Cross-posted from The Amani Institute Blog.


If you’ve been reading the news much in America this past year (or talking to me at all), you’ve likely heard about the current crisis in higher education. And the doomsayers are no light-weights. They include The Economist wondering if American universities will become like its car companiesThe Washington Post predicting the decline will more likely mirror newspapers, and if you like your news delivered via guru, Seth Godin flat-out predicts a meltdown.

And that’s just for starters. Seriously. Google “crisis in higher education” and you’ll see what I mean.

But why? In this brief RSA-style videoAnya Kamenetz elaborates some of the reasons.


What do you think? Is higher education a bubble about to burst? Are American universities as we know them endangered? This is a topic we’ll come back to from time to time.


We’ll be addressing this issue among others in our new course New Technologies for Educational Practice that begins next February. Apply now to join thought leaders and other professionals in the four-week online certificate course! 

Editor’s note: Dr. Matthew Levinger is a guest author and as such his views do not necessarily reflect the institutional or personal views of TechChange or its staff. His course is not directly associated with TechChange in any way and is being offered in as part of the US Institute of Peace training  academy.

The advance of information and communication technologies over the past decade has been so astonishingly rapid that it is easy to lose track of the historic dimensions of this transformation.  Google Maps and Google Earth were both launched in 2005, just six years ago, and the Google search engine itself is just 14 years old. Today, there are more than 5 billion active cell phones around the world–an average of nearly one for every human being on the planet.

Two years ago this month, the first International Conference of Crisis Mappers (ICCM) was held at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Next month, the third ICCM will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, as the annual gathering of a volunteer network with 2,900 members from 137 countries.

As GIS and other place-based technologies continue their exponential rate of advance, the need for sustained dialogue between the producers and the consumers of data from volunteer GIS-based and other participatory mapping projects becomes ever more urgent.  The producers of this data are predominantly experts in information and communication technologies, whereas the consumers of the data include international humanitarian responders, officials from governments and international organizations, members of advocacy groups, and residents of communities afflicted by natural disasters or political crises.  Miscommunication and cultural disconnects can easily arise among these diverse stakeholder groups, with negative effects on the outcomes of participatory mapping projects.

Collaborative efforts to map humanitarian and political crises pose both logistical and ethical challenges.  From a logistical standpoint,  participatory mapping projects have often had limited impact in supporting more effective crisis response efforts—in part because of insufficient coordination between the technical specialists who have organized and led mapping initiatives and the end users of the data who are charged with responding to these crises. A recent UN Foundation report entitled Disaster Relief 2.0 points out shortcomings in the crisis mapping efforts launched after the Haiti earthquake: “The international humanitarian system was not tooled to handle these two new information fire hoses—one from the disaster-affected community and one from a mobilized swarm of global volunteers.”

From an ethical standpoint, such mapping projects pose a number of thorny questions, for example:

  • Are the producers or recipients of data from these projects exposed to security risks or other potential adverse consequences, including threats to privacy?
  • What negative effects may result from false or distorted reporting?  For example, after the Haiti earthquake, many reports of victims trapped inside collapsed buildings were posted by people seeking help for digging out the corpses of family members who had been buried in the rubble.
  • Does the establishment of a crowdsourcing platform for crisis mapping create unwarranted expectations that there will be a timely response to reports by people in need?  Some observers have suggested that creating an Ushahidi platform for a disaster zone is akin to establishing a 911 telephone line without giving the dispatchers any emergency response capability.
  • What are the ethical implications of creating universal surveillance systems that compile streams of data from diverse sources?
  • In the context of violent conflicts and other political crises, how can parties to the conflict be prevented from using crowd-sourcing platforms to spread disinformation or incite violence, e.g. by exaggerating the number of victims or falsely accusing their opponents of war crimes or mass atrocities?

