The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) has been gathering and databasing all the news events related to conflict and political protest dating back to 1979. GDELT continues to be fed new data through the various global news services, automatically updating every day. At the end of July GDELT released their Global Dashboard which visualizes all of their data collected from February 2014 to present on a map of the world. It’s a fantastic tool for conflict management and resolution professionals who are interested in big data, since it takes their information and puts it in a visually attractive, easily navigable format. This is an exciting development, so how does it work and what can peacebuilding practitioners get out of using GDELT’s event data?

The first thing to keep in mind is that the Dashboard is new. As it stands there are only two filters for event data (‘conflict’ or ‘protest’), but there are plans to expand these filters so that users can easily focus on the events that are of most interest. For now they’ve done a pretty good job of helping filter out conflict events, which are basically events involving kinetic violence, from protest events, which could end up being violent but are generally more along the lines of protests and social action. While basic, these are good starting points for an initial filter. The nice thing about the dashboard though is that if I have some expertise about the region or event I’m interested in gathering data on, I don’t need the filters because I can use geography and date to narrow my search. The Dashboard allows the user to take advantage of their contextual knowledge to filter the data, so while the built-in filters that come later will be helpful researchers can still use the database efficiently now.

Let’s say we’re interested in recent protest events in South Africa, but we want to know if there have been any in smaller cities, since we know that there’s likely to be a lot of political action in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg. I started with the Dashboard zoomed out to the maximum, so I could see the whole world, then went to the bottom left and set the date that I was interested in seeing news from. For this test I picked August 3, 2014. Below is what the screen looked like at this point:

GDELT Global Dashboard

We can see the whole world, and in South Africa there are big dots indicating aggregated data. Since I want to see what’s happened outside the main cities, I zoomed in until the dots started to disaggregate, then I selected the ‘protest’ filter to remove the ‘conflict’ events. Once I was zoomed in the filter was set, I found that there was a protest event in Port Elizabeth so I clicked on the dot and a box with the web addresses for news articles about a protest against money being spent on a museum appeared: GDELT Global Dashboard: South Africa

I clicked on the Google News link, which took me to the related articles that Google had collected about that protest and read one that had been reposted by a local news service from the Agence France-Presse:

"South African shantytowns residents force anti-apartheid museum to close," Agence France-Presse

I managed to do this in a few minutes using the Dashboard, work that would have taken longer if I was just doing searches for protest news out of South Africa. What makes the tool really useful is that I can search in a few different dimensions. If want to know if this is the first time there has been social action around the museum in Port Elizabeth, I can leave the map zoomed in to that location and scan through the dates going back to February. What we can do, relatively easily, is see events and narratives spatially and analyze how they change over time.

This is a big dataset, so I thought hard about what its value added is from a methodology perspective. As I dug through the data, I realized something important. I’m not sure this is a database that will be particularly useful for forecasting or predictive analysis. You might be able to identify some trends (and that’s certainly a valid task!), but since the data itself is news reports there’s going to be a lot of variation across tone and word choice, lag between event and publication, and a whole host of other things that will make predictive analysis difficult.

As a qualitative dataset though, the GDELT data has incredible value. A colleague of mine pointed out that the Dashboard can help us understand how the media conceptualizes and broadcasts violence at the local level. Understanding how news media, especially local media, report things like risk or political issues is valuable for conflict analysts and peacebuilding professionals. I would argue that this is actually more valuable than forecasting or predictive modeling; if we understand at a deeper level why people would turn to violence, and how the local media narrative distills or diffuses their perception of risk or grievance, then interventions such as negotiation, mediation and political settlements can be better tailored to the local context.

Big Data is a space that is both alluring and enigmatic for conflict resolution professionals. One of the key challenges has always been making the data available in a way that is intuitive for non-technical experts to use. GDELT’s Dashboard is a great start to this, and the possibilities for improving our understanding of conflict through the narratives we can observe in the media are going to grow rapidly in the next few years.

This post originally appeared in Insight for Conflict on September 19, 2014. 

 

TechChange COO Chris Neu is fond of pointing out that in social change, technology is only 10% of the equation while the rest is about the humans using that technology. That 10% is a pretty powerful percentage though, and when technology is used effectively, it can amplify voices of peace and empower local communities that want to find alternatives to violence. It’s easy to forget though that technology isn’t the most important part of any information and communication technology (ICT) for peacebuilding enterprise; it’s the people, both the beneficiaries and the peacebuilders (who can be one and the same!). Because what we’re doing with ICTs in any peacebuilding context involves asking people to share data and participate in interventions, we must be aware of the risks participants face and how to manage those risks. The problem is that we face a variety of risks at multiple different levels when using ICTs in any political environment, so what are a few things we can focus on while planning a project?

