Tag Archives: ICT

Citizen Communications In Crisis

I recently spoke with Professor Leysia Palen at the University of Colorado, Boulder, about her Crisis Informatics research project and followed up by reading her co-authored paper entitled: “Citizen Communications in Crisis: Anticipating a Future of ICT-Supported Public Participation” published in 2007. The focus of Leysia’s publication overlaps with my previous blog entry on the intersection of citizen journalism (Global Voices) and conflict early warning/response.

Leysia provides a valuable and insightful sociological perspective that is often lacking in our own field.  Indeed, the sociology of disaster includes a public with its own impetus for participation that conventional conflict early warning/response systems rarely consider. Following are some excerpts from her paper that I found pertinent and interesting:

  • ICT in disaster contexts will give further rise to improvised activities and temporary organizations with which formal response organizations need to align.
  • The role held by members of the public in disaster—a role that has always been characterized as one of high involvement by disaster sociologists throughout the nearly century-long history of disaster research—is becoming more visible, active, and in possession of greater reach than ever seen before.
  • Our stance is that the old, linear model for information dissemination of authorities-to-public relations-to-media is outmoded, and will be replaced—at least in practice—by one that is much more complex. Peer communications technologies are a critical piece of these emergent information pathways.
  • Disaster social scientists have long documented the nature of post-disaster public participation as active and largely altruistic. “First responders” are not, in practice, the trained professionals who are deployed to a scene in spite of the common use of that term for them; they are instead people from the local and surrounding communities.
  • People are natural information seekers, and will seek information from multiple sources, relying primarily on their own social networks—friends and family—to validate and interpret information coming from formal sources, and then to calculate their own response measures.
  • The possibilities for public participation are expanding with increased access to the Internet and the wide diffusion of mobile technology—mobile phones, text  and multimedia messaging, and global positioning devices. This technology in the hands of the people further pushes on boundaries between informal and formal rescue and response efforts, and has enabled new media forms that are broadly known as citizen journalism.
  • For example, wikis enable broad participation in the creation and dissemination of information. Some visual wikis use mapping technology for linking textual or photographic information to representations of physical locations, thereby documenting, for example, the extent of damage to a specific neighborhood. Recent disasters show how people, whom we already know will seek information from multiple sources during uncertain conditions, have fueled the proliferation and utility of these sites. In this way, the public is able to take not only a more active part in seeking information, but also in providing information to each other, as well as to formal response efforts.
  • Emerging ICT-supported communications in crisis will result in changing conditions that need to be addressed by the formal response. ICT-supported citizen communications can spawn, often opportunistically, information useful to the formal response effort. Citizen communications can also create new opportunities for the creation of new, temporary organizations that help with the informal response effort. The idea of emergent or ephemeral organizations that arise following disaster is not at all new; in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of disaster sociology, and supports the need for communities to be able to improvise response under uncertain and dynamic conditions. ICT-supported communications, however, add another powerful means by which this kind of organization can occur. No longer do people need the benefit of physical proximity to coordinate and serendipitously discover each other.
  • Implications for Relief Efforts: As the reach of response extends to a broader audience with ICT, how will the formal response effort align with, support and leverage wider community response? Relief work—the provision of food, shelter and basic necessities—already largely arises out of volunteerism through either grassroots efforts or managed through official channels.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Survey on Information Management & Sharing in Crisis Response Situations

On behalf of the Crisis Management Initiative, IASCI is conducting a research project related to information management and sharing in crisis response situations. IASCI is contacting fellow practitioners from key institutions and agencies to canvas their expert views and experiences regarding information systems and features of utility, and to learn about primary information gaps and constraints.

If you are professionally familiar with crisis response, either from the field or management perspectives, CMI and IASCI would very much appreciate if you could take a few moments to respond to our questions under the following link:

Online Survey

If you have any questions or suggestions, you can contact IASCI at info@iasci.info

Patrick Philippe Meier

Back to the Future: ICT in CCCP

As Winston Churchill once said, “The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” Understanding the unraveling of the Soviet Union from perspective of information communication technologies is particularly instructive in this regard. I noted in a previous blog that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics communication network was so centralized that phone calls between two neighboring towns several hundred kilometers away from the capital would nevertheless be routed through a single switchboard in Moscow. How was the Kremlin’s iron grip on the information blockade eventually loosened?

