Several speakers described specific applications of technology in the election monitoring, crowdsourcing, and the dissemination of information through social media and other means. In all three cases—and in others mentioned during the discussions—technological applications bring new capabilities but also raise new considerations about their effective and responsible use.
Work on governance and democracy overlaps with peacebuilding, said Chris Spence, chief technology officer for the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and among the most important areas of overlap are elections. When elections are held, citizens need to trust the electoral process. Election monitoring allows citizens to analyze in a systematic way the quality of an election and communicate what they saw. The monitoring begins well before an election, has a focal point during the election, and continues during the postelection period. It involves many groups—citizens, political parties, parliaments or legislatures, and international organizations.
Election monitoring typically involves training hundreds or thousands of citizens to go to polling stations from the time they open until they close, including the counting process, and to look for particular things. The moni-
tors report periodically throughout the day to a command center, often in the capital city. Analysts combine the monitors’ reports and produce an assessment of the election process. These statements have to be carefully worded, because they can be a flashpoint for citizen reactions to an election. NDI has given particular attention to these messages, working on how to tell a story with data and visualize processes on a map.
Technology has greatly improved but also complicated election monitoring. The adoption of mobile telephones, for example, has “fundamentally changed and improved election monitoring around the world,” said Spence. Before mobile phones, monitors made their reports on paper, which had to be gathered by people in vehicles or on foot before the reports could be analyzed. “That process was inefficient, slow, and inaccurate, and frankly election monitoring groups were making statements they couldn’t back up with data, way too often, until mobile phones.”
Voice reporting and text messaging with mobile phones have transformed the reporting system, and smartphones could bring further improvements. Smartphones will not be adopted soon at the grassroots level in many places, Spence cautioned, but they represent the “next level of phenomenal opportunity for all of us to start solving these data collection problems.”
Technology also has improved the analysis of data, whether texts, data entries, or phone calls. It can filter data to determine which sample points are missing, and it can detect bad data and recontact observers to confirm information. “You can get much better quality data through these data tools and dashboards.”
One problem with election monitoring is that analysts still typically work with the software tools they used in the days of manual reporting rather than the Web-based tools now available. “There’s an opportunity that we’ve been trying to solve, and we welcome help.”
Command centers have begun to use cloud computing, which makes it possible to not only store data remotely but also synchronize and compare data. Cloud storage broadens access to the data and protects them if a data or command center suddenly becomes inaccessible. And cloud computing facilitates the participation of analysts outside the country or in safer locations.
Better visualization tools and datasets are needed, Spence said. For example, acquiring data about past elections is very difficult in many countries, but these data can be very useful for checking turnout and other aspects. Similarly, an important preelection activity is a voter roll audit to determine whether voters are intentionally or otherwise being disenfranchised, but such rolls can be difficult to acquire. Even reliable maps of current
political boundaries may be unavailable. “I don’t have to tell anybody in this room that boundaries often change, and there’s often what we would call in this country redistricting going on around political events. It’s hard to get those maps.” An important future task will be to collect election data and make them easily accessible and open for all to use.
Finally, technology can help tell the story of an election. Many organizations believe that once a press release is carefully written detailing the results of an election monitoring effort, their work is done. But technology offers many other means to disseminate and elaborate on that message, from social media to new forms of visual representations. For example, NDI recently worked with a group in Senegal called One World and made significant progress in conveying the positive and not just the negative news about an election. Based on an analysis of reports, a map showed green areas where things were going well and red dots where there were problems. “In elections you want to focus as much on the positive as you do on the negative and tell a story that really does convey to the public what’s actually going on and not just a…biased sample of negative reports.”
Spence observed that a key way to mitigate or prevent conflict is to establish communication channels among potential combatants. NDI uses this technique with political parties in the election environment, though it cannot work with any group that condones violence, such as militant groups or terrorists. NDI and the UN took an approach in Libya that involved establishing codes of conduct for elections. Forty Libyan parties came together face-to-face and negotiated 14 principles to which they would adhere, such as not buying votes, respecting the election commission’s final result, and not using violence. Technology was not involved in that meeting, but it could be used to facilitate such efforts. For example, political parties or other factions may be able to create collaborative platforms without coming together physically.
