Duncan Watts, a principal researcher with Microsoft Research, parsed the issues discussed at the workshop into three categories. In the first category is what he called the representation of ground truth, in which information is gathered and processed to yield a representation of what is happening. (Box 2-1 presents an example of such a representation.) What happens with that information can vary from good to bad, depending on who is using it.
The second category involves the ability to interpret a signal about what is happening to anticipate or predict what will happen. Technologically this
Sensing Conflict in Syria
As an example of the capabilities of new technologies, Rafal Rohozinski, principal with the SecDev Group, described a sensing exercise focused on Syria. Using social media analytics, his group has been able to identify the locations of ceasefire violations or regime deployments within 5 to 15 minutes of their occurrence. This information could then be passed to UN monitors and enable their swift response. In this way, rapid deductive cycles made possible through technology can contribute to rapid inductive cycles in which short-term predictions have meaningful results for actors on the ground.
Further analyses of these events and other data also made it possible to capture patterns not seen through social media analytics. For example, any time regime forces moved to a particular area, infrastructure such as communications, electricity, or water would degrade, partly because the forces turned off utilities, a normal practice, and partly because the movement of heavy equipment through urban areas caused electricity systems to go down. The electrical grid is connected to the Internet, so monitoring of Internet connections provided immediate warnings of force movements. “These technologies are already quite powerful about being able to provide that kind of sensing,” said Rohozinski.
However, there are ethical questions about whether gathering data at this level of granularity is consistent with international law, even for humanitarian actors. The collected data can become a risk to communities that humanitarian actors are trying to help. The shaping of conflicts can be countershaped by actors who pollute data streams to change the nature of the response. “It’s not an uncontested environment and we can’t simply see it as one that we own [either] from a technology or from a data point of view.”