Tag Archives: Mobile Phones

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Digital Technologies in Kenya’s Post Election Crisis

The fourth presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich on the role of digital networked technologies during Kenya’s post-election violence (PDF). Blog posts on the other three presentations are available here on human rights, here on political activism and here on digital resitance.

Introduction

Josh and Juliana pose the following question: do mobile phones and the Internet promote transparency and good governance or do they promote hate speech and conflict? The authors draw on the 2007-2008 Kenyan presidential elections to assess the impact of digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, on the post-election violence.

This study is an important contribution to the scholarly research on the impact of digital technology on democracy since the majority of the existing literature is largely written through the lens of established, Western democracies. The literature thus “excludes the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggle between failed state and functioning democracy are profound.”

Case Study

Josh and Juliana draw on Kenya as a case study to assess the individual impact of mobile phones and the Internet on the post-election violence. The mobile phone is the most widely used digital application in Kenya and the rest of Africa. The low cost and ease of texting explains how quickly “hate SMS” began circulating after Kenya’s election day. Some examples of the messages texted:

Fellow Kenyans, the Kikuyu’s have stolen our children’s future… we must deal with them in a way they understand… violence.

No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know… we will give you numbers to text this information.

The authors are concerned about the troubling trend of hate SMS in East Africa citing a violent icident in neighboring Uganda that was organized via SMS to protest the government’s sale of a forest to a company. As they note, “mass SMS tools are remarkably useful for organizing this type of explicit, systematic, and publicly organized campaign of mob violence.”

However, the authors also recognize that “since SMS, unlike radio, is a multi-directional tool, there is also hope that voices of moderation can make themselves heard.” They point to the response taken by Michael Joseph, the CEO of Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider Safaricom when he was asked by government officials to consider shutting down the SMS system:

Joseph convinced the government not to shut down the SMS system, and instead to allow SMS providers to send out messages of peace and calm, which Safaricom did to all nine million of its customers.

Josh and Juliana also note that tracking and identifying individuals that promote hate speech is relatively easy for governments and companies to do. “In the aftermath of the violence, contact information for over one thousand seven hundred individuals who allegedly promoted mob violence was forwarded to the Government of Kenya.” While Kenya didn’t have a law to prosecute hate SMS, the Parliament has begun to create such a law.

The Internet in Kenya was also used for predatory and civic speech. For example, “the leading Kenyan online community, Mashahada, became overwhelmed with divisive and hostile messages,” which prompted the moderators to “shut down the site, recognizing that civil discourse was rapidly becoming impossible.”

However, David Kobia, the administrator of Mashahada, decided to launch a new site a few days later explicitly centered on constructive dialogue. The site, “I Have No Tribe,” was successful in promoting a more constructive discourse and demonstrates “that one possible response to destructive speech online is to encourage constructive speech.”

Mobile phones and the Internet were combined by Ushahidi to crowdsource human rights violation during the post-election violence. The authors contend that the Ushahidi platform is “revolutionary for human rights campaigns in the way that Wikipedia is revolutionary for encyclopedias; they are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” I have already blogged extensively about Ushahidi here and here so will not expand on this point other than to emphasize that Ushahidi was not used to promote hate speech.

Josh and Juliana also draw on the role of Kenya’s citizen journalists to highlight another peaceful application of digital technologies. As they note, Kenya has one of the richest blogging traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, which explains why,

Kenyan bloggers became a critical part of the conversation [when] the web traffic from within Kenya shot through the roof. The influence ballooned further when radio broadcasters began to read influential bloggers over the airwaves, helping them reach […] 95% of the Kenyan population.”

When the Government of Kenya declared a ban on live news coverage on December 30, 2007, Kenyan bloggers became indispensable in their role as citizen journalists. […] Blogs challenged the government’s version of events as they unfolded.

[…] Further, Blogs became a critical source of information for Kenyans in Nairobi and the diaspora. Rumors spread via SMS were dispelled via an online dialogue that took place on blogs and in the comments section of blogs.