An Institutional Review Process as a Starting Point
There are a variety of simple starting points. For example, if you are an academic or affiliated with an academic institution, they require you to go through an institutional review process before you can do any research involving human subjects. This would include doing a crowdsourcing project using SMS text messaging or social media. Many institutions have some kind of process like this, so check before you deploy your project. While tedious, the process of defending your risk management procedures can help you identify a lot of problems before you even start. If you don’t have an internal review board, grab a copy of the ICRC’s “Professional Standards for Protection Work” and check your project design and risk management against the recommendations in Chapter 6.

Along with doing this kind of standard review, what are some other factors that are unique to ICTs that you should be aware of?

1) National Infrastructure and Regulatory Policy
The first is that ICTs are part of national infrastructure, and are regulated at the national level. When you use any kind of transmission technology in a country, the rules for how that data is transmitted, stored and shared are set at the national level as part of regulatory policy. If the government in the country you’re working in is repressive, chances are they have very broad powers to access electronic information since they wrote the regulations stipulating data privacy. In general locals will be aware of the level of surveillance in their lives, so do your legal homework about the regulations that people have actively or passively adapted to. These are usually titled something like “Telecommunications Act” or “Electronic Transmission Act”, and are often available for public viewing via the web.

2) Legal Compliance
If you’re going to go forward with an ICT-supported peacebuilding program after doing your legal homework, ethical practice starts at home. Unless you are reasonably adept at reading and interpreting legislation, did you have someone with a legislative or legal background interpret the privacy laws in the country you’re about to work in? Does your team have someone with expertise on the technical and policy aspects of using ICTs in a conflict-affected or high risk environment? Has the entire project team had some basic training in how ICTs work? For example, does everyone understand the basics of how a mobile phone works, how to protect sensitive data, and the implications of having people share data on electronic platforms? Before showing up in a conflict-zone and asking people to participate in your project, you should make sure your team understands the risks they are asking people to take.

3) Informed consent
What do the local project participants know about ICTs? In terms of safety, people are generally aware of what will get them in trouble. Always assume that your perception of risk in a country is under-informed, even if you’ve read the laws and done some regulatory analysis. With this in mind, if you’re going to ask people to take risks sharing electronic information (always assume that sharing electronic information is risky), do you have a process for assessing your participants’ knowledge of ICTs and then addressing any gaps through training? Do you and your team understand the technology and regulations well enough to make the risks to partners clear, and if they still choose to participate provide risk management training? Informed consent means making sure you and your partners are both equally clear on the risks involved in what ever project you’re doing.

Peacebuilding carries some level of inherent risk – after all, we’re dealing with conflict and violence. ICTs carry a unique set of risks, compounded by both the nature of digital information and the capacity for governments and conflict entrepreneurs to exploit this information. An effective ICT for peacebuilding program addresses these risks from both the legal and technical sides, so that implementers and local partners are equally informed and able to use the tools in the safest, most effective way.

Want to learn more about the ethical issues facing peacebuilders using technology? Enroll now in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course which runs October 6 – 31, 2014

 

Image source: Tech Republic

The release of the South Sudan Ushahidi map has spurred an online dialogue on the possibilities and challenges of how we understand crowdsourcing, big data, and technology for conflict management and peacebuilding. A series of blog posts from Chris Neu of TechChange, Daniel Solomon, and myself highlighted these issues, which I wanted to combine with brief descriptions because I think they’re an interesting series for those grappling with how we make use of emerging data and technology tools in pursuit of peace and stability. It’s worth giving all four a read, since they represent a nice arc of thinking about big data for conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

  1. Can a Crisis Map End the Crisis in South Sudan? by Chris Neu. This was the first post about the South Sudan Ushahidi map that got the chain of posts started. Greg Maly had advocated getting a map up as the situation in South Sudan began deteriorating, so with the help of Rob Baker, a deployment was launched. After the map was live, comments came back in – a number were constructively critical and thought provoking. The key points were focused on the utility of the data that could realistically be provided.
  2. Two Tweets Reveal Central Problem for South Sudan Crisis Map by Chris Neu. Chris’ following post brought up the important issue of ethics when using data submitted by individuals in such a chaotic environment. “Is it ethical to restrict information to the public? Is it ethical to reveal information about the vulnerable?” Both questions are valid, but the one that gained some traction focused on the data we expect to get from conflict zones.
  3. The Murky Swamp of Mass Atrocity Data by Daniel Solomon. Up to this point this online discussion had focused on the map and software, so Daniel Solomon took the conversation and framed it in the context of conflict itself. He outlined a set of important issues about how conflict affects data, and thus how our efforts to crowdsource and use big data could actually lead to greater confusion instead of clarity.
  4. Finding Big Data’s Place in Conflict Analysis by Charles Martin-Shields. Daniel Solomon’s post inspired me to think through the methodological challenges of using Big Data for conflict analysis. The two posts got some good traction and discussion going, which is always exciting.

