Two Tweets Reveal Central Problem for South Sudan Crisis Map

When is it ethical to either restrict or share information during violent conflict? Two tweets summarized the information challenges of the South Sudan Watch crisis map will face in the coming days.

 Tweet #1: Is it ethical to restrict information to the public?

Tweet by Dan_E_Solo

As of the time of this writing, the public-facing crisis map for South Sudan Watch is still disappointingly sparse. Daniel Solomon, an expert on genocide and involved in anti-genocide networks (also author of the Securing Rights blog), observed that the crowdmap was simply capturing a handful of “traditional” media reports instead of plotting real-time incidents for the public to see.

It’s possible that the public map doesn’t yet display all the information available because it’s unclear if doing so would cause more harm than good – and that’s not an easy call to make. But is it ethical to restrict information if it could better inform humanitarian intervention or even save lives by providing information directly to those on the ground? Nathaniel Raymond would refer to as the “Right to Information in Disaster,” with information being as valuable as food, water, shelter, and medicine.

 

Tweet #2: Is it ethical to reveal information about the vulnerable?

Tweet by Anahi

But experienced crisis mappers have already begun to weigh in on how dangerous sharing this information can be — especially without sufficient context. in a post on “The Conundrum of Digital Humanitarianism: When the Crowd Does Harm” Anahi (a co-founder of the Standby Task Force) cautions:

“But the truth is that the beauty of the internet, in humanitarian crisis, is also its curse: everyone can do everything and does not need to be “trained” or to be a “professional”, or to be part of a formal organization.”

Fortunately, there are opportunities for a middle ground. Organizations such as UN-OCHA can become what Patrick Meier terms an “Information DJ,” combining external information with input from local tech-savvy communities. However, Meier too warns that “enthusiasm for new technology doesn’t overtake ethical and humanitarian accountability principles around informed consent, data privacy, and do no harm.”

 

Conclusion:

It’s unclear at this point which information will be shared or even if the map will stay available to the public (or if a bounded and bifurcated public/private method is better suited to the challenge). But what is clear is that the coming challenges to crowdsourcing information for the conflict in South Sudan are not technical, but organizational and ethical.

Interested in learning more on this topic from conflict management experts around the world? Join our online course on the role of technology in addressing conflicts in South Sudan and other parts of the world including Kenya, Syria, Uganda and Myanmar. Apply now to join this January 13 – February 7 course.


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  • rrbaker

    On the first point, specifically: “But is it ethical to restrict information if it could better inform humanitarian intervention or even save lives by providing information directly to those on the ground?”

    Let’s be clear that restrictions on what is posted to the public map don’t at all equate to restrictions to humanitarian, government, and/or local actors. Partners working on this wouldn’t and shouldn’t be limited to consuming operational information via clicking dots on a map — that process alone would negate any “operational” sense from the start. What is public is a byproduct of a larger operation that connects partners through conversation and SitRep, not a website, is vetted, and contributes to a larger strategy.

    On the second point: obviously not.

    This is the second post with leading questions with obvious answers and concerns that are not limited to the South Sudan deployments; if anything they are doing more to address and answer these responsibly having learned these lessons in the past, lessons that those quoted above — among many others and I include myself in that company — help to create meaningful examples through unfortunate executions.

    • Christopher Neu

      @rrbaker:disqus Great point on map not being the whole of the effort and deserves to be emphasized. The tension stated in the post was not about -this- map in particular, but managing conflicting incentives during violent conflict — protecting vs. informing those affected. Think it’s a great initiative and excited to see the map develop.

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  • In my view knowledge should be organized so that issues are resolved a
    long time before they get to the crisis stage. For all practical
    purposes knowledge is still handled as if we are still in the stone age
    … and this works for some, but for most of us, it means that society
    and the economy is a lot more dysfunctional than it needs to be.

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