Conclusion

When we talk about the ‘networked public sphere,’ we are usually referring to a Western public sphere; one that facilitates public discourse, increased transparency and positive cooperation. However, as the case study above demonstrates, the narrative is more involved when we talk about an African or Kenyan ‘networked public sphere.’ Indeed, the authors conclude that digital networked technologies catalyzed both “predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and civic behavior such as journalism and human rights campaigns.”

Several questions remain to be addressed in further research. Namely, how important is a vibrant blogosphere to promote positive applications of digital technologies in times of crises? Are networked digital technologies like Ushahidi more susceptible to positive uses than predatory uses? And finally, how does the Kenya case compare to others like the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine?

Patrick Philippe Meier

ISA 2009: Mobile Phones and Political Activism

The second presentation at the ISA panel that I’m chairing will feature research by Fabien Miard on mobile phones as facilitators of political activism (see previous post for first presentation). Fabien will be sharing the findings from his recent MA thesis (PDF), which I have read with great interest.

Introduction

Fabien’s research examines whether the number mobile phones affect political activity by drawing on a large-N quantitative study. This is an area in much need of empirical analysis since “little systematic research beyond loose collections of case studies has been done so far.” Furthermore, as I have noted in my own dissertation research, the vast majority of social science research on information and communication technologies (ICTs) is focused on the impact of the Internet exclusively.

Data

The large-N study draws on the proprietary Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive (CNTS) for data on three forms of political activism: anti-government demonstrations, riots and major government crises. This dataset is derived from articles published in the New York Times (NYT). The data on the number of mobile phone subscribers is provided by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Control variables include: GDP per capita and population. The data he used spanned 191 countries between 1991-2006 but “a third of these dropped out due to missing values.”

Analysis

Fabien uses negative binomial regression (with one year time lag) to test whether the number of mobile phone subscribers is a statistically significant predictor of political activism.

The results indicate that mobile density has no significant effect on anti-government demonstrations when the control variables are included. The same is true when using riots or major government crises as dependent variables. GDP per capita is small and insignificant except for riots, where it has a significant negative effect. Population has an effect on all three variants of political activism variables.

Conclusion

Fabien therefore concludes that mobile connectivity is neither negatively nor positively associated with political activism. This implies that existing case studies “are overrated and that generalization by means of a global comparative case study is not possible.” He suggests that future quantitative research  take into account the following two recommendations:

  • Compare the impact of mobile phones on democratic versus oppressive regimes;
  • Analyze the combined impact of mobile phones and the Internet in addition to traditional technology variables;

These suggestions are spot on. One large-N quantitative study that I recently co-authored at the Berkman Center takes the first recommendation into account by comparing the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on measures of governance and democracy in both democratic and autocratic regimes (stay tuned for a blog post on this).

In my own dissertation research, I plan to compare the impact of Internet and mobile phone users on protests frequency in highly repressive versus midly repressive regimes. I also take into account Fabien’s second recommendation by adding Internet users and landlines. Furthermore, I include unemployment rate as a control variable which Fabien omits in his analysis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Impact of ICTs on Repressive Regimes: Findings

My dissertation focuses on the impact of digital resistance on nonviolent political transitions. Digital resistance is a term I use to describe the convergence between civilian resistance and digital activism in countries with repressive regimes. I’ve finally completed the quantitative part of my research and would be very grateful to get as much feedback as possible on the findings so I can write up a final draft in the comings weeks and start planning the field research.

Introduction

The question driving my dissertation research is whether digital resistance poses a threat to authoritarian rule? In other words, are the tactics associated with nonviolent civilian resistance movements greatly enhanced by access to modern information communication technologies (ICTs) such as mobile phones and the Web? Or are repressive regimes becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to regulate the impact of the information revolution within their borders?

If I could turn my research into a Hollywood Blockbuster, the title would probably be: “Repression 2.0 versus Revolution 2.0: A Cyber Game of Cat-and-Mouse.”

There are many anecdotes on both sides of the cyber trenches, each asserting tactical victory over the other. But what do all these anecdotes add up to? Can they be quantified to determine what the final score on the scoreboard will read?

Methodology

One way to answer this question is to test whether the diffusion of information communication technology—measured by increasing numbers of Internet and mobile phone users—is a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests after controlling for other causes of protests. If a positive and statistically significant relationship exists between protest frequency and access to ICT, then one might conclude that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of coercive regimes. If a negative relationship exists, one might deduce that repressive governments have the upper hand.