I wanted to pull all four posts together in one place since I found them to be useful individually, and interesting as a whole. They also provide an arc of event, critique, and potential solutions that are useful when practitioners are trying to decide how and when to use crowdsourcing or Big Data in their conflict analysis and resolution work.

Interested in this topic? Want to join the conversation and learn more? Enroll today in our Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding online course to learn more about digital mapping, social media, mobile platforms, and other technologies for promoting peace.

In recent years, mobile phones have drawn tremendous interest from the conflict management community. Given the successful, high profile uses of mobile phone-based violence prevention in Kenya in voting during 2010 and 2013, what can the global peacebuilding community learn from Kenya’s application of mobile technology to promote peace in other conflict areas around the world? What are the social and political factors that explain why mobile phones can have a positive effect on conflict prevention efforts in general?

1. A population must prefer non-violence since technology magnifies human intent

Context and intent is critical. One of the most important aspects of using mobile phones for conflict management and peacebuilding is recognizing prevailing local political climate. If a population is inclined toward peace in the midst of a tense situation, then mobile phone-based information sharing can help people promote peace and share information about potential hotspots with neighbors and peacebuilding organizations. Of course if the population has drawn lines and it ready to fight, mobile phones and make it far easier to organize violence. As Kentaro Toyama said, technology amplifies human intent and capacity. When integrating technology into conflict management and peacebuilding, the first step is to have a good idea of the population’s intentions before turning up the volume.

Photo: UN Women

Photo: UN Women

2. The events of violence start and stop relative to specific events

In the case of Kenya, violence erupted during particular period in the political calendar, namely during elections. Thus, violence starts and stops relative to external events, as opposed to being a state of sustained warfare. We have to be realistic about what we intend to do with the technology as it relates to peacebuilding or conflict management. In Kenya, prevention is made easier by the fact that the violence occurs around elections; the peacebuilding community has time to reach out to leaders beforehand, set up programs, test software, and organize networks of trusted reporters. It’s a different kettle of fish when violence is unrelated to something like elections, which are predictable. This starts to get into conflict early warning, where there are methodological and data challenges – we’ll be covering these in TC109, since they present some of the most interesting and difficult issues for conflict prevention.

3. The population knows to use their phones to share information about potential violence

Photo: UNDP

So the population prefers peace, and we all know when violence is going to happen. Now we have to make sure everyone knows that there are people listening when text messages are sent in reporting violence, and where those messages should be sent. Training and public outreach are key to making sure there is participation in a text message-based conflict management or peacebuilding program. This has to go on even when there aren’t high risk events like elections looming. One of the best examples of this kind of training and network building is Sisi Ni Amani, a Kenya-based NGO that does SMS peacebuilding, civic participation and governance training, and conflict mitigation around land disputes. By developing capacity within communities between elections, Sisi Ni Amani helps communities be prepared to respond to, and be proactive in, peacebuilding.

4. Third party actors involved in collecting and validating the crowdsourced data.

Never underestimate the value of having a third party involved in validating and rebroadcasting the information that comes from crowdsourced SMS text messages. In situations where trust between communities may be shaky, having the United Nations or a large NGO monitoring and responding to citizen reports can lend institutional credibility to the information being shared by local citizens.

Endnote: These factors were taken as excerpts from a recently published article titled, “Inter-ethnic Cooperation Revisited: Why mobile phones can help prevent discrete event of violence, using the Kenyan case study.” To read the entire published piece in Stability: International Journal of Security & Development, including works cited, please click here.

Charles Martin-Shields is a doctoral candidate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He is currently a Fulbright-Clinton Fellow in Samoa, advising their Ministry of Communications and Information Technology on disaster response and data collection. Learn more from his primary research and also from other technology-for-peacebuilding experts by enrolling today in our upcoming Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding course. The course runs January 13 – February 7, 2014. Group discounts available. Please inquire at info [at] techchange [dot] org.

 

This past Thursday and Friday (May 8 & 9) I participated in the ICTs and Violence Prevention workshop hosted by the World Bank’s Social Development Office.  We had an excellent collection of experts from across academia, NGOs, and government who discussed the complexities of using technology for violence prevention.  One of the key takeaways from the event was the analytic challenge of identifying where violence was likely to happen and how to encourage rapid response.