Former US Secretary of State George Shultz recalls a conversation he had with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow back in 1985, more than 20 years ago:

I then talked about the information age: “Society is beginning to reorganize itself in profound ways. Closed and compartmented societies cannot take advantage of the information age. People must be free to express themselves, move around, emigrate and travel if they want to, challenge accepted ways without fear. Otherwise they can’t take advantage of the opportunities available. The Soviet economy will have to be radically changed to adapt to the new era.”

Far from being offended, Gorbachev suggested, “You should take over the planning office here in Moscow, become the new head of Gosplan [the Soviet ministry charged with economic planning], because you have more ideas than they have.”

Three years later, Gorbachev would address the UN’s General Assembly thus:

The newest techniques of communications, mass information and transport have made the world more visible and more tangible to everyone. International communication is easier now than ever before. Nowadays, it is virtually impossible for any society to be “closed.”

The literature towards the end of the 1980s was already taking note that modern horizontal ICTs emerging within the Soviet Union were eroding the “top-down vertical” systems of the Kremlin. As part of Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign, the USSR’s first privately owned and operated telecommunication network, Relcom, or Reliable Communication, came online in 1989.

According to the company’s president, the purpose of Relcom was,

specifically to support commercial activity otherwise stultified by the intentionally constrained Soviet telecommunication structure. […] Although economic conditions necessitated its invention, Relcom proved to be a powerful social weapon against centralized power. During the attempted coup in 1991, for example, Relcom played an important role gathering and disseminating information.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Twitter Speed to the Rescue

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send “updates” (or “tweets”; text-based posts, up to 140 characters long) to the Twitter website, via short message service (e.g. on a mobile phone), instant messaging, or a third-party application such as Twitterrific or Facebook.

Twitter was used by the Los Angeles and San Diego Fire Departments as well the Red Cross: “Cell towers and communication lines were being burnt, [so] SMS and websites were the best ways to get info, and Twitter was perfect in that sense because it published directly to SMS” (1). Particularly telling is the following comment by the LA Fire Department: “We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government. We have responsibilities to the public to move the information as quickly as possible… so that they can make key decisions” (2)

So just how fast is Twitter? Earlier that year, “Twitters beat the US Geological Survey by several minutes” when they were first to report the Mexico City earthquake on April 17th (3). The Twitter alerts, or microblogs, are all documented and time stamped on the Twitter website and also available on TwitterVision.

Is it just a matter of time before Twitter or a similar GeoChat interface gets used for conflict early warning and response?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Getting Tactical with Technology

Why is conflict early warning and nonviolent action erroneously assumed to be conceptually and operationally distinct in the practice conflict prevention? Isn’t communication central to the effectiveness of both early warning and nonviolent action? Yes it is.

Planning, preparedness and tactical evasion, in particular, are central components of strategic nonviolence: people must be capable of concealment and dispersion. Getting out of harm’s way and preparing people for the worst effects of violence requires sound intelligence and timely strategic estimates, or situation awareness.

Unlike conventional early warning systems, nonviolent groups make use survival tactics and mobile communication technologies instead of endless security council meetings and academic databases. To this end, studying and disseminating testimonies of those who survive violence can provide important insights into numerous tried and true survival tactics. Luck may at times play a role in survival stories. But to quote the French scientist Louis Pasteur, “in the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”

From survival testimonies communities in crises can “learn what dispersed and hidden livelihoods look like. They can be shown how they might dismantle their village homes and build temporary huts near their fields as the Vietnamese sometimes did in the face of American airpower. Or use crop colors and canopies that are less noticeable from the air, as Salvadoran peasants sometimes planted.” Understandably, “no sophisticated warning systems were available, so people had to develop their own skills in detecting and identifying aircraft” (See Barrs 2006).