I used correlation analysis and negative binomial regression analysis on 22 countries between 1990-2007. These countries were selected because their regimes have the technical capacity to repress information. Five regression models were run. The first model included all 22 countries. The second and third model split the countries between high and low levels of protests. The fourth and fifth models split the countries between high and low numbers of mobile phone users.

Findings

This cluster approach was used to minimize the possibility of cancelation effects and to facilitate case study selection for further qualitative research. The cluster of countries with low levels of protests resulted in a statistically significant albeit negative relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. This means that an increase in the number of mobile phone users is associated with a decrease in protest frequency.

The cluster of countries with high levels of mobile phones produced a statistically significant and positive relationship between the number of mobile phone users and protest frequency. In other words, an increase in the number of mobile phones is associated with an increase in the number of protests. The other two country clusters, “high protests” and “low mobile phones,” did not produce a statistically significant result for mobile phone use. The number of Internet users was not significant for any of the five models.

The results may suggest that the information revolution empowers civil resistance movements at the expense of repressive regimes in countries with relatively high levels of access to technology. On the other hand, repressive regimes appear to maintain the upper hand in countries with low levels of protest.

Presentation

I’ve written up the findings in this paper (PDF), which I am presenting next week at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in New York. The paper is part of a panel I organized and will be Chairing on:

“The Changing Role of ICT in Political Activism, Resistance and Human Rights.”

My fellow panelists are presenting the following papers:

  • Fabien Miard on “Mobile Phones as Facilitators of Political Activism.”
  • Joshua Goldstein on “The Role of Digital Networked Technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.”
  • Lucia Munoz & Indra de Soysa on “The Blog vs Big Brother: Communication Technologies and Human Rights, 1980-2005.”

The chair of my dissertation committee, Professor Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School, will be the discussant for the panel. Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to this panel. Stay tuned as I’ll be blogging the presentations, discussant feedback and Q&A next Tuesday.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Web4Dev: Innovation Track Day 2

The second day of the Innovation Track at Web4Dev focused on monitoring and evaluation. Robert Kirkpatrick from InSTEDD, Erik Hersman from Ushahidi and Christopher Strebel from UNESCO each gave a presentation.

Robert introduced InSTEDD’s Mesh4X and GeoChat which I’ve already blogged about here so won’t expand on. But Robert also introduced a new project I was not aware of called Evolve. This tool helps to synthesize data into actionable information, to collaborate around diverse data streams to detect, analyze, triage and track critical events as they unfold.

Erik introduced Ushahidi and described our increasing capacity to crowdsource eyewitness crisis data. However, the challenge is increasingly how to consume and make sense of the incoming data stream. There were thousands of Tweets per minute during the Mumbai attacks. Ushahidi is working on Swift River to explore ways to use crowdsourcing as a filter for data validation.

Christopher Strebel introduced GigaPan, a robotic camera that captures gigapixel images. The tool was developed for the Mars Rover program to take very high resolution images of Mars. UNESCO is introducing the technology for education purposes. I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced about this project; not just because the camera costs $300-$400 but because I don’t see what such a sophisticated  tool adds over regular cameras in terms of education and participation.

In any case, while I found all three presentations interesting, none of them actually addressed the second topic of today’s workshop, namely evaluation. I spent most of December and January working with a team of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) experts to develop a framework for a multi-year project in Liberia. I can conclude from this experience that those of us who don’t have expertise in M&E have a huge amount to learn. Developing serious M&E frameworks is a rigorous process.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Links: Revolution 2.0, Mumbai Attacks, Response