The problem of preventing violence centers of two things; predicting where violence will occur and the ability for institutions to respond.  Emmanuel Letouze, Patrick Meier and Patrick Vinck lay this problem out in their chapter on big data in the recent IPI/UDNP/USAID publication on ICTs for violence prevention.  They point out that instead of using big data to aid interventions by large institutions, that big data can be analyzed and packaged so that local actors can use it to respond immediately when they see signs of tension.  I used this model in my talk on crowdsourcing; the goal is for the big organizations to leverage their processing and analytic capacity to produce data that can be used by local actors to respond to tension and threats of violence themselves.

What made the discussion around this challenge so interesting was that the speakers and audience were able to focus not just on the technology, but also on the ways that different cultures understand information and space.  Matthew Pritchard of McGill University gave a fantastic talk about the challenges of mapping land tenure claims in Liberia, since people expressed land ownership in different ways.  He explained that GIS mapping could contain the data on how people understand their relationship to the land – maps layers could have MP3 recordings of oral history, photos of past use, and graphical demonstrations of where borders were.  Finding ways to move beyond external perceptions of local conflict drivers was one of the goals of the discussions, and integrating technology and social science more effectively is increasingly going to be a way to achieve that goal.

This event was also bittersweet for me, since it was my last time officially representing TechChange as their Director of Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.  Starting May 9, I will be joining Mobile Accord as GeoPoll’s Research Coordinator.  After over two years working with Nick Martin and the team at TechChange, I’ve decided it’s time to focus more on data and analytics in the ICT for development space.  While I’m excited for this new challenge, I’ll miss working in the loft where I’ve learned almost everything I know about ICT4D and tech for conflict management.  I wouldn’t be where I am academically or professionally without the insights and support of the colleagues and friends I’ve made at TechChange.  While I’m looking forward to joining the team and GeoPoll, I’ll always be excited to check the blog or cruise by the office to see what amazing new animation or interactive learning platform Will Chester and the TechChange team have conjured up!

If you’re interested in learning more about how technology can support peacebuilding and conflict management programming, check out TC109: Technology for Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, being taught by TechChange’s Director of Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Programs, Charles Martin-Shields!

photowide

Social technology has captured the interest of emergency responders, peacebuilders, and policy makers due to the positive role it has played in disaster response in Haiti, peace promotion in Kenya, social revolution across the Middle East.  In ways that differ from disaster response, though, the politics and narratives of violent conflict demand a more nuanced, risk-averse approach to bringing high-volume communication technologies to the peace making space, especially in kinetic environments.

Emergent technologies such as mobile phones, social media and open-source mapping have had dramatic positive effects on emergency response since Ushahidi was first launched as part of the response to the Haiti earthquake in 2010.  While the emergency response community has embraced these technologies (more or less), the peacebuilding and conflict management communities have been more circumspect.  While there are good reasons for this, at some point a healthy skepticism of these technologies must give way to well thought out integration.  So how do peacemakers in both large organizations and small NGOs do this, given all the political and socio-economic pitfalls waiting in the conflict and post-conflict space?  What’s a lower risk way that small NGOs and individuals can be instrumental in gathering information that can be useful to large organizations like the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations?

To answer this question we can look to the way that narratives and information evolve in multidimensional peacebuilding contexts.  The days of peacekeepers demarcating an agreed upon line between two parties are over – peace is being built in the middle of ongoing warfare, which means providing humanitarian aid, supporting economic development, and building political structures the can (ostensibly) represent citizens.  The information we need to do this can’t just come from satellites, closed-source intelligence and surveillance systems.  Virginia Page Fortna notes the importance of what the ‘peacekept’ need and want, and we have to reach out to them using channels they have access to.  Even in the hardest conflict zone, people have mobile phones to send SMS messages, they tweet, and they build live digital maps to track events.  This isn’t a replacement for classic closed source technology, it’s a supplement to make sure peacekeepers know what is on their host community’s mind, what people need, and their sentiments about the social and political space.

What communication technology and social media does is provide more individuals with the ability to tell a story.  These stories may be the same as the official account, or may deviate jarringly and in ways that make understanding the motivations of those involved in the fighting (or civilians trying to survive) harder to decipher.  In this space we see a key different between social media and communication technology in a disaster versus a conflict zone, and making the most of the technology requires recognizing this difference: in a disaster we use technology to respond to the situation, in a conflict we have to use it to understand the situation.  While the volume of stories can seem overwhelming if we can learn to listen more efficiently to the information from those we wish to help their stories can start to inform and increase the effectiveness of our peacebuilding efforts.

