types of projects that can draw on satellite imagery in human rights contexts:

  1. Concise analysis of a single location;
  2. Large area surveys over long periods of time;
  3. Active monitoring using frequently acquired imagery.


Lars shared satellite imagery from two human rights projects. The first is of a farm in Zimbabwe which was destroyed as part of a voter-intimidation campaign. The picture below was taken in 2002 and cost $250 to purchase. A total of 870 structure were manually counted.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below was taken in 2006 and cost $1,792:


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


The second project sought to identify burned villages in Burma. Some 70 locations of interest within Burma were compiled using information from local NGOs. The image below is of a village in Papun District taken in December 2006.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.

The satellite image below as taken in June 2007 after the Free Burma Rangers reported an incident of village burning in April.


Copyright 2009 DigitalGlobe. Produced by AAAS.


Lars is very upfront about the challenges of using satellite imagery to document and monitor human rights abuses. These include:

  • More recent satellite imagery is particularly expensive;
  • Images can take between 2 weeks to 6 months to order;
  • Competition between multiple clients for satellite images;
  • Satellite images tend to be range between 200 megabytes and 2 gigabytes;
  • Requires technical capacity;
  • Cloud interference is a pervasive issue;
  • Images are only snapshots in time;
  • Real time human rights violations have never been captured by satellite;
  • Satellites are owned by governments and companies which present ethical concerns.

Nevertheless, Lars is confident that real-time and rapid use of satellite imagery will be possible in the future.


Here are the key points from Lars’ presentation:

  • The field of geospatial technologies for human rights is still evolving;
  • Satellite imagery is most useful in proving destruction in remote areas;
  • Evidence from satellite imagery becomes more powerful when combined with field-data.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy in Burma

My colleagues Emily Jacobi and Mark Belinsky from Digital Democracy gave an excellent guest lecture yesterday. They presented their findings from their Burma project to undergraduate students in my digital democracy course co-taught with Josh Goldstein. There excellent slides are available on Slideshare here.

Mark and Emily began their presentation with a reference George Orwell who served in Burma as a military officer. It is striking that every Burmese who has read Orwell claims the author wrote not one but three books on Burma: Burmese DaysAnimal Farm and 1984.

Here are just a few insights from the two-hour presentation that I found particularly interesting:

  • Based on 90+ surveys carried out, Mark and Emily found that young Burmese who had access to the Internet were more likely to identify themselves as activists.
  • The Bangladeshi cell phone network extends well into Burma so activists can use phones from Bangladesh to relay information.
  • Monks have access to the Internet and to mobile phones because the Junta provided them the technology as part of alms giving.

Mark and Emily shared some fascinating anecdotes on digital activism in Burma based on their field research. Some are somewhat sensitive and not blog-able but others are less so yet equally eye opening. For example, Mark recounts a visit to a Burmese refugee camp along the Bangladeshi-Burma border:

I had five minutes of idle time and so decided to check my Facebook page using my mobile phone. I was soon approached by one of the refugees who looked on curiously. Before I could explain, the person enquired, “Do you wiki?” I was stunned as he pulled out a much fancier phone and proceeded to show me his favorite Wikipedia pages which were on fancy sports cars.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Burmese Cyclone, Nonviolent Action, and the Responsibility to Empower

I just got this piece published in PeaceWorks:

Repressive regimes continue to play the sovereignty card regardless of international condemnation, and the military regime in Burma is no exception. Prior to the cyclone disaster, the regime maintained an effective information blockade on the country, limiting access and communication while forcefully cracking down on the pro-democracy resistance movement.

The military regime’s decision to block humanitarian aid following the cyclone disaster should really come as no surprise. The international community clearly remains at the mercy of regimes that scoff at the Responsibility to Protect.

The Responsibility to Protect (or R2P, as endorsed by UN Security Council Resolution 1674, affirming the responsibility of all to prevent or stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity) is a noble principle: sovereignty is contingent upon the state’s ability to protect its citizens. Burma’s military regime has shown absolutely no interest in doing so, but quite the opposite—even in the case of a “natural” disaster. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has advocated that the principle of R2P justifies overruling the Burmese military junta’s right to territorial sovereignty.

Originally, Gareth Evans, Director of the International Crisis Group, strongly disagreed, arguing that Kouchner’s approach would create a precedent to intervene in post-disaster environments, which would potentially undermine the general consensus that currently exists in the developing world vis-à-vis R2P. Many other humanitarians have also voiced their opposition to engaging in non-authorized intervention. They (mistakenly) assumed such intervention requires the use of force. The result? An international community yet again bowing down to the wishes of a repressive regime; a terribly inadequate in-country humanitarian response to save lives; and an increasingly high death toll. It is high time that alternative approaches to humanitarian intervention be considered that depend less on potentially resistant governments — approaches such as people-centered tactics and nonviolent action. In other words, what nonviolent options exist for civilian protection and non-consensual humanitarian intervention? Continued…

Patrick Philippe Meier