Transitions are inevitable as institutions with older habits and technologies encounter new technologies, Spence said. The combination of the old and the new will create a hybrid in which different sources of data continue to have value. For example, social media streams can be phenomenal sources of data for election monitoring, but polling station information and political maps of countries also remain valuable. “Let’s not forget about the fundamentals as we begin to merge and deal with new datasets.” Similarly, observers can be deployed with clipboards to collect data even as new forms of data are gathered and analyzed. The challenge is to build bridges between the traditional approaches and actors and the new actors who are introduc-
ing new technological capabilities. “I’d encourage everybody to not just look at where we are going but where we are and the process of getting from here to there.”
Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, is an open-source project set up by Kenyan bloggers during the postelection violence of December 2007 and January 2008. The Kenyan government was trying to downplay the severity of the situation by limiting what the mainstream media could publish. A blogger in Kenya named Ory Okolloh received evidence from hundreds of her readers about human rights abuses. They provided photographs and videos that were disseminated through Kenya’s vibrant blogosphere. Okolloh published this information online, and the result was a technology for election monitoring that delivered a “live” map of human rights abuses.
The effects of this information on the conflict are difficult to gauge, said Patrick Meier, director of social innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute, although he met people in the years following the violence who said they used the reports to make decisions about their movements. Such reports are anecdotal, however, and there is very little evidence to determine whether or how the conflict changed.
In a previous position at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where Meier codirected a program in crisis mapping, he was involved in a project to compare georeferenced and time-stamped Ushahidi data with coverage from the national and local print and broadcast media.1 The events reported in the mainstream media were manually geolocated and time stamped and compared with the digital traces of about ten of the most active citizen journalists in Kenya. The data were put into a mapping program and animated to understand the information flows and potential information consumption patterns in crisis-affected communities. The comparison showed that citizen journalists tended to be the first to report on escalating tensions, and the mainstream media tended to report on the event after violence had begun, according to Meier. The crowdsourced data also had greater geographical coverage. Thus, by combining information from different sources, information could be not only compared but expanded beyond that of any single source.
1 See http://irevolution.net/2008/10/23/mapping-kenyas-election-violence/ for a summary evaluating the impact of crisis mapping on postelection violence in the 2007 Kenyan elections (May 14, 2013).
Crowdsourcing has several distinct advantages in sensing conflict, Meier observed. It is available in real time. It can create shared awareness among the members of a crisis-affected community, and that shared awareness can be critical in catalyzing social movements. And it can provide real-time situational awareness through social media to sense conflict in ways that have not been possible before.
Meier is currently involved in a project in Kenya called PeaceTXT, which uses text messaging as a way to change behavior, based on observations that public health text messaging can significantly change people’s behavior.2 (A prominent model for PeaceTXT was a Chicago-based project called CeaseFire, which used early warning and quick responses by former gang leaders to prevent and reduce street violence.) Based on work in areas prone to conflict, including focus groups with former perpetrators of violence, PeaceTXT has developed 40 to 50 specific text messages geared toward different triggers and phases of conflict. The system now has about 40,000 subscribers, and new subscribers are being enlisted through grassroots partners. Evidence of its effectiveness has begun to accumulate, but “it remains to be seen whether and how this might have an influence on shaping potential conflicts during the next elections.”
The Arab spring was a textbook case of the use of technology in conflict settings. As one activist in Cairo put it, “we use Facebook to schedule our protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” “Deliberate, planned uses of technology and civil disobedience and resistance are very powerful,” said Meier. But important lessons remain to be learned about how people have used and can use these technologies to shape social movements.
Sanjana Hattotuwa, special advisor to the ICT4Peace Foundation, has experienced firsthand both conflict and the application of technology to peacebuilding. He was six years old when civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, and in 1993, when his neighborhood was badly affected by ethnic violence, he saw “things that no child should see.”
His work in Sri Lanka is difficult, he said, and technology does not make the life and work of a peacebuilder any easier. Data points, information agents, and analysis engines do not mean that the risk is mitigated. For one thing, the existence of information does not mean that a demand for the
2 See http://iRevolution.net/2013/03/04/peacetxt-kenya-2/ to learn more about the PeaceTXT project (May 14, 2013).
information exists, whether from policymakers or the public at large. In Sri Lanka, he said, the general population is not necessarily interested in the country’s contemporary history, what happened, and the costs of the war that helped end the violence in 2009. People are tired of war and share a feeling of relief and happiness that they can walk on the street and not be worried about a suicide bombing. Moreover, raising hard questions through technology risks the resumption of violence. “It’s an open question whether some things are better left unsaid and buried literally and metaphorically.”