 

The past weekend was busy for the crisis mapping community, with a very full four days of events at the International Conference on Crisis Mapping.  While the ignite talks and self-organized sessions were fantastic what capped off the weekend for about 30 of us was the day-long activation simulation of the Digital Humanitarian Network (DHNetwork).  This effort was made possible by the support of the ICT4Peace Foundation who provided funding for logistics and for TechChange to design and carry out the simulation. UN-OCHA provided travel support to DHNetwork members who needed assistance in order to ensure that all entities could participate.  As well, key observers such as UN-SPIDER, USAID, the State Department, Department of Defense, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), and the Woodrow Wilson Center were invited to be present and give direct feedback throughout the day.

(more…)

On May 7 I was invited to give a talk as part of a brown bag lunch panel hosted by the UNDP’s Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Response (BCPR).  This panel also included input from senior staff from BCPR and the E-governance team in the UNDP’s governance policy shop.  We expected 20-30 participants from within the UNDP; what we got were about 50-60 participants from across the UN system.  Clearly there is interest in how technology, particularly mobile phones and crowdsourcing technology, can enhance and support development, conflict prevention and good governance.  So what are the challenges that make integration difficult?

(more…)

 

Thanks to TechChange resident conflict analysis and data guru Charles Martin-Shields for cross-posting this from his site Espresso Politics.  We’re really excited for this to be presented at Tech4Dev
Hey everybody, I’m pretty excited to have had a paper accepted to the Tech4Dev conference hosted by the UNESCO Chair at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne.  I’ll be focusing on the impact that distance learning technology can have on knowledge co-creation across geographic boundaries, with a particular focus on technology applications for development and peacebuilding.  If you’re curious, I’ve got a draft of the paper stored here.  As usual, feedback is welcome, and I have to give a big shout out to my co-author Jordan Hosmer-Henner (@jordanhh) who is the resident open-source tool guru at TechChange and soon-to-be master of arts at the Elliott School of International Affairs.  If anyone has knowledge of fun things to do in Lausanne, leave a comment with your recommendation!

This post is cross posted from Charles Martin-Shields’, TechChange’s Director of Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Programs, blog Espresso Politics.  

Just got back from ICTD 2012 down at Georgia Tech, and am excited about the state of the field.  This conference is a gathering for academics and practitioners working in the international development and technology spaces.  We got to see talks about everything from mapping to public health, mobile phone applications and new open source software.  The keynote speaker, the Honorable Omobola Johnson, the Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria, provided participants with an insightful and inspiring look at Nigerian ICT policy.  Nigeria’s efforts to integrate ICT’s into cross-sectoral governance were highlighted and it’s clear that their strategy is robust as technology continues to play an expanding role in governance and peace.

A few highlights:

  • Ramine Tinati‘s model for tracking and studying interactions and group development in the Twitterverse.  What his model does is show us who the important actors between groups are; while someone might have thousands of followers, what he is finding is that the people who are actually propagating ideas are often unknown users who have shared interests and are retweeting information between the users with large followings.  From a conflict analysis perspective, this could be valuable research because it can help practitioners and policy makers identify the actors who can link two thought leaders and spur new ideas or action.
  • Thomas Smyth and Michael Best’s Aggie software, developed at Georgia Tech, which can analyze social media streams and has been used to track information during elections.  The software allowed a user to filter information, tag valuable data and track patterns in the social networking space.
  • IREX’s Paul-Andre Baran came over from Romania to attend and pointed me to a mapping project in Romania called BursaSpagilor, which is an open source map where users can upload information about where they paid bribes and how much they spent.  He explained that bribery was an accepted part of life in Romania (even if it’s illegal), so the idea was to create a market place where consumers of services could see what the competing rates were for different services in different locations.  While this could be collected and used for prosecution, what was even cooler about it was that the program itself might eliminate the need for legal action.  If services providers know that they are competing for customers and that their bribe is being undercut by a competitor, they will bribe less to keep their customers.  This creates a downward spiral, drastically reducing or possibly eliminating bribery.

These were only three of the many cool papers and products presented at the conference.  The fail faire was also fantastic, and a great deal of learning was done as we all discussed our mistakes and lessons learned working in the ICTD field.  I’d strongly encourage anyone working in this space or interested in what is happening with technology and social change to attend the conference next year.  It’s going to be in Cape Town during the Southern Hemisphere summer, so if nothing else it’s going to be a fantastic location!

If you’re interested in what is happening with technology for governance, transparency, conflict prevention and peacebuilding, mobiles for development check out our upcoming courses: “Mobiles for International Development”, “Global Innovations for Digital Organizing”, and “Technology for Conflict Management and Prevention”