Today, local communities are increasingly making use of ICTs to get out of harm’s way. From Iraqis using Google Earth to avoid the bloodshed in Baghdad, the Burmese underground using radios and mobile phones to monitor the movement of soldiers, and the SMS revolution in the Philippines that deposed the Estrada regime, one can only expect what I call the iRevolution to continue full steam ahead. Indeed, evidence of human rights abuses in Tibet was available on the web within hours, both in the form of blogs and video footage. Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” regularly sends Sudanese government officials satellite imagery depicting their complicity in the genocide. The next logical step will be to provide local communities with this information.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Operation Vula: ICT versus Apartheid

The African National Congress (ANC) went under ground in the 1960s as a result of the apartheid government’s crackdown on political opposition. Nelson Mandela and some other leaders of the ANC were caught and sent to prison. The rest escaped to neighboring countries where they continued to operate covertly. But it was not until the 1980s that Operation Vula was crafted.

The plan provided for the first time effective and secure communication channels between the ANC’s exiled leadership and the military wing inside South Africa. “Members of the movement report that the development of the encrypted communication system was key to Operation Vula’s success” [1]. The system was built by activists who taught themselves computer programming and encryption. They first used an Oric 1 computer to experiment with encryption techniques:

Oric 1

This British computer was very popular in Europe during the early 1980s and only cost £100 when it was released. The Oric operated at 1 MHz and had just 16 KB of RAM but proved that secure communication lines could be established. Tim Jenkin, Vula’s technical wizard, therefore decided to invest in a more expensive machine, the Commodore 64.

Commodore 64

The commodore offered more memory (64 KB RAM) and ran at 1.02 MHz. Between 1983 and 1985, the C64 dominated the market, outselling both PCs and Apples. Some 30 million units were sold before production was discontinued in 1994. It was thanks to the C64 that Tim and his colleague Ron Press were able to make the system much easier to use by integrating menu-based operation. In 1987, Tim and Ron turned to the IBM PC which was available as a light laptop. This was the platform that the ANC eventually deployed in the resistance movement.

At first, Tim and Ron tried using the telephone network to exchange messages by computer but the noise and echoes of the international lines made this difficult. So they built their own device and connected the computers to a machine that could talk DTMF, i.e., dual-tone multifrequency. While this effort also did not succeed when tested on international lines, it led them to chance upon an acoustic coupler modem. Just like the DTMF device, the modem produced sound without being linked to another computer over the telephone network.

“Unlike a conventional modem, which would only generate audio signals when connected to another modem over a telephone line, the DTMF-based system operated asynchronously, producing sounds without waiting for a response from a remote device. In order to transmit the message, a sender would record the audio on tape and then play the recording back into a telephone handset. At the other end, the recipient would record the incoming message and then play it back for the receiving computer to decode. As a result, the sender’s computer and the telephone did not have to be in the same location. This was a significant benefit because it meant that operatives could use any telephone, including a pay phone, to transmit their messages” [2].

But when the ANC first field tested the system, an underground operative realized that coin-operated payphones could not be used to pick up messages. Why? Because the sounds of coins dropping through the slot were too disruptive. Luckily, South African telecom had just introduced a pilot program to test card-operated pay phones, which provided the solution for the ANC movement. In short, many believe that ICT was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for Vula’s success.

“This story suggests that the capabilities of the Vula communication system, on which the ability to circumvent government repression depended, were strongly influenced by rapid incremental innovation in the microcomputer industry. Predictions based on the technologies available in 1984, when system development began, would have been profoundly misguided. Social movement analyses that treat technology as though it were static, ignoring the steady stream of innovations large and small, cannot accurately capture their influence on the political environment” [3].

Intrigued? Check out this excellent piece by Garrett and Edwards (2007): “Revolutionary Secrets: Technology’s Role in the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement,” Social Science Computer Review, 24(4).

Patrick Philippe Meier