Yet Hattotuwa added that his bias is toward providing information that the public can question and debate. Government should not have a monopoly on information so that it can issue only the information that it finds convenient. During and since the war he has produced information “in almost every imaginable form” to help people understand what they experienced. For example, he has sought to visualize human rights violations using maps, as part of a broader effort to explain concentrations of power and their implications for future conflict. He also has created a website called Groundviews, which puts out reports about what people see. “It’s the simplest thing really. It’s not Twitter analytics. It’s not massive computing database visualizations. It’s just what people see on the ground that contests official narratives.”
A major problem in Sri Lanka is not literacy per se—the country has one of the highest literacy rates in South Asia—but media literacy. People believe what they read and tend not to be able to distinguish between propaganda and life-saving information, said Hattotuwa. “That level of critical comprehension and questioning is simply not there in the population.”
Thus the same technologies that can promote peacebuilding also can exacerbate the spread of violence and hate. When people believe what they read and retransmit that information, geographically dispersed violence can occur over a very short period of time, which can lead to ever larger and longer-term systemic problems. Sri Lanka has rich traditions of storytelling within communities, so if one person has access to technology, information can be communicated verbally from that person throughout an entire village.
Gender is also an important factor, Hattotuwa said. Multiple reports have documented that the education of girls in countries such as Sri Lanka is a major determinant in avoiding future violence. “I very strongly believe that there needs to be an emphasis on the gendered use of technology,” he said.
Reconciliation in Sri Lanka has been very complex. For the current government, it is simply a matter of economic development, said Hattotuwa. Accountability, allegations of war crimes, and the events accompanying the
end of the war are ignored. The report of a commission that looked at war crimes has been translated into Sinhala and Tamil only because Hattotuwa’s organization did so. Furthermore, the ICT4Peace Foundation’s efforts to use technology to strengthen reconciliation risk sparking the ire of the government, which can have implications for individuals’ families and security. “Ironically, championing the agenda of reconciliation through what we do has very definite implications for the peacebuilders in the country. Technology is not a safety net, and it is very, very contested.”
As an example of how technology can intersect with peacebuilding concerns, Hattotuwa mentioned a story he did that used Google Earth to document the hundreds of thousands of people living in a tiny sliver of land in the northeast of the country. However, Google has no corporate policy on the retention of historical layers in Google Earth, raising the question of whether this information will continue to be accessible. “The point that I was making through the article was that this is a slice of a three-year-old Sri Lankan history that’s hugely contested but absolutely vital to our children and our future that exists nowhere else apart from Google.”
Hattotuwa has written other stories and disseminated other information to keep Sri Lanka’s history alive. For example, his organization has given people cameras to take photos showing what reconciliation means in very practical terms. “Bearing witness is very important for us.”
Although regularly accused of being a terrorist and interested in regime change, Hattotuwa said that he is not interested in regime change because it would not address the systemic factors that led the government to do what it did. Rather, he is interested in using technology to bear witness to inconvenient truths that otherwise would not be debated or archived for posterity. “That is fundamentally important for me because it places the value of ideas and data above my own life and the lives of peacebuilders. You can kill us, but you cannot kill the data, you cannot shut down a site today and expect that inconvenient truth to be erased. So, in that sense, it’s larger than us.” Authoritarian governments believe they can intimidate people and control information, “but today information is free,” said Hattotuwa. “You can… physically replace people in a country, but the information will always find a way out.”
Hattotuwa urged using the full range of technologies to keep public debate alive and “help people ask the questions that need to be asked.” Technology needs to be democratized, he said—made available at the lowest possible grassroots level and not used just by elites. Both sensing and shaping need to include all people, not just those who are inherently in a position to
use technology. He uses social media such as Twitter and Facebook in both his private life and his work. These technologies are being used in the Sri Lankan diaspora, and they will help determine how Sri Lanka addresses its past and designs its future. Such technologies, driven by the observations of ordinary citizens, document what actually occurred, and challenge the narrative that the government wants to portray.
Sri Lanka could still return to violence, but discussions are taking place there thanks to technologies that did not exist a few years ago and those technologies are helping Sri Lankans see a different future. “I’m committed to that future, and I truly believe the discussion about what we should be doing and the future to which we should be heading. And the many other interpretations of that future can only occur because of the technologies that we are talking about today.”