These ethical and logistical questions need to be effectively addressed as part of an operational plan prior to an intervention.  While getting the hard data is important, we also have to remember that our goal is providing aid and support to the people affected by conflict.

Matthew Levinger is a senior program officer in the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he teaches professional education programs on conflict analysis, conflict prevention, and participatory conflict mapping.  He has worked previously as founding director of the Academy for Genocide Prevention at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and as a senior intelligence analyst at the U.S. Department of State.  A historian by training, he spent 14 years teaching Modern European History at Stanford University and Lewis & Clark College before moving to Washington, D.C.


Image Source: Ushahidi

Mini Biography

Adam Papendieck has an MPH from Tulane University and a technical background in GIS, Statistics and Information Systems.  He is currently the Sr. Program Manager for Technology at the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University, where his role is to leverage appropriate and innovative information technologies in support of research projects, funded Public Health capacity-building projects in East Africa, and crisis informatics activities with the Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy.  He has worked on applied ICT activities such as the creation of a dynamic web mapping application for the World Vision US corporate information portal, the design and implementation of open source thin client computer labs in Rwanda, the creation of e-learning platforms at African institutions of higher education, various crisis mapping initiatives and disaster analytics activities for the Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina and other events. (more…)

After 40 years of rule, Colonel Gaddafi is gone.  Reports say he was killed today in a military offensive in Sirte, Libya after a protracted insurgency that was backed by NATO forces.  While there is room for a conversation about NATO’s actions, whether they’re an example of Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and normative questions of supporting violence.  In the immediate though, history tells us that the more effectively we can help Libya achieve a stable political and economic situation, the more likely we are to see a stable peace.  This is an area where emerging mobile technology and crisis mapping could prove valuable to the development and peacebuilding communities.


There is already an example of Ushahidi’s mapping platform being used to track the violence and gather data for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  The launch of this map was managed by OCHA with volunteers from the Standby Volunteer Task Force.  As Patrick Meier explained at iRevolution, this deployment was called for by OCHA with a predefined set of data management processes and a fully trained team of mappers.  In this example we see the humanitarian community grasping the value of mapping technology and supporting the systems to make it viable in what was an evolving conflict situation when the map launched in March 2011.  You can see the public map here.


Having seen a proof of concept for crowdsourcing in the form of the Ushahidi map, Libya in the post-rebellion stage could be a case study for how mobile technology might be leveraged going forward to develop participatory government, rebuild an economy, and provide the citizenry with decentralized access to information.  The high level of mobile penetration means that crowdsourcing tools such as FrontlineSMS could be valuable for gathering and disseminating information about access to health care and justice, as well as supporting participation in governance functions at the local and national levels.


A large part of a successful transition will hinge on the desire of Libyans to develop a system of governance that is right for them with the support of the international community, and mobile telephony is only part of the equation.  SMS crowdsourcing and tools such as FrontlineSMS could provide a great deal of value in the transitional process as stability returns to Libya.  I’d like to invite everyone to comment and start a discussion about where we see technology fitting into Libya’s development going forward.


 Charles Martin-Shields is TechChange’s Director of Special Projects and Simulation Design.  He  is also a doctoral student at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason  University, where his research focuses on conflict management, technology and analytic  methodology.  He can be reached at and you can follow him on Twitter  @cmartinshields.

The end of September 2011 witnessed scattered renewed protests in Sudan against the hike in prices of food and other basic necessities. There is hope that these “food protests” can be a game changer for Sudan’s citizens if we take the time to learn from recent mistakes and from the successes of others.

Cross-posted from The Stanford Social Innovation Review by Roshan Paul and Alexa Clay

This is the second in a series of interviews where we speak with leading innovators who are appropriating lessons from open source thinking—once purely the domain of the software engineer—for social change.

Stephen Friend is an Ashoka Fellow in the United States working to transform the culture and practice of closed information systems present in biomedical research to align with and support health outcomes by establishing a commons. He is president of Sage Bionetworks.  (more…)