  • Revolution 2.0 – Obama’s Web Tools Work for Others Too: If I had blogged about this Newsweek article, I would have been quite critical. First, we all know full well that technology can be used for good or ill. Second, the piece focuses exclusively on the negative effects of the Internet’s potential to empower marginalized groups. Third, as a colleague noted, “The writer thinks of marginalized groups like terrorists.  I think of marginalized groups like 90% of the world’s population.”
  • Mumbai Terrorists used Google Earth: In a first in terror strikes in the country, all the 10 terrorists involved in the Mumbai attack got familiar with the terrain of the city by using the Google Earth service, according to sources in the Maharashtra home ministry.
  • Mobiles and Twitter Play Key Role in Mumbai Reporting: Mobiles are yet again playing a key role in citizen reporting as terror attacks grip the Indian city of Mumbai.  Twitter, the microblogging service that is available in India, was especially instrumental in conveying first hand reports as the chaotic events were unfolding in the city.  Twitter users set up aggregator accounts at Mumbai, Bombay@BreakingNews and with the search tag #Mumbai.
  • Citizen Voices and Mumbai Attacks: When news from the developing world dominates the global news agenda, we get a lot of traffic on Global Voices. As the horrific events unfolded in Mumbai this past week, our authors, editors and tech staff began compiling accounts from blogs, Flickr, YouTube and Twitter feeds. You can get a good overview of the use of social media in reporting the Mumbai crisis on our special coverage page.

The Past and Future of Crisis Mapping

I’ve written about crisis mapping on this blog and elsewhere so what I want to do here is simply reflect on where we’ve been in the field and on what I’d like to see happening over the coming weeks, months and years. For a “Brief History of Crisis Mapping” click here and for a “Video Primer on Crisis Mapping” please follow this link.

What follows is thus a brief personal account of the field of operational crisis mapping as I have experienced it over the past five years. I also add three (TED) wishes for the future of crisis mapping, which, when fulfilled, should usher in the next logical step in the field, namely Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM).

I first began thinking about crisis maps in 2003 when consulting for the OSCE on the Environmental Security Initiative (EnvSec), which made extensive use of social mapping to assess environmental security dynamics in Central Asia. I was impressed by the notable added value that the maps brought to that project (particularly at the community level) and wanted to do the same for the field of conflict prevention and early warning.

I therefore toyed around with the idea of “FAST Maps” in 2003 when setting up FAST International’s United Nations (UN) Liaison Office in New York. FAST was one of the leading pioneers of conflict monitoring and early warning analysis. At the time, however, FAST was only producing conflict barometers, or baselines, i.e., time series frequency analysis of conflict (and peace) events. I therefore followed up with a series of proposals on “FAST Maps” sharing them with Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University’s Earth Institute amongst others.

Here is how I defined FAST Maps back in 2003:

Unfortunately, Swisspeace was unable to secure funding to see this project through, so in 2004 I joined the CEWARN team in the Horn of Africa and set up a GIS Unit in Addis Ababa to map cross-border conflicts in the region. When I left my full time consulting work to pursue my PhD at The Fletcher School, the team in Addis did not have the resources to expand let alone sustain the mapping component of CEWARN.

The main hurdles were threefold: (1) GIS tools were anything but user-friendly and particularly difficult to teach to colleagues who did not have a background in GIS; (2) the cost of the ArcView license was prohibitive; and (3) many in the field of conflict early warning, including donors, still did not get the point of crisis mapping, which meant (amongst other things) that our field monitors in the Horn were never equipped with handheld GPS units, a suggestion I had made in 2005.

In sum, crisis mapping faced a number of hurdles between 2003-2006, but we’ve come a long way since. Although the ideas were being developed as early as 2003, more intuitive and accessible mapping technology was not yet available and an understanding of the value-added of crisis mapping had not fully materialized.

Five years later, crisis mapping is all the buzz, and the technology is finally here to make it happen. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) has been engaged in major applied research project on crisis mapping for almost two years. And new donors like Humanity United are excited about the potential of crisis mapping. A new initiative, CrisisMappers, set up by Erik Hersman and myself seeks to facilitate the exchange of best practices and to ensure interoperability across mapping platforms.

Thanks to Google Maps and Google Earth, we’ve moved from static hardcopy maps, to dynamic, interactive and multi-layer digital maps like Ushahidi. OpenLayers and GeoDjango are two recently released tools that further facilitate our efforts.

There is still some way to go, however, at least in terms of the ideas I had back in 2003. So here are my three wishes for the immediate future of crisis mapping:

First wish: we need to think of maps not simply as dynamic tools for improving situational awareness but also as communication tools. The example I’ve used over the past two years:

A local NGO in Somalia encounters a roadblock, they take a picture or video using their camera phone and/or write a quick text message using the format: [town*message] or [lat*long*message]. They send the info to a designated number. Better yet, they have a pre-installed application on their phone (like the iPhone app for Ushahidi) that automatically geo-references and sends the text/picture/video.

Once sent, the text/picture/video gets geo-referenced in real-time on a dedicated Google Maps platform like the SensorWeb.

An icon denoting a security-related event pops up on the map. Anyone monitoring the SensorWeb clicks on the icon, a box opens with the identity (name/picture) of the person who sent the message, the actual message (SMS/video/text), and location.

Within that box are four links: Call, Reply, Broadcast and Tag. Selecting “Call” automatically calls the person back via Skype or similar VoIP tool. Selecting “Reply” or “Broadcast” prompts the user for the preferred mode of communication, i.e, by “SMS” or “Email”. This allows the user to access an address book, select contacts and, for example, to use SMS broadcasting to forward the text (or picture) right back to the field with the option of adding to the text a set of instructions for early response.

The point here is that the user never needs to navigate away from the map, which is what turns the map into a communication tool. The user is at most 3 clicks of the mouse away from facilitating real-time networked communication. Being on the Board of Advisers for Ushahidi and on the SensorWeb team, I hope this is a functionality that both projects will seriously consider and implement.

Second wish: RSS feeds need to be an integral part of mapping platforms, much like they are for Google Reader. If done well, the feeds can automate the process outlined above. For example, local communities should be able to subscribe to Ushahidi in order to receive (and also submit) information via email and/or SMS on specific events, e.g., robbery or to all events within a specific geographic area, say Kibera. This new approach can help us shift away from traditional hierarchical approaches (that characterize the majority of current conflict early warning/response initiatives) and foster a more distributed approach to conflict prevention. For only then will we be able to facilitate the crowdsourcing of information AND response.

Third wish: this has to do with data security and connectivity. In terms of security, Mobile Crisis Mapping (MCM) platforms should integrate encrypted SMS and email communication. Users should also be given the option of remaining anonymous. As for connectivity, future MCM platforms should promote peer-to-peer mobile phone technology that enables mobile phone users to communicate directly between one another without the need for cell phone towers. This technology is currently being developed out of MIT and, in my opinion, has the potential to have even more far reaching consequences in the telephony sector than Napster (file sharing) did in the music industry.

In conclusion, we’ve come a long way since 2003 but there is still plenty to do. We need more creative thinking and innovative applications. As Columbia University Professor Michael Cervieri recently noted in Kenya’s leading national newspaper regarding Ushahidi and the election violence, people in proximity to violent conflict are not going to be sitting at their computers (the very few who have access to computers) waiting to get information, “they are going to run.” This is obvious and why the future of crisis mapping belongs to Mobile Crisis Mapping.

In addition, future Mobile Crisis Mapping platforms should use spiders to craw the web (newswires and blogs) to populate the map in addition to having individuals in the field adding relevant information to the map. We need both. For the automated feeds, I’m thinking of an approach similar to Havaria and HealthMap which I’ve written about here.

I am relying on the Ushahidi team to help pave the way forward and to continue pioneering the field of Mobile Crisis Mapping over the next few months and years. At the same time, I will rely on the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) to help develop the field of Crisis Mapping Analytics (CMA) in collaboration with Ushahidi and partners. In sum, the future of Crisis Mapping = Mobile Technology + Crisis Mapping Analytics = Mobile Crisis Mapping.

Patrick Philippe Meier

iPhone + UAVs + Crisis Response

The year I spent at the University of California at Berkeley was one of the best times of my life. So I’m thrilled that this project, reported by Wired, was made in the Berkeley Republic. In fact, I’m not at all surprised that Cal students are behind the initiative since it completely violates the terms of the Apple Software Developer Kit agreement, “applications may not be designed or marketed for real-time route guidance; automatic or autonomous control of vehicles, aircraft, or other mechanical devices; dispatch or fleet management; or emergency or life-saving purposes.”

As the title suggests, the Berkeley project enables an individual to remotely control the flight trajectory of a UAV and to take pictures all from the iPhone interface. The video below is definitely worth watching. See my other blog here on the use of UAVs for conflict early warning and response.

Still on the subject of the iPhone is the question whether of whether or not the next generation iPhone is suitable for emergency management. Gav’s blog kicked off a conversation that continued on the Humanitarian ICT list serve where several colleagues chimed in with some of the iPhone’s advantages and disadvantages. One of the concerns echoed repeatedly stems from the issue regarding Apple’s terms of agreement. However, as the Berkeley students have demonstrated, some may get away with crossing Steve Jobs. In any case, of particular interest to me are the location-aware social networking applications being developed for the iPhone SDK such as Loopt, which lets you see whether your contacts are in the vicinity.

Patrick Philippe Meier

The Economist and NYT on Mobile Phones

The New York Times asks “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” while The Economist asks what happens “When Everybody Becomes a Nomadic Monitor”? The two articles provide interesting insights into future iRevolutions.

The trend towards “human-centered design” as identified in the NYT article has important implications for iRevolutions (see my previous blog on people-centered conflict early warning). Technology companies initially catered their designs to large firms and organizations. Indeed, the name IBM says it all: International Business Machines. The information communication technologies (ICTs) of the time necessarily took on “institution-centered designs” since they sought to enhance existing institutional processes.

Today, however, the final frontier for mobile companies is the 3 billion people who don’t own mobile phones, yet. The profit potential is astronomical. Indeed, “people in the mobile-handset business talk about adding customers not by the millions but by the billions.” (NYT).

According to statistics from the market database Wireless Intelligence, it took about 20 years for the first billion mobile phones to sell worldwide. The second billion sold in four years, and the third billion sold in two. Eighty percent of the world’s population now lives within range of a cellular network, which is double the level in 2000 (NYT).

One of the last barriers remains that of price. Not to worry though, where there is profit to be made, competition oft follows. Nokia, Vodafone and the new kid on the block, Spice Limited, are entangled in a tight race to tap into the multi-billion dollar potential. Spice Limited recently announced plans to roll out a $20 mobile phone and there’s even talk of a $5 phone on the horizon. Meanwhile, a new study cited by the NYT found that “even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category.”

So what are the implications for future iRevolutions? Are we likely to see more spontaneous organization and just-in-time mobilization of political protests and social resistance? Or will repressive regimes gain the upper hand? In her interview with The Economist, Katrin Verclas of MobileActive sums up her views:

Like every other technology human beings have ever invented […] the tools of nomadism arm both sides in the eternal tug-of-war between good and evil. But there is room for optimism, she thinks, because the side with good intentions is more numerous and—so far, at least—has proved more imaginative.

Is this indeed the case? That is the question and subject of my dissertation—and I don’t have an answer yet. Whether these ICTs are made for activism and whether that’s just what they’ll do remains for now an open-ended question. As Karl Popper noted in “The Poverty of Historicism”, we can’t predict the future precisely because technological breakthroughs are inherently unpredictable.

At the moment, the latest empirical study on state censorship by the Berkman Center suggests repressive regimes remain in control of the information revolution. On the other hand, The Economist suggests that mobile phones lend themselves to more mobile activisim since “nomadic technology can expose human-rights abuses as honest citizens use technology to monitor and expose crimes and co-ordinate the response.” To be sure, ICTs today are increasingly distributed, decentralized and mobile—three characteristics that certainly do not describe repressive regimes.

(Incidentally, the use of the term nomadic is particularly apt. I was in the Western Sahara some five years ago doing field research on the conflict between the POLISARIO and the Moroccan Monarchy. I happened upon a Sahraoui Sheikh, who would delight in telling me, repeatedly, that mobile phones were made especially for nomads).

At the same time, however, repressive regimes have shown guile and aptitude in their ability to monitor and censor information. They continue to mount “information blockades” rendering “data smuggling” at times more challenging. So how significant is it that those with good intentions are more numerous? How important is imagination and tactical innovation? What other factors might determine the winner of the tug-of-war? Stay tuned, I’ll be frequently blogging about my findings as I pursue my dissertation over the next two years.

Patrick Philippe Meier