An interesting discussion arose about the use of satellite imagery as both a deterrent and early warning system to prevent violence. Ivan Sigal, executive director of Global Voices, spoke about the power of the “long zoom,” where a figurative camera in outer space moves from one location of the planet to another. Through the resulting satellite imagery, the long zoom provides a fundamentally different perspective on war than photojournalism. Photojournalism portrays wars as personal through interrelationships and actions, through kinetic movements of bodies through space, as being mostly about individuals—or about the de-individualization of people in the face of machines. The long zoom, in contrast, provides a structural and data-driven perspective on war, and can be combined with photojournalism to yield topographic photography, further connecting data, geography, and imagery.
Nate Haken, senior associate at the Fund for Peace, spoke about the potential of integrating different types of technologies for triangulation. Satellite imagery can be used to count livestock or track environmental degradation, both of which can be a correlate or driver of violence. These data can then be layered on other types of information to yield a multidimensional analysis. “If there are ways that we can find synergies to integrate these approaches, there would be some enormous potential for moving forward.”
Dennis King, a senior humanitarian affairs analyst in the Humanitarian Information Unit at the US Department of State, briefly described some of the limitations of satellite photography. Though it can document scenes and let people know they are being watched, satellites do not provide images in
real time, they do not cover all regions equally, and clouds, vegetation, and nighttime can obscure the ground. In some places, satellite imagery can see structures and estimate populations, but it is less useful in urban areas. It is useful for tracing bombardments but not for documenting ground fighting.
That said, King described several instances in which journalists and policymakers were able to confront rulers with satellite images of atrocities, which can be very powerful. For example, when huts were burnt to the ground in Darfur, they were clearly visible on satellite photographs. But satellites have a limited capacity to provide early warnings, and the perpetrators of violence are learning how to hide their activities from satellite surveillance.
Melanie Greenberg mentioned the possibility of gathering other types of advance indicators of conflict. For example, if teenage boys in several villages start selling their bicycles to get money to buy guns, peacebuilders could use that information to take action. “What are the unusual patterns we might be able to see from this great conglomeration of data?”
Noel Dickover, new media advisor at the US Department of State’s Office of eDiplomacy, mentioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Civil Society 2.0 initiative, which has brought together leaders of local civil society with technologists, creating a bottom-up approach to sensing that can complement a top-down approach. “If you can find people who are already in a country doing great stuff on the ground, you can expose them in a very interactive way to some of these enabling technologies.” Small groups of six or seven people engage in a series of activities to see what is possible and come up with ideas about how to apply technologies. Funders then can help convert these ideas into solutions. “We can start acting like angel investors, where instead of deciding, funding, and implementing the project ourselves, we’re trying to engage really innovative teams.” Dickover’s group has applied this approach around the world and is putting the results online so that others can learn from them.
Christina Goodness, chief of the UN Peacekeeping Information Management Unit, cited a number of factors to consider in data gathering. One unresolved issue is the legal ownership of the information gathered, especially when multiple political actors and corporations are involved. With cloud storage, if data are collected in Syria, stored in Italy, and accessed from New York, which country’s governance applies and what are the legal standards for using the data? Corporations are beginning to take a greater role in offering services previously offered by governments or civil actors, gaining greater control over the data they provide.
Goodness returned to questions about the right of privacy among data contributors and groups. Do they have the right to destroy evidence they have contributed? What are the obligations of carriers, not only legally but morally, especially when they operate in multiple countries? What are the rights of individual contributors to retain and perhaps obtain copies of the data they contribute?
There are also questions associated with the long-term viability of data. If data systems are not interoperable, it will be difficult to aggregate data and detect long-term trends. The long-term storage of data, whether by government or the private sector, has not been resolved for many applications.
Local peacebuilders and local peacekeeping communities are enthusiastic about using technologies to collect, store, disseminate, aggregate, and distribute information from alternate sources, Goodness observed, but there are no hard and consistent data to gauge the benefits and costs of using these data. “Perhaps now is the moment to explore the interoperation of the humanitarian with the political and security aspects of field operations,” she said. The definition of a crisis could be expanded to include humanitarian, political, and security crises, and technologies could provide diverse sources of information about these interconnected dimensions